Interview Photo Espana 2008

Interview by Ana Bergueta with Karen Knorr for PHOTO ESPANA 2008

– Why did you choose a uniform format for your earlier black and white work? What determined the choice of typographies?

A conceptual approach structured the series. Similar lighting, camera angles and conventions of environmental portraiture were employed throughout the work. The typographies vary depending on the series: Gentlemen uses ‘Garamond,’ Country Life uses ‘Boldoni’ and Connoisseurs ‘Times.’ Belgravia utilises ‘Century Schoolbook,’ evoking a school textbook on upper class ideas and attitudes constructed out of conversations. In order to point to the artificial nature of the text composed beneath the photographic image certain key words are capitalised, such as “Privilege” in “There is nothing wrong with Privilege, as long as you are ready to pay for it.” A very privileged position indeed!

– After several series in black and white why did you decide to work in colour?

To change and challenge my working methodology, but I also thought the bright cibachrome colours, verging on “kitsch,” were appropriate for disturbing aesthetic judgements on taste. In England bright colours are considered “garish.” Recently at the Courtauld symposium on Indian wall paintings I witnessed that such discourse still seems to underpin academic notions of taste.

David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia discusses this fear of corruption through colour. The idea of a classicism based on a phantasized Greek ideal of the pure white temple was much cherished by English connoisseurs during the Victorian era when colour may have been considered effeminate. In fact these Greek temples and statues were once painted and coloured. Yet there are beautiful coloured rooms designed by the Adams in Kenwood House and Osterley Park House which delight in the use of colour and the Etruscan Italian style. It is in this rooms that I staged a contestation of the “canon’ of the collector’s taste bringing in the allegorical motifs of chimpanzee and Diana the huntress to disrupt the symmetry and proportion of taste.

– You have been worked in series since 1979. What makes the serial form possible?

It is a matter of meaning, with different tensions to be found in the work. As one goes from “room” to “room” there are different stories and ideas being told. Irony and humour are difficult to produce in one photograph; several are necessary to make various points about class, power and privilege.

– Your work has an element of social conscience. Is there a documentary tradition in your photography?

Yes it is social documentary. The Belgravia series, exhibited at Photo España, describes class and power amongst the international and wealthy during the beginning of Thatcherism and Reagonomics in 1979. I was also interested in showing the different gender positions within the family: women talk about kitchens, motherhood, marriage; men about the stock market and cattle breeding. The work looks at the lifestyle of youth, who are wearing designer clothes, clubbing, thinking about their debutante parties, but who are also interested in power, glamour and rebellion.

The photographic works Gentlemen (1981-1983) and Country Life (1983-1984) further elaborate on the social aspirations of the English middle classes, investigating the marks of distinction that ally these classes to conservative aristocratic values where primogeniture is still an issue. Until the early 1970’s married women still needed her husband’s endorsement for any household purchases. Whilst woman now have full property rights, they still remain under represented in key positions of governance and in financial and academic worlds. It is still a boys club in which some women are honorary members.

I wanted to make critical work that used humour to tackle attitudes prevalent amongst the English establishment in the 1980’s under Margaret Thatcher. Despite being Prime Minister and head of the Conservative party, Thatcher as a woman was not allowed full membership at the Conservative Gentlemen’s club ‘The Carlton.’ Old Etonians, like the present leader of opposition David Cameron, still belong to such Gentlemen’s clubs.

– Could you tell us a little bit about your work Belgravia? Could you describe the relationship between images and text? How would you describe the relationship between your work and “the everyday,” the theme of this year’s festival?

Belgravia is a cosmopolitan and rich neighbourhood in London near Harrods in Knightsbridge with many non-domiciled residents. My parents lived in Belgravia and the first image of the series is a photograph of my mother and grandmother in the front room of our “maisonette” on Lowndes Square. Whilst certain members of my close family held relatively conservative views I did not share the same lifestyle positions or opinions as those of other Belgravia residents. Belgravia is therefore a critique of class using the tools available to me as an ‘outsider’ on the inside. I think the work becomes grotesquely funny when one does not agree with the ideology described. A few of the people in the photographs could not see this humour or irony, since they lived completely within the ideas and attitudes I was critiquing. The work was produced in anger against social injustice, provoked by a desire to challenge the lack of fairness and equality in life.

