PÁDRAIG SPILLANE INTERVIEWS THREE VISUAL ARTISTS WORKING IN PHOTOGRAPHY.
Pádraig Spillane: Each of you maintains what could be described as a ‘hybrid’ practice, engaging with both analogue and digital photographic techniques, while pushing the parameters of image-making and display. Perhaps you could introduce some of your working methods?
Roseanne Lynch: I am living in Leipzig temporarily and making new work with the Bauhaus Foundation, Dessau. Initially this new work was a response to the Bauhaus school building (designed by Walter Gropius and built in 1926), as well as the Buildings and Materials Research Archive. However, the work has progressed. Now, I am bringing my practice to the principles of the Bauhaus school’s preliminary course, which emphasised starting anew and experimentating with materials. For this, my main medium is the photogram. I place objects on light sensitive paper in the darkroom, shining light onto them to create traces, rather than photographs of the objects. Geometrical forms and materials associated with the Bauhaus architecture and the medium of photography are my subject matter. I am looking to understand the grammar of materials.
Darn Thorn: For me, the idea of hybrid practice means utilising particular media, as a means to issue a provocation or elicit a response in the viewer. My work often engages with historical subject matter: ideas of utopia and the impact of cultural trauma. By combining traditional and contemporary processes in my practice, ambiguity is created, where the image is neither ‘old’ nor ‘new’ but something less classifiable – perhaps even something mutant. Also, for this reason, the choice of media I employ changes with each project.
Róisín White: I describe my practice as primarily lens-based, using archival and found photography, combined with collage and sculptural techniques. Photography is the jumping-off point – be it images I have created, or images I have found in magazines, online auctions, or in life situations. Each circumstance of finding sparks something different in the work. I’m never satisfied when it is ‘just a photograph’. I use collage to change and intensify the image. I reproduce images on different papers and materials, to see how they respond to these surfaces. I am looking for supports that give an interesting edge, once torn. I like to print multiples, rip them up, move and fix them. This intimate and tactile engagement with the materiality of images is vital to my working process. I am trying to expand my practice into sculpture, by incorporating photography with 3D objects, without it just being an image on an object.
PS: Expanded photographic practice highlights how images act – how they are created and consumed; how they can be altered by networks of dissemination, storage and access; while also addressing the power structures that intersect via images. By taking on a performance-based role, images can transcend categories, or render them permeable. How do you approach image-making within these porous boundaries?
RL: My practice connects different territories of the medium. Although I work mainly in the darkroom, I am not puritanical with regard to analogue photography. I scan my negatives and photograms to make larger digital prints than my body physically allows. I use whatever strategies the work needs. My interest is in leaving questions unresolved, while allowing active exchange between work and viewer. For this reason, I have been printing on aluminum and using reflective surfaces in installations, which reference the viewer’s gaze and bring attention to the image structure in unexpected ways. The photographic print as sculptural object is another expansion I am working with. In the darkroom, I apply the standard fold of an architectural blueprint to a sheet of photo paper. I unfold the paper and light it with a torch. What is produced is a representation of itself. It is evidence of the situation of its own making, nothing else.
DT: I think it’s this very capacity – this other life that expanded practice creates for the image – that interests me. One power structure that can limit the remit of the image is the institutional categorisation of photography and what constitutes expanded practice. For example, there are excellent institutions and publications here in Ireland that focus on photography, but don’t really have the scope for moving image or installation content. Expanded practice can eschew the parameters of the conventional photographic series. It doesn’t always work in the photobook format and, in many cases, needs to be encountered as an installation.
RW: I am benefiting from these permeable boundaries. However, I still dread that question: “so what kind of photography do you do?” My practice is so varied, it can be hard to explain as an ‘elevator pitch’. It is rarely a single image work. When I work on projects, a central pillar of research will inform the production of all of the artwork. I may work on sculptures for a few weeks, then go back to images, and see how they can cross-pollinate. This process-based approach to image-making is liberating and productive. While most of the work in the studio never sees the light of the gallery, or even my website, I enjoy being able to share snapshots of my process on Instagram. This has allowed me to test pieces and share behind-the-scenes shots with people from all over the world. Equally, I get insights into their work. While many things I share do end up being exhibited, there are versions of work that only survive on Instagram. I use the platform as a public notebook that is open to critique. I find it a useful way of keeping my peers in the loop with my practice.
PS: Images (and our relations to them) are entangled in a complex array of competing and affecting influences. Can you discuss how your work takes shape and manifests?
