Category Archives: Past Writing

Texts written before 2012

Osama Wataya’s Rumor, Text by Gordon MacDonald

I live in a small city on the south coast of England – as remote a part of the world as any, with its own set of social values, dress codes and fancy coffee shops. Coffee shops may seem relatively unimportant in this context, but in Brighton they are where people really set aside time to sit and look at one another. These are expensive little boutiques, dressing up caffeine with frothy milk and syrup, and they line most shopping streets in the town, even managing to find a place in the London Road, the shabby, down-at-heel route in and out of the city. I recently saw three tramps huddled round a cappuccino outside the Costa Coffee on this road. It’s not the coffee that people really visit these cafés for though, they go for the people watching, the ogling and the silent judging of passers-by who are beautifully framed in the picture windows. It is voyeurism in its most refined and socially acceptable form and is understood by all.

Osama Wataya

Girls watch boys and boys watch girls; the old watch the young and lament whilst the young watch the old as if they are some other species; some look at clothes and some at bodies; some to feel a sense of belonging and some to set themselves apart. Don’t get me wrong, this is not criticism, and I am not immune to this tendency. I often take time out to stare at passers by, trying to imagine what they are thinking about, what they do and where they are going. I have developed a habit of playing a set of games whilst watching, the worst of which is looking out for overweight people and considering whether I could lift them or not. I am ashamed to admit this as I feel it may be ‘thought crime’ in terms of political correctness, but we surely all find our own strategies for dealing (or not dealing) with the abstract nature of trying to imagine what others are – this is mine.

In Rumor, Osamu Wataya has chosen an altogether different game to play whilst ‘people watching’, and what seems a darker set of rules. I have until now imagined Japan – a place I have never been fortunate enough to visit, through the photographs that pass across my desk here at the magazine’s offices and the Japanese as a series of clichés described by these pictures. There are usually women dressed as schoolgirls, craggy-faced fishermen wearing takegasa, young city-dwellers making western fashion subcultures look interesting again or businessmen letting loose in Johnny Walker soaked Karaoke bars. The image of Japan, and of Tokyo in particular, is one of a hyperrealist’s wonderland powered by equally vast amounts of eccentricity and electricity. Wataya seems to be offering a different representation and shows his subjects seemingly dragging themselves through choking grey smog in a colourless, featureless, anonymous city. The people here are not the beautiful or the perfect, but the damaged and the ugly. They are disabled, infected, overweight, exhausted, isolated and, worst of all, stared at.

Osama WatayaThe strangest thing here is that Wataya has chosen the very people that a mixture of social constraint and self-restraint would normally have photographers avoiding. There is a high level of discomfort involved in viewing these images, a feeling that I shouldn’t be looking and, what’s worse, that the subjects are looking back, to confront both my gaze and my discomfort. I get the overwhelming feeling that I have become complicit here and it makes me feel very bad about my history of scopophilic sport. I don’t know if this is Wataya’s point, but it is too powerful a reaction to believe that he hasn’t thought about it during the making and subsequent presentation of this work.

Osama WatayaThe most uncomfortable image in Rumor – which is quite an accolade in a set of pictures including shots of very young girls alone, seemingly lost in the city; sick looking people wearing masks or gloves; a disabled boy writhing in a wheelchair; an overdressed woman with suitcase-sized bags under her eyes and a blind dwarf – is one of a man whose flesh seems to be melting from his body like wax. His face and arms are covered in what look like large blisters and through his Lacoste polo shirt you can see that his body is also covered in these strange lumps. He is contorted, barely able to open his eyes, his arms bent up and his head twisted off at an angle. He looks as though he has been exposed to the most intense heat and it is hard for me not to relate these injuries to the atrocity of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US at the end of the Second World War. In Wataya’s Rumor the whole city looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the cast the victims of some major atrocity. This reading may be entirely wrong but – having nothing but a liberal western upbringing and values to bring the work into context – it’s an unavoidable one.

Osama WatayaRumor, it would seem to me, is an extremely well controlled look at the problems of viewing – a marriage between the creative impulses of Dianne Arbus and the sick mind of Mark Lewis from Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom. It is looking and showing taken to an extreme and almost pornographic level, both a celebration and indictment of street photography. Looking at this work over the past weeks has made the walk to work and home again a confusing, uncomfortable and engaging experience. It has also made me re-engage with an idea of what is acceptable to look at and think about and photograph; and to what extent political correctness has prescribed a set of moral codes and buffered us from the duty to do much of this thinking for ourselves.

Marten Lange’s Anomolies, Text by Gordon MacDonald

Anomalies‘Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information’. Man Ray

 

 

 

Less is More

Recently, I have been conducting a pseudo-scientific experiment (of the kind so popular in contemporary art and culture) whilst walking to work. My thirty-minute journey takes me along the London Road in Brighton; past the shabbiest array of shops, nail bars and take-away joints you can imagine – this is my ‘set’. It is where the local drunks gather in groups, the town’s hard-drug users beg for money, errant parents smack their children in public and the dispossessed gather to mill around outside the Somerfield and Aldi supermarkets. Nowadays it is one of the saddest places you could encounter and it is heavy with latent memories of better times during the economic booms of the 1920s, ‘60s and ‘80s. The worst part of the road is about half way along in a spot facing McDonald’s, with Iceland (the discount freezer food chain) behind you. Boris Mikhailov, who was visiting the town whilst working on a commission for the 2003 Brighton Photo Biennial, described this as a scene ‘worse than Karkov’.

anomalies

The very simple experiment – which is designed to make a dull journey more interesting – involves listening to an iPod set to a high volume at a certain point of the journey (between Poundstretcher and Domino Pizza) and seeing what effect different types of music have on my visual understanding of the world around me. The outcomes are not collated or catalogued, but left to twist and mature in my mind until I am happy with the memory. The results are then delivered anecdotally to family, friends and colleagues. The iPod works as a kind of filter by taking away the extraneous noise and street chatter, and as an aide to heightening the visual experience. The results vary in success, with success being judged against the variable aspect of my mood at the time. The best results are achieved when in the grip of some kind of heightened emotional state – melancholia or euphoria, usually produced by a mix of weather conditions, the quality of sleep achieved the night before and the morning news. In this state and listening to my iPod, the drunks can seem like misunderstood lovers singing the blues when set against the music of Tom Waits; smack or crack-heads take on the form of visionaries looking for a higher understanding to the soundtrack of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers; track-suited youths in baseball caps, smoking cheap cigarettes become misunderstood poets to the insistent beat and complex lyrics of The Streets; and the whole cast of the dispossessed appear as though extras on an ironically scripted video set, weaving about the pavement to the strains of Morrissey warbling ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’.

The experiment has proven little about the social conditions that have lead the London Road to become such an odd place. It has also done little to help me to understand the way that I feel about the people and the things that I see there on a day-to-day basis, but it has told me a lot about an innate ability to manipulate a visual experience to suit my agenda.

Anomalies

All artistic practice struggles with the limitations of its chosen form to accurately represent a lived experience or perceived reality. The problem might stem from a missing third dimension; a material difference when trying to sculpt flesh out of stone, or an attempt to inanimately render movement. Otto Neurath, the leading figure in the Isotype movement, saw these kinds of limitations as a benefit to a visual language. For him, the diagrammatic Isotype offered a clearer and more universally legible means of delivering information than any other form of communication. As he once said: ‘ …the picture language is an education in clear thought, by reason of its limits.’ For me, Marten Lange’s images are as direct as Neurath’s thinking and as vivid as Gerd Antz’s Isotype designs, delivering a similar distillation of the things that they represent. Yet, they are also at odds with Neurath, as they suggest questions rather than answers. Instead of illustrating research into a set of social conditions, Lange’s work throws the fabric of the everyday into question.

Lange’s photographs also seem to reference photographic modes from the document and the archival oddity. They are reminiscent of the book, Evidence, by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, where the dislocation and seeming randomness of the objects and scenes photographed imbue the work with an atmosphere of intrigue. The harsh flash and ultra-high contrast also lend Lange’s images a forensic feel, as if they had been made to prove or disprove some criminal allegation. They are, I am sure, made for no such reasons, but it is hard to disengage yourself from the history or practical uses of photography when faced by such enigmatic work. It would also be easy to view Lange’s images conversely, as sitting outside reality because of the technique that he employs, as untrue representations of the ‘real’ object or as caricatures – but one of the most widely held misconceptions of photography is rooted in its perceived ability to accurately or honestly document an event witnessed at first-hand by the photographer. Through this work, Lange does more than try to represent the visual experience of seeing; he looks to condense the essence of his subject through his lens and onto film.

