Throughout June, Bronia Stewart will be exhibiting images from her series ‘Pepe’ on the stairs at Labyrinth Photographic.
Convenience store owner Pepe Torreblanco is a young man living in Chalco, a town on the south-eastern outskirts of Mexico City. Chalco is a dangerous neighbourhood; robbery and violence dominate daily life, and the increasing presence of drug cartels creates instability, corruption and fear. Pepe is in a gang, which, as for others like him, offers protection, identity, friendship and a sense of belonging.
In 2013 Bronia spent six weeks with Pepe, his gang and his family. The gang members aspire to live in America, where they believe a better life exists. Influenced by Los Angeles gang style, they own three American sports tops, which are kept behind Pepe’s store counter and are worn and swapped around on the nights they spend hanging out, drinking in front of the store and on the streets. Pepe and his family work hard, uphold traditions and celebrate significant events.
Despite the violent nature and social disenchantment of these gangs, their regard for family values, relationships, affection and intimacy strongly prevails.
These images exhibited are an extract from Bronia’s forthcoming book ‘Pepe’, which will be published in May 2014.
Bronia Stewart is a London-based photographer. Her first major project, ‘Babe Station’, was shown at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2013. Her work has been exhibited in London and Mexico and has been featured in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, AnOther, Soho House magazine and It’s Nice That.
From November Laura Hynd will be exhibiting a single image from her new series Lady Into Hut. Labyrinth are proud to present a 154 square ft C-Type hand print, which beautifully covers the entire staircase wall, and Laura’s accompanying video piece.
Lady Into Hut
My Grandfather, aged 27 was holidaying with his parents in a hut set in a valley among the Scottish Hills and making a home movie of the trip.
The year was 1947.
He saw a young local girl and asked her mother if she could be in his film. She said yes.
Mary was 17 and they started filming shortly afterwards. In the making of the film, they fell in love. They married and gave birth to my mother in 1948.
Grandad built his own holiday hut in the place that they met. With no electricity or water you are left to the green hills to survive.
It is a simple place. The fresh burns (Scottish ‘stream’) flow through the valley.
We scattered my Grandfather’s ashes next to the hut on July 22nd 2010.
The hut sits quietly in the hills as the valley moves and sighs, but it sits with the effect of a monumental tomb. Defiant. Lavishing its influence, denying its love.
The overwhelming influence of this place and the loss of its creative patriarch are worked through and transformed into a new legacy through the experience of being in and photographing a physical place.
Removed from civilisation to observe, to direct ones gaze. The act and state of looking transforms ones mental attitude or view. Creating a new history.
Lady into Hut is about transformation. Empirically being, photographing and becoming a place. Combining film stills from 1947 with my own, contemporary photographs.
“Transformation stories are the means by which we make sense of the world, how we see the connections that, ‘the materialisation of our age’ misses, and they belong to the universe that is ordered, not by reason alone, but by imagination, a universe in which change is the only constant”
John Burnside, foreword (2008), Lady into Fox by David Garnett (1922).
Laura Hynd 2013
This conversation is available to read at the following link:
Throughout October Labyrinth have invited Jonathan Schmidt-Ott to exhibit his recent project Pferde stärken.
Pferde stärken is a study of horses that Jonathan printed with John McCarthy in 2012/13. The subjects are a herd of Arabians that Jonathan came across in 2009 in the Basque Country in the south of France.
Jonathan Schmidt-Ott is an artist based between London and Berlin. He studied montage at the HFF Film School “Konrad Wolf”. Besides film he takes great interest in still images. Photography has grown to be an important medium for him to deconstruct visual reality into series of artifacts.
His film work has instilled in him an awareness that the context of an image creates the meaning. He is always looking to enhance an idea through montage in order to generate a coherent whole.
The photography of Jonathan Schmidt-Ott seems to be based on a semiotic system of symbols and signs whose meaning eludes the viewer. In each of his pictures there is implied a hidden history. This is not because he has a covert agenda which he has chosen to withhold from the viewer. Rather it is his interpretation that gives the images their power. They draw the viewer into the spell, without revealing the secret. They pulsate like buried memories, painful but beautiful allegories of the unconscious. Each image tells us a story, but it is our own story.
Jim Campbell is the Senior Lecturer and Programme leader for BA (Hons) Photography at the University of the West of England. We invited him to interview Noora Pelkonen following her recent graduation from this course.
