The cancellation of ATP Iceland 2016 proved to be a major turning point in my creative practice, dramatically changing the direction of my work and of my MA. Up to this point I felt I was on a steady determined path focused around photopolymer etchings of my pinhole camera concert photography. It was my firm intention to attend the festival in Iceland and gather a body of photography from the three-day festival as source material for my final extended practice module.
Less than a fortnight before it was due to begin the festival was unexpectedly cancelled. With flights and hotels booked I was left with no choice but make the most of what the country had to offer on its own merits – no tremendous hardship, but not exactly part of the plan. I had striking memories of my first experience of the fascinating Icelandic landscape, and particularly the curiously ‘other’ environment of Asbru. This abandoned NATO air force base where the festival was due to take place - a tiny Americanised output in a barren volcanic landscape - became the new focus of my photographic explorations for this visit. Initial the resulting collection of photographs seemed secondary to my main practice, the satisfaction of a mild obsession with a strange ghost town and the alien landscape that surrounded it. I completed a couple of similar such “passion projects” during this summer – including a topographic study of water towers around Wiltshire. I completed a small set of test polymer etchings for both series at Spike Island but didn’t really think about either study as any more than a diversion from my core practice.
In reality, my trip to Iceland was pivotal in my journey to producing the work I make today. Something about the isolation of taking this journey on my own - paired with the barren but beautiful landscape, harboring these almost every day buildings, so out of time and space -connected with me on an incredibly deep level – reawakening an emotional relationship that I have felt with the built landscape for many years but have never acknowledged in my work.
Putting the degree on hiatus later that year I had a feeling that if I did return, I had to some extent exhausted the concert photography – I was tending to capture very similar imagery of the bands I was shooting, and even when I did find an image that grabbed me it didn’t ever really seem to transcend the original subject matter – I felt I had exhausted what I had found so exciting about this approach and honestly felt quite lost, a not insignificant factor in my decision not to return to the course
Returning to work full time and with limited opportunities to continue my print practice, my work took a different form as I began exploring handmade collage as a creative outlet. It gave me the freedom to work out of ours at my desk with simpler tools – a scalpel and pritt-stik, and although this began as temporary diversion, I had quickly amassed a collection of over 200 collage pieces. Drawn from a cornucopia of 1970s children encyclopedia’s, travel annuals and camera magazine compendiums, in the beginning there was a small sense that they might inform my print practice but as I began creating pieces more consistently this work created the impetus for me to return to the course in 2018.
On my return, my path seemed straightforward – I would begin to build my collage work into my print practice and bring my evening in the studio to fruition finally in the print studio. And indeed, I did follow this route for the first couple of weeks of the course – creating CMYK versions of two collages, which I did find very satisfying from a technical perspective and from the immense joy at being in the studio again.
Talking with Sarah after the second week of printing however I began to have nagging doubts about this direction – not because of any negativity around my work, more for the interest and enthusiasm she (and others I had tentatively showing my work) showed towards the Asbru test prints I had completed in the summer of 2016. The interest in these pieces encouraged me to re-evaluate this work and reevaluate the potentially limited possibilities (and uncertain progression) of the collage work in comparison. In looking at this work again it suddenly felt unfinished and unresolved, it nagged at me that I hadn’t taken these pieces and this concept as far as I could have.
In hindsight I do feel the themes explored in my collage work did play into my current print practice. Though I struggled to vocalise them at the time, I can see similar themes playing through many of my more satisfying collages – themes of isolation and dread, a curiosity around scale and alien elements and juxtapositions in the environment. When I look at these two bodies of work side by side now, they do feel wholly connected – different reactions to the same brief. I think the same is also true of my earlier concert photography work, though here the connection is more with the creation of an otherness, with using the pinhole as a prism rather than a lens to reveal a similar disquiet and isolation, it is interesting with introspection to see how these very disparate ways of working and subject can still feel so connected and of a whole.