Anomalies

The process of paring something down to the minimum amount of detail necessary to describe it – or what Lange describes as ‘finding the thingness of a thing’ – has a history longer than history itself: from prehistoric cave paintings – where animals were drawn with a few lines of coloured mud – to the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt and into a modern history of Photography with Man Ray’s Rayograms or Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of botanical specimens. This process of reduction is apparent in artistic representations and in everyday life: in the paintings of Julian Opie or Gary Hume; in the work of Andy Warhol; in the adolescent scrawlings of caricature cocks on public toilet walls; or, across Piet Mondrian’s abstraction of form and into comic strips and cartoons. In each case, though for wildly different reasons, an instant access through an iconographical language is a driving force – the essence of the subject is central, the ‘thingness’ of any thing.

Lisa Barnard’s Virtual Iraq – Text by Gordon MacDonald

Dead Man Help save the youth of America

Help save the youth of the world

Help save the boys in uniform

Their mothers and their faithful girls

Billy Bragg, Help Save the Youth of America

Bang, Bang, You’re Dead

 

Lisa Barnard’s complicated and intriguing multimedia project Virtual Iraq is an exploration of just how far the possibilities for recruitment, training and post trauma treatment, through the use of virtual reality, have been developed in the USA. Flatworld is a military funded research and development project, based at the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT), a research centre also funded by the military to create training applications using virtual reality in advanced technologies. Skip Rizzo, lead psychologist on the programme, describes it as ‘the unholy alliance between Hollywood, the military and academia’. In a powerful ‘talking head’ monologue, filmed by Barnard, Rizzo explains the rationale that drew him to work with ICT as a behind the scenes mission to ‘take all of the great stuff funded for military purposes and redirect it towards civilian applications’.

He seems a man genuinely driven by a desire to help both military and civilian trauma victims but also seems to feel the need to explain and justify himself to Barnard in her interviews of him. He is a product of the 60s and early 70s and consequently manages to get away with the line ‘I think that we can all agree that war sucks!’ without sounding too ridiculous.

 

The main focus of Rizzo’s work is to develop the use of virtual reality technology for the treatment of servicemen and women affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that causes the sufferer to experience reoccurrences of a traumatic experience with the slightest of triggers – say a particular smell or the sound of a door slamming. He works primarily with exposure therapy, a cognitive behavioral therapy technique for reducing fear and anxiety responses through controlled exposure to the very experience the sufferer’s automatic reflexes are trying to help them to avoid. It could be described as a little like rubbing a blister until it becomes a callous. The landscapes of Iraqi towns and cities are being painstakingly built in virtual reality, complete with tanks and helicopters, dead soldiers and dead civilians, which help to faithfully recreate the sight of a soldier’s trauma. Many of the scenes, corpses and body parts used in this virtual world are made from photographs sold to ICT by the servicemen and women on the frontline – a handy source of extra income for those with a stomach for the grizzly subject matter and an eye for detail. They have also developed a series of smells to further enhance the experience and bring it closer to the original (real) experience. These are housed in a unit designed to release them at the appropriate moment. The smells, from jars labeled Cordite, Body Odor, Weapons Fire, Mideast Spice [sic], Diesel Fuel, Burning Rubber or Burning Flesh, can be issued to enhance the visual experience of the virtual reality headset worn by the patient (see front cover image). These units are being made portable for the front line, allowing soldiers to be treated on site – the rationale being that the further away from the battlefield a soldier is taken, the worse the prognosis.

Head Gear

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rizzo’s phrase, ‘we don’t want another Vietnam on our hands’ is a creditable sentiment and his work to take military funds and make something useful to everyone has to be applauded but this laudable endeavour, for me, is heavily offset by the more sinister aspects of ICT’s project work. There can be very little in the world as cynical as a government strategy to entice a country’s youth into military service, but this is also part of the US military’s remit to ICT. Central to this is Sergeant Star who was developed by ICT as a recruitment device for the US army – a virtual reality war pimp pushing the opportunity to enter the fray to the youth of America. He is shipped to farm shows and local carnivals to ‘talk’ to the potential recruits.

Sergeant Star

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On first viewing Barnard’s footage of Sergeant Star is comical. In the film he ‘talks’ to Josh Williams, the lead demonstrator for the Mixed Reality in Development Group at ICT.

 

Josh Williams: ‘Sergeant Star, are you there?’

Sergeant Star: ‘Just give me a minute to pull myself together.’

 

Star appears from the dark as a skeleton and quickly assumes the form of a burly, square jawed, white soldier.

 

JW: ‘That was quick.’

SS: ‘It’s one of the many advantages of being a virtual character.’

 

Star passes his hand through his arm to prove another advantage.

 

JW: ‘Why don’t we talk about the army?’

SS: ‘Hooah! I love to talk about the army!’

JW: ‘Where are you from?’

SS: ‘Fort Knox, Kentucky. It’s where they keep all the important stuff, like me and the gold.’

JW: ‘Can I jump out of a plane if I join the army?’

SS: ‘Hooah! There are plenty of opportunities to jump out of an airplane if that’s what you wanna do.’

JW: ‘What does Hooah mean?’

SS: ‘Hooah can mean I copy, roger, good, alright, message received, yes, you got it, amen!’

JW: ‘ How long is basic training?’

SS: ‘Well, for nine weeks during basic training you will huff and puff as you get physically and mentally stronger – but it’ll be worth it… And who knows, you might end up looking as good as me.’

 

Sergeant Star turns to profile and shows off his tight buns, flat stomach and barrel chest. He looks the viewer up and down with an almost mocking smile.

 

The comedy and the camp presentational style of Star soon wear thin as the ethics of a virtual character selling a career as dangerous as joining the infantry begin to break through the showmanship. The real twisted genius of the scenario is that Star inhabits the virtual environment the targeted age group are so comfortable in – an environment in which they feel safe and have probably fought many raging battles. The association between video games and Sergeant Star cannot be overlooked or underestimated as almost every child in America must have fought against aliens, Nazis, mutants and Middle Eastern insurgencies and walked away unharmed. The tactic of using entertainment media in this way is not limited to the US military; in the UK, army TV adverts show the intrepid recruits saving hurricane victims, lifting children to safety, canoeing down tropical rivers and scuba diving in blue seas. The films are always beautifully shot – they are realistic but retain the high production values of a Hollywood blockbuster – and the experience of army life is pitched as an exciting alternative to working as a supermarket shelf-stacker or trainee bus driver. The only danger would seem to be the possibility of laughing yourself to death or keeling over through excessive job satisfaction. The British army also operate their own You Tube feed to distribute these films to the media-savvy generation that they are targeting, fitting seamlessly in with videos of skateboard tricks and dancing cats – war looks like a great deal of fun in this context.

Ra'id

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virtual reality is also used for training purposes in Flatworld, and in this context an Iraqi character called Ra’id is the villain to Sergeant Star’s hero. Ra’id is part of a ‘cultural and cognitive combat immersive training’ programme, used to teach soldiers the level to which ‘cultural nuances’ can affect the outcome of an interrogation. The trainee interrogator will stand in a room, propped with Middle-Eastern paraphernalia, and address a screen that Ra’id appears on. The assumption must be that Ra’id is probably the perpetrator of a bombing in the market place and there are holes in his story for the eager trainee to catch him out on. It all seems to revolve around the type of cart he was seen pushing to market – was it a pottery cart or just a cart? It is intended to teach the soldier the value of understanding ‘cultural nuance’ when approaching a suspect with an understanding that the ‘culturally savvy’ interrogator will catch out the hapless Ra’id. The suspect will be so flattered that the interrogators have taken the time to ingratiate themselves with his wife and understand his religious beliefs that his guard will slip.

 

Soldier: ‘What were you doing in the market with a cart?’

 

Ra’id: ‘Pottery cart? I have no pottery cart!’

 

Soldier: ‘Who mentioned any pottery cart? Gotcha Ra’id!’

 

Let’s hope that there are a lot of pottery cart based incidents to justify all this expense and that all Iraqis work on the same set of principals and emotional triggers as Ra’id. Otherwise it could all seem like a waste of money and a further endangerment of lives.