Jim Campbell: What excites you about photography?
Noora Pelkonen: A strong connection to reality. I enjoy how a dreamy, unrealistic narrative or staged photography can form convincing presentation, and how a viewer can find a way to identify with someone else’s reality. Photography is an interesting medium to use for self-reflective or introspective purposes.
JC: How would you describe your way of seeing and your photographic process?
NP: An important part of my photographic process is to keep up a visual research book where I can collect my own thoughts and reflect on the way I am working. A research book visualizes the full working process from beginning to end; it helps you to learn about yourself as a photographer. For this project I was also writing a small book of field notes where I put down immediate thoughts at picture taking moments.
Seeing and physically experiencing the balance between two spaces, hot sauna and cold outer spaces during the harsh winter felt hard to photograph, and my decision to only work with natural light limited what I could show in the photographs. I remember writing down what an amazing experience it was to work with a group of women of all ages, who gathered to a small family-run sauna once a week during the winter months. When shooting naked, aging and much experienced bodies I felt like my research books helped to visually demonstrate what I was striving for with my project, and everyone felt much more confident after seeing my previous work and research on the topic. Sometimes people get scared when seeing a large camera, and they are unsure about what will be captured. I feel this method is crucial to preserve, it helps to form a strong visual dialogue between the photographer and the sitter.
JC: Your photography is both expressive and evocative, what kind of experience did you want to communicate in Sauna?
NP: Many people commented how they can get a sense of a place through my work, and that is the greatest compliment I can get. To introduce a strange Finnish tradition of sauna bathing to an audience who have limited experience of the subject was extremely difficult. I wanted the photographs to visually demonstrate the feeling of being in a steamy, hot and dark sauna, and then outside in the endless space in the middle of the dark and very cold winter months.
JC: Do you know what you want to say before you make a body of work?
NP: I would say yes, to some extent, it is important to know what you are aiming at when starting a project. I tend to be quite strict with myself from the outset, although I try to question my ideas and myself and experiment more as the work progresses. In fact I have noticed that projects usually fall into place only when I start to shoot and experiment during the project.
JC: The research that underpins much of your work is extremely thorough. What sources did you draw on in this case?
NP: It has been very personal and quite intimate project to shoot; and finding a way to open up the project to wider audience was sometimes difficult. I wanted to keep the narrative inspired by my own experience of sauna bathing and growing up to sauna culture, but at the same time create an anonymous portrait of Finnish sauna bathing. The project is full of cultural and historical references, such as symbolism and references to Finnish nationalistic art, and these references are visible in the presentation of the work. I was reading “Kalevala,” A Finnish national epic written in the 19th century, which inspired my working process a lot.
JC: This series communicates a strong spirit of place. Was this the intention or were you responding to a more general notion of what sauna means in Finnish culture?
NP: Some of the places I visited during the project were very familiar and significant to me, saunas I used to use while still living in Finland, or saunas I had visited as a child and had strong visual memories of. However, some of the saunas were completely new. In the final presentation I ended up using mostly images that were taken in places I had memories of. During the working process I intentionally wanted to explore both, to create a comprehensive study on Finnish saunas.
JC: Your work has a strong sense of identity that might be connected to Helsinki School photographers like Anni Leppälä. Whose work inspired you in making Sauna?
NP: I have always been influenced by Helsinki School photographers, especially by Anni Leppälä, Elina Brotherus and Eeva Karhu. I think the connection between Helsinki School photographers usually is about challenging the photographic boundaries and questioning the connection between photography and reality. Stylistically they form a group of individual artists who have very different approaches to photography. For this body of work I also looked at work by photographers Rinko Kawauchi and Jitka Hanzlova.
JC: You use a loose narrative structure in this work that employs landscape, portraiture and still-life. Are you equally happy with these ‘genres’ or modes of picture making?
NP: I struggled with the idea of “genres” within the sauna project. I tried to place my work into a genre while working, and that held up my working process and affected my picture making process. In the end I decided to trust my intuition more, and stop worrying about how my work would be categorized. I feel this body of work needed detailed still-life images as well as wider landscape to open up the narrative.
JC: You’ve been in the UK for the past three years. Do you find the cultural climate here inspiring or do you prefer to make photographs in Finland?
NP: I really enjoy living in the UK, I have my own space for working on projects. My work draws on cultural and personal memories, and for that reason, I usually find myself making photographs in Finland. If I want to shoot at a location I quite often have a specific place in mind in Finland. I prefer ambient light and natural, often quiet surroundings, and this often leads me to shoot in Finland too.
