Friday, 7 October 2016

SSHoP Interview

Studies In Photography 2016 : 30th Anniversary Edition
The Scottish Society for the History of Photography

In conversation with James Lawson

J.L. Looking back to our conversation in 1996, I see we were attempting to establish something of a narrative of your development as a photographer.  You had first been drawn to documentary photography.  You’d then found it a means of addressing more personal experience and intimate feeling.  At last, you’d arrived at what we could perhaps call and extraverted view upon the elemental and sublime in nature. Do I recall rightly? And where would you say you are as a photographic artist now? 

I.S. You do recall rightly. My first love was documentary photography and story-telling. That first love has never left. I no longer make ‘documentary essays’ these days but I still love telling stories. It’s just that the narratives are more subtle.
I have continued down the path of landscape photography - for want of a better category to the place the work in. The trigger is within - but the subject matter I choose is outside. Usually the further away I can get from myself, the better.
‘Extraverted’ is a great word. You’ve got me nailed already. I’m not reading it in the familiar sense of wanting to dominate a space – that could not really be any further from the truth. I’m by nature that quiet person who prefers to be in the shadows of the room, or indeed preferably not in the room at all. I guess that probably comes through in my pictures. Instead I read ‘extravert‘ to mean drawing from inside and obtaining gratification from that which is outside.
The most literal example of this might be my ‘Bothy’ series from 2009. I was returning to the landscape after a really bleak period and this series represented a half-way house. Not fully immersed, this was a tentative slight return. It was a period where I actually wondered if I might give up photography. I saw nature again through the window and inevitably I was drawn back outside. I’d say that process of re-integration continues still, many of my relationships changed and my priorities changed irrevocably. As ever, the work begins with simply wanting to make pictures, but at some point with photography there is a requirement to draw attention or the work never gets seen and is a self-indulgence. During my journey through photography I have wrestled at times with this Extravert/Introvert contradiction. I think Carl Jung would have a field day with me.

J.L.  You had not long finished your Masters at ECA when we spoke.  I’m struck by what seems to have been an insistence by you and your teachers on artistic purpose as opposed to vocational considerations.  But now I look at your (wonderful) website.  And I see that work is presented under two headings –Fine Art and Commercial. There’s not much in the latter category.  Am I to denounce the witlessness of commissioning executives, or register your disdain of such work? How wide would you say is the divide between those categories? 

I.S. I’m a jobbing photographer – I do have to promote myself. Although I have always loved Duane Michals’ description of his commercial practice as ‘cottage industry’. I work hard as a commercial photographer, I always did juggle that with my teaching and gallery projects. The designer who very kindly helped me put my website together saw clear separation between these two key areas of my work – but also saw a balance in the relationship and I think that was very perceptive.
I do think I qualified in photography at quite a unique time. Late 1980’s/early 1990’s coincided with a tremendous rise in appreciation of photography as an art form and simultaneously as a powerful voice in the press – with enlightened editors like Colin Jacobson at The Independent and Ally Palmer in the Scottish media. I was incredibly fortunate to walk straight into a career as a working photographer and be granted the space to learn and develop on the job so to speak. And you’re right that the emphasis at Art College had been form and content – technique was administered as and when needed. We were privileged in the sense that we were encouraged to think and look and express ourselves rather than tick the box and complete the next module. This approach I do believe was hugely beneficial to creative growth. And not at all self-indulgent – after all, we did all have to sink or swim after Art School, so it was not wise to leave without having asked a few pertinent technical questions. Resourcefulness and resilience are of course also essential ingredients, as with anybody working in the creative sector.  
As far as a divide, I have always run simultaneous careers in Commercial Photography and gallery/Fine Art work, though of course in the early days the first subsidised the second. I’ve never prevented the two from meeting creatively, but they seldom do collide. I’m still predominantly known as ‘people’ photographer for commercial projects – and I love that. It makes the line even clearer in my head. I don’t feel in any way whatsoever that one area is of less value than the other - photography has put food on the table for nearly 30 years. I never for one minute take for granted how fortunate I am to have survived doing what I do – whether it’s someone wanting to buy a print or ask me to photograph their business.

Do you have thoughts on art-education today –in regard to the teaching / in regard to the learning?

I.S. Just that I was very lucky to have worked in teaching when I did, for the best part of twenty years during some golden years. I worked with many wonderful people and it’s a delight to meet them now and see their careers progress. I’m talking about the students not the staff! For the last few years I was involved in teaching, morale amongst staff was very low and it’s sad that still seems to be the case. I could not understand why so many unhappy people were stuck doing something that was clearly making them even more unhappy. The learning experience has, I think changed a lot in the last ten years. More students, less staff. I am disturbed to see that zero hours contracts seem to have crept back. I was quite vocal when I was involved but I’m not really any more. I know through my own family’s experiences that the system isn’t perfect - but also that there is fresh teaching talent coming through.

