photoparley

discussing photographic art

Effie Paleologou

Effie Paleologou is a London-based visual artist, whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is held in collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. She talks with me here about her current body of work Microcosms, where she developed a fascination and photographically based preoccupation with chewing gum that has been spat from the mouth onto the ground.

Microcosms, 2014

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From the series Microcosms, b&w print, 145x112cm

When did you first notice chewing gum on the ground? And what was it that interested you about it?

A few years ago I heard that in Singapore there is a fine imposed for spitting your chewing gum on the street or pavement. That brought in mind a comment that a dear friend once made. We were in a taxi in Thessaloniki heading to the airport for him to catch a flight to Vienna, when the taxi driver started complaining about how inconsiderate and uncivilised passengers can often be, leaving rubbish behind in his car. To that my friend replied ‘mind you though, sometimes a bit of dirt can stand for a different kind of civilisation too’. Later on, he explained to me that for all its cleanliness and grandeur, Vienna seemed to him too polished, too sterile and somehow inhospitable. I’ve never looked at debris, or the lack of it, in public places in the same way since.

When did you begin to realise its potential for artistic subject matter? Can you   explain its pull on you as an artist and how it became like an obsession?

The moment I saw my first small prints of chewing gum on my desk I felt like a child who digs in the back garden pretending to be a gold-miner and then indeed hits gold. It was the uniqueness of each piece of gum, in terms of size, shape and texture that hooked me. Soon after I started behaving as a collector of some sort. And collectors are often obsessive.

Technically, you began recording these ‘landscapes’ on your small handheld camera but for the later, more final pieces, you used a large format camera; carving out space in the public realm between you and the ground. Can you describe what the choice of technology brings to the work, how it transforms it? And also can you tell us a bit about this mental and physical space you created?

The work dictates the use of a certain technology, not the other way round. So, it was when I started perceiving each and every gum residue as a micro-world, a minute geological formation, a kind of an island in its own right, that I knew I had to allow for the most accurate description possible, hence the large format camera and the macro lens. It was the only way I could do justice to the elaborate structures I found. Additionally, and much to my surprise, this method of working offered some other advantages too. While making me very noticeable to passers-by it nevertheless rendered them unnoticeable to me, as I had to concentrate, on my knees, looking down through the lens. It was as if I was wearing an invisibility cloak that could also turn the streets of the city into a laboratory.

How did this project grow conceptually? From pieces of gum on the ground – things we put in our mouths with no nutritional value – to telescopic visions of biology (referenced in the title) or star gazing – how did this subject, in all its fullness, reveal itself to you? Can you let us into your thought processes here and the revelatory aspect of that journey?

It grew slowly. I’ve been preoccupied with this project, for several years. So I had the time to observe and recognise the qualities to be found in those insignificant, mundane, grubby blobs. Dirt, like dust, is a trail, evidence of life that we are constantly trying to get rid of. But chewing gum is stuck stubbornly on the street surface, enduring the wear and tear of time. In this way each piece can take on a fossil-like appearance. On top of this, the gum’s relation to the mouth hints at the thin line often to be found between pleasure and disgust. By the same token, if saliva is a DNA carrier, then each piece identifies an individual, offering up forensic possibilities.

You have different forms of presentation for this project –large-scale prints, circular images, even graphite rubbings (which reference the earliest photographic processes without the need for the camera – the direct print of an object onto paper). What does each aspect bring to the work as a whole?

Well, all three forms of presentation, among other things, address ambiguities of distance. Uncertainty of what is close and what is far, micro and macro, prevails.

In the large-scale images the sense of an aerial view is implied, of looking down to geological formations of sorts. The circular prints formally resemble simultaneously the shape of the Petri-dish, the view through a microscope as well as the telescopic view of the cosmos.

As for the rubbings they introduce the immediate proximity of the surface, the fact that there is only a sheet of paper between my hand and the pavement. They are the product of touching and yet they resemble distant lunar landscapes, an otherness that ironically we are familiar with only through photographs.

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From the series Microcosms, rubbing 18x25cm

Ambiguity is key. How do you enable ambiguity to work well? How would you advise artists to work with ambiguity? How do you strike a balance between opening the work up and it not becoming lost?

As you’ve just pointed out, ambiguity, when it works, is a balancing act between actuality and suggestion, seeing and interpretation. It is something that there are no guidelines for, nor it is always necessary. Often though it is a quality achievable at the last stages of the work, mainly as part of the editing process where almost without fail one realises that less is more. You see, paradoxically, for ambiguity to appear one needs maximum clarity of intentions.

Going back to the artistic process, I was lucky enough to see your notebooks. What part in the creation of your work do your notebooks take? I must explain that they are very simple objects of beauty in themselves. How do they help you figure it all out?

Mainly they are reminders – or proofs when in doubt – that I saw this, I noticed that, I perceived a potentiality in this one or the other. In that respect they are integral to the process. Nevertheless, just a fraction of these visual notes ‘make’ it into a project.

What did it bring to you personally and to the work as a whole to have Iain Sinclair write about it?

It’s wonderful to have Iain’s acute understanding and perception of this project, in particular, for invoking the historical and cultural contexts that, he senses, surround the work.

Previous writings refer to you as a flâneuse. What does this term mean to you (as an artist, as a woman)? How do you stop it from becoming restrictive?

Mean City, an early project I worked on for most of the nineties, is an account of my nocturnal wanderings around the cities of London, Paris and New York. It was partly informed by the figure of the flâneur, which, although central in discussions about modernity, is predominantly a male role. So the project explored the extent to which we can talk about a feminine flânerie – are there any limitations, spatial or otherwise for the contemporary flâneuse in order to experience the city?

The notion of the flâneur has increasingly become almost synonymous to that of wandering. And there is nothing restrictive about wandering – quite the opposite.

Besides, I still find endlessly fascinating and poetic some of the flâneur’s alter egos such as the rag-picker or the detective. Evidently all this is present in Microcosms as well as an echo of Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘botanising on the asphalt’.

 

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From the series Microcosms, b&w print, 80x60cm

 

Iain Sinclair’s response to Microcosms can be read here: www.photomonitor.co.uk/2015/09/the-cosmological-eye/

 

Noémie Goudal

Station II

 Station II, 2015 by Noémie Goudal

Noemie Goudal’s work has inspired me since I first saw it in 2010, shortly after she was propelled to prominence after her MA graduation from the Royal College of Art. Since then her practice has dealt with ideas of fantasy, myth and psychological projections in a myriad of fascinating ways. Often concerned with the restricted landscape and overspilling boundaries, her work exceeds the physical space and probes, in ontological fashion, the essence of being. In her recent work Southern Light Stations she turns from ‘landscapes’ to the sky as an extension of this research. We caught up on Skype and at Paris Photo where she is presenting some work with her French gallery Les Filles du Calvaire. Southern Light Stations is currently on display in the top floor of The Photographers’ Gallery until 10th January 2016.

What kick started your passion for photography?

I guess it started a long time ago but it didn’t have a fixed beginning. You know, every teenager has a camera, so I experimented in the dark room. It was like a hobby. Then I went to Central St. Martins and because I knew how to use it (the camera), it became a tool, but back then I didn’t know I wanted to be a photographer, I just wanted to make images. I became more interested in it during my graphic design BA (at Central St. Martins). Then I did my MA at the Royal College and that’s really when my work started in a more conceptual way.

Looking back, what did the RCA offer you that stays with you now?

So much! Pretty much everything! It was such a fantastic time.  The first works we did there were really about going back to the beginning and rediscovering photography. Then through a lot of theories, discussions and interventions from a lot of people we slowly built the works that we are still doing now. (I speak about us because I feel it is the same for my classmates.)

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 Station III, 2015

What drives you conceptually, to keep you working within photography?

There is still so much to do with photography. With all the constructions that I do I still have a lot of things to explore. The reason I use photography is because I like to work with landscapes; in different places, with different materials and weather. Without photography I wouldn’t have that. What interests me about it is offering a new landscape, a new perspective on an image that already exists. So I wouldn’t know how to do it otherwise.

I have made videos as well, which you can see on my website. I also did another piece called Study in Perspective where I have taken an image and cut it into four pieces. It’s all image based of course but it’s about stretching it as much as possible in an unusual way.
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Study on Perspective, 2014, from two different viewpoints.

 © Christian van der Kooy

Study on Perspective

© Jonathan Shaw

Can you describe Southern Light Stations for us? How did you arrive at this point in your work and where is it taking you?

Southern Light Stations is a work I started last year after I worked from the observatoires in previous years. I became more interested in the relationship that we cultivate with the sky. It made me want to look at the sky a bit more. All the places that I photographed exist in geographical locations but they also need the human imagination to fully view it. In my previous series I worked with caves and islands, they are also places that exist in real geography but the way I was thinking about them was more about the idea of a cave and an island than about a specific cave or an island. So the sky was the same, it was a continuation of this research. Obviously the sky really exists but it has been the place of projections for so many years. So I started to research how we look at the sky and how we interpret the sky. I thought it would be interesting to do a project that looks at how we viewed the sky before we really knew what was going on. I took the date of the invention of the telescope (the beginning of the 17th Century), the sky was a place for so many stories and myths so I was actually interested in those. If nobody had told us that the sky was infinite we would still think that it had an end. For humanity it is very difficult to acknowledge the idea of infinity. That was the starting point of the series for me…. how can I relate this perspective of the sky into my images? I offer landscapes but of course they stop at some point. It stops with a piece of paper. I kind of delineate this landscape.