Interrogation Set

 

 

 

 

 

Barnard’s project does not aim to direct you towards the ridiculous aspects of Flatworld or to point out the serious moral questions its existence raises. It achieves more than this by simply removing Flatworld from its context and holding all of its contradictions still to be viewed. And who knows where all this will end? An ideal outcome would be to move to completely virtual wars, where spotty faced stoner boys cause ‘shock and awe’ and fight for ‘hearts and minds’ across cyberspace from dingy bedrooms.

 

Mom: ‘What you doin’ in there Brad?’

Brad: ‘War, I ain’t fighting no war!’

Mom: ‘Who mentioned any war? Gotcha Brad!’

 

Well, you can dream can’t you?

 

Daniel Stier – Man, Nature, Technology – Text by Gordon MacDonald

A NMan, Nature, Technologyecessary Futility

‘There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.’ H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

 

H.G. Wells’s vision of the future, in his 1895 novel The Time Machine, is a bleak one. It is the spectre of a world brought to its knees by triumphs of progress and human endeavour, where science, art and industry have been made obsolete through their own success. A place where the need to think for oneself – or the desire to strive forward – have become eradicated by man’s rapid achievement. Mankind was, for Wells, becoming weak and unable to think or act independently in a world that, through scientific and social achievement, ceased to pose any threats – which was sanitised to the point of being entirely without danger or want – and would eventually become so mollycoddled that they would become unable even to think.

Man, Nature, Technology

 

 

 

 

 

 

The idea of science defeating itself and the human race is, of course, slightly farfetched. Science will always find a subject –though the subjects may become smaller and smaller: car seats will need to become more comfortable, tomatoes will need to be redder, teeth will need to be whiter and trainers will need to give athletes (and pedestrians) more assistance. You could describe these as micro-endeavours – small goals leading to small achievements, which allow us to think that the world and our quality of life are being improved. These are the ideas that seem to fascinate Daniel Stier. They are embodied by theses scientist, housed in basements of universities, hidden from the world and anonymously performing repetitive experiments, often on equipment lashed together from materials purchased from DIY stores. They are in the business of perfecting or improving one small aspect of our lives – not pursuing the great breakthrough or a Nobel Prize, but being content to explore their ideas and interests and thus moving slowly forwards.

Man, Nature, Technology

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photographs shown in this magazine – a small selection of the many Stier has made – show the scientists demonstrating the use of the equipment they toil over daily. Some look like they are trapped by their machines or that they are being tortured for their scientific knowledge; others look like they have constructed the apparatus for some kind of carnal gratification and some look like they are images of performance artists or of actors employed to play out an artist’s vision. Some experiments look expensive and well made, but some look shabby and poorly housed maybe suggesting their potential, or lack of, commercial value or use to mankind, should experiments prove successful. All are, deliberately, without titles – leaving us, the viewers, to form our own narratives and to speculate on how their outcomes might impact on our lives.

Steir likens the work of these scientists to that of his own practice as an artist and, as a result, feels comfortable in their presence. ‘They are like artists’ says Stier, ‘They work hard on a project, researching their subject area obsessively refining their outcome again and again, until it is as perfect as they can make it’. Stier also suggests that there are direct comparisons to be made between the reliance on funding and benefactors in both science and art and the potential futility of both; in that both the outcome of the scientist and the artist will, in the end, probably be invisible to the public (if they are even deemed successful enough to make it out of the laboratory or studio).

Man, Nature, Technology

 

 

 

 

 

 

I (and I would hope that scientists and artists would agree) consider human endeavour in art and science to be a necessary futility, and consider that it is mankind’s greatest achievement to find the space to countenance failure or defeat – rather than have to concentrate on the day-to-day survival, as do the rest of our planet’s inhabitants. Art and science are, after all, only made possible by this freedom to fail, as this freedom to fail is only made possible by, sometimes futile, human endeavour.

Richard Billingham interviewed by Gordon MacDonald in 2007

Richard Billingham’s story is an oddity in the history of British art. Having been ‘discovered’ as a painting student at Sunderland University, he rapidly went on to become one of the only household names in British photography and to become recognized, nationally and internationally, as an important artist. In 1997 he won the Citibank prize and in 2001 he was shortlisted for the Turner prize.

In this interview Gordon MacDonald talks to Billingham about his early career and his recent moves back to the snapshot aesthetic of his first, and most successful project, Ray’s a Laugh.

Richard Billingham

Richard BillinghamRichard Billingham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GM. I wonder what first drew you towards art?

 

RB. I learned to read quite late, maybe 7 or 8 years old. Not because I was thick but because my parents didn’t bother pushing me. When I did learn I wanted to read everything and a big world opened up to me.  I would read art books in the local library. I probably read most of them – there weren’t many there but I got to know who Picasso was. Constable was the artist who influenced me the most.  He was a naturalist and his empirical approach to landscape painting has interested me all this time.  Since I was 11 I have been interested in nature.  I lived in a tower block and nature, to me, was escapism.  I wanted to paint landscapes but it was, like, impossible at the time.

 

GM. How did your parents feel about you taking up art?

 

RB. They were indifferent to it. They probably liked it because, if I was drawing, I was occupied and didn’t need looking after.

 

GM. How did the photographs start?

 

RB. There was just me and my dad living in the flat in a tower block. My mum had left and lived in a neighboring tower block due to his incessant drinking. I saw this scene every day – he would be in his bedroom, lying on the bed or sitting on the edge of the bed, looking in the mirror, drinking. I thought that I would like to make some paintings about this tragic situation and the way he appeared to me in the bedroom. Whenever I made a painting I would make it quickly – each painting at the time took about 15-20 minutes. I did try to teach myself to take longer over a painting but the trouble was that my dad wouldn’t sit still for long enough – he’d want a drink or he would go to the toilet. Later I managed to get a 35mm Zenith camera. I thought I could use the photographs as source material for the paintings. He was held still by the photographs and I could paint from them taking more time.

 

Richard Billingham

 

 

 

 

 

 


GM. How did they continue from there to taking the rest of your family – your mother, your brother and the pets?

 

RB. The first time I went back to the flat after I had left to go to University up north I found my dad wasn’t living there any more. The flat was empty and he was living in the new flat with my mum in the other nearby tower block. The way the flat was decorated was different from that of the flat that I grew up in.  It was more opulent and there were more cats and dogs and small animals in cages everywhere – it was raucous.

 

GM. So, while you were studying painting at Sunderland, Julian Germaine and [Michael Collins] the then editor of the Sunday Telegraph magazine saw some of the photographs.

 

RB. Yes. When they took interest in them I didn’t think they were as special as they later became. I thought they were just interested in them through curiosity. The Telegraph editor came to my student digs in Sunderland and said ‘I want to see more of these photographs’, so I gave him a carrier bag full and he went off with them.

 

GM. He was Picture Editor at the Telegraph Magazine at the time. Didn’t you see that as a bit odd?

 

RB. I didn’t know that this could end in them being shown in galleries.  I didn’t know you could show photographs in galleries at that time.

 

GM. Did you start to appreciate them as solely photographs when Julian Germain and [Collins] the Telegraph editor started taking an interest.

 

RB. No, the intention was still to paint from them. I was also interested in taking some of them just for the sake of taking them, as I did enjoy doing it and enjoyed seeing what they looked like when they came out.

 

GM. Would you consider them as accidental art then?

 

RB. Maybe – in the sense that I did them for reasons other than being hung in galleries. But that happens a lot.

 

 

GM. I just want to know how this change happened for you. You had the intention of becoming a painter and you were seemingly shoehorned into this photography role. Usually people make that decision before they start making work in the new medium.

 

RB. I had this opportunity to publish about 50 of them in a book, I wasn’t sure about doing it because I didn’t want to be classed as a photographer – I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.  I wanted to be an artist. I talked to a friend from Sunderland, and he said ‘you might as well do the book. Francis Bacon was a furniture designer before he became an artist… if you do the book of photographs, well, photography is closer to painting than furniture design’.

So that swung it. But I was reluctant at first.

 

GM. I suppose part of that reluctance was that these were very personal?

 

RB. That never bothered me really. Why should it?

 

GM. I would think twice about displaying my family.

 

RB. Maybe you had closer ties with them? I don’t owe them anything and I never thought they would be shown in a gallery at that stage anyway. I thought they would be in a book and it would have a specialist market and not really a wide audience.

 

GM. So the attention came as a bit of a shock.

 

RB. Yes it did.

 

GM. When was the edit for Ray’s a Laugh made?

 

RB. Well, not straight away.   It wasn’t until 1996 that we made the edit.