JC: Do you intend to continue shooting on film? What qualities in process and outcome do you value about the medium?
NP: Definitely. Shooting on film teaches me patience. I enjoy not being able to see the results straight away. I tend to spend more time on each photograph and edit when shooting on film too, I check every frame very carefully, and (unlike digital) there are no “extraneous” photographs. Writing field notes helps me to compare the picture taking moment to processed negatives; detailed descriptions especially of the light and colours before taking a photograph helps to return to the frames at picture taking moment. For me the narrative starts when I make the decision to take a picture.
JC: What are you working on now and what are you ambitions in terms of photography?
NP: I will be starting my MA studies in photography in Brighton this September. Postgraduate study in Brighton will help me to challenge myself as a photographer, and I hope to experiment more within my practice. Beside further studies I intend to get experience as a freelance photographer and assistant, but I also aim to continue working on my personal project and exhibiting my work.
I am currently interested in further exploring the aesthetic and artistic use of photography. Within my previous projects and dissertation for BA (Hons) Photography course my research behind the projects touched the relationship between photography and reality, and I still find myself drawn to this topic. The image making process and photographic representations of people and places concerning identity fascinates me as a photographer. I have recently been greatly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s minimalist film “Persona,” where the identities of two women merge.
Labyrinth have invited Noora Pelkonen to exhibit her recent series “Sauna” on the stairs throughout the rest of July and August.
“Sauna” is a personal study of a space. It follows a narrative of intimacy and attachment to the space, exploring the contrast between the sauna and outer landscape. It is an examination of the coldest and darkest months in Finland (November-March), with this past year being the darkest in 25 years. The lack of daylight has highly influenced this body of work, and it has been created using only the available ambient light. “Sauna” is a collection of individual thoughts on sauna and sauna bathing; an anonymous portrait of a unique space and a visual description of the subjective feelings.
The tradition of sauna bathing is a ubiquitous part of Finnish culture, and its importance is still highly visible. Historically sauna has been seen as a sacred space, a space of life and death. Traditionally women gave birth in saunas and the dead were prepared for burial there as it was considered to be the most hygienic space. Another old Finnish tradition is that the bridesmaids would prepare the bride for the wedding in the sauna. Sauna is an egalitarian space where no titles are used, it is purely for relaxation, in solitude or in company.
“If booze, tar or the sauna won’t help, the illness is fatal.”
-Traditional Finnish saying
Originally from Finland, Noora Pelkonen (b. 1990) came to the UK to study BA (Hons) Photography at University of the West of England. She will be graduating this summer with a first class degree, and has recently secured a place to continue her photographic studies at MA level in the University of Brighton, starting this September.
Her work draws on historical and cultural memories, processing subjective experiences into fictional series.
The most recent work treads the boundaries of photographic genres; using intimate knowledge and experience to render portraits in tense colours and ambient light.
She intends to extend her photographic style actively, and her work is always driven by an urge to find new, creative ways to approach projects.
Spencer Murphy met up with good friends Cyrus Shahrad and Rob Smith to talk about his project The Abyss Gazes Into You that is currently on display at Labyrinth.
Rob Smith is a photographer and educator (http://www.musicwatertouringpark.com).
Cyrus and Spencer met whilst at school together and have since collaborated on many editorial and personal projects. Rob and Spencer met whilst lecturing on photography together at Falmouth College Of Arts and have since collaborated on many a boozy night. Both Cyrus and Rob were instrumental in Spencer’s decision to create the project.
Cyrus Shahrad: What was your route into photography?
Spencer Murphy: Up to a certain point I lived quite an academic life, and I didn’t really think of art as an option. My mum nurtured the art side in me – she used to take me out to galleries and things like that – but my sister was always the arty one and I was the academic one. It wasn’t until my late teens that I really saw photography as an option of something I could do. But I certainly always saw art as an outlet.
I first got into photography aged about 11 when my parents gave me my first camera, I think it was a hand-me-down. My mum upgraded to a new system and gave me her old one. From there I fell in love with it, and our school was good in that we could develop black and white pictures there. I distinctly remember my first roll of black and white film. I remember developing it myself in the school dark room, and thinking that this was something that I could really get into. But it wasn’t until closer to the end of my school days when I did work experience with an advertising photographer called Jack Bankhead, and I looked at his lifestyle and his studio and realised that it was actually a career option.
