Sophy Rickett

by Sharon Boothroyd

Objects in the Field

Objects in the Field

In 2012 Sophy Rickett was awarded one of four Artist Associateships at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge (IoA).

During the residency she produced a new body of work, Objects in the Field, so-called to appropriate the lexicon of terms used by astronomers and astrophysicists that refers to stars as ‘objects’ and to the sky as ‘the field’.  The project consists of several series of photographs, a monitor based video and a text, each of which reflects in some way upon her encounter with Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer based at the IoA.

During the 1980s, Dr Roderick Willstrop, designed and built The Three Mirror Telescope, a camera telescope, in the grounds of the Institute of Astronomy.  Operational for just twelve years, the telescope produced 125 black and white film negatives before it was modified to capture digital images in 1991.

Here Rickett describes how her practice as an artist combines, but also to an extent clashes, with Willstrop’s practice as a scientist.

Observation 123

Observation 123
1997/ 2013

Before we begin, can you briefly explain to us the technique used by Dr Willstrop to obtain these large format negatives with the Three Mirror Telescope?

Dr Willstrop designed the Three Mirror Telescope (3MT) during the 1980s.  It was operational for about 12 years before it was taken out of active service in 1997, just after the Comet Halle Bop image (featured in Observation 123, above) was made.  For the first two years of its life, before being modified to capture images digitally, it was an analogue camera that worked using three mirrored lenses that reflect the light from the stars internally, focussing them onto a specially customised section of b/w negative film to create a photographic image of the night sky.

Dr Willstrop’s work with the 3MT seemed to come to a standstill sometime after 1997 when he became Chair of the Libraries Committee.   When I met him, about 12 years after he retired, he was preparing to have the negatives archived.

Then could you tell us what you did and how you feel your treatment of the image builds upon his?

Hardly any of the negatives had ever been printed, and if they had, it would only have been as a very small section; none of them had ever been printed full frame.  So the set of 125 negatives were a starting point for me – both technically, as I started making my own prints of them, but they also informed the way that I began to think about the project.

The project tells the story of my encounter with Dr Willstrop and the 3MT.  It looks at my attempts to find ways of aligning our very different practices, as well as my work as an artist with his as a scientist.  But in the most part I fail.  So the work came to be about a kind of symbiosis on the one hand, but on the other there is a real tension, a sense of us resisting one another.  The material in the middle stays the same, but it’s kind of contested, fought over.


Observation 111

What makes you say “in the most part I fail”?

Well when I first met Dr Willstrop I was interested in exploring areas we had in common, mainly relating to process, for example we both worked through the night and usually on our own.  We also share an interest in the night sky, and perhaps  some sense of landscape, although I don’t think that he would ever describe his work in those terms and it was that tension that I began to find more and more interesting.  Other parallels began to emerge over time, to do with photographic processes, but also to do with using lenses to extend the limits of our vision, which in turn took me back to memories having my eyes tested in a hospital corridor when I was young, and all the language around that.  So in the end it seemed to go full circle for me, and made complete sense, but in relation to Dr Willstrop and me, I’m not so sure, so the failure would be to do with a kind of misalignment between the way we think about our work.  Insisting that the project had bridged our two practices, or brought them together in any real way would feel like a platitude.

Dr Willstrop sees the photographs as scientific research and you see them as art objects, highlighting the multifaceted realm of photography and its purposes. In the midst of this contention did you feel completely free to use the negatives for your personal artistic purposes?

Our connection unfolded quite gradually – we’d met many times before I found out about the negatives.  To begin with I was interested in the camera telescope itself, which still stands in the grounds of the Institute.  He also has several smaller models of it that he still keeps in his office.  Developing the work, and gaining his trust happened in tandem – an ongoing process – part of a dialogue that kind of solidified and that made more and more sense over time, maybe over the course of 6 months or so.