On a few occasions before then I looked through the Telegraph editor’s collection of photobooks, so I did become aware of contemporary photography from 1994 onwards. The later pictures for the book (1994-95) were being taken with this added awareness.

 

GM. So some of the later images were being made with the knowledge that they were going to be used as photographs.

 

RB. No, but they were taken having seen other photographers work.

 

GM. Were they still being taken as basis for paintings?

 

RB. Not necessarily.  I’d never looked at photography books before 1994. I saw Larry Clark’s book, Tulsa, and I was amazed at the potential of photography. I could see that my photography could do more than I thought and it gave me confidence to continue.

 

GM. To take these photographs as photographs, rather than as raw material for something else?

 

RB. Yes, that’s one way of putting it. Before looking at contemporary photography I was getting my compositional ideas from painting but after I’d looked at the work of other photographers I think I was also getting inspiration and visual ideas from them – whether consciously or unconsciously.

 

GM. After you started being influenced by the work of other photographers, did you identify yourself as a potential photographer?

 

RB. Yes I think so from 1994 onwards – maybe a little bit later.

 

GM. So how many pictures in Ray’s a Laugh are taken from that perspective?

 

RB. About half.

 

GM. Can you see a difference and, if so, which approach do you think is more successful?

 

RB. There is a very obvious difference to me. I prefer the more innocent ones I did before I’d seen the photo books even though they’re probably harder work for the viewer. However, in the later works I still didn’t want a polished aesthetic (I still had a snobbish attitude to photography). I thought that the technical mistakes I’d made could initiate better ideas for paintings and I wanted to continue that. Many of those ‘accidents’ where allowed to happen: they look like accidents but most of them aren’t.

 

GM. So you were deliberately creating a snapshot aesthetic?

 

RB. I was messing up on purpose but with the aim to try and make a better or more original image.

 

GM. Why did you hang on to that snapshot aesthetic?

 

RB. I wasn’t worried about the accidents then, or how they were read, because I thought they might make better paintings and I still wanted to be a painter.

 

GM. But with the later one you made the decision to use them as photographs from the outset.

 

RB. Its not like I am never going to make paintings out of them. I still might.

 

GM. When the pictures had been spotted as interesting, they were brought together to become Ray’s a Laugh, which, to me, reads as a narrative about your dad’s addiction to alcohol.

 

RB. My dad’s the main character in it, but it’s not all about his addiction or him being drunk. How many photographs are there where he is drinking? Lets look at the book.  You see he’s not drinking there…

 

GM. But he is drunk.

 

RB. How do you know he’s drunk?

 

GM. He’s got a nosebleed and he can’t stand up.

 

RB. That’s one, two…

 

GM. He is drunk in that one.

 

RB. Yes but there’s no beer.

 

GM. He’s certainly been drinking

 

RB. There is a bottle there – shall I say four for that?

 

GM. But the ones of him drinking are so powerful, and the book is called Ray’s a Laugh.

 

RB. Five, six – he’s not drinking there – seven.

It’s like if you look at Wolfgang Tillmans’ work. Some might say a lot of it is all about penises. But if you count the number of penises in photographs in a show or book of his you would probably only actually see two or three depicted.

 

GM. Are you saying that Ray’s addiction was not what your pictures were about when you were taking them?

 

RB. I did want to make images of the tragedy of the situation. I wanted them to be emotionally very moving. I don’t think I concentrated on the drinking but on the effects of it. I didn’t want to illustrate alcoholism or make a documentary about it.

 

GM. I wonder how it got pared down to that edit?  Did you and the editors sit down together?

 

RB.  I probably picked out 70- 100 of my favorites and they did a final edit of 50 or so images.

 

GM. Did you agree with the edit?

 

RB. At that time yes. There are a few I wouldn’t include if I re-did it now. The TV dinner, for example, looks like the sort of image that any hack-photographer could have come into the flat and taken. A picture like that has the threat of undermining the rest. But there are only a few I would take out or swap for others.

 

GM. This book put your life and your family into the public realm.

 

RB. Well, I hadn’t lived with them since 1991.

 

GM. It’s still your life though – you were there when the photographs were taken.

 

RB. They’re my parents and my brother.  It’s not like I was photographing the inside of my own flat.

 

GM. No, you were photographing theirs.

 

RB. So it’s their lives rather than mine.

 

GM. After Ray’s a Laugh, you came to a point where you had to make another piece of work and to move your career along.

 

RB. Yes, in 1997 I made a series of urban landscapes that ended up being published in a book called Black Country (2004). I still wanted to make snapshots but I wanted a different subject – I wanted the images to be as good as the previous ones but minus the sensational subject matter of Ray’s a Laugh.

 

GM. Why did you want that?

 

RB. Just to see if I could make photographs without any sensational subject matter.

I needed a really mundane subject, so I chose to photograph the area I was born and grew up in.  I wanted to take photographs of the space. I didn’t want any image to be a portrait, a picture of the sky or a car or a building, because then it would be about the subject matter. I wanted to concentrate on the spaces only.

 

GM. This project then moves from the snapshot style of your earlier work into medium format with more polished images. What made you change your working method?

 

RB. I wanted to let go. I didn’t want to make innocent snapshot photographs for the rest of my life. I wanted to learn to make a photograph I had to think about first.

 

GM. So why not revert to painting?

 

RB. I was too lazy to make paintings by then and still am. I am no longer prepared to spend weeks at a time on a single painting when I can make a picture in a fraction of a second. I thought it would take less time to learn how to make this other type of photography. Also, there are so many different types of photograph you can take in the world why limit oneself to making one type? Some photographers seem to stick with one type but I get bored doing that.

 

GM. So you were training yourself technically?

 

RB. Not technically. I was forcing myself to preconceive my photographs so they would not be snapshots.

 

GM. Was this a part of you losing your naivety about photography?

 

RB. Yes, naivety or innocence. I thought why not just lose it altogether instead of holding on to it in the hope it will allow me to continue to take spontaneous photographs.

I have always been interested in landscape, so I started photographing landscapes using this new method.

 

GM. Do you think, looking at The Black Country publication, that the second half of the book is as successful as the first section of snapshots?

 

RB. I think the later ones are more sumptuous, but if you take the colour away there’s not much there. If you take the colour away from the snapshots the structure and the balance is still there. So I tend to think that the snapshots are probably better pictures spatially.

 

GM. Regarding your most recent project Zoo, you have made three very distinct set of images – a series of video pieces, some medium format studies and a series of snapshots based on your mothers pictures of zoo animals. Why have you returned to the snapshot style and the family for this work?

 

RB. It’s a bit of a story. My mother died recently and I had the responsibility of clearing out the empty flat. One of the few things I kept was the family albums.

A moving thing about them was the way she had included snapshots of zoo animals amongst family portraits. Her zoo snaps are very childlike. They are mostly taken on 110 and 126 film, which makes them blurry. They have been taken very innocently, as if she was unaware of the absurdity of the captive animals predicament. I suppose the intention was to record happy days out.

 

 

 

 

 

GM. But why reflect on your mum’s album?

 

RB. I had been making these really considered, medium format photographs in zoos and I thought it would be a good antidote to that. I decided that I wanted to make a group of animal pictures inspired by them. It is another way of seeing zoo animals and its how a lot of the public must see them.

 

GM. Did the project need an antidote?

 

Richard Billingham

 

 

 

 

 

 

RB. The project needed more variety and this was another approach to representing captive animals.

I always stood where a spectator would and never went behind the scenes because I wanted to do it through the spectator’s eyes. There is a bit of the spectator and a bit of my aesthetic in them.

 

GM. This work seems to hark back to the family work a bit – not just technically but also conceptually. The idea of someone trapped in a situation – like the gorilla or Ray.

 

RB. It goes back to, I guess, when I was trying to paint Ray as a figure in an interior.

 

GM. But also the idea of someone or something trapped in a situation?

 

RB. I wanted them to have the look of something being contained. I wasn’t thinking of any relationship between the zoo and family work, but it is there. With the zoo snaps I’m imitating the look and feel of my mother’s photographs. She’s taken hers innocently and compositionally mine are better, but they have the same look. I deliberately used disposal cameras and cheap cameras in Ray’s a Laugh and I did the same with the Zoo snaps.

 

GM. Most recently you have started making photographs including your own partner and child – using the cheap cameras and look of Ray’s a Laugh or the snapshot photographs from the Zoo series.

 

RB. Yes, I think the baby was born at the same time I decided to take the Zoo snapshots.