CS: You’ve stayed very true to the format in that you still work with film, which seems increasingly unusual.
SM: It is becoming unusual. Labyrinth Photographic is one of very few laboratories left that specialises in processing and hand-printing from film – that’s almost all they do – and the images that are on display are all hand printed. But they’ve thrived, and there are a lot of professional photographers that still prefer shooting on film, I hope that continues to be the case. You have to be aware of the way things are moving – I have to be able to shoot digitally, and I have to be able to make my digital images look like my film images. But I still prefer the process with film, and I still think there’s something that’s there that’s not there with digital. It’s a choice I’ve made and I’d like to be shooting film as long as it’s there, as long as it’s available and I can get it processed and printed.
Rob Smith: What does film give you that digital doesn’t?
For me, it’s as much about the process. I don’t like the instant nature of digital. Photography for me was always an alchemy, and in that process there was always a point of not knowing. You take the film to the lab, you have to wait for the results. So you hone your skill to make sure you get the results and then go further beyond that to make sure - without having to rely on a screen. I think with digital there’s too much immediacy, and it’s almost disposable. Whereas I think keeping it on film you’re more careful about what you take. Maybe with digital you can shoot every angle, but you’re not concentrating on what’s important. Also from a more visual stance, I think although you can make digital images look like film through certain processes in Photoshop, I think digital images tend to look inherently digital. There’s something about film – the depth of field, the grain. You can try to add them artificially, but to me it’s not the same.
RS: What do you consider the best vehicle for presenting your work? Do you like seeing your photographs individually, or in sequence? Do you prefer websites or magazines? Books or exhibitions?
SM: I think different vehicles work for different projects. For The Abyss Gazes Into You project, I think a book would work well. Because the whole idea of formulating this series was that it was a series of images – some of them random, some of them parts of other projects – but none of those projects felt complete, and it was a decision I made to pull apart all those projects and single images that for some reason resonated with me. I deconstructed everything and rebuilt it into the final edit you see now. It’s very much about the cumulative effect, how one image informs the next.
There are, to my mind, these grandiose themes – death, religion, contemplation, nature – and these were for me the pictures that best expressed those themes. So going back to your question, I’d say a book would be the best vehicle for putting the thing across, because it’s all about the sequencing. And some of those images are less significant than others, but because they’re placed where they are, they sort of heap meaning onto the images before or after them.
RS: Do you differentiate between the editorial assignments and personal projects? Do you approach the two differently?
SM: I try not to. I try to bring the same sensibility to my personal and my commissioned work, and I try to see the same amount of value in both. For me it’s not a case of saying: this is a commission so I have to make it look really commercial, or this is my personal work so it has to look really arty. It’s about the marriage between the two, so even if the job is photographing some businessman for a website, for example, If I decided to take it on then I’d still try to take that picture to the best of my ability, and still try and make it look like my picture.
CS: You certainly have a style of portraiture that is instantly recognisable. You manage to draw out haunting, contemplative expressions in your subjects, even when the people in question aren’t necessarily known for their introspective sides. How easy is that to reconcile with more conventional commissioned work?
SM: With the commissioned work I do have to remember I’m there for a reason, and I do have to fulfil my brief, as it were. I’m not as brave as the likes of Avedon, for example, or some of the guys who were working in the 80s and saying: this is my thing, I’m going to do it and you’re going to like it or lump it. If I thought I could get away with it then maybe I would do but I do have to make a living, so I do sometimes have to take pictures of people smiling into the lens.
But at the same time I really like to subvert things. The obvious example is photographing a comedian: I’d prefer to photograph a comedian as this deeply affected, layered individual and not a clown playing up to the camera. It’s the same with anyone I photograph: I look at how they’re perceived, and I often like to subvert that. But similarly I also have a style, and an aesthetic, and some characters fit neaty into that.
When it comes to the editing process there may be those pictures of the subject smiling inanely into the lens, but I’ll look for the picture where they’re distracted, deep in thought, whatever it may be. Somewhere in that edit will be a picture that’s subversive or different, and whether or not the magazine takes that image, that’s the one I’ll focus on.
RS: I often feel, when I look back on your work, that your portraits say as much about you as they do the subject. Sometimes I look at them and it’s like I’m not even seeing the person you’ve taken, I just see Spencer Murphy.