Can you tell us a little about how you practically constructed the installations?

I built the spheres, which were about 2.5m high, from paper.  The one with the cloud and the sea is a mirror (image III, above) and the rest are paper. We made scaffolding to hold the sphere up. There was a team of about 4-5 people for each one. When they were hung we lit it at night. I usually tried to use very simple materials, artificial materials like paper, rope.

I like the delicacy of them.

Yes, it’s true that you can see that. If I used something really fancy or well-made then it wouldn’t have the same fragility. That is important because it shows this fragility and the core of it being ephemeral. Why are we so attracted to things, ruins for example, and things that are slowly fading? We are naturally attracted to that and I’m still searching to find out why. It’s when something is about to disappear or something that is so fragile we have this desire to grasp it before it disappears completely.

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 Station V, 2015

The concepts of myths and stories and fantasies stretch far back in your work, in earlier works involving portraiture too. You are working very differently now.

It was a very different problematic,  but now I am interested in offering a broader narrative where people can fill in with their own things, with their own memories, with their own knowledge. 

You give the viewer a place to exist within the artwork.

Yes, exactly, that is very important to me. It’s interesting because this builds the work itself. Interpretation is a key factor for the building of the work.

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Station IV, 2015

You experienced a high degree of success in the early stages in your career when Saatchi picked up your work at your RCA degree show. How did you deal with that and continue to develop your practice?

Obviously it was great! Sometimes you have a dream and then in real life it happens ten times greater than you could have dreamed of! It was the first time anything like that had happened to me in my life. It was really amazing. At the same time, my practice is very grounded. I’m building things with my hands. I’m taking pictures with my hands, and eye! I need to read and think. I need to stay grounded. There are moments that are fun during shoots with other people of course but a lot of moments are still quite lonely. I need to put myself into this mode of reflection.

How did you learn? Did you have advisers? It seems like you have come through it in a way which has enabled you to continue and develop your practice.

I have two galleries – Edel Assanti in London and Les Filles du Calvaires in Paris. I feel that everything is organised well now, I work with my assistant Cécile who arranges the shoots and administration and shows. So I feel like now it is a little team, everyone has their role so I can focus on making work and doing research, although I touch in a little bit on everything of course.

You are also doing some commercial work?

I have done a few. I did an interesting one for the fashion brand Maison Margiela. For a new collection they did a very big launch in New York. They had a nine story building and asked four artists to do a show which responded to the fashion. I was lucky that they asked me to do it, my work was part of that show. I find Maison Margiela very interesting because they have a good relationship with art and artists, which is why I agreed to do this project. I worked with dancers who I photographed wearing the clothes and then as part of the show I presented them as stereographs so you could see them in an interesting way.

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Noemie Goudal for Maison Margiela

 

KayLynn Deveney

GPO

From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings 

 

KayLynn Deveney is a photographer and lecturer at Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster. Originally from New Mexico her work deals with the ways contemporary and historical photographic diaries and self-books address myths of domesticity. Her first book The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings was published by Princeton Architectural Press in August, in 2007 and has received critical acclaim and numerous awards worldwide. Her series, All You Can Lose is Your Heart has recently been published by Kehrer Verlag. She talks with me here about Bert and her working methods.

Sharon Boothroyd: Tell us a little about Bert and how you met him. When did you notice him? How did the project begin?

KayLynn Deveney: Bert and I lived in the same neighbourhood in Wales. I noticed him watering the garden from Fairy Liquid bottles that he filled and brought outside the building where he lived. In the absence of a garden hose, this was the only way to get water to the plants. That effort seemed to indicate a special person to me.

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From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by KayLynn Deveney

What were your aims for the work when you set out on this collaboration?

KLD: I am interested in projects that disrupt the stereotypical documentary approach. It was important with this work that Bert be a co-author rather than a “subject”. Bert wrote his captions without interference from me, and in this way his voice was factored into the story and encountered at the same time the images were being viewed.

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From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings 

It is very much a collaboration. How did this work out? What do you think is the most important component(s) of making collaboration between subject and artist work for both parties?

KLD: I would say the most important thing is that the collaborators both (or all) feel some responsibility for the work and feel that their individual voices, or messages, are heard clearly. This can be difficult to achieve, and the desired amount of input in a project changes with each person and each project. Discussion, evaluation of work, and complete transparency along the way are all obviously very important.

 

When pairing the image and text did you leave this down to Bert? How did you work out the text for each picture?

KLD: I brought Bert a notebook with contact-sized prints taped in and he captioned the prints on his own. Each image is presented with its original caption. There are more image and caption pairs than were used in the book. I made the final book edit on my own and based it on the strength of the pairing.

Teapot

From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings

Can you tell us something about the editing process. For example did the editing process differ when you were making the book than when it was for exhibition? What were these differences and how did you navigate them?

KLD: The book came together very naturally. It echoes the notebooks that Bert and I kept plus some additional poems, drawings, photos, etc. that belonged to Bert. Exhibiting the work has been more difficult. Because I have wanted the balance between the words and images to stay as even and equal as possible, I have primarily exhibited the work in the relationship that exists within the book–small images and actual-size handwriting. It has been difficult not to want to show some of the stronger images as big prints, but I think to do that would undermine the philosophy of the project.

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From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings 

The pictures themselves are intimate and also observational. Does this resonate with you? Do you see yourself as a taking a documentary approach here?

KLD: I would say I take a documentary approach in that I do not stage images or ask people to do or repeat certain actions. However, I would say the work is not documentary because I don’t think it is objective and I don’t really believe in the possibility of an objective approach. I have a vision of Bert and he has another vision of himself and every viewer brings an additional perspective. I would say the work is best defined as a photographic collaboration. I would say my photographic practice, up to this point, could best be described as “subjective documentary”.

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From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings

You have a background in photojournalism. How have you evolved as an artist since then and what do you think makes a good documentary photography piece now?

KLD: I realise now that the newspaper I worked for for nine years was unlike any other. We worked on long documentary projects that we proposed. These projects were unstaged, multi-layered, close stories that were often published in special sections of the newspaper. Twice in my time working for the Albuquerque Tribune I worked on projects for a year before they were published. My own photographic practice has remained consistent with my early practice in many ways, but the major shift has been in the context in which my work is presented. I had many close friendships with people that I photographed while working for the newspaper, but these relationships were not acknowledged in the presentation of the work. Now, working in book and exhibition format, I am able to be clearer about how both the relationships and the work are formed. My project with Edith and Len Crawshaw is a very good example of this shift in context. It’s visible on my website at www.kaylynndeveney.com.

Postcard_front

From the series All You Can Lose is Your Heart 

How has The day-to-day life of Albert Hastings influenced your wider photography path? Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?

KLD: I have a new book coming out in November! It’s titled All You Can Lose Is Your Heart. This project is different in some ways and similar in others. I had lived away from New Mexico for many years and when I returned I felt that I wanted to make a piece of work about my home. I wasn’t sure what that meant until I started photographing storybook-style ranch (or Cinderella ranch) homes, and then I wound up photographing “home” in New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Oklahoma. Storybook-style ranch houses were a blip on the American architectural radar in the late 1950s very early 1960s. They have rooflines that curve up at the ends, diamond-pane windows, and scalloped fascia boards that look like icing on a cake. They are polite houses built in the idealism following the Second World War. The interesting thing about them in the American West is that they look like little chalets sitting incongruously among big desert cities. More than 50 years after their building, some of the houses have begun to reflect the economic and social challenges that have weighed on the American experience. It is both the promise and the struggle that these houses evidence that interests me. There are no people in the majority of the photographs, but there are people behind every photograph. For me, the connections between the last two projects lie in the attention to, and documentation of, the small acts that speak to who we are and what we value. Just as I photographed the wind-broken daffodil that Bert carefully placed into a cup and secured upright with a small rubber band, I also photograph the freshly painted bright pink trim that almost made it to the top of the house, the nearly transparent fence that affords a thin veil of privacy for the inflated pool in the front yard, the peppermint lights that declare Christmas on a warm, green California lawn. Inside the homes, stories are, of course, complex, emotional, and highly individual. But from a perspective outside, slightly removed and quieter, the details evidence something of what the collective “we” hopes for and achieves. So, no overt collaboration this time, but I remain interested in all the little stories and narratives that are evidenced in the ways we amend and arrange the things around ourselves. If you are interested in this new work you can see it at www.kaylynndeveney.com, where you can also pre-order the book.

 

From the series All You Can Lose is Your Heart 

Purple House 001

Purple House 001

From the series All You Can Lose is Your Heart 

Sarah Pickering

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Lola Court, 2004

From Public Order by Sarah Pickering

Sarah Pickering began her photographic career thinking about terror. Since then her research has meandered through this fascinating subject in various forms with digressions and contemplations poignantly encapsulated within her photographic practice.  Pickering’s work remains challenging and contemporary.  Pointing the camera at issues from police training to weapon testing she faces questions related to national security head on. Within our society of increasingly disturbing yet ever-advancing political concerns her work remains an important reflection on modern Britain.

