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.
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.
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.
Victoria Road, 2002
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.
White Goods, 2008
Locker Room, 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!
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.
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.
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.)