SM: Oscar Wilde said that every portrait is a picture of the artist, not the sitter, and I think there’s a great deal of truth in that. He also said that it is art, and only art, that reveals us to ourselves, so in that sense everything we do, as artists, is autobiographical.
Usually you only have limited time with these people, and it’s really difficult to get to a place where you have a relationship based on trust. So when it comes to the editing process I am always looking for that authentic moment, and those moments do often strike me as a reflection of myself. And I think that is true of what the Abyss project is about – it’s about reflecting myself, my childhood, my thoughts about nature, religion, life and death. There were any number of documentary projects that I worked on that might not have captured my imagination as a series, but where one picture – taken out of the context of the rest of that series of images – seemed to say something essential about life as I understood it.
RS: Do you have images in your head that you try to realise, or are you working more intuitively with what you see?
SM: Both. Sometimes I have an image in my head, sketch it on paper and then realise it in a photograph. And definitely some of my best commercial work, when it comes to editorial portraiture, works like that. And often those are the best shoots I do. But on the other hand you have to be ready to recognise an opportunity when it comes, and that’s what I’ve tried to strive for recently – a sense of not getting too caught up in the technicality of what I want to achieve from the shoot, and realising when things just naturally happen. I suppose the images in the Abyss project are a mixture of the two: some are the result of knowing how to make the photograph look the way I want it to look, but there are also pictures that are about making the most of unexpected opportunities.
RS: There’s often a strong narrative sense to your work. What are your influences there? How do you approach the narrative sense of your work generally?
SM: In terms of specific influences, there are many. To pick one example on a recurring theme – the figure in the landscape – I don’t think there’s any more powerful example than Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk By The Sea. I remember seeing that image for the first time and something about it resonated so powerfully with me. The figure is there surveying this brutal landscape, and it so perfectly describes how man and nature exist as separate entities – nature being this almost church that constantly reminds you of your own mortality. And that’s a good example of how I approach the idea of narrative in a more general sense, especially as it relates to the Abyss project. I didn’t want to keep doing these projects where you’re handing people stuff on a plate, telling them in advance what the pictures are about. I wanted to show these images in a structure more like a poem.
I’ve tried writing about the pictures, and to be honest, it’s a bit like asking what’s the meaning of life? And there’s always a danger of sounding too grandiose, which is why I’ve taken the statement down from the project for now. They’re not about the meaning of life, but if you ask me what the meaning of life is I’ll say I don’t know, and if you ask me the literal meaning of those photos, I’ll say I don’t know. In both cases I have my own ideas, but trying to put them into words sounds sweeping and pretentious, and anyway I don’t want to tell the viewer how to see them. I prefer to leave it up to them. Because in a sense there are no answers to those questions. If you’re a musician, you turn to music, if you’re a writer it’s writing, but you just try and reflect the experience of living as you understand it. There are films that you watch and you know they’re not the greatest movies ever made, and they might be incomprehensible to other people but they just speak to you, they say the thing you’ve been wanting to hear. I think there’s a sense when sometimes I take a picture, and without meaning to I manage to capture some sense, some feeling of a world behind the one we see with our own eyes. That’s what links these pictures together, I think, they form a vague outline of that world behind the material veil. That’s the greatest narrative there is, maybe.
RS: If that’s the case, is it possible to ever finish a project like this one?
SM: I don’t think so. Even before I put this project together, all the projects that I’d done felt open ended. There wasn’t a beginning and an end. They’re pictures that have long faded into the ether, but when I was at college I did a project about my family, and that was always open ended, I always intended to continue them, to record life over time. And to some extent that’s what this project is: life over time. I might not know that I’m adding to it when I’m adding to it. They’re just pictures that happen. I know when I take photos that are going to be good, and I know when moments present themselves – you get a sense it’s happening and it feels somehow important and momentous. But I won’t know that I’m going out to take those photos to add to this project. It will just happen.
CS: Is it the most important thing to you? Is capturing the sense of that other world the thing that makes your art worthwhile?
SM: I’d say that for me, deep down, this is the most important thing. It’s the reason I got into photography, and the reason I continue doing it. Whether that will still be the same in ten years time I don’t know. Ideally that’s what I’d like to be doing – going out and taking photos. If I could afford to do that every day, I’d do it every day. And don’t get me wrong, I love taking portraits, and I’d continue doing that regardless of commissions. I’m a massive cinema fan, and meeting some of these great actors is a dream come true. I’m just as passionate about doing that as I am my personal work, and I’m certainly doing more of that than I am my personal work at the moment. But personal work is what got me into this, and I know I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life.