To answer the question more directly, I haven’t, and I still don’t, feel completely free to do just anything I want with his negatives – even once I had begun with the printing and also writing the story I would check with him that he was happy with what I was doing, that I wasn’t mis-representing him or his work in any way.  He was quite adamant that what I was doing was of no scientific value, because the stars would have changed position relative to each other since the negatives were made, and a part of me was a bit disappointed about that – I would love to have given him something back in some way, something that was meaningful or useful for him in his work, but I think he feels that it’s a bit late for that now.

But I still communicated, consulted, checked with him at every stage.  I wanted his voice, his presence to be acknowledged; an intrinsic presence in the whole project.  In the show at Kettle’s Yard, I titled every work, and Dr Willstrop provided captions – so again, there is a sense of these two voices speaking over each other, addressing the same theme, but slightly in opposition.


An idea (test for a guiding probe)
(Installation at Kettle’s Yard, Sep 13th – Nov 3rd 2013)

Are there aspects of Dr Willstrop’s scientific research that inspires and influences you as well as overlaps with your research as a lens based artist?

I admire the completeness of Dr Willstrop’s commitment to his work; the steady application of industry that he has maintained for over sixty years.  His work, and his connection to the stars has provided this continuity that has endured for his whole life, going back to when he was five, and his father gave him a telescope so they could look at the night sky together.  There’s something in the way that this fascination has provided a bed-rock to his whole life that I really admire, in some sense linked, not so much to what he’s done, but to how he’s done it.


Objects in the Field (text)
Pamphlet distributed freely to visitors to exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, 2013

N.B Rickett also produced a text, where a factual description of her encounter with Dr Willstrop and the 3MT is inflected with more subjective impressions and memories from her childhood connected to optics, seeing, and the fleeting nature of the encounter. 

The story (also featured in the accompanying pamphlet) beautifully connects the new work with memories from your past, linking not only optics and photography, but fragmented moments, feelings and experiences.   The scene shifts in the last section of the story away from the Institute to you being on a train, witnessing an event that at first glance might seem completely unrelated….

Yes – as my time at the IoA started drawing to a close, I tried to find out more about the 3MT; how the science had evolved from where Dr Willstrop had left off, and whether anyone had continued to work in that field, or with any of the processes or techniques he developed.  At the time I was unable to find reference to any specific legacies of the work that was done on the 3MT, though I found out later that one of his research students has been working on a similar design with a group of scientists in Arizona.  I couldn’t find anything more substantial than that, but then I was only looking in the most obvious places, mainly the internet, search engine searches, that kind of thing.

I realised how little I knew, how little I understood about his work, and how so much of what I’d done was based on assumption, supposition, instinct; the opposite of everything that Dr Willstrop, as a scientist stood for, and that’s what the anecdote in that paragraph you mention seeks to address.  It recalls something I saw years ago, when I was sitting on a train as it pulled out of a small seaside station in Devon. A young boy was standing on the sea wall smiling and waving at the train, but the waving stopped abruptly when he was drenched in water by his companion who threw a boulder in to the water that made a big splash.  In an allusion to the incompleteness of my interpretation, the partiality of my account, I write that I see ‘just the beginning of what is to pass between them, a fragment of story as it begins to unfold’ before the trains speed up, ‘and then I have gone’.

Can you say a little about how this whole process connected with you on a personal level?

When I first arrived at the IoA, I’d been thinking a lot about ageing, and more generally about the advancement of obsolescence.  I’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to find out about de-accessioning – that is the process of an object loosing its status, maybe by being removed from a museum.  I hadn’t been able to find anything theoretical, and everyone I spoke to about the bureaucracy of it was quite dismissive; there didn’t seem to be anything written down.

It was as if there were instances of it everywhere, for example at the Institute of Astronomy they had just recently digitised huge sections of the library, and had a few years earlier all the analogue darkrooms had closed, but I had arrived just a little bit late to witness or record those interesting shifts.

I was feeling a bit lost so when I met Dr Willstrop, it was as if a light went on.  I liked the way he spoke, the way his fingers handled the lenses when he explained how they worked, the way he combined this very high level technical language with much more intimate reminiscences that took him back to the 1930s when he was a child.