 

When the baby was born I took pictures of him for my own family album so we would have a record of him growing up- just as most people would do. When I got my piles of pictures back from the Zoo trips there’d be baby pictures mixed in and I’d separate them out.  I saw that some of the baby ones had the same aesthetic of the zoo snaps probably because that was what I was working on at the time. It wasn’t a plan to start photographing the baby but when I saw that they were working pictorially I decided to continue with them in earnest.

 

GM. There are also pictures in the series of your son with your father, Ray, and brother, Jason, taken in that snapshot way, which seem to draw this new project and Ray’s a Laugh together.

 

RB. I took the baby to see Ray recently in the nursing home because he might die soon – he is very old. I wanted to be able to show Walter in the future that I took him to see Ray before he died.  Walter would have something of him and his grand dad to look at even though he won’t remember meeting Ray.

The pictures of Ray, Jason and Walter do draw the two bodies of work together or even helps to make them one project.

 

GM. There is something of a theme of making the personal public running through Ray’s a Laugh, Zoo and this latest work.

 

RB. That’s never bothered me. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t want to do that but if you’re an artist you have to take risks. When I was a primary school kid I didn’t want any of the other kids to see where we lived because we were poor and the place was not cared for. We didn’t have any heating or hot water, the carpets were dirty, there was dog shit everywhere and there was no paper on the walls.  I don’t know when the turning point was but at some point – perhaps when I first started to photograph Ray in his room- I decided never to think about hiding my background or upbringing anymore. It was easier, less stressful, not to bother about it. Why should I hide my poor background anyway?

 

GM. I wonder if the snapshot aesthetic is something you are going to keep on using? It has become a signature style.

 

RB. I’ve been thinking about signature styles. As I said before there are so many different types photographs you can take. A signature style is usually good for marketing the work as everyone can immediately recognize it. I don’t intend to stick to one style or way of taking pictures although it does make financial sense.

 

 

Nick Broomfield Interview with Gordon MacDonald, 2005

Son of the photographer Maurice Broomfield and one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of his generation, Nick Broomfield talks to Gordon MacDonald about his work and its relationship to documentary practice and to photography.

 

 

 

GM. Your early films, Who Cares? or Behind the Rent Strike, seem to be heavily influenced by your father, Maurice Broomfield, who was an industrial photographer, in that they show a shared sympathy with the working class, and socialist values.

NB. I think that’s true.  That was certainly my starting point and Who Cares especially is shot like a series of stills. Through him I was able to visit that world which I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and it certainly made me very curious about places like Liverpool or Cardiff. These were industrial areas where I felt there was much more of a sense of community or much more of an integrated culture than the world I’d grown up in.  I think that was very much the starting point for the films – it was a subject area I was much more curious about than my own upbringing.

When I was at university I studied sociology and politics and I read books like Willmott and Young’s Family and Kinship in East London and Madeline Kerr’s book People of Ship Street, about a community in Cardiff. These were studies of working class culture. At that time I think there was almost a community on a street-by-street level, parents and grandparents and kids all growing up on the same street. I was kind of envious of that in a way and there seemed to be a lot of fun in those streets, they were obviously very deprived but people were constantly interacting and dependant upon each other in a way that we don’t get in many other areas of our society now. To that extent I think the world we live in is much less interesting.

GM.  So Who Cares? is a lamentation of the breakdown of these relationships in working class terraced communities?

NB. Yes, and the advent of a much more mobile society, of people moving around; also the break up of the extended family. It was a big change from this primitive early industrial society that was broken up in the 60s and 70s in this country.

GM. Who Cares? has a very photographic style, in fact it starts off with a series of stills with voiceover and it moves into film. Is that your photography?

NB. Yes, that’s my photography.

GM. Looking at the way it’s shot, it feels a bit like the Mass Observation images made in the 1940s.

NB. I think that’s how Liverpool was, or even Cardiff. The street corner shop, that old kind of newsagent, that whole society of the wash-house, all those things were coming to an end while I was there. I suppose a place like Liverpool was ten to fifteen years behind London at the time, Cardiff too, so they were in a kind of time warp. Also, the film is shot in black and white and, as everyone was just moving over from black and white to colour, I could scrounged old black and white short ends that people didn’t want anymore. I think aesthetically I prefer black and white to colour; I didn’t want to shoot in colour anyway.

GM. Why was that?

NB. Because my stills photography was all black and white and I’d been brought up as a black and white photographer. I think on the whole I prefer black and white as a medium. I like the shapes and I think some things are more interestingly represented in black and white.  I like the grain structure too.

GM. There is something in the colour of Behind the Rent Strike. Something so reminiscent of that time – those browns – it was kind of grubby.

NB. Very grubby. In fact the film I made after film school, Juvenile Liaisons, which I shot in Blackburn and was banned for a number of years, had those oranges and browns. Just the way people had their hair, the colours, the wallpapers were so unbelievably awful, I mean they were so powerful…

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GM. So complicated.

NB. So complicated.  There is a whole culture in those colours and I suppose, though you don’t realise at the time, you are documenting history.

GM. I wanted to ask you how that feels. There is a thirty-five year legacy of your work now that has become a valuable historical document. Some of the films, like Who Cares? and Behind the Rent Strike, seem so far removed from the present, they are almost impossible to believe. There are children playing in piles of rubble and glass.

NB. There are people standing on the street and playing dice on the corner. It’s a culture that’s gone now.

GM. The early films have become archival pieces, although some of what you were saying at the time is still relevant.

NB. I think as a filmmaker you are very much a historian too and in the very privileged position of being able to document a culture, a reality and an order of life that instantly becomes a record and a reference point. That’s why it’s so important that it stands up by itself as a piece of work too.

GM. As you mature as a filmmaker do you start to be conscious of that when you are making a film.

NB. You have a sense that you are documenting icons, that it is a cultural reference point, which is exciting. One of the filmmakers who I most admire is Frederick Wiseman, who made films mainly in institutions in the US. If I wanted to go and understand the history of America in the last fifty years I’d go and look at his films as a very good starting point. I think that what our period of time has, over and above any other period of history, is film and it tells you so much more than a history book.  It can tell you about accent, it can tell you about the way people talk, it can tell you  about…

GM. Complicated wallpapers?

NB. Yes, all those little, very human things that history books can’t tell you.

GM. I’d like to talk about some of the earlier films that were made with Joan Churchill. Films like Chicken Ranch and Soldier Girls. There was a distinct change in style. Was it the budget or the introduction of Joan Churchill, the cinematographer?

NB. They weren’t particularly high budget. I think Soldier Girls we made for something like £30,000 which is very cheap. I think the big change was working with Joan who was just in a different league to me in terms of shooting.

GM. As a technical camera person?

NB. Yes, I think I was just a stills photographer and I liked things to be pretty much set up.  I had quite a formal aesthetic. Film on the whole, particularly Cinéma Vérité which was what we were working in, is not about having a formal aesthetic, it’s about anything but having a formal aesthetic. It’s about being able to be totally spontaneous and being totally technically equipped to catch that moment. It’s a very difficult kind of shooting because no-one will repeat anything and at the same time you can give enormous emotional impact by actually following what’s happening in the room rather than just recording it. You almost need a sixth sense to know who it is in a room, who is actually propelling the conversation or the tension. Joan had that ability and I was always more the director who was interested in the bigger picture.

GM. In the films Chicken Ranch and Soldier Girls you leave gaps, which seems to force the subjects to fill them in. There seem to be points where people start interviewing each other spontaneously. You know it’s not forced by direction, it seems sometimes like it’s forced by necessity, that they need to start talking and that they need to start interviewing each other.

NB. I think that that is one of the pitfalls of Cinéma Vérité. I think, because everyone involved knows what’s happening, because they’ve all been there for ages, it’s only the audience that are newcomers, not the people who are part of the situation. Sometimes, as a filmmaker, you are having to fill in backwards which is difficult and why I think it’s kind of unsatisfactory. It’s a form that I think sometimes doesn’t always give you all the information you need.

GM. Someone like Sergeant Abing, one of the main protagonists in Soldier Girls, almost feels in parts as if he’s in a Hollywood movie. Obviously the situation is real but he seems to almost be playing to the stereotype of what’s expected of him by the camera.

NB. I don’t know if you saw, we did an update interview with him. I remember he said the army said to him, ‘but couldn’t you have toned it down a bit’ and he said, ‘I did, I really did’.  I think that’s just what a Drill Sergeant is. It’s a sort of showmanship, it’s just a way of being.