CS: What are your favourite shots from the Abyss project?
SM: I suppose the four on display are some of my favourites. There’s the portrait of Laurie – I can’t put my finger on what it is about that picture that makes it work better than other portraits I’ve taken, but there’s something about it. There’s the fox peering over a pile of tin in a landfill site. There’s a guy looking out over an abandoned airfield on Bodmin Moor. And there’s the an artefact from the roadkill eater Arthur Boyt’s freezer, which you witnessed because that was a story we did together – it’s a lump of frozen birds, for want of a better word, a bird of prey with a few smaller frozen within it.
CS: What are the reactions like? Do you follow up with subjects? Is there a through line where you’ll hear from someone about whether they like the picture or not?
SM: Generally not. Some of the subjects I do keep in touch with – Laurie was a student of mine at Falmouth, and Mark Rylance and Tom Hiddleston I’ve kind of kept in contact with. But generally it doesn’t happen – you don’t exchange details, it’s just this fleeting moment that you record and the picture is what you have to show from it. You generally don’t hear whether people like them or not. And I kind of like that.
CS: Do you think that it’s irrelevant, whether they like them or not?
SM: Yeah, I kind of do. I generally don’t like photos of myself, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. So I prefer not to give people the opportunity to come back and tell me that, because it would then affect how I looked at them. I’d hate to think that one of my best portraits was met with a negative reaction from its subject.
RS: What’s your approach to interacting with the subject? Do you have a particular bedside manner, so to speak? You’re quite a shy person in daily life.
SM: I think the thing that makes actors easier to shoot is that they get you as a director – there are very few words that need to be exchanged, they’re waiting for instruction. I’m not getting it handed on a plate, but I’m able to influence it more easily, whereas sometimes you go into a situation where you know straight away that the subject doesn’t want to do what you want them to do, and you need to be able to turn those situations around to your advantage. But to me it doesn’t really matter, because I’m not looking for people to beam into the lens. If that’s what you want, and you have a resistant sitter, you’re not going to get it.
But for me it’s these in between moments where people forget what they want, and what they want to give to you. So even if I have a resistant sitter I can usually turn it round. But it definitely helps if you get each other, although it can make the edit so hard – with Tom Hiddleston, Mark Rylance and Laurie, there were ten, twenty or thirty photos I could have picked. With the resistant people, you’re lucky if there’s one.
CS: Are you someone that is interested in alternate takes? Is it a pain to have to whittle things down to one image when you have a series of pictures that are so strong?
SM: No, I actually think the opposite is a pain. With social media and such like, you’re often expected to show the outtakes. And sometimes I do want to show the outtakes, but I prefer there to be one definitive image. Whether that’s agreed upon between myself the commissioning picture editor or advertising agency varies from project to project. Sometimes I’ll be sure that one picture is obviously the best image, and there’s clearly no picture better, but something else will get picked. In that instance, unless my hands are tied, I really do like to show the stuff that should have been shown in my opinion. With the Mark Rylance image there were a lot of shots I could have chosen, it was the picture editor’s choice that led me to the final image, so I partly have her to thank for that.
RS: Is it important for you to be remembered as a good photographer and are there some images you’d rather you were remembered by?
SM: Wanting to be remembered sounds wrong. It’s not why I do it. I take photographs because I want to take photographs. But I suppose the nature of this project means that these are the twenty or so photographs that I’d like to be remembered by. The Abyss Gazes Into You project for me is the definitive description of what I feel I’m about, both as a person and as an artist.
June 2013 sees Spencer Murphy taking over the stairs at Labyrinth Photographic with images from his ongoing series, ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’.
The Abyss Gazes Into You
"And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
In my years as a photographer I’ve taken certain pictures in which I’ve recognised a reflection of something inside myself - a feeling of both being trapped and floating endlessly in time and space, a mixture of hope and despair, desolation and beauty. The sense, perhaps, of what it is to live a finite life in an infinite universe.
Inspired by the countryside in which I grew up in, my pictures explore man’s relationship with nature and as a force that exists separately and in conflict with the world. If the pictures appear staged, it’s a nod towards the order behind things. If they seem dark or set the viewer ill at ease, then it’s in recognition of the chaos that underlies that order. If they represent a world at once familiar and yet utterly alien, that’s because it is our own.