RL: My works offer viewers insights into my inquisitiveness regarding photographic processes. My interest in photograms is that they only concern themselves as a surface, object and material. A new approach to my photogram work is drawing geometric shapes with graphite onto the surface of exposed and processed semi-matt photographic paper. I then apply a wet paintbrush, changing the surface of the graphite and the print again. It reflects light differently, depending on the angle of view. Like my previous works printed directly onto aluminum, what a viewer sees depends on where they are positioned in relation to the work.
DT: In the theatre, a director can make the decision to use a conventional stage, where the action happens behind a proscenium arch that operates as a frame for the drama. In this situation the audience is a passive observer. In photography, the parallel is the photobook or the framed image. As a display format, both can work well, mostly because they conform to our idea of what a photograph is. However, what if the work demands us to activate the audience, proposing that they have a different physical interaction? What if we consider the photographic image in three-dimensional space? I think that this has influenced me to use unconventional media – wallpaper, commercially-made vinyl banners, 3D glass etching, and so on – as a way of questioning our assumptions about what a photographic image can be.
RW: I have recently been working with the idea of how an image can be built. I design and construct sculptures, with the intention of photographing them, so that the photographs act like subjects or stage sets. I am interested in how this can create surreal and uncanny images. While the viewer may just see a ‘photograph’, what takes place with the image-making is so much more. Perhaps it is the physical labour required in creating an image that is rewarding; or knowing that a photograph consists of more than meets the eye.
PS: Photographs are part of our everyday exchanges and interactions, produced frequently and habitually on devices that are almost part of us. How do you see your practice operating amidst this abundance of democratic image-making?
RL: Photography is mostly understood as a medium for documenting the external world. However, I use the medium self-reflexively to express internal abstract feelings that come through making strategies – fragility, uncertainty and other emotional resonances. My practice investigates historical discourse, tracing the impact of photography on our interpretation of images, and on our lived experiences. I use the process of making photograms to disassemble the photographic process into its component parts: light, time, light sensitive surface and object. I am questioning how we perceive what we recognise, when we look at photographic surfaces.
DT: By using the pseudonym, Darn Thorn, the idea of authorship in my work is automatically called into question. It’s a joke, made at my own expense, about the notion of ‘artist as singular genius’. Technology has made the production of high-resolution images easier; what was previously only possible with specialist equipment and professional training is now, at least theoretically, accessible to many. In our present moment, news media prefers amateur footage to the photo essay. In this context, I wonder what a conventional photo series has to say? Self-published photo books are a democratising phenomenon; but there is a tendency for the associated photo festivals and publications to lean towards an editorial approach. They often promote a type of photography that shares the continuity of narrative that we see in photojournalism. I respond to these considerations playfully, by making works that only survive one installation, or are too awkward to be easily sold. I want the audience to question what is going on. In this sense, there is a performative element to my practice. By making large-scale images of monumental architecture or landscapes, I’m proposing something slightly absurd to the viewer. These works carry a sense of drama and significance but are deliberately hard to decode. They invoke ideas of the sublime, partly invoked ironically: How can something so big and apparently significant be so hard to read?
RW: My practice draws on pre-internet printed matter, from a time when images needed to be an object to exist. I use the abundance of printed images that exist from a past when we used to print our photos to share – or when we bought magazines, newspapers and illustrated encyclopaedias, to see other places and things from around the world. What attracts me to found images is the appeal of different aesthetics, as well as the lure of a time when I was not present – with these images becoming a repository of meaning. With the advent of camera phones, we are now collectively producing more images per day than we used to in a year. These digital images are so fragile. They exist on devices that are not built to last more than five years. I wonder how will we find images in twenty or fifty years’ time?
Roseanne Lynch is currently based in Leipzig making work for a group show at Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Australia, and a solo show at Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris.
Darn Thorn works with photography and installation. Recent exhibitions include EVA International 2018 and ‘2116’ at the Glucksman Gallery (Cork) and Broad Art Museum (USA). He teaches at CIT Crawford College of Art and Design.
Róisín White is a visual artist based in Dublin. She works in lens-based media and found materials, with recent exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography of Ireland, and the Finnish Museum of Photography.
Pádraig Spillane is an artist, curator and educator, teaching at CIT Crawford College of Art and Design. He works with photography, appropriation and object-based assemblages, with work featuring in an upcoming group show at The Complex, Dublin.
Featured Image: Darn Thorn, Aggiornamento, 2018, still from 16mm film, black & white; courtesy of the artist.