GM. But I think maybe that gets emphasised and pushed to the foreground when there’s a camera and by the very process of filming.

NB. That’s the whole strength of film because you’re showing it often in a darkened room to a bunch of people who aren’t doing anything but looking at it, which is an unusual way of seeing. It’s more like an opera by the time it’s on the screen. Fred Wiseman calls his films ‘reality fictions’. They are a work of fiction but he’s using reality to get there and I think in some ways that’s a very accurate description but I would say, that they are certainly representative of what goes on.

GM. Do you think then that documentary is the wrong word?

NB. I think the term has changed with our technical abilities really. There have been other terms like Observationist Cinema and Cinéma Vérité. I think all the terms become their own worst enemy because then people pounce on them. There are different ways of telling stories and there are different ways of informing people about different situations, I suppose sometimes they are more successful than others. Sometimes a different approach is required.

GM. One scene in Soldier Girls that I found incredibly powerful was Private Alves loosing control. To me, in this kind of documentary fiction, it was one punctuating moment of reality. It looks like she really lost her mind.

NB. She did and later she said she didn’t and that she’d put it all on.  But I don’t believe that.

GM. In the film it is the least controlled that anybody acts and it was a kind of punctuation point. Was it edited in like that? Calculated?

NB. Yes, where you place those kinds of scenes is obviously important. Clearly, if you’d put that scene right at the beginning it would have been wrong. The scene triggered people leaving, so it was a turning point in the film really.

GM. Also in this film there is a point where I think Private Johnson is leaving and she leans around the camera and kisses Joan Churchill and then leans over to you. The camera then turns around and for maybe two seconds, in bleached-out light, we see Nick Broomfield with a sound boom. It seems like a seminal moment – where you became part of that film – and subsequently part of all your films.

NB. Yes, a break through the invisible line. I’m sure we spent quite a lot of time wondering whether we should put it in or not. Although I felt that Solder Girls allowed itself to be a classic Cinéma Vérité film, because it follows this training programme and there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, at the same time it was born out of our relationship with the people we filmed. There are scenes with Abing, at the end of the film, where he’s talking about not being able to love anyone anymore, in which he is clearly divulging things because of our relationship with him.

GM. Does he understand the power of the medium when he is doing that?

NB. He got into a lot of trouble with the film. I don’t think he cared. He was proud of what he believed in and he wasn’t going to apologise or hold back for anybody. That’s just how he’s lived his life I think.

GM. You seem to have a list of people who are fair game.

NB. Yes. Terre Blanche, Margaret Thatcher. I’ve never done Tony Blair and George Bush but they would certainly be fair game.

GM. What makes them fair game for you?

NB. I think they are people who have done enough harm to other people that anything goes.

GM. But also you seem to pick on people who would feel that they were powerful enough to overcome the medium and whoever came at them.

NB. I think it’s essential that they can hold their own, otherwise you are doing what they do, bully people, which is something I don’t want to do. With Margaret Thatcher I was conscious of what I was doing. My only criticism of that film is that I didn’t really ‘do her in’ enough, she got off much too lightly and I should have gone on longer. Terre Blanche had it coming to him and Courtney Love really is her own worst enemy. Had I really had a vendetta against Courtney – and she really isn’t worth having a vendetta against – I could have made a different film. There’s a lot of stuff that I know that I didn’t bother putting in to that film because it simply wasn’t germane.

GM. If you consider your films on Margaret Thatcher, Terre Blanche and even Biggie and Tupac, they have a political slant. Is that something you consciously do?

NB. I think films need to have a bigger political issue and it’s exactly why I make a film. If I can’t think of it in that dimension then I don’t do it.

GM. So you start off with a film like Biggie and Tupac to talk about institutional racism?

NB. Yes, originally I wanted to make a film about the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s such a racist city and I’d lived there for so long. When it was discovered that a couple of these cops were accused of the hit on Biggie Small there was a vehicle to make a political film that would also be quite popular. That’s why I did it.

GM. But the way that it comes across in your films is that they simply grow from an initial interest in the person or the incident.

NB. I think you start with that but you know that you are going to end up on a bigger dimension and you have to get there. You don’t know all of the stages, you just know where you want to go. I knew with the Kurt and Courtney story that it was going to be about freedom of speech and the freedom of the press but I didn’t know it was going to be quite so blatant.

GM. In the film Tracking Down Maggie, there’s a point in the film where you get the itinerary for her book-signing tour in America. You turn up at her hairdresser’s appointment and it seems very much like you’ve given up on the idea of talking to Thatcher at that point. It was obviously going to infuriate her and her security staff.

NB. I think that was true.  We’d been following her for quite a long time and all that time we’d been trying to arrange actually doing an interview with her. Probably by this time we were four or five weeks in to filming and we weren’t getting anywhere so it had to go that way. I think there’s a point in the filming where you know it’s going to go that way, like getting up on the stage with Courtney. You clearly mark who you are and what you are doing. They are points of no return and you have to up the ante.

GM. It seems at that point that it becomes a film about the difficulty of making this film and the frustration of it.

NB. I think inherent in any situation are the tools by which you are able to make the story. Sometimes those tools get more and more desperate. Someone like Margaret Thatcher has made it virtually impossible to make a story about her that she doesn’t control and so it was a question of trying to create the means by which to tell a story.

GM. This is hard for me to say, as Thatcher blighted my early life, but with the use of documentary footage and stills in Tracking Down Maggie what you choose to show are only the very darkest points of her administration, like the sinking of the Belgrano and the violent confrontations of the miners strike.

NB. Well I think that we are very clearly subjective. I have chosen a very subjective way of telling the story which gets around any notion of impartiality or balance. My films are obviously very one-sided if you like, they are about my journey. In my attempt to tell Thatcher’s story I think it’s clear that I don’t like her and I think she’s a selfish, Old Testament authoritarian who has very little respect for anyone but there are a lot of people who would obviously completely disagree with that.

GM. The idea of a subjective look, of tracking down somebody, almost hunting somebody, seems to go against the perceived idea of what a documentary is.

NB. Oh yes I think all my films do. I think it very much offends some people’s notions of what documentary should be about, a kind of old school notion of what documentary is and how it should be done.  I remember that some documentary filmmakers that I respected were horrified that I interviewed Eugene Terre Blanche and all I wanted to do was tell him about my cup of tea, and thought that I threw the opportunity to interview him away. I actually just wanted to reveal his inner emotions and how he behaved – his foul temper and his feelings of self-importance – and I didn’t want to give him a political platform. That wasn’t the film I wanted to make and they didn’t understand that, which is fine. I think it’s healthy to change the boundaries and get people to look in a different direction and to challenge their notions of what things are about.

GM. So what would you call it?  It’s not documentary, it’s not Cinéma Vérité, it’s…?

NB. I think they are all like separate journeys and separate adventures into different territories, the films are a record of that so they are very subjective. They are very impressionistic of a given moment of time – they are not pretending to be a final statement.  It’s not like I’ve done mountains of research or I’ve gone out to prove a particular thesis. It’s much more that, over that period of time, I experienced it and this is my report.  It’s almost like a report from the front.

GM. There’s a lot of looking out of the car windscreen in your films. It gives the idea of traveling and of a journey but they also seem like very static, still points in the films, when nothing very much is happening.  What are they used for?

NB. A lot of traditional documentaries just have talking heads next to each other, which doesn’t take into account where these people live, how they live, what their houses are like, what the landscape is like around them. All these things inform and affect the people that are in your film and I always find them incredibly informative. I think it’s because you’re making a portrait of something too.  Those traveling shots I think are very accurate, they reflect people’s taste.

GM. When you turn up your microphone is on, the camera is on and it’s straight into action. This gives immediacy and an edge of reality to the film.

NB. Yes exactly, and that’s exactly why it’s there. It’s not like the audience has missed out on something or there’s some kind of collusion or that you’ve tidied their room up, or that you’ve taken time to light it properly. If you were going to knock on this guy’s door this is probably how it would be.  I think that’s exciting.  It’s kind of like having a diary too with all those first second observations.

GM. In the films you seem to wear a uniform of an MA1 jacket, a white shirt or t-shirt and jeans. Coupled with the microphone boom – and the fact that you are struggling around with a big recording device – it all adds up to make you look like quite a benign character – less threatening than a man in a suit with a microphone with CNN written around it.

NB. Definitely, yes.

GM. It’s almost like you’ve accidentally turned up sometimes, or you’re trying something out to see how it goes. Is that all intentional?