Pickering’s work has been well received in prominent institutions all over the world, including Tate Britain and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. An image from Celestial Objects was recently part of the Revelations exhibition at The Media Space at The Science Museum, where we met.

Sharon Boothroyd: Let’s start with Public Order. What initially captured your imagination about this constructed town for police training? How did you find it and how did you convince them to allow you in?

Sarah Pickering: I applied to the MA course at the Royal College of Art with the first few images of Public Order. I’d started shooting and wanted to develop a larger body of work with guidance and support. I’d got in touch with all the emergency services and various departments at the Police as I wanted to photograph their training exercises. I had hoped to work with the Anti-Terror division but the only department that replied to my letter was the Public Order Training division of the Metropolitan Police (I think their official titles have been renamed since then). The Met were very conscious about having transparency and I benefitted from that agenda at that time. Had I been in touch several years later I don’t think they would have been so receptive. I originally anticipated taking photos as if I were a reportage photographer but I soon abandoned that for shots of the environments where the unruly protagonist was implied rather than present.

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Dickens, High Street, 2003

It’s interesting to see this work around 10 years later in the context of the 2015 Staging Disorder exhibition and book that Christopher Stewart & Esther Teichmann organised. The idea of making photographs of training environments was simultaneously picked up on by a group of photographers in the early to mid 2000’s (eg Broomberg & Chanarin, Claudio Hils, An-My Le). I think artists were reacting to a preoccupation with terror in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks, a response to institutional and cultural anxiety, planning for terror and imagining the unexpected. In terms of photographic fine art practice that preceded this I was thinking about the constructed worlds of Thomas Demand, Gursky, Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson. My proposition was that there are very strange places that institutions make in the world so artists didn’t necessarily need to make spaces to be photographed. I’m anti-hierarchical and I felt the division between artists working with photography and artists working with other media to be subject to particular rules. Why should an artist have to have a hand in front of the camera in order for their work to be endorsed by the art world? Things have changed significantly since then fortunately and artists/photographers continue to reject and challenge the limits of photography in very exciting ways.

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Pub, 2002

Have you found negotiating to be an important element to developing your practice? Do you have any tips for younger artists on how to do this best?

I think I have had to negotiate my way through all aspects of my practice, from getting access, requesting further access, dealing with galleries and curators, printers, framers, publishers, asking for fees… it’s a very transferrable skill. Do it as nicely as you can, although don’t presume people will be nice back to you! The art world is shockingly unregulated and there is a general expectation that you will work for the love of it rather than for money and it’s not going to change if you accept that. If left unchallenged it also means that internships will be the preserve of the rich kids and doesn’t encourage diversity. Unfortunately the amount of times I have received an exhibition or publication fee after not being offered one is minimal, but I will always ask.

 

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Victoria Road, 2002

 

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Guards/Violent Man, 2002

Looking back, how did Public Order set you off as an artist? How did it pave the way for further enquiry and is it still an important piece for you?

Public Order opened doors for me in very practical ways as I found a pyrotechnic casing at the training centre and that led me directly into researching and making the Explosion work. I was awarded the Jerwood Award for Photography for the Public Order series and that was also a great endorsement as it was published and circulated the year I completed my MA. The police contacts I made making this work were brilliant in terms of suggesting other venues to photograph, and this in turn led to me making Fire Scene and Incident. Yes, it’s an important piece, but as I mentioned earlier it’s very much of its time.

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White Goods, 2008

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Locker Room, 2008

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Stairway, 2008

The harrowing black and white imagery in Incident is quite affecting. What was it like being in these places? What was going through your mind?

I found it very disquieting and uncomfortable – it’s good that comes through in the work. I made Incident around the time I made Fire Scene and it was a kind of counterpoint. The large scale black and white matt fibre based prints are incredibly seductive when you seen them in person. There is a real sense of tension between the materiality of the surface of the beautiful hand print (from a large format negative) and the subjects they represent. The spaces are designed for training Fire Fighters using breathing apparatus to locate the source of a fire in very dark smoky and disorientating architecture. All props are schematic as the spaces have to withstand repeated exercises and intense heat. When photographing I was often alone and the strong smell of soot and dampness was unnerving, the spaces with the dummy figures particularly so. The exposures were often several minutes and in that time, just standing with the timer I thought of the real fires that the fire fighters would go on to extinguish and anxiously imagined them setting a fire on another floor, trapping me in the building!

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MFG0835, from the Celestial Objects Series, 2013

Looking at Celestial Objects and Art and Antiquities one can see a clear trajectory of your research interests, ie alternate realities, public and private space, ownership and authenticity. Do you think it is important as an artist to have a defined area of research, or is this just how it has worked out for you?

I think an artists’ practice is deeply entrenched in their world view so my thinking inevitably oscillates around the same lines of inquiry. As the work builds I think that others start to see themes connecting, but I remember when I made Art & Antiquities it was seen as a big departure by some. I don’t want to flip out the same sort of works that I have been known for previously in terms of their look, style and subject matter. I’ve remained resistant to those pressures and I’m restless and enjoy challenging myself.

What continues to fascinate you about constructed realities?

I think the idea is fundamental to image making related to photography, whether it’s straight documentary or digital manipulation. As you mentioned the connection between a constructed reality and the narrative (for example in Art & Antiquities the story surrounding an artwork) are as interesting to me as the spaces or objects that are built by us to stand in for something else.

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Muzzle Flash, from the Celestial Objects Series, 2013

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a body of work connecting the machine, the body, the camera and the gun, looking back to World War 1. I’m also resolving various unseen works and trying to get my website up to date. I am working on a couple of ideas for self-published books. I am planning to make a book of Art & Antiquities and it’s a huge challenge as the work builds many complex narratives and is so expansive. I’m also making plans to shoot a short 16mm film that explores the relationship between digital, analogue, fantasy and immateriality.


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Cubist Still Life with Popova (version 2)

As a successful artist, with continuous exhibitions and a relevant practice, what advice would you give other artists who seek a future in photography?

This is a really difficult question as there isn’t a formula to working as an artist in photography, and I’ve seen the opportunities for funding and showing diminish over the years since I completed my MA in 2005, while at the same time more and more photographers are graduating with very strong work so the competition is fierce. Earning a living doing something else is a good way to take the pressure off trying to make money from artwork, especially as the cost of making (conventional) exhibition standard work has increased too, but I know that’s also a struggle. Applying for competitions (without extortionate entry fees), using real and social networking, publishing online and making books can all get your work circulated. Organising exhibitions or events with a group of like-minded people can be a good thing to focus on as putting energy into making and critical engagement should be a goal in itself.

(If you missed it in London Revelations will go on show at the National Media Museum, Bradford from 20 November 2015 – 7 February 2016.)

Boris Eldagsen

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Boris Eldagsen is a German born photographer and video artist using lens based art to access subconscious reality. I find the combination of a medium that is best known for its connection to the real an intriguing way of going about this. Instead of presenting us with a chronological, rational or even narrative structure Boris seeks to send us a tidal wave of emotion and psychological grip. The work, which he describes as poetry, operates as such. I would describe it as a guttural expression of the inner workings of his subconscious mind. He may or may not explain it. The point is that he doesn’t need to – that’s what the work is for.

What initially interested you in photography?

First, its entanglement with reality. Initially people use photography to show ‘reality’, the ‘truth’. But what is reality, what is ‘the’ truth? From a philosophical perspective, there are over a dozen theories on this, each one based on an unvalidated assumption. If there is no absolute truth, how can a machine such as the camera fix it? It can’t. But it deceives us on this fact.

The second reason is that photography works with light. And that light has always been a misleading symbol of the divine.

The third reason is a paradoxical task that I have given to myself: Can I show an internal psychological structure by using material that is in front of the camera?

What sustains your interest and keeps you making work?

The artist’s journey is a journey of consciousness, of going deeper, of becoming aware of the vast sea of the unconscious. I will never be able to reach the depths. And I am too curious to stop.

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Tell us a little about your technical choices.

I photograph at night to explore the limits of depiction. Rather than exploring stories, a place or a person, I hijack and transform the external reality, to paint a reality beyond time and space: that of the unconscious. I create pictures that are inaccessible to the rational mind, and compel the viewer to turn to their own memories and feelings. Thus I call my photographs POEMS.

Without excessive materials or digital effects, I combine the techniques of street and staged photography to create images that sit between painting, film and theatre.

My influences come from art historical movements that have dealt with the unconscious (eg. Romanticism, Symbolism and Surrealism).

Why poems? What is special about poetry that fits with photography more so than short fiction or other writing in your opinion?

A poem uses words in creative ways to evoke feelings and memories. It is much more open than a story. You need to finish it with your mind, heart & soul. Most photo artists and photographers think in series and stories. I left that behind, too.

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What do you hope to gain through making images and the artistic process?

Intrinsic reward. Satisfaction. Feeling the Flow. Call it what you like.

You have done a lot of collaborative work. What do you enjoy about this way of working? What does it bring to the final outcome?