Spencer Murphy was born in 1978 and grew up in the Kentish countryside. Raised in relative isolation, miles from the nearest shop or school, Spencer often found himself with only his imagination for company and the surrounding woodland as his playground. It was a combination of this imagination and an early discovery of his mother’s back issues of Life and National Geographic that sparked an early enthusiasm for photography at the age of 11. As a result, his parents bought him his first camera and photography quickly became a channel for his creativity.
Spencer now lives and works in London, dividing his time between creating his own artwork, and taking on photographic commissions.
He has contributed to many magazines, including The Guardian Weekend, The Telegraph Magazine, Time, Monocle and Wallpaper. His portraits have also appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone Magazine, GQ and Dazed and Confused. He has exhibited throughout Europe and North America and was named as one of the Hyeres Festival’s emerging photographers of 2008. He has also been included in the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition six times between 2006 and 2012, and in 2012 was the third place winner. His work is now held in the NPG’s Permanent Collection.
Following Maja Daniels’ exhibition on the stairs at Labyrinth Photographic we invited Emma Bowkett, Photo Editor of the Financial Times Weekend Magazine, to interview Maja for The Stare Show.
Emma Bowkett: Let’s begin with Monette and Mady. You talk about seeing them first in the street in Paris and being captivated. When was this?
Maja Daniels: Until the year 2010 I lived in Paris and I first saw the twins near my house, on a Sunday, at the local fruit and vegetable market. I was stunned by their identical outfits and synchronized corporal language. A bit like Alice’s White Rabbit, they were there and then gone in a flash. I remember thinking that they might not be real as I searched for them in the crowd, only to make sure that my mind wasn’t playing tricks with me. Several times after that I only ever saw them in passing, they always seemed to be on their way somewhere. As soon as I had spotted them, they were already gone.
Years later, when I finally approached them, it turned out we had been living on parallel streets, very close to each other for all that time. It felt very ironic since I left Paris for London only a couple of months after our first shoot.
EB: Two such private people, and also performers, how easy is it to be the auteur?
MD: Already familiar with acting and modelling - Monette and Mady have made appearances in French films such as Amelie de Montmartre and Paris Je T’Aime, danced in a George Michael video as well as posed for numerous adverts and fashion editorials - it turned out to be easy to get them to agree to a first portrait session. Although it was clear to me from the start that I wanted to stay in touch with Monette and Mady with the prospect of starting a long-term project with them, it turned out to be quite a challenging task to make them see why that would be of any interest.
They didn’t quite understand why I was interested to document their everyday life. I had to put some effort into making them understand how fascinated I am by what seems so natural to them. We are constantly negotiating what it is that we are doing together and although Mady and Monette enjoy the attention of being photographed, it took me a year to get them to agree to let me follow them a bit more intimately. This grew out of staying in touch and getting to know each other better. When one of the first images I took of them ended up on the walls of the National portrait Gallery for the Taylor Wessing prize here in London, Mady and Monette were very pleased and from there on things have been easier and I now feel like they trust me fully. This doesn’t mean that they will agree to everything I suggest. They often reject many of my ideas but this is essential to our project since I want it to reflect their own vision of themselves in the world.
EB: Do you feel like you are complicit in their lives?
MD: I don’t feel complicit in the sense that if I weren’t there things would be different. Mady and Monette are not playing a part for the camera. However, being there with the camera is certainly encouraging them to maintain their lifestyle. Everybody responding to Mady and Monette as they walk down the street everyday play a big part in this too since the twins really enjoy the attention and find it amusing to see how we ‘singular’ people react to them the way we do. It is fascinating to them. If they ever go out dressed differently people come up to them, asking why they argue.
Mady says that although dressing identically is sometimes a pain (hard to find interesting clothing as they prefer the vintage ‘look’) it has become something that is a part of their bodies, something they don’t think about. It is part of who they are.
EB: You have recently been shooting still life’s of their belongings. It feels to me like this project has endless possibilities. What’s next?
MD: We are planning to do something with film. Mady and Monette have danced together since they were eight. They do the Tango, the waltz and contemporary style and I want to capture that. I am also photographing their collections of twin objects and I have given Mady and Monette one camera each to see what they get up to… I am very excited about this.
EB: How important is collaboration in your work?