When I first began working with the Asbru photography I wasn’t entirely sure what the outcome would be. In many ways the images I had photographed almost two years ago had become found objects, disconnected slightly from me and this allowed me to appreciate and work with them in a very different way. I allowed myself to really like them, almost covet them. They put me in mind of Edward Hopper’s lonely, calm architectural landscapes, such as Second Story Sunlight, Lighthouse Hill or Rooms by the Sea, but at the same time I was equally fascinated by the typology I had created in capturing this collection of buildings – almost after Ruscha’s Twenty Six Gas Stations or Every Building on the Sunset Strip. These influences focused me on two key aspects of the development of my work at this stage. Firstly, ensuring that my prints maintained the dreamlike softness and curiosity of the original pinhole photography, and secondly the idea of creating some form of typology, not just around this collection but as a constant in my approach, I imagined, to a wider range of architectural subjects, perhaps in the style of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Initial test prints felt promising – let down only by my technical expertise after such an extended absence from the studio. Looking back, only my mini-print holds up when compared to my later work – capturing a hint of the Hopper-esque ethereality I was seeking. Raising beguiling questions and curiosity, insisting that the viewer build a narrative around this lonely structure, so out of place, suddenly isolated by the camera’s frame.
Travelling to San Francisco for work I had intended to continue the same typographic explorations as I had in Asbru. With near perfect golden light – a fortunate by product of the recent wildfires – it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add to my body of photography in architecturally blessed and unique location. In the reality, work pressures left little free time, and when I did find the opportunity to explore, I struggled to find anything that really excited me, or worked in through the lens. I began documenting the suburban tract housing of near or apartment, and the buildings of Haight Ashbury, so beautifully of their place, but all I was capturing was holiday snaps at best, there was nothing deeper here because I felt no true connection to this place, only a tourist’s curiosity.
Only on my return did I happen upon one key image that truly began the development of my current body of work. An image of a Haight Ashbury brownstone, captured in a grabbed moment, as the light was failing, and my workmates disappeared into a waiting Uber. It was an image totally at odds with the Asbru photography in many ways, not least the quality of the light and detail. It is a noisy, grainy ghost of an image, caught in the San Franciscan golden dusk, but at the same time it explored many of the same themes, loneliness, isolation, and most importantly - with the lone lamp lit in a single upstairs window – it forced the viewer to construct a narrative, just as with Hopper’s haunting architectural studies. It was as I began working with this image, as a mini print, then as larger and larger prints, that I began to develop two significant elements of my current practice.
The first related to my technical process. Inspired by a mini print by Graham Cook - for this year’s mini print exhibition - I experimented with printing my Brownstone image as a negative onto a slab of black ink. Rather than simply applying a negative halftone in white as Graham had done, I first applied a positive halftone, effectively creating a positive/negative duotone effect. This process transformed the image for me – adding a warmth and depth to the image and it quickly became core to my print practice. I began to understand the need to perfectly balance the opacity of both positive and negative ink layers, to ensure that the positive ink created the correct mid-tone neither fighting with nor being lost to the negative overprint. This process seemed to entirely suit the type of images I was capturing with the pinhole camera – creating a sense of light coming from darkness in a way that mirrored the photographic process itself. Just as the light pierced the pinhole to burn its image onto the camera sensor – so the white ink illuminated the black slab as it was applied. The process was technically precise and tortuous – requiring a level of registration and printing that pushed my skills to the limit, but it was worth it for the potential I could see in the images I was creating.
As I worked more consistently with this approach and began to work on larger and larger scale pieces, I began to be dissatisfied with the overpowering strength of the negative image in white ink. I was keen to reflect the ethereal, dreamlike effect of other architectural photographers, namely Hiroshi Sugimoto and the photography and film work of Charles-Andre Coderre (Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s photographer and cinematographer). With a view to creating this softness and lightness of touch I began to work exclusively with silver ink – eventually switching to a superior Golden acrylic ink. The effect was transformative – if hard to master. The silver ink created exactly the soft, ethereal images I was hoping for. Deeper and richer, shifting with the move of the head, or the changing of the light, encouraging the viewer to stare deeper and longer, to work out the details and find the image within. With the silver ink negative the original images was further abstracted from the source became totally other.