J.L. I look at your ‘Fine Art’ work.  It’s very varied generically. Have you integrated photographic practices that had been successive in your earlier years?

I.S. It’s not really, Jim. If you look closely, I only really have one tune to play but I’ve occasionally tried picking up a different instrument. I do remember Ian MacDonald writing in Revolution In The Head about John Lennon starting to write on the piano instead of the guitar – because he didn’t know how to play the piano. It was this curiousness/restlessness that originally led to me to work with landscape photography – dabbling in something I knew nothing about. Similarly with video  - recent projects have incorporated video, a field in which I have had no training.

J.L. Are you a different person when you work in different genres?

I.S.  Definitely not. I’m clearly very much a photographer with a video camera! We are easily spotted. I daren’t move off the tripod so I have to let the elements write the script!

 J.L An abiding concern is landscape –or rather its widest elemental panorama of earth, air, water, light and darkness.  The perspective, I see, sometimes bears the traces of human labour –planting and waiting– a monument raised immemorially, and of human transit. But he’s corporeally –and emphatically– absent from the photographic moment. When I, the observer, stand behind you, behind the camera, before the scene, it feels like my encounter. Your action has seemed self-effacing.

I.S. We return to Extravert/Introvert. I’m not comfortable intervening. Or appearing. And the pictures that make it through have as little of me in the equation as possible, so as not to interfere with the experience for the viewer. That’s when a picture works – or has a chance of working. If you manage to hit a universal note. I’m very small – and the things I’m pointing my lens at are very big. I’m recording it, not making sense of it – maybe if I get lucky, someone else will.

J.L.  But then, my general proposition about your work collapses.  I come upon ‘Within.’  And darkness and light appear in a new dialectic. Wonderful again. I’ve got an art-critical and a cultural-critical tick.  It’s to put your work alongside painting, music, poetry that seems to emerge within a similar sensibility and, for ease of understanding, put it into a category. Do you work with a sense of kinship with artists whom you admire? 

I.S. Yes but naturally I’m not looking to place myself beside them. You hope to make something new each time. It’s not always the obvious folk in your own field who make you get up off the seat and feel inspired to create. I’ve just been back a third time to see the British Art Show and the energy, the buzz of ideas and the sense of purpose is incredibly inspiring. Almost all from artists who were previously unfamiliar to me. Some of the video work was superb. I wouldn’t say this will influence my work directly - but I work on my own, and you do need these timely trips to the art gallery to inspire and remind you that you do not work in a vacuum. If you keep it in check, the internet can inform and inspire too. Some photographers spend way too much time on there promoting themselves, but if you are choosy there is great stuff tucked away to inspire and educate you. I do feel like I should really be paying Alec Finlay through some kind of Social Media paywall for the benefits of what he dispenses online for free!

J.L. The work’s very minimal and very poetical.  I mentioned Turner and Friedrich all those years ago.  I might add John Houston now. Would that make sense? 

I.S. Thank you. Every time I get a painterly comparison it makes me smile. For a long time photography seemed to be the poor relation to painting. I never really recognised the big divisions and happily dipped between the disciplines. I had a couple of new pieces in the RSA recently in a mixed show and overheard a conversation where a couple of people were trying to decide if they were paintings or photographs. Which I take as a huge compliment. So your question is welcome and very flattering. Perhaps the palettes of John Schueler or Gwen John have made more direct connections but your question will make me examine John Houston’s work. Writing, music and film still continue to inspire me enormously. Kathleen Jamie or Robert MacFarlane as much as Bill Viola or Richard Long. And I love Alec Soth’s storytelling, he is a real talent. I hope I’m open to bit of everything. Good art is just good art, isn’t it.

J.L. The work is very immersive.  Do you find music in that land, in these skies? 

I.S. I’m open, my senses are alive when I’m in the landscape. I’m tuned in and concentrating. My vocabulary is visual. Sometimes I write things down but mostly I’m just feeling alive. Occasional shouts or whoops if it all clicks, more often muttering when it doesn’t. I do get music in my head - but that comes before or after. Sometimes physically listening to music abets the creative process – like a warm up. But if I’m making moving images I have to turn all the sound off during and after, and I make silent movies.
It is worth mentioning that I have an ongoing collaborative relationship with a very talented sound artist called Keith Berry. Keith’s sound pieces are more about silence than music – though that does not do him credit. His work completes and compliments mine perfectly. Our relationship is perhaps unusual in that we have worked together now on several projects over the last five or six years but have never met. I realise that this may sound odd – but it is somehow totally perfect. I think we are both aware now that this has gone on for so long that the magic might end were we to meet. I don’t tend to work specifically with Keith’s sound pieces in mind, but on several pieces of work now, they have not felt complete until the two were married. 

J.L. In truth, I can’t put word or category to your work.  But eloquence and clarity and resonance belong to the world in these photographs.  I know my own feelings before them. 

Thank you, Jim