I have learned from each collaboration. Collaborating with others opens up new ways of thinking and working. The challenge is to identify the strengths and not the weaknesses of the involved artists. If you manage to create an artistic dance with the strengths, you can create an outcome that you will never be able to produce alone.

What do you hope your viewer will gain from looking at your work?

A new perspective on themselves.

What is your most successful piece of work so far and how do you define success?

When an image works both on conscious and unconscious levels and deeply with psychological archetypes, I call it a success. POEM #90. #98, #91 or #76 would be such examples.

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What is the most difficult thing about being an artist?

Being forced to have a 2nd and a 3rd job during the first 15 years.

What have you learnt most about yourself through making work?

That I am a stubborn bastard.

Your installations are creative and impacting. Can you explain to us how you approach installation? How do you design a show in each new venue? What are you intending to achieve in your installations?

I need a map of the space and photographs. Ideally a short smartphone video. That’s it. I started to work this way, because I got sick of hanging 10 images of the same size in a line. It bored me to death and I wasn’t happy with the result. I like immersive spaces, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. My installations now feature photographs in 5 different sizes on large scale wallpaper. The images are hung like a cluster, like groups of connected emotions and memories. The constant size change forces the viewer to change roles and distances: from being the giant, looking at a tiny picture to being a midget, walking through huge wallpaper.

What is the best thing that has happened in your career so far?

To make friends through my work.

What would be the best thing that could happen to your career in the future?

My career started when I stopped being worried about the future. I live in the now.

how to disappear completely / POEM #102

Current and Upcoming Shows:

A huge 11x3m photo installation at the oldest dutch festival:

AUG 22 – OCT 11: Pulse, Noorderlicht Photofestival, Groningen / Netherlands

Photo Bienale, Brasil – 1- 10 Oct: FIF

OCT 15: Turn Around Bright Eyes, Berghain, Berlin / Germany (video work)

www.eldagsen.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jonas Cuénin

Jonas Cuénin is the editor-in-chief of Camera Magazine, a bilingual (French and English) publication first founded in 1922. Born in France he currently works in New York. Here he talks to us about his writing style, the importance of feeling and touch in art, his influences and the difference between the New York and European photography scenes. He is also a photographer and you can see his work (editorial and personal) here.

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Can you tell us about how and why you became a writer?

Originally, my first writings appeared on a blog when I went traveling in Asia about 10 years ago. My parents said my writing was good and I decided to start studies in journalism. As for writing about photography, it began 5 years ago when I started to contribute to the specialized website L’Oeil de la Photographie (The Eye of Photography), founded by the great editor and journalist Jean-Jacques Naudet. He’s one of the last people to have met and been friends with lots of masters of the 60ies to the 90ies, such as Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton and more. In the photography circle, especially the New York one, he’s a highly respected person for his generous methods and humour. He’s the one that gave me a career by offering me the chance to fully express myself through writing.

Why photography?

I don’t really know. I think a bug hit me at some point. I was born in an artistic environment and when I arrived in New York 6 years ago it naturally became the art form to embrace. I first became a photographer, which I still am, and later a writer of photography. Though I remember one decisive moment: MoMA was having a Cartier-Bresson retrospective and I wrote an article about it. I interviewed Peter Galassi, former head of the photo department at MoMA and photographer Elliott Erwitt. These were my first interviews in the photography world. When I came back to the office of the magazine I was working for at that time, it just came to me that I wanted exactly to do this: write about photographers and their work, be close to them, help them, give them exposure.

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Your writing, while informative, feels fictional and poetic. How did you develop this style and what does it mean to you? Who are your influences?

As you point out, I try to mix facts, a bit of fiction and humble poetry. Why? Because I believe touch is the most important thing in art. If you don’t touch the audience with art, you’re useless. And if the intended audience is small, you’re just a bit less useless. Photography has become a language spoken by almost the entire planet, if you don’t make yourself understandable by everyone, in a simple way, even if your ideas are complex, then you’re useless. I mostly believe in authenticity, empathy, rawness, political engagement, intimacy, accessibility and memory. So when I write about a photographer or his work, my obsessions are both to make the reader discover the artist’s personality and make him feel the work without seeing it. It demands to develop a strong proximity with both the photographer and the photographs. There’s a wonderful writer called Thomas Burgel, that writes about music in the French magazine Les Inrocks. I remember one of his articles about an album by Animal Collective where I could feel my body want to dance on the electro minimalist music he was describing. You could imagine him dancing himself and writing at the same time. I try to do the same when I describe photographs and I like to write while listening to music, it develops my sensitivity. It depends on the work I’m writing about, usually the type of music goes with it: new wave on a Nan Goldin article, jazz on a Jill Freedman one, classical on a Dirk Braeckman one. Fiction? I also have a passion for the fantastic, science fiction and the invisible. My absolute reference in fantastic photography is Chris Marker’s photo novel La Jetée. It’s unusual to put fiction in a journalistic article but if it makes the reader imagine, I’ll take this liberty. As for other influences in photo writing: Hervé Guibert, a photo critic for Le Monde who use to write only with feeling and atmosphere, Brigitte Ollier from Libération, Vince Aletti from the New Yorker. And other writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Boris Vian, Baudelaire, Salinger etc. To finish with touch, I’d like to quote this sentence told by photographer Duane Michals to Hervé Guibert in a 1978 article entitled The necessity of contact: “We must touch each other to stay human. Touch is the only thing that can save us. Usually the most important sentences have only two words or less: I want, I love, excuse me, touch me, I need, thank you.”

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What kind of photography do you personally enjoy? Does this determine the work you feature in Camera magazine?

I like pretty much every type of photography. Diversity is a leitmotiv and it directs the editorial line of Camera. Historically, the magazine had this identity since its foundation in 1922 and I try to keep it. We build issues around specific themes such as intimacy in photography, documentary and new technologies, the influence of surrealism in photography etc. Camera can present traditional humanistic work in one issue and complex contemporary artists in the next.

One specification of the new version of Camera is that we dedicate about 30 to 40 pages to only one photographer, with a long article and a small retrospective. So I try to pick up one established photographer that has an exhibition or a book, or a photographer I found who is not recognized enough, and then this type of photography directs the rest of the issue.

How do you write about the old photographers that a lot of people already know about? (Walker Evans, Diane Arbus etc) What are the aims and ambitions of Camera?

We don’t usually write about the established masters (especially dead ones) unless there’s a big event, like with Nan Goldin. In that situation, I would feature the new pictures and try, in the article, to go beyond all that has already been said. I’ll try to discover anecdotes or describe their daily life, their tastes, their habits, their home, their emotions, for example. Camera’s main ambition is to discover the photographers “better”, make the reader enter deeply into their world.

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Can you describe the current photography / art scene in New York for us?

I think the photography scene in New York is, in the structure, similar to the European one: exhibiting both vintage and new things. But it’s certain that there is, due to the artistic emulation of the city and the number of photographers living here, a bit more of freshness. There are certain things I don’t see that much in Europe, such as humour, fun or eccentricity. In New York, it’s omnipresent. There’s this obsession to be more and more creative, to push the boundaries of the medium. But the main difference is the debate of ideas: in Europe, debates tend to be more and more intellectualized and they can become boring. Though I always find the conferences at Le Bal, in Paris, very useful: talking about contemporary work but in a simple way, with historical points, descriptions and poetry, thanks to its wonderful director Diane Dufour. In New York, debates are now about things that touch every photographer, amateur or professional, and there’s this awareness of the image world we’re living in. The New York photo world knows that something needs to be done. People talk about new technologies, new forms of expressions, museum curators sit at the same table as Instagram or Snapchat developers, social media sociologists, other image specialist or entrepreneurs. Everyone tries to find compromises, learn from each other, to be productive. The Tech Photo world is already hitting the art world and I have the feeling that the Europeans need to wake up and talk to these people. Millions of images, some as good as ones made by pros or established artists, are being sent every day and it’s a data to understand and take care of.

How would you advise artists to write about their work?

I usually like to read essays that are very personal. I need to feel something deep in the words attached to photographs. More formality is fine but words can be used to make the photographs stronger, so you better use them entirely to add something. Poems or short stories are good additions. But it has to be good of course, it’s a risk.


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Images by Jonas Cuénin

Mary Frey

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Untitled from the series Family, Friends and Strangers by Mary Frey

Mary Frey is a prominent photographer and Professor of Photography at Hartford Art School, Connecticut, USA. I first came across her work in the catalogue of Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, the influential MoMA exhibition of 1991, so I was particularly excited when she agreed to be interviewed here. Her work demonstrates a sharpness of eye and meticulous technique and her concepts, although seemingly banal, renew my faith in everyday wonder and photography’s ability to take those moments and immortalise them. For me, it was a pleasure to discover her continued devotion to photography and her considered approach. I’ll let you enjoy it for yourself.

Can you tell us about when you first discovered photography? 

As a child, I loved to paint and draw and excelled in my art classes. In addition I grew up close to NYC, so occasionally visited museums to see original works of art. I always owned a point and shoot camera which I used to record special events, but never really thought about photography as a serious art practice until I was in college. I still remember that “aha” moment. It occurred during my third year of study as an art student. I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment, and I was hooked- I needed to make photographs. That was in 1969, and I never looked back.

Did you know early on that it was going to be a life pursuit?