NB. I suppose. Actually, in terms of the continuity of the film, it’s great too because it’s not like on that day you were wearing a red shirt and you can’t intercut it with another scene. I remember regretting very much being moved from a cinematographer to dealing with sound at the time because I enjoyed being behind the camera and I thought being the sound recordist was rather demeaning, but you do have the advantage of seeing more and of being the person that people relate to. It was making the best of a number of factors really.  I cannot take any credit for it being some great master design.

GM. I also wanted to ask you about the kind of junk aesthetic, like an accidental camera angle caused by a scuffle that leaves the camera pointing at the floor. These seem to be a recurring motif in the films.

NB. It’s about taking the audience through that experience and those are all part of it.

GM. But you are choosing to edit them in as punctuation marks?

NB. Yes I think so and it’s also about losing control, which I think is important. I think a lot of making a film is essentially about losing control and trying to get control.

GM. In your second film about Aileen, Life and Death of a Serial Killer, there’s a point at the end when you’re looking through a hatch and she asks you to stop filming. You put the camera down but it is still running and you are still recording. She admits that she’s lying about being guilty and that the murders were committed in self-defence. Incredibly powerful stuff, but how do you justify the continued filming? It is a private discussion that is obviously only occurring because you have established a friendship with this incredibly vulnerable woman.

NB. Well the truth is that by the time the film came out she had been executed and she was already dead. The reason she didn’t want us to film was because she believed that information might stop her from being executed and she was so desperate to die at that point. It was the important question that I think the audience was trying to work out – did she knowingly kill these people? Is she lying about the self-defence? I think if anything it endears an audience to her far more and it gives you a measure of her desperation. Had I felt that the information was really going to substantially change what she wanted – which was to die – I wouldn’t have used it. But I feel, with hindsight, it was fine to put it in.

GM. Was this because the point of her secrecy was no longer an issue?

NB. Yes, because she was dead.

GM. Morally, it’s difficult though isn’t it?

NB. Yes it’s a difficult one. Ultimately only the filmmaker can really decide what they’re going to do because there aren’t any rules about what you do. You have to do something that you can excuse with your own conscience – that you can feel good about.

Jeff Wall Tate Modern, 2005 Interview with Gordon MacDonald

Following his highly successful exhibition at the Schaulager, in Basel, and looking forward to the eagerly anticipated show at Tate Modern, Gordon MacDoanld talks to Jeff Wall, one of the worlds most celebrated photographic artists, about his work.

 

Destroyed Room

 

 

 

 

 

GM. I wonder what first made you choose the camera (as a tool for making art) over the brush or pencil?

 

JW. I began with drawing and painting. I drew and painted as a child and had my own studio at the age of 15. But I had always noticed photography, even without practicing it until around 1967. I don’t know why I moved from one to the other. It had something to do with the mood of the times, the mid and later 60s, but maybe nothing essential. It’s just something that happened to me and I feel it would be bad luck to go into it too deeply.

 

GM. The history of art does like to put artists together in schools or periods or groups. Do you have any notion of whom you are likely to be associated with in the history of photography? I suppose I am asking whom you would consider your peers?

 

JW. I’d like to be known as one of the good photographers, or good artists, or both.

 

GM. Recently you have said that you are keen to be seen as a photographer again. I wonder what this means? There are obvious differences between the ways in which people approach and regard the work of someone described as a ‘photographer’ to that of someone described as ‘an artist using photography’- that the difference is something more than a mere matter of semantics.

 

JW. I spent quite a few years struggling with what the notion of what a ‘photographer’ is supposed to be. I believed that photography, as a medium, or a métier, was large enough to sustain a major art, equal to painting or sculpture. The examples of Atget or Walker Evans proved that on the level of quality, but not in terms of the physical presence of the work. Atget and Evans established the main terms of photography as art, but they did not explore its place in the world; they accepted the book page or the album leaf as the natural place of the photographic picture in our lives. They were perfectly right, but even so, that left other potentials undeveloped.

This was not a question of the size of the picture as such, of size as a separate, essential quality. It was a question of potentials held within the medium, a question of what a photograph really looks like. I felt that photography had not completely revealed what it looked like within the classical tradition of art photography because it remained essentially within that book or album format.

I felt that photography had the means to participate in the mainstream of pictorial art more intensely than I had seen it do when I began to work with it. I felt that there was another level of freedom in photography and I wanted to get in touch with that level. As I said, it wasn’t about ‘making big pictures’; it was about opening a space for the medium. So I was obliged to subject photography to the model of painting to get that going for myself.

That subjection had its positive side, in that it helped me feel my way toward a kind of picture I anticipated being able to make. But at the same time, it put me in a sort of adversarial relationship with photography, in a position where I felt I was struggling against photography in order to make my pictures.

I found myself transposing values from painting into photography. Sometimes that worked well, sometimes not so well. At a certain point, around 1988 or 89, I just got tired of that approach. I felt my pictures had begun not to look enough like photographs. I felt I’d gone off the path I’d set out to take, gotten a bit too far from photography in the process of confronting it.

So I let the handle slip out of my grasp, dropped it, and picked it up again with a different grip.

Milk

 

 

 

 

 

 

GM. One of the most striking things for me about your work is that it often seems to include an interrogation of photography as a medium. I am thinking of works like Milk, which seems to consider the miracle of photography as described by scientific works such as Edgerton’s or even Mimic as a reconstruction of the decisive moment. Are you intentionally holding a mirror up to photography?

 

JW. I don’t think so. But I don’t proceed with a subject unless I feel it puts something specifically photographic in play, or in question. I see a lot of things, don’t photograph them, and don’t go back to them, either. Mostly because the event, the place, or whatever it was, doesn’t bring forward anything challenging as photography. It might even be an interesting subject, but unless that strictly photographic aspect appears somehow, I will lose interest.

But I don’t necessarily see that doing that involves making reference to a genre or something like that, or to another picture. Many people keep saying my pictures are all done in reference to this or that 19th century painting. That cliché might be starting to fade out now, after quite a few years. But it’s equally off to think that, say, Milk, was done in order to make some connection with a specific instantaneous photo, like the Edgerton. That’s not what happens to me. The splash of milk, all by itself, insists on the instantaneousness, and doesn’t need Edgerton. The photographic problem or challenge is present in the subject, or at least, the way I experience the subject; it doesn’t come to me as a reference. Or, if it does, I try to be very straight up explicit about it, like in A Sudden Gust of Wind.

Mimic

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Mimic, for example, I was obviously aware I was going to do ‘street photography’ with a large format camera and performers. But, again, I saw the original encounter of the three people, and that made me need to do street photography. But again on top of that, in 1980 or 82, I wanted to work in the street, or at least in public places, and not so much in the studio, as I’d been doing the few years previously. So I wanted to do street photography somehow, and the event that set off Mimic allowed that problem to appear to me in a concrete way, as a real opportunity.

 

 

GM. Why do you think these misconceptions about your work occur? People do seem to want to see Carravagio and Weegee in your photograph The Arrest.

 

The Arrest
 

 

 

 

 

JW. I am partly responsible for it because of things I said in print twenty years ago. In the 70s and early 80s I thought I was interested in the way meaning circulates and appears in works of art, so I talked about it. Some of what I said has gotten repeated and in being repeated got blurred, like the photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. I don’t think my pictures are any more referential than anyone else’s, and they’re less so than many other artists’ work. As I said, when I want to make a reference, I make it quite overt.
People can see Weegee or whoever they want in my pictures. If they see it, it must be there somehow, at least for them. But that doesn’t mean I planned to put it there. I like Weegee and I like Caravaggio, and so some trace of my liking for them could make itself felt somewhere. That’s different from me deliberately making it manifest.

 

GM. Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) – which Sontag described in Regarding the Pain of Others as ‘The antithesis of a document’- seems like a one-off in terms of your work, in that it directly refers to a newsworthy event, rather than the more first-person observations or constructions that seem to dominate your other works.

 

Dead Troops Talk

 

 

 

 

 

JW. I didn’t make Dead Troops Talk to comment on the Afghan war. I made it because I wanted to do a picture of dead men conversing, it was a theme or an image, or both, that occurred spontaneously, I have no idea why. So the picture had a personal, or inward, starting point.

I felt that the dead men ought to have been killed in combat. That gave their death a certain potential for meaning.

I needed to determine what combat.