MD: I find photography to be a rather aggressive act so it is essential for me to collaborate with my subjects. I feel much more comfortable if, by photographing I can create something that is meaningful to the subject as well to myself. To photograph another person comes with that responsibility. Working on long term projects means developing relationships and maintaining an exchange over time, it has to be fulfilling to all parts.
EB: Your project with Monette and Mady has received a lot of press. How do they react to this?
MD: They love it. I send them a copy of all the magazines and links to all the online articles.
EB: Do you feel that the project will reach a natural conclusion?
MD: I hope it will… although I don’t want it to end. I want to follow Mady and Monette over the years as they grow older but I might have to make a ‘Part 1’ at some point and then revisit…
EB: You are currently doing your Masters in Sociology. How does this inform your practice?
MD: Sociology has always been a huge source of inspiration to me and I feel like it’s very relevant to my way of working. I did a BA part-time in France and once I had finished I missed it a lot so I decided to do a Masters as well, still part-time. It’s hard to find the time for everything and I feel like I’m stretching myself a bit but who knows, I might have to do a PHD as well in order to keep making work!
Having said that, I find that academia on its own can be rather limiting as it has a very narrow audience. Photography opens up sociological topics to a much broader audience and as the medium of photography allows for an interesting tension between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, I feel much more comfortable communicating in pictures since I don’t want to try to tell truths or pin down people or events to numbers or theories. I want to engage with the ‘real’ world in a more subjective, profound and creative way.
EB: How much is age and gender important?
MD: Very important. All my projects so far speak about and comment on contemporary issues related to the limitations of the body. The idea of a ‘failing’ body is something that we in the west don’t seem to be able to accept. Disease, ageing and dying thus represent big taboos. My project about Alzheimer’s disease was very much a comment on society’s changing attitude to a ‘remaining body’ once the mind fades away. All of a sudden, the role of the body is drastically, and shockingly renegotiated so that we - in the name of “care” - can confine the body as we allow ourselves to think of the person as somewhat ‘gone’. The project about the twins highlights a positive and alternative attitude to ageing, since Mady and Monette refuse to conform to the stereotypes that are related to an “ageing body”. At the same time, the project is just as much a commentary on how disruptive and fascinating it is for us “singular people” (as Mady and Monette would say) to witness how one identity expands into two physical bodies. This makes us think about he limits of our own identity, our ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ and how we are constantly in conversation with ourselves.
I currently I have another project ongoing that deals with the female body and how, without saying too much about it, we find ways to try to deal with physical expectations and how this shapes our identity. Another ongoing project is about how new technology and ‘knowledge’ related to genetic research forces us to ‘rethink’ our bodies and our femininity in relation to new medical policies.
I tend to think of the body and somewhat out of place within society and I find that contradiction really interesting…
EB: We recently ran River Valley Vernacular in the magazine. You mentioned a film. How is this going?
MD: I am increasingly thinking of The River Valley Vernacular as a very slow, long-term project. Parallel to meeting more Älvdalska-speaking youngsters, more personal and intimate accounts will find their way into the narrative as well. I also aim to incorporate an interesting archive from a photographer who lived in Älvdalen in the early 1900’s. He photographed with a vision that my own work echoes and has similarities to. His images evoke a strong sense of wonder and mystery, the very same notions that attracted me to go back to Älvdalen 100 years later.
We are in the process of potentially going there to start to film this summer, as I keep shooting. The most essential part for me however is to eventually make a local exhibition that will travel and to make a book. Stay tuned.
EB: To me your work, a combination of staging and documentary, has a cinematic feel. What are your thoughts on this?
MD: Thanks, I take that as a compliment! I think of my work as story-telling. I like for ‘the stories’ to be rooted in real events, evolve around real people but it is important for me to create a subjective narrative. Since I can only tell one story, I have to make sure it is my own. I want to comment on contemporary society, it’s people and events but I don’t want to speak for others.
EB: Does your time with Peter Lindbergh influence the way you shoot?
MD: Yes, a lot. I learned so much working with Peter on many different levels. Mainly, he taught me important lessons about how to tell stories visually and how crucial it is for an image to be visually compelling. A lot of Peter’s work has a reportage vibe to it, especially his series of models walking around the streets of big cities. He started doing this at a time when most fashion photography still happened in the studio and I found this daring crossover approach very inspiring. It made me appreciate the blurring of boundaries between genres within photography and the project with Mady and Monette is very much a product of that.
EB: And finally, travel pillows. Yes or no?
Ha! No way!