Upon graduation I had a brief stint studying photography in graduate school but dropped out because I felt my work lacked direction and I was not ready to make a serious commitment to the practice. For the next seven years I held a variety of jobs (editorial, sales, teaching, commercial) all connected to photography, while continuing to make and exhibit my personal work. At the time I was doing street photography, strongly influenced by the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus. I found teaching to be a good fit with these artistic activities so returned to graduate school in 1977 with a new commitment to photography as a lifetime vocation.

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Man Fastening Pearls

Some of your early practice (Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas) is concerned with exploring photography’s role in depicting the everyday. What began your interest in these themes and what did you find? 

During my second year of graduate study I visited my parents and dug out our family albums. At the time I was struck by how many of my childhood memories were formed by the snapshots taken during these events. Although not an original insight, it acted as a catalyst to explore this idea. I began by recreating either the scenes I remembered or the spirit of these events, using family and friends as actors. I also drew inspiration from sixties television, the illustrations in the popular magazines like Life and Look that I grew up with, and the writing of novelists like John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Jayne Ann Phillips. As the project evolved, I made a “laundry list” of everyday moments to photograph. I sought out people in the street whom I found visually interesting and managed to get into their homes to document these activities.   All these folks (family members and strangers) became my cast of characters for both the Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas series, which I worked on for the next eight years.

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Boy with Volcano Project

How was it received at the time? What else was going on in photography then that stands out to you?

Domestic Rituals was generally well received. I had several solo shows around the US, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the work in 1984. Real Life Dramas was featured in “New Photography 2” at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) in 1986. During this time there was a lot of street photography going on. Also artists were using large format cameras in many non-traditional situations- and I was looking at the early work of my contemporaries like Nick Nixon, Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann and Joel Meyerowitz, and artists who explored American vernacular themes in their work such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. In addition, having studied in the MFA program at Yale, the influence of Walker Evans was profound.

The prosaic nature of many of your scenes interests me. I particularly enjoy the attention to the aesthetic of the image that your work demonstrates in a constructed way, yet still retaining a sense of documentary.

Can you talk us through your creative process? How do you find pictures? Or do you create them? 

The tools I employed- a large format camera, B&W film, flashbulb lighting- had a significant affect on how my images looked, and in turn, how my aesthetic evolved. Working slowly with the view camera forced me to construct, rather than capture moments. My diffuse lighting techniques created a soft, revealing and democratic light, where everything was described with precision and all things in a scene had equal visual weight. When I approached potential subjects I simply stated I wanted to photograph everyday people doing everyday things. My working process was fluid. Often I had specific ideas about what I wanted for the photograph, but occasionally I would see a gesture in passing that intrigued me, and asked my subject to re-create it for the camera. The successful images hovered somewhere between the documentary and directorial modes, evoking the look of film stills or tableaux-vivants.

Perhaps photography works best in these scenarios; making something rather mundane into a universally resonant moment. I think it is a talent to resist the sensational in photography to concentrate on the ‘unseen’. Could you talk about your experience of / thoughts on this a little?

A photograph shows us what we know, yet contains its own fiction. That’s what excited me about Bresson’s work many years ago and the work of others whom I admire. I’ve always found it a challenge to photograph the familiar and to move beyond the image of what it is – to what it could be about.

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What techniques do you use and how do you decide for each project what suits it?

I truly believe that work begets work and materials hold meaning. I often start with a simple idea and allow the photographs to inform the process to move the project along. For example, I spent over a year photographing taxidermy under studio lights with a digital camera for the Imagining Fauna series. Although lush and beautiful, these images lacked an integrity I couldn’t pin down. Then I happened upon an ambrotype and I realized this is what they needed to be. I converted the digital files into B&W transparencies and, with the wet-plate process, printed them onto black glass. Not only were these images of 19th century specimens created with an antique photo process, but the plates themselves had a physicality that acted as metaphor for the subjects and, in turn, our precarious relationship with nature.

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In Real Life Dramas you introduce text as a major component of the ‘image’. What were your reasons for this and how do you see image and text working together here? Where did the texts come from?

When I began Real Life Dramas I merely wanted to see what my pictures could mean in color. I approached my subjects in a similar way to the earlier B&W work, but switched to a medium format camera. This allowed me to shoot off-tripod changing the look and feel of the images. While working in people’s homes during the day, I noticed that their television sets were always on, often tuned to soap operas. Thinking about how popular culture permeates (mediates) our lives, I began to wonder how words could affect the meaning of my images. I read mass-market paperback novels, and appropriated the feel of their language creating phrases I would pair with the photographs. Often overblown and pretentious, these words would shift and/or change the reading of the photographs, injecting humor into sober moments. The text looks like a caption, but operates against the description of the scene depicted, opening up possibilities for new interpretations and bringing into question the “truth” of the photographic image.

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Grackle

You are now working on Imagining Fauna. What brought you to this seemingly new subject territory?

I read an article entitled “Dying a Second Death” about how 19th Century taxidermy was deteriorating due in part to the chemicals used to preserve them, as well as the expense required to restore and house them in museums worldwide. This struck a nerve with me and my instincts took over. As I mentioned above, I spent a year photographing these creatures without a clear notion of why. It wasn’t until I discovered the wet-plate collodion process that it all made sense.

What have you learnt about yourself as a result of pursuing photography for the bulk of your career?

I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I’m unafraid of hard work, and willing to accept failure.

What keeps you going as a practitioner?

I’ve made a commitment to my practice and I feel a responsibility to my work. It has been recognized and supported these many years and I appreciate and respect that.

What advice would you give early career photographers?

Be patient, work hard, follow your passions, take chances and don’t be afraid to fail.

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Niagra Falls

Cig Harvey

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From Gardening at Night by Cig Harvey

When Cig Harvey’s latest book Gardening at Night arrived from Schilt Publishing I was so immediately pulled in by the strength and vibrancy of the images that I was a little wary of being seduced. So I had a quick flick, and waited a few days until I had the time to devote to it, to scrutinise it and enjoy it. I found that it was not just a visual punch but that among the striking imagery where written stories. I always find the relationship between image and text a powerful one and this book brings its own variation to this compelling duo. Some photo books rely on the text to tell the story while the images illustrate, some rely on the images while the text illustrates, some have two separate conversations going on and some have a push and pull dynamic and some, like Harvey’s, have equal footing. While reading I felt like I was suspended somewhere between a teenage novel and a mother’s world. The ambiguity both drew me in and left me wondering. I asked Cig more about this process below.

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Sharon Boothroyd: When did you first know that you wanted to tell this story?

Cig Harvey: Well my first book, You Look at Me Like an Emergency, explored stories
around finding and defining home. Gardening at Night grew out of that
work and is about creating a life where you are. It’s an exploration
of home, family, nature, and time.

You include a breadth of image styles in this project which I really
enjoyed. From constructed, studio-style shots to more natural,
documentary work, with recurrent and diverse subject matter such as
nature, darkness, night, indoors, outdoors… How do you bring these
elements together in a cohesive way within the narrative structure? What do
these different aspects mean to you?

Thanks. I always say that I like to make pictures about things, not of
things, and I try to avoid drawing from only one genre or subject
matter. For me, the story is always the most important element and all
the formal concerns of light, frame, style are all in support of that
narrative.

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Were these moments caught, found or made? How do you naturally work
as an image-maker?

The book is a combination of caught, found and made. I’ve always been
both a finder and constructor. Sometimes I obsess over an image
I want to make and it can take years to get the right light and
atmosphere. Other times I find a picture. When that happens it always
feels like a magical gift.

Do you always carry your camera with you?

Yes, I always have a camera with me. If I am planning a shoot in a more
constructed way, I use a bigger camera and carry more equipment. But I
always have some sort of camera in my bag just in case.

Where did the text originate? Did you write it especially for the
book or was it from journals or other sources?

The text from my first book, You Look at me Like an Emergency, grew out
of my journals. I had always written as a way to access ideas and
imagery but had never planned to publish the words. Bringing text and
images together in Emergency, I realized how they both brought something
different to the table. I loved that addition and wanted to foster that
collaboration further in Gardening At Night, so I wrote the text knowing
it would be shown with the images.

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How do you tread the balance between ‘truth’ and ambiguity when
considering text?

I actually don’t really think about that balance. When I am writing I
try to get out of the way of myself. I actually lean my body to the left
and look up to the right when I write. A little odd I know. I try to
write and make pictures from the heart. If I think I have written
something worthwhile it typically rings honest to me. With my pictures I
am drawn to a truthful idea, but I try to visually play while I am
shooting, and that often leads to ambiguity, which I am ok with. In
fact, that is possibly the strength in some of these pictures.

The book is an important aspect of this project although it also
exists as a gallery installation. What do you look for in a book? What
does it bring that a gallery show doesn’t? What do you look for in a
designer and how does this collaboration best work out?

I love the narrative structure of a book. Gardening is very much a story
from start to finish. It is sequenced in multiple ways: visually, by
season, and by Scout’s age.
I think the best collaborations are when everyone does what they do
best and feels a sense of ownership in the work. Deb Wood, the designer
of both my books is a really talented artist with a strong vision and an
authentic voice. I love working with her.

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What inspires you to take pictures?