The Afghan war was current when I began thinking about the subject, sometime in the 80s, I don’t remember exactly when. Then, as the war wound down and the Soviets withdrew, it all seemed to get forgotten. The collapse of the USSR overshadowed the Afghan conflict and Afghanistan disappeared from the world’s attention until the Taliban and so on in 2001.

The sense that the war was forgotten attracted me, and gave me a concrete basis to develop the picture. I liked the idea that, when the picture was finished (which would be in 1991 or 92), the Afghan war would be the furthest thing from ‘news’. So I could play with elements of journalism and history quite freely, since I was in a near-forgotten playground.

From that point on, the essentials were established and I could devote my attention to making the thing, not worrying about its ‘literature’ or ‘history’.

I don’t think the picture says anything much about the issues of that war. It just depicts a hallucination I had that, through some process, attached itself to a historical circumstance. If it says anything, it will be through the mood and style.

So, although it doesn’t start from an immediate observation, it did start from a personal experience–a spontaneous, unexpected occurrence of the essential theme–it just came to me one day. That is not so far from other pictures, where seeing something actually happen occurred to me, and it then also occurred to me that a might make a picture from that observation.

Sometimes it’s something immediate and concrete, sometimes something intangible and unexpected, just different somethings, differing points of origin, but always something that occurs to me, happens to me.

I think Sontag quite missed the point of the picture and I don’t think she ever looked at it carefully, going from her published description. She just used it for some argument of her own, didn’t encounter it in any artistically significant way. The picture was reproduced in the media quite a bit when her book came out. A good example of how much people, at least media people, like a thing when it is explained, not encountered.

 

 

GM. It is hard though, to disassociate yourself from photo-documentary pictures of war when looking at this image. Not just from the Afghan war, but from each successive war played out on our TV screens or described to us by photographs in newspapers. It is hard to get away from this context for a viewer. As Duchamp says in The Creative Act (1957), ‘All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act’.

 

 

JW. Marcel Duchamp as an advocate of the empowerment of the viewer: I remember back in the 60s being disappointed at his sentimentality on this point. Viewers experience, enjoy and judge art, they don’t make it. They experience it by encountering it personally, individually, in the world, and so they make their own associations. Just because I made a war picture doesn’t mean that people automatically or necessarily have to associate it with media imagery. That presumes that media imagery is a total horizon of everyone’s experience. Those presumptions have now reached the stage of orthodoxy. That is an unfree way of conceiving how individuals experience works of art, unfree and unrealistic. Conformist, institutionalized, academic, textbook and suffocating.

 

 

GM. I had not meant to suggest that an association to news imagery was all that one would experience when encountering this piece – just that (in the current climate) it is hard to disassociate the two. The first time I saw Dead Troops Talk was a charged experiences and of course any associations came after this initial experience.

 

JM. OK, sorry, I got you wrong. But that foregrounding of mass imagery as the mediator of our experience of art is a real problem, I think. Art, in any medium, is an independent form of experience of the world and need have no relation with mass imagery or mass media or mass ideas. It will be deadly if young people come to think that it is normal (or obligatory) to make a connection between a picture and some rather similar image in a mass media context rather than something else, something either personal to them or something from high culture or high art, which is maybe, no–probably, a richer association than one from the newspaper or TV. Young people–but not only young people–now need to know, or remember, that they are free to ignore the mass media in their appreciation or experience of art–and of other things, too.

 

GM. Do you think this is a problem with photography? I don’t think we would be discussing this if you had painted the same scene.

 

JW. I don’t think it is specific to photography. The problem is that, in any of the visual arts, it has become normative to assume that it is the mass media that set the terms for what artists want to do. Its become agreed that art ‘keeps a finger on the pulse of the times’ and that it does so by reflecting on the way our lives and consciousness are formed by our immersion in the media.

So now it is normal that artists are more interested in Japanese manga, trash cinema, or pop music than they are in high art; they tend to know more and care more about these things than they know or care about Matisse, Pollock, and the other artists who did not relinquish the high art tradition. This is a huge problem in art school, in art education, now. Art education looks like a sub-category of ‘cultural studies’. And cultural studies is one of the primary ways that those who opposed the ‘western canon’ have displaced it and substituted the canon of mass media immersion as the new artistic tradition. It’s not a pretty sight and what’s worst about it is the way it creates obstacles to the development of young artists. By encouraging those young people whose hearts are not with the idea of the independence, seriousness, and quality that are possible in art, it deeply discourages those who might still have hopes in that direction. Those whose preferences are for mass forms and effects are not wrong, but they are not really interested in what we have called ‘high art’ for the last several centuries. They may in fact be the dominant trend now, and culture might be changing in the direction they perceive. That’s perfectly fine, but they should not therefore be so militantly opposed to the continuation and evolution of high art. We can afford to have our old fine arts or high art as a minority trend, we don’t have to render it ‘obsolete’ and express the hostility to it that is contained in the way things are talked about now.

The Cyclist

 

 

 

 

 

GM. That is an interesting point. I think maybe that this trend, towards the use and reference of new media, is partly driven by the conception that high art is inherently elitist and that new media – and information technology – are somehow a more democratic means of expression and the distribution of ideas. It is easy, I think, under those terms to see why young artists are drawn down this path.

 

 

JW. I don’t believe there’s any ‘elitism’ in art, just as I don’t believe such a thing as ‘formalism’ exists. Art isn’t for everyone, but it is for anyone. Individual-by-individual.

 

 

GM. You have described your works as being ‘like big cats’. How do you go about deciding what works will hang together? The Tate Modern is a series of small rooms, so you must have to make decisions about what images will make sense when hung in one room.

 

JW. I’m not that good at hanging my pictures, at least at hanging more than a few. I depend on the good eye of the curator, Theodora Vischer in Basel and Sheena Wagstaff in London. We hung the Basel exhibition rather chronologically (with a few exceptions) and will do much the same at the Tate Modern.

I don’t work in series or groups. Each picture is singular. I try not to repeat myself. That means that two pictures made one right after the other might not resemble each other. They may have different scale effects, very different colour, space, and so on. For that reason, and because the pictures are quite large–in scale if not always in size–they tend to need a bit of isolation one from the other, so those differences in colour and so on don’t get to clashing. I’ve had many shows – shows I thought were well selected and well-organized – but in which the pictures had to be hung too close to each other. That does not really work for me, and so I think of them as ‘bad’ presentations of good groups of works.

Because the Schaulger is so big, I was permitted for the first time on a large scale to separate my pictures enough so that they became visible in a way that I think is very like the way I see them in my imagination. Happily, the rooms at the Tate are very similar in feeling to those in Basel. The same architects, Herzog and de Meuron, designed them both. They both have the nice, even top light I think is best for my work (and probably any work). I think much of the ambience of the Basel show will be repeated in London.

 

 

 

GM. The show at the Schaulager was very expansive and allowed you to show a large proportion of your works. This is, by necessity, being edited for the Tate show. Does this feel like a watering down? The photographs in Basel were obviously chosen because the curator and yourself agreed on the selection, so how did you decide what is unnecessary to that selection for the Tate Modern exhibition?

 

JW. The exhibition at Schaulager was very large indeed because there they have so much space. I doubt I will ever see so many of my pictures together again. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We selected the works based on their quality first of all. Then we had to shape the selection so that it gave a good sense of the development of my work over the years. I like to think that some good pictures were not included.

Exhibitions are always limited in some way. We don’t have as much room at the Tate, so there can only be around 45 pictures instead of more than 70 in Basel. We have eliminated pictures that are rather like other pictures.

For example, in Basel we made a room of ‘street pictures’ mainly from the

1980s; it included No (1983), Milk (1984), Doorpusher (1984), Tran Duc Van

(1988), The Thinker (1986) and Man in Street (1995). Another work from this group, Mimic, from 1982, was hung elsewhere. In London we will present a room with a similar group, but it will include only Milk, Mimic, Doorpusher and Tran Duc Van. I feel that the pictures that are not going to be in London are still good ones, but that the category ‘street pictures from the 80s’ is defined adequately by the others, which are generally better known. In Basel we had the room to show the better-known pictures along with others less often seen but worth seeing. That made the show broader, or deeper. In London we will present pictures that we think would be missed by anyone wanting to get the essence of what I am doing, pictures whose absence would obscure the nature of my work. I’m pleased it has been a rather difficult process.

 

GM. How do you see your practice developing from here? These recent major shows and the Catalogue Raisonné 1978-2004  seem like a punctuation point in your career and maybe a point for a new departure for your work.

 

JW. I try not to see my practice developing in any direction. I really try.