When I made this work there was already a well developed celebrity culture appearing in the gossip pages of Tatler, Vogue and Harpers & Queen magazines, yet simultaneously there existed this very private world of the rich and privileged that I wanted to show. I was an implicated observer documenting what I thought at the time would be the last dying embers of class distinctions in Britain, yet it still lingers. Prince Charles recently used his royal power and influence to dissuade investment in a Richard Rogers’ project on the site of the former Chelsea barracks.

The meaning of the work can be found in the space between image and text: neither text nor image illustrate each other, but create a “third meaning” to be completed by the spectator. The text slows down the viewing process as we study the text and return to re-evaluate the image in light of what we have read.

The work describes the ‘everyday’ of a privileged minority. Historically, portraiture of the upper classes has tended to be flattering but the combination of image and text brings this work closer to satire and caricature, without losing the strong reality effect specific to photographic typology. All the people portrayed become actors and perform their identities in a collaborative fashion with me. At times there is a real complicity between us.

– How has your work evolved since the photographs we see in the Photo España exhibit up to the present day?

Academies, a series started in 1993, researches the history of ideas that underpin western aesthetics, exploring the transmission and reproduction of such ideas through the fine art academy and the museum. The work explores the foundation myths of European fine art culture and the link to national identity and patrimony, traces of which remain today in art institutions such as Goldsmiths College where I was a visiting tutor. Photography and women have changed the academy, more than 50% of my students at the University for the Creative Arts are women. Things are changing but resistance still remains and an even playing field is difficult to achieve.

Elements exist in my work that continue to ‘trouble’ the realist endeavour: captioning and use of titles, taking different points of view of the same room, the framing and presentation of the photographic object. Each series searches for different ways of disturbing everyday conceptions of reality and taste. Photographing animals from a natural history collection in a fine art old masters painting; the use of furniture to disturb the immutability of the Wallace collections at Hertford House in London; a woman tracing a shadow on the wall of the Royal Academy in Stockholm, referencing Butades’ daughter; a black hand lovingly stroking Canova’s Psyche, transgressing the taboo of touch.

– In Fables you introduced animals into a variety of different places including palaces and museums. What are you trying to achieve with this series?

Fables develops some of my earlier issues around power but in a more playful manner. The work is staged in national heritage sites around France, including Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Museums of national collections become animated by animals, creating scenes that allude to the stories of Aesop and La Fontaine. Some of the animals are dead but others are alive, photographed in zoos and studios. The rooms themselves have been photographed from a very low position in order to identify with the animal’s gaze.

The work marks a transition between analogue and digital photography. I still shoot on film that is then scanned before postproduction on Photoshop. There are now multiple times which are brought together and become layered in the photograph: the time of the animals photographed in their environments or studio, the very slow time of photographing the interiors with a large format Sinar camera. Some photographs now take months to make whilst others are quicker. I compare this work in its infinite detail to “phototissage,” a form of photographic stitching or weaving, rendering the pixels like threads in a tapestry.

– Which kind of current photography interests you? How do you see your work in this context?

Photography of all types and places interests me. My work enters into a dialogue with bird photography, architectural photography, documentary photography but also pre-photographic forms such as painting and sculpture.

– What projects are you currently working on?

A series of images and films exploring Mughal architecture in Rajasthan, India and the stories engendered by such spaces. Making work for an Indian audience referencing the myths of one of the oldest cultures on earth is both challenging and frightening. In addition I am completing a commission at the Louvre museum in Paris that explores its collection of paintings and antiquities, whilst also helping set up a transnational photography research centre with a digital archive at the University for the Creative Arts with my colleagues at Farnham, Surrey, where I continue to teach undergraduates and postgraduates in photography.