I am inspired by everyday life and trying to make what I see as visually
poetic as possible. Essentially, I am making photographs as a way to
remember and slow down my experience of the world. It is my way of not
forgetting. The photograph is evidence.
I am also inspired by how work grows over a number of years. How making
things most days adds up to a life’s work.

What continues to inspire you if / when you have been discouraged?

Just the simple act of making pictures. I really just love making
pictures and seeing the way the camera records things differently than
my eyes. Photography itself is never discouraging, all it does, is give.
What advice would you give a discouraged photographer / artist?

Get your head down and go make something you love.

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Cig Harvey’s books and photographs have been widely exhibited and remain in the permanent collections of major museums and collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; and the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. She was recently nominated for the John Gutmann fellowship and a finalist of the BMW Prize at Paris Photo and the Prix Virginia, an international photography prize for women. Cig had her first solo museum show at the Stenersen Museum in Oslo, Norway, in the spring of 2012 in conjunction with the release of her monograph, You Look At Me Like An Emergency (Schilt Publishing, 2012). Cig’s devotion to visual storytelling has lead to innovative international campaigns and features with New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Japan, Kate Spade, and Bloomingdales. Cig also teaches workshops and regularly speaks on her work and processes at institutions around the world.

Robert Harding Pittman


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Robert Harding Pittman is a photographer and film-maker concerned with the impact of human interaction with the planet. His recent body of work Anonymization is a 10-year project which deals with ‘urban sprawl’ on an international scale. The work finds its outlet as an exhibition and publication (beautifully produced and published by Kehrer) which was nominated for the Prix Pictet Award and has been shown around the world. From American and German descent Pittman has lived, worked and studied environmentalism and photography for most of his life. His passions combine in this project to make a compelling and important reflection on the state of our planet.

ANONYMIZATION, the exhibition will open in Spot Photo gallery, LA on Saturday 2nd May and run until 3rd July 2015.

Sharon Boothroyd: Could you outline the original premise of Anonymization for us? How did it begin and evolve? Were you always shooting with a book in mind?

Robert Harding Pittman: I moved to Los Angeles to study film and photography at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). I had never lived in the desert before and very quickly became very passionate about this landscape. I was in California during the height of the construction boom and began to photograph how the desert was very rapidly being replaced by massive master-planned communities.

I lived in a “cookie-cutter” house close to the golf course, in a master-planned community, the very kind I am criticizing in “ANONYMIZATION”. I was both fascinated and horrified by the rapid destruction of the desert and by life in these developments. Never before had I been in an environment, which is so inorganic and so far removed from nature. We lived in a desert, yet every night the sprinklers ran for hours to water the lawns and golf course, to give the appearance of living in the Midwest but without the snow, cold or rain. I had never depended so much on an automobile. Even though I lived in a suburb and not in a rural area, to buy and process film, or to be in an area where I could (finally) see pedestrians, I drove 100km roundtrip, which in Europe would be absurd.

Next I moved to Spain to make a film about and photograph the massive development that was happening there at the height of their construction boom. About two hectares of land were being urbanized every hour in Spain at that time. To my disappointment, the architecture of the new developments was very similar to those I had seen in L.A. These places did not feel like Spain at all. Urban sprawl is coming to Spain, and there is not even a word for it in Spanish.

It was then that I realized that this model of urban sprawl is spreading all over the world. People in the USA are very aware of the issues and there are attempts to change things, but in places where it is new, people are less aware of the problems. It was then that I decided to make a global book project about the proliferation of urban sprawl across the globe, for which I also travelled to France, Greece, Dubai and South Korea.

I quote from my own statement about the project:

“With this anonymous type of development not only comes the destruction of the environment, but also a loss of culture and roots, as well as alienation. This globalized model of architecture does not respect or adapt itself to the natural or cultural environment onto which it is implanted. As we have seen in recent history, fervent overdevelopment has led to crises, not only financial, but also environmental and social, and some even say psychological.”

Having originally studied environmental engineering why and when did you turn to photography? What does it bring to your work?

I have been running around with a camera since I was 8 years old. Photography has always been my passion, much more than engineering ever was. I have also always felt a strong connection to nature and to my surroundings. I originally began studying engineering to one day build aircraft, but I felt it was more important to use my time, energy and knowledge to work towards protecting nature, which is why I ended up specializing in environmental engineering.

I soon realized that working only with numbers and data behind a computer would not satisfy me. I felt that cold numbers alone are not powerful enough to move people, governments and companies to change their ways. Numbers lack emotion for most people. I feel and hope that a combination of numbers and emotions can be more powerful in instigating change. I stopped work as an engineer and decided to dedicate myself to photography and documentary filmmaking not only because of the creative pleasure and satisfaction that they offer me, but also I felt I could use these tools to help raise awareness about environmental issues, using emotion combined with facts. With my work I want to give those who are unheard, victims of environmental degradation and the lands they inhabit, a voice.

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Pangyo New Town development.
Seoul, South Korea

Did you travel to the places (US, Europe and Middle East) in the project specifically for the purposes of the project or did they fit into your travels? 

It is a combination. The project began in Los Angeles and Spain, as I already stated, as I was studying and working in these places. Dubai, I did expressly travel to for the book. I went to South Korea and Greece to show my films about urban sprawl at festivals. In both places friends told me about the development pressures in their countries and ended up taking me to various locations to film and photograph, which ended up in the book.

What are the main similarities, and any differences, you saw in the countries you travelled to regarding development?

The sad thing, and that is what I am protesting about with the book, is that these places are all very much alike. In Murcia, Spain they want to become the California or Florida of Europe. In California they want to be the Mediterranean. In China I saw a project called “California County”. In Valencia, Spain they partially built Marina D’Or, where one day they planned to build a Caribbean lagoon with a Jamaican themed resort around it, very close to the Mediterranean shore. In any case the architecture tends to be very similar in all of these places. Most of the developments also have golf courses, be they in the desert of Dubai or in South Korea. There is a certain image of luxury, the good life, at the edge of the golf course, which is becoming more and more uniform.

The main difference I saw was in South Korea, where most people dream of living in a high-rise apartment. It is considered to be a symbol of status and modernity to live in a large master-planned complex consisting of multiple high-rise apartment buildings with leisure facilities, often including golf courses, unlike in the West, where the idea of luxury is a complex of low, single-family houses.

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Mall of the Emirates
Dubai, UAE

The expansiveness of this project gives massive scope to the ideas you are working in. Your images include a diverse range of imagery from architectural shots, landscapes and close-ups with strong elements of design. Is your approach to making images instinctive or did you have certain criteria in mind when shooting? How did you begin to make sense of all this during the editing process?

Usually my approach to photography is impulsive and instinctive. The more I can connect with what is around me, without thinking too much, the better it is for the photographs. The photographs for the book were taken over a period of about 13 years, so there is a great range of images. I am also a filmmaker and to make editing easier one often films the same subject at three distances – a wide, medium and close-up shot. This kind of thinking at times also comes into my photography. For the book, just as in a film or in a piece of music, I wanted to create a rhythm which has variation and is not monotone, for which having a variety of types of images is important.

Most, if not all of the images are empty scenes. Is this important to you? What does it bring to the work?

Yes there are indeed no human figures in the photographs, except in two images where construction workers are working at a far distance from my lens. Yet, we humans are very present in the photographs. In the images we see how we control and dominate the earth, by reshaping it, by flattening it and by covering it with roads, parking lots, lawns in the desert and with large-scale developments. All of the structures in the photographs consist of perfect, straight lines. Straight lines do not exist in nature. As I already mentioned, I used to be an engineer and as the world and nature are so complex, we tend to simplify things, one manifestation of which is the straight line. “ANONYMIZATION” takes a critical look at this sense of control over nature, which we desire as a society.

RHP2

 

Pizza Hut (abandoned), Route 70
Alamogordo, New Mexico, USA

The book, published by Kehrer was nominated for the Prix Pictet Photography Prize. What did this mean for you?

The nomination of “ANONYMIZATION” for the Prix Pictet is a great honor for me. The theme was “Consumption” and “ANONYMIZATION” certainly is about the consumption of large amounts of natural resources (oil, water, air, land, etc.), labor and capital.

It is inspiring and encouraging to see that we are many photographers and artists and citizens who do care about the environment and about the future of our children and our earth. The Prix Pictet is helpful in giving some prominence to this movement in photography, which is often under-represented, as issues are often brought to light that are less pleasant.

The book is divided into four parts. How did these four structures (sacred ground, conversion, prefabricated, aftermath) of this project first become apparent to you?

It took me a long time to come up with these four phases or chapters to structure the book, which is also the structure of the traveling exhibition. I had tried different ways of ordering the images but none quite worked. In some ways I think I used my engineering mind to think of this very simple structure. Regardless of where I went, I always found the building projects to be in one of these four phases. The cycle repeats itself everywhere.

Phase 1 = “Sacred Ground”

If you want to build a big development, the first thing you have to do is bulldoze away all of the vegetation that is there. Then the ground is flattened and terraced. Finally, this ground is covered again with asphalt, lawns, and (ironically) young decorative trees. I was influenced by some very inspiring Navajos I met in Arizona to whom the earth is “sacred”, and this is where that word came from. For them, wealth is having clean air, water and soil, and not having large quantities of goods.