I also liked that we had the photographic process in common – we talked about film stock, about the merits of FP4 in relation to HP5 or something.  And I remembered back to when I was young, thought about things I’d not thought about for years, and I realised how much of it was linked, all these different threads, different periods of time, all woven together, tangled in to the very same story.

In the video work Afterword (Grinding a Lens for King’s College Chapel), Dr Willstrop can be heard reading your story; another device that brings him into the work, both literally and metaphorically.  

The story is central to the work, and I wanted to find ways of conveying that.  Having him read the story, and then feature it as the soundtrack to the DVD seemed like a good way of doing that practically, but also it suggests a kind of blurred authorship.  At times it is not clear whose story is being told, with a suggestion perhaps that they could be two separate narratives combined.  Different voices, different points in time, collapsed in together.

By pairing images with both Dr Willstrop’s factual information and your own poetic diary, you provide a dialogue, which is open and then is surprisingly closed.  It demonstrates an intriguing clash, often contradictory, between how you read the image and how Dr Willstrop sees it.  This refers again to the different functions of the photograph and its openness to interpretation.  What do you hope this element of confusion will bring for the viewer?

So maybe there was this connection between us, or maybe that connection was all my invention – but whichever it was, he went to great lengths to try to make me understand the science.  Some of the time I’d find it really hard going, and would feel quite lost and confused.  I wanted to evoke a sense of that in the finished work; a sense that in some way we don’t completely fit together, that we are not occupying the same ground, and that there is a kind of resistance between us and the work that we do.  I’m interested in the sense that the material in the middle – the subject – doesn’t ever change materially – but that the interpretation of it is highly contested.

What is it about collaboration that you enjoy?  How would you advise artists to enter into collaborations?

My first collaboration was with the composer Ed Hughes, which resulted in the film installation Auditorium (2007) and the most recent one, Album 31, which is a commission by GRAIN at the Library of Bimingham with Bettina von Zwehl is currently in progress.  I really enjoy the dialogue that comes out of the collaborative process, the feeling of being challenged, of finding the right kind of balance.  It’s also more fun; I like the camaraderie and the shared ownership; the sense of being in it together.

I approach collaboration like any other project really; I try to keep an open mind, and not to project forwards too much, or continually try to anticipate the outcome.  I think it’s good to concentrate on the process, to let the process lead the way and to stay open to different possibilities, to the unexpected…

How does Dr Willstrop see the images, now they are large scale on the gallery wall?  In other words what does he think of your interpretation?

There was a great moment a few weeks ago during an ‘in conversation’ event between the two of us and the director of Kettle’s Yard Andrew Nairne. Andrew turned to Roderick and asked him what he thought of what I’d done … it was the first time that question had been put to him so directly. ‘I’m very grateful to Sophy…’ he began – and a sense of relief started to flow over me, before he continued ‘… for making the digital scans. They have made some of the over exposed areas of the negatives just so much clearer…’ So what he makes of the aesthetics is still unclear – although at the private view, he seemed quite happy!



 Objects in the Field (Installation at Kettle’s Yard, Sep 13th – Nov 3rd 2013)

If you would like a free copy of the above pamphlet please email Sophy on

Sophy Rickett works with photography as well as video installation and text. Solo exhibitions include Chateau de Lichtenberg, Alsace; Arnolfini, Bristol; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill; Brancolini Grimaldi, London; Ffotogallery Cardiff. Group exhibitions include Museum of Modern Art, Moscow; Centre Rhenan d’Art Contemporain, Alsace; Galleria Civica, Modena, Italy; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Il Museo di Trento, Italy. Her work is included in several public collections in Italy, France and the US including Musée des Beaux Art Nantes, Pompidou in Paris and the Federal Reserve in Washington. In 1995 a monograph was published on her work to date by Photoworks/Steidl. She is currently working on a collaborative project with artist Bettina von Zwehl, which has been commissioned by Library of Birmingham and Fotogalleriet, Oslo.