At the same time, my Brownstone image – and particularly that single, dimly lit upstairs window – made me consider the narrative drive of my images and the thread that might hold them together.
Whilst I had begun this journey with the intention of expressing a more detached, typological standpoint - more reminiscent of Ruscha’s “Information Man” or great reporter - as my work developed, I found myself connecting with the emotional weight and narrative potential of the images I was capturing.
A plan to photograph abandoned nuclear power stations stalled, not because I was unhappy with the images I took in Oldbury or the resulting prints, but because they lacked the mystery and narrative pull of the Brownstone image. I didn’t want recognisable ‘architectural’ photography, however beautiful – I wanted to create I wanted to create a very different conversation with my studies of these structures, something more emotive and fantastical.
Inspired by the post-apocalyptic worlds conjured by the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, the science fiction of writers like John Wyndham, John Christopher, Cormac McCarthy and Craig Harrison I became fascinated by the concept, that each image I create could belong to my own ‘Quiet Earth’. A netherworld, an ‘other place’ (an ‘Upside Down’) glimpsed only through the prism of my pinhole lens. Rather than Ruscha’s “Information Man” I wanted to create a wandering man, my images documenting the world he journeys through, like Man and Boy in McCarthy’s The Road. I wanted to create images that beseeched the viewer to create a narrative for this other world. To imagine what would come to be and what had come before, sense dread and hope, comfort, unease and beauty. In homage to Craig Harrison I began to think of my world as “The Quiet Earth”.
With the brownstone image I really began to cement this concept in my practice – which simultaneously felt strengthened by the negative-on-black print process. I began to use my ‘Quiet Earth’ construct to almost test the images I was selecting to print. It transformed how I viewed my photography library, and my choice of new shoot locations. More often than not I found it hard to deliberately choose a location or site to photograph – even when I felt the subject itself fitted my world. I might find that the resulting photography, however interesting in other ways, simply didn’t present a narrative that felt part of The Quiet Earth.
It became an instinctive, and unnervingly unpredictable process when gathering new material. Looking back at this body of work, almost every image that truly embodies The Quiet Earth (and there are about ten) was an accident or incidental shot, grabbed as an after-thought, a mistake or an incidental shot. Both pieces on my final show walls were born of happy accidents – Wilderness - a grabbed shot at Avonmouth Docks as I was leaving after a frustrating day shooting a grain elevator. Losing the light - shot under the roaring M5 motorway in near darkness, almost disregarded and printed as an experiment when a larger screen had failed.
In many ways this has made selecting and working with my images more challenging, but also more rewarding, they have taken on the role of found objects somewhat out of my control, grabbed on a whim, or uncovered from the archive after being initially rejected. As I continue to develop my work, I am still planning specific structures to study and shoot – such as the cement factory I recently explored out at Risca. At the same time, now I always try to have my camera with me in case a subject presents itself that is perfect for The Quiet Earth. Whether I am in motorway traffic or walking across a deserted car park in the early morning. I have realised that my subjects don’t have to be connected or share a typology in this world if my narrative connects them in my other reality. This approach has made me more experimental with my pinhole photography again, under and over-exposing images, pushing ISO settings to the limit, and working more in Light Room to push my images, in the way that my ultra-low-light concert photography forced me to do by default. I have broken away from my earlier tendency to try and take “good” photographs that meant nothing, and to seek out the unusual, the mistakes and the accidents that really excite me.
In conclusion, I have found this final module to have been one of the most challenging undertakings of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. For the first time in either my professional or artistic career I have created work that I am truly proud of, work that I want to talk about and share with the world. In many ways I underestimated how much putting the course on hiatus might set me back in terms of my practice and indeed I do feel that it took a long time for me to find a steady and confident direction again. Having found it though I feel that I am only at the beginning of the possibilities for this new phase in my creative development. I am keen to develop this body of work further in my own studio which I am in the process of building in Newport. Above all I feel confident in calling myself an artist and printmaker, and in finally engaging with an artistic community that might be willing to show and even buy my work, something I would not have felt possible even three or four months ago. I have created a body of work that I love, and that has an energy and direction that I can’t ignore.