Phase 2 = “Conversion”

These lands are converted into the developments using labor, energy, and building materials, i.e. construction.

Phase 3 = “Prefabricated”

Construction has been completed and the homogeneous, anonymous developments are finished and people can move in.

Phase 4 = “Aftermath”

As we have seen during the first decade of the millennium, overbuilding has resulted in crises. Eventually everything decays to the ground again.

Thus we have a cycle where we begin and end with the ground.

RHP3

 

Tercia Real master-planned community (abandoned).
Murcia, Spain

How would you define documentary photography? Would you consider your work to fit within this genre?

I think my work fits into both the documentary and fine art genres.

It seems that in our society we are always obliged to categorize everything, which at times can be helpful, but at times also oversimplifies reality. What I very much like about documentary photography and film is that the definition can be quite broad. My work is quite “straight” in the sense of “straight photography”. When I find an object on the ground I do not move it. I try to photograph things as I see them. But documentary cannot be free of manipulation and is never objective, nor should it pretend to be. The world is always interpreted and edited by the person behind the lens.

What is your main concern as an environmentalist?

There is a general disrespect for the earth and a lack of humility toward the planet. In the end this leads not only to environmental problems but also to conflicts between us who inhabit the earth. I believe that if there were more respect for the earth, there would be more harmony amongst us humans and vice versa.

When we contaminate some far away corner of the earth, it has consequences not only there, but in the end it affects everyone in some way and in the end it comes back to us. We in the West have most of our goods manufactured in China and it is far away, but some days in Los Angeles, 25% of the air pollution travels across the Pacific Ocean from China. The oceans are polluted with mercury, which comes mainly from the burning of coal in coal fired power plants. Mercury then gets into the fish and finally ends up in the fish we eat. We are a part of the environment and cannot separate ourselves from it.

What are you passionate about as a photographer?

I love looking. I love light, especially the light from the sun. Whenever I sit on a bus, train, bike, car or plane I take great pleasure in looking out the window and seeing the landscape pass by. I very much enjoy the process of searching for places and objects to photograph. When I have a camera in hand it intensifies my action of looking, helping me to focus and organize what I see in front of me. It helps me be more present and even if I were to not have film in my camera (or a memory card), the act of looking and focusing on something through my viewfinder helps me remember and connect more intimately with the places I visit. The best photographs come when everything comes together in one instant – the light, the place, me with my camera and some kind of magic.

RHP1

 

Tercia Real master-planned community (abandoned).
Murcia, Spain

If you could imagine a world that had a different way of doing urbanisation – if we used local materials and were sensitive to the culture and climate – what would it be like?

This world would look like many old cities do, where people had no choice but to use local materials and had to adapt to the climate. These places grew out of the local culture and also helped shape the local culture. Such a place as you ask me about I feel is much more human, at a human scale, where people can interact and feel integrated and at home. People can walk and move easily in this world without having to depend on an automobile for their everyday lives.

In an older city, the workplace, shops, schools and residences are all intermingled making distances shorter. In master-planned communities these spatial functions are separated. For example, a food store is not built next to houses, thus one needs to get in the car to drive to another area where the stores are located, leading to the dependency on the automobile and all of the environmental, health and social problems that this brings with it.

– – – – –

Finally I would like to thank you very much Sharon for giving me this opportunity to share my work with your audience. Many thanks to any one reading this for “listening” to me.

 

Karen Knorr

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Karen Knorr is a photographer with international acclaim who came to prominence in the 1980s through her work ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Belgravia’ which are currently on display at Tate Britain until October 2015. Her early work was heavily influenced by film theory and the politics of representation. An extensive list of exhibitions and lecturing roles include Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Harvard, University of Westminster and Goldsmiths. She is currently a Professor of Photography at UCA, Farnham.

Here she talks with me about her life and work. This interview was commissioned for Photomonitor.
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Sharon Boothroyd: You were somewhat of an insider to this world (Belgravia) via your parents if I am correct. Can you describe your relationship to Belgravia before you made this work?
Karen Knorr: I arrived in London from Paris on July 4, 1976. My parents had just purchased a 25-year lease for a maisonette (two floor apartment) at Lowndes Square in Belgravia. I lived in Belgravia for a short period, 6 months, while I was applying for photography courses to build a portfolio of photographs that I could show photographers such as David Bailey. I came to London with a series of street photographs and surrealist- inspired photographs made in Paris as an art student but realised I needed more depth to the work.
I was offered a place on a part time professional photography course at Harrow College of Technology and Art and it was here that I began to use a 5 x 4 plate camera. It was also on this course that I met Olivier Richon with whom I photographed Punks in several music clubs in London, published as a book by Gost in 2012.
I quickly decided that Belgravia was not where I wanted to live and definitely not with my parents! I moved out in January 1977 sharing a house with friends at Narcissus Road in West Hampstead. The commute to Harrow was easier and this allowed me the creative freedom necessary to explore Punks. (Showing as part of group exhibition We could be Heroes at The Photographers’ Gallery Print Sales, 6th Feb – 12th April 2015.)
At Harrow College one of my tutors Rosie Thomas introduced me to Camerawork, a new magazine published in East London that had published critical writings on photography with artists and activists such as Jo Spence. This was a different perspective from Creative Camera, a magazine edited by Colin Osman and Peter Turner which seemed more in tune to the aesthetics prevalent in Fine art photography championed by John Szarkowski at the MOMA.
My outlook and ideas concerning photography changed. I became interested in a critical approach (rather than self-expressive) to photography and began to look for a B.A. Honours course. The Polytechnic of Central London, School of Communication, at Riding House Street accepted me as a B.A. Hons in Film and Photographic Arts in 1977.

Interesting how you differentiate a critical approach from a self-expressive one. Could you expand on what the difference is?
The difference is that self-expressive work revolves around a concern for the individual ego of the artist/ photographer. It comes out of a Romantic view of the artist as having a unique and privileged view on the world suffused with authentic emotions that can be directly transferred onto the work. This notion of subjective authenticity was challenged by writers and philosophers such as Roland Barthes (Death of the Author) and also challenged by the theoretical writings of Victor Burgin in the 1970s.
A critical approach may deal with emotion and desire but more knowingly appreciates the staging and performing involved. In other words that something has to be constructed…performed.

Why did you want to make the Belgravia work? What instigated it and how did you approach your subjects?
Belgravia (1979-1981) was a series of environmental portraits on social class and the received opinions of the wealthy who lived in Belgravia, an area near Harrods (London) which now has some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
The work is autobiographical and uses humour (which operates in the space between text, image and viewer) in order to reconsider class and its prejudices. It also focuses on social inequality between men and women as well as the aspirational values attached to ‘taste’. The third meaning, a concept developed by Roland Barthes when considering montage (editing), interested me and I had read the collection of essays in Image Music Text during my second year at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL) photography course. Belgravia arose out of an awareness of this effect between image and text that had been developed by conceptual artists such as Victor Burgin (who was my tutor) but also an awareness of Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Bill Brandt and Bill Owens’ work. The texts were constructs, highlighted by their arrangement and design beneath collaborative portraits of my parents and their friends. I would stage and style the portrait choosing and arranging furniture and clothes with the sitters. Using a 500 CM Hasselblad and a Balcar Flash with reflective umbrellas, this process was a lengthy one that would take up to three hours. I wrote down quotes from our conversations together and these were then edited and typeset on lithography film.
Bill Owens (whose book Suburbia (1) influenced my work) visited the Polytechnic of Central London during my second year on the BA Honours Photography course and we had a lively debate later in the pub about the nature of photography, whether to photograph things as they were found (his point of view) or to construct and rearrange the situation (my point of view).
The first image I took in the series was of my mother and grandmother at Lowndes Square, smoking and drinking in furs, accompanied by Belle de Jour (Buñuel 1967) on television which starred Pierre Clémenti kissing Catherine Deneuve. The portrait is performed and collaborative, photographed with bounced flash.
I approached my subjects as ‘the girl next door, aspiring photographer’ and spent hours visiting my subjects who were introduced through a network of my parents’ friends and acquaintances that lived in Belgravia. The quotes taken from their conversations were carefully edited and designed, printed onto the actual surface of the photograph. The idea was to prolong the viewing of the photograph using the aesthetics of fine art photography. The text brings a new reading to the image and the humour operates according to the spectator’s cultural background.
In the Belgravia series I was also interested in referencing architectural photography that could be found published in House and Gardens magazine. Interested in the semiotics of the bourgeois domestic interior I wanted to highlight taste and lifestyle in a humorous and ironic way by structuring the viewpoint and using text.
There was also a critical engagement with portraiture and the emerging celebrity culture found in such magazines as Tatler and Vogue that I wished to challenge. I was very aware of the art context and wished to challenge the male dominated art photography world; especially the white male photojournalist who used ‘fixers’ to gain access to developing world cultures.
This early work was critical documentary form that engaged with what was closest to me: my own family and friends. It was only much later in the 1990s that I began to work in Europe and only since 2008 that I ventured into a new digital world in my recent India Song series.

What do you think your relationship to the subjects and your understanding and awareness of the place brought to the final outcome?
The attitudes depicted through image and text were ones I did not share and the irony is strong, at moments almost cutting. These are attitudes that surrounded me in my youth and could have become my own. The first person ‘I’ in the photographs inflects an autobiographical element yet I was not aspiring to similar values. Yet all these texts could have been me.

Did your feelings towards the place change as a result of making this work?
This work is about class and privilege and the insouciance of having it. I was part of the problem, part of this world and felt conflicted.

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How did you gain access to the gentlemen’s clubs when by their very nature they excluded women?
By chance and luck. It took me a year to gain access to more than one club. I spoke about my problems accessing gentlemen’s clubs to a man who ran a sandwich bar across the road from the PCL in Riding House Street showing him some contacts of other work. It turned out that his friend was Lucius Cary, 15th Viscount Falkland. Finally I gained permission to photograph the Turf and Brooks through the help of Lucius Cary. The irony was that he was Viscount of Falkland and the work highlights the conflict in the Falklands among other themes. Lucius was totally supportive and even posed for a portrait in the series, leaning over a wrought iron balustrade overlooked by a marble bust of Pitt the Younger (Britain’s youngest prime minister).
Gentlemen includes empty interiors and staged portraits of club members and actors/ friends. The text is entirely fictional, composed in two voices: the past tense historical voice and the present tense. Under the images of men photographed, the voice is in the present tense, yet referencing change; the end of the British Empire, how things once were. Under the empty interiors the voice is in the past tense… the past and the present alternate. I was reading speeches of parliament that used to be published in The Times newspaper (Hansard) and Boy’s Own stories of adventure and spy novels.
Gentlemen was very much about patriarchal values and the nature of power in the political centre of London, not far from Westminster and the palace. Language and its inflections become powerful in how they include and exclude, turning people into ‘them’ and ‘us’. The fetishisation of English with its sense of superiority is with us today; disseminated across the British Empire it has become the global language of trade.
Capitalised letters performed a parody of Englishness situating it in the 18th century tradition of satire (Pope and Swift). The first clubs founded as coffee houses were places of dissent where discussions were held with the aim of changing the British mindset, inspiring it to move forward into an era of true enlightenment and moral virtue. Thatcherite Britain appalled me with its jingoist drive towards war in the Falklands. There was cross party support for war and very little dissent. Only one journalist stood out in this respect in the mainstream press, James Cameron, who wrote for The Guardian. Other exceptions to the prevailing pro-war hysteria were John Pilger and Noam Chomsky.

How did they receive you when you were in? Would you describe this work as collaboration?
They were polite and helpful and let me get on with it. I would ask people who worked in the clubs such as the porter and secretary to pose for me in different rooms where I would set up flash equipment. This work was collaborative as it was staged and performed between us. I also used friends as actors who dressed the part. By directing I was challenging the power relations between women and men in the club interior. In clubland, women and black people are invisible and have restricted access to certain rooms; I took liberty to transgress those roles by using the camera as a tool.
Despite equal rights legislation passed in the 1970s many clubs did not allow full membership to women. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, for example was an associate member of the Carlton Club, which appears in my series. Women were segregated and had their own rooms. The Smoking Room was strictly off limits to women and non-members.

Did your subjects see these works? What were their views of them?
They saw the photographs with texts and generally were impressed by the quality of the prints. They had no issues with the text. Their feedback was generally positive. At one point there was confusion over copyright but this was quickly resolved. As I initiated the project and it was not commissioned, the copyright of all the work belongs to me.

Can you explain a little more about your choices of text and image in both series? Where do the texts come from and why did you choose to work this way?
In Belgravia, texts come from conversations we had. I spent a lot of time with people whom I photographed and would write down or remember key topics discussed. I would keep notes of their conversations, which were then reworked, capitalising key words. The capitalisation used here indicated that the text was not a direct transcription but constructed like the photographs.
I had been reading Benjamin, Brecht, Barthes and film theory, thinking about the idea of ‘distantiation’ as referred to by Althusser as a means of challenging mainstream ideological institutional structures. Of course these structures were ‘family’ and ‘taste’ in Belgravia.
In Gentlemen text became a device to critique patriarchy and its conservative formations. The text here was totally invented, inspired by clubland literature (Dornford Yates, John Buchan, Kipling, Ian Fleming: a fictional voice) and speeches of parliament published in the Hansard section of The Times (historical voice in the past tense). The uppercase letters of words parody the speech acts of public school educated men but also reference irony.
Text adds new meanings that did not exist in the image alone and operates between the text and image. Adding text also prolongs the time that a viewer spends looking and thinking about the work. It slows the consumption of the image.

How did the public and the art world receive both these series at the time?
Critically the work was championed by the French and I had my first solo exhibition in Paris with Samia Sauoma at La Remise du Parc in November 1980. Christian Caujolle, an art critic, championed the work at its beginnings and I had write ups in the French newspapers: Libération and Le Monde. My work was shown during Mois de La Photographie set up across galleries and institutions in Paris to promote and disseminate photography.
Belgravia had appeared in group show called Five Photographers at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1981. Nine images of Gentlemen appeared at Riverside Studios in an exhibition called Beyond the Purloined Image (1983) curated by the artist Mary Kelly. The work was supported by The Arts Council who awarded me a grant, yet it received little critical attention in the UK when it first appeared. Stuart Morgan was the only one to write a supportive review of Belgravia in Artscribe in 1982. Belgravia was included in a group show in 1982 at David Dawson’s B2 Gallery in Wapping called Light Reading .
Generally the early work was respected by British academics. I was invited to lecture on my work at West Surrey College of Art (University for the Creative Arts, Farnham) and other art colleges. Gentlemen was supported by the critic Abigail Salomon- Godeau and this work was shown at PS1, New York in 1983. I earned very little from my work for years and the break through came with Connoisseurs being shown at Riverside Studios in 1986. Finally I was accepted as 0.5 Lecturer in Photographic Practice at London College for Printing and that made the difference in helping me sustain a practice which was experimental and non commercial … in fact; too conceptual for most.
It is not surprising that there are limited reviews now. Things seem to have gone backwards.

Is there a correlation between how it was received then and how it is being received now? i.e. What has changed politically in our society and is it reflected in how this work is consumed?
I think it is not being received and there is a lot of indifference to what it is referring to, i.e. class and male privilege. We live in a more unequal society as the recent BBC series The Super Rich and Us points out.

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What does it mean to you to have your work in Tate Britain?
It means a lot to me in that it will be part of my legacy to British culture and hopefully it will be work that might interest future artists and their research.
It documents a particular age in the UK (1979-1983) which became the beginning of the end of an egalitarian project which included the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960’s and the Equal Pay Act of 1970, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Feminist and Gay movements. President Obama recently pointed out in a speech that social mobility had also decreased in the USA.

What are your hopes and aspirations for your career from this point? How do you define success?
Although I am getting older, I have every intention of working on new projects that challenge me mentally and physically and I have quite a few lined up.
Presently I am working on a series of performative portraits of Japanese women called Karyukai (2) and a series of works addressing folk culture and animal life in Japan called Monogatari (3). Exhibitions are planned for November 2015 at Filles du Calvaire and in 2016 at Grimaldi Gavin. I will be participating in art fairs globally including Paris, London, Delhi etc.
In 2016 I am planning a road trip across America, focusing on the Midwest with an aim to understanding and researching this part of America that my mother left to come to Europe in 1946. I hope to make this trip with Anna Fox whom I mentioned the idea to at Paris Photo last November.
Success is having enough money to be independent and enough to share with the community that nurtured you.
The success of the India Song series helped finance my studio, rented from Space studios, and to finance Chandelier Projects from my studio since September 2013. I became patron of several art organisations who had helped me in the past.

You are involved in Fast Forward, a conference at Tate [in Autumn 2015] discussing prominent issues regarding women in photography. What is your main hope for this conference?
That we help define what are the main issues confronting women photographers today and help connect and expand new networks to help each other.

What would you advise women working in photography today?
Connect with other photographers and artists; establish strong bonds and new networks using the social media and the internet to disseminate your work.
Challenge your comfort zone, take risks, learn new skills, update and push the boundaries, experiment.

__________
Notes:
(1) Suburbia, is the titled of a self published book of documentary photographs taken in the early 1970’s by Bill Owens whilst working as photographer for the Livermore California Independent . The book celebrates the American Dream and the suburban life style . The book is about his friends and their pride in having achieved material success .The book is very funny no irony or critique was intended.
(2) Karyukai refers to the elegant high culture of the Geisha. The “flower and the willow world” which also appear in the famous Ukiyo-e wood block prints produced in the 17- 19th century by artists such at as Utamaro and Hiroshige. It is a matriarchal society run by women although there are male geishas. Women are apprenticed and live in okiya and train in various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, conversation mainly to entertain male customers.
This photographic work alludes to a contemporary version of this separate reality which still exists in Japan today. Women perform femininity with traditional kimonos. Each photograph is accompanied by a poem in Japanese composed by the subject.
(3) Monogatari are tales, an ancient Japanese literary form of which there are several genres prominent in the 9th to 15 th century. My photographs reference spirits or kaidan which take the form of animals. Popular tales from Japanese folklore became performed in Kabuki (Japanese classical dance drama from the Edo period) Noh and Bunraku.

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