If you poke your nose into a small Borders post-industrial town like Hawick you'll invariably find dozens of empty spaces - disused, unloved, waiting for a tenant, undeveloped and in many cases unknown, except to the owner who might sit on such a space for months and even years. At worst some of these black holes in the public space are obstacles. People waste time walking round them every day without bothering to ask what their purpose might be other than to provide future rent for a landlord. At best you get lucky like I did earlier this year.
I’ve taken a six month rent on a zone within a space that I never knew existed if not for a friend who put me on to it. It's enormous, formerly the Lyle and Scott textile mill and more recently the offices of the Council's social work department. The massive floor space has bright natural light and views over the town’s rooftops. In the basement there's a large screen print machine set-up for textile work. The mill is owned by designer and garment-maker Jason Lee who runs Jaggy Nettle, a family business in Lauder. Jason has a generous vision for the space which involves different designers, artists and artisans working on their various projects in the same open space, like a small-scale Bauhaus. It's full of interesting ‘stuff’ which I've been photographing and sonifying for a few weeks now. I've posted a few pictures of my own and you can see more pictures of people modelling their clothes (as well as support the business) on Jaggy Nettle's website.
Textile mills are a steady feature in my work over the years. In past projects I've engaged with mills in Selkirk and Langholm and also with small cottage textile outlets in Estonia. I started out capturing the sounds of textile machinery then became interested in a broader ethnography of technology.
I have a roving brief with respect to much of the stuff lying around meaning, as long as I don’t use, damage or take anything away without asking. I discovered a white cabinet with glass fronted drawers that intrigued me so I had a rummage inside and discovered all sorts of scraps from garment making, forgotten objects, photographs, mementoes and historical documents from the glory days of the mill. From this investigation emerged the notion of a series of photographic still lifes, a resurrection of the things found in the cabinet. I began to consider these objects as evidence - evidence of value, of human industry, work, craft, production, evidence of social value, of things worth keeping, things with agency, things that refused to be thrown away, things kept for later, evidence of memories which tinged everything with a light hue of nostalgia and even sadness.
In among the different bits and pieces I found a bundle of branded polythene bags from another factory with their logo and some trade text. These were big enough and transparent enough to slip in selected objects or groups of objects, like compositions. Acting as forensic evidence bags they immediately afforded context, added significance, to my original idea. I photographed different assemblage/compositions in the space under the most consistent natural light I could find (otherwise I’d be into studio lighting which right now is far above my pay grade).
I did everything in one go which was a trade-off between having some consistency in the lighting, using black foam board to block highlights where necessary, and struggling to frame everything for a decent composition. The only way to do this ‘perfectly’ would have been to create a dark box with lights from the side but the slight variations in natural light between each shot animates the series and I think the story works for the better. The differences bring out nuances of colour, shade, texture and morphology, all consolidated by the artificial sheen of the ‘evidence’ bags.
I shot everything with a Sony A7r3 and a Voigtländer 50mm f2 APO-Lanthar lens which is the closest I can get within my means short of resorting to large format cameras. I then selected, edited and printed a series of ten. You can see them all on this dedicated page but here’s one I like for good measure.
Printing with a good printer has allowed me to appreciate the business of creating a series for possible exhibition. There’s no substitute. It takes time and some experimentation to set up the images and to become familiar with the different papers but it’s worth all the effort. Printing out the pictures also lets you see how the story emerges. Seeing the prints laid out on a table and being able to move them around energised the telling of the story. It helped me immediately eliminate two prints and tighten up the narrative.
So what else do I do in the mill apart from record sounds and take pictures? Hang out with friends, invite them to sketch, think, listen, walk around, read, write, breathe in the light.
A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition of collage and other works at a museum in Edinburgh. I was immediately struck by the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. The deep Prussian blue goes beyond colour. It’s the stuff of dreams. I decided to experiment with cyanotype printing and at last I’m able to share some experiences.
Digital Negatives I chose to work with digital negatives rather than printing botany or objects placed on the paper. That in itself took me several attempts with different transparency papers and printers. Eventually I found a transparency batch of decent quality (with the printing side clearly indicated - important) and used a good Canon Pro printer to lay on the ink. I haven’t drilled down into the excruciating detail around digital negatives. I simply do the monochrome and inversion transformation (in Affinity Photo) and make sure there’s plenty contrast. I’ve come to the conclusion that the choice of subject has more bearing on making a good print than the fine tuning of the negative. Cyanotypes have far less resolution than silver printing. If I wanted a pin sharp cyanotype picture I’d probably fabricate one digitally.
Coating I haven’t yet managed to establish a workflow in my garage darkroom which is why I'm looking at contact printing. But it's hardly the easier option. The first thing I learned is that all the elements need to be set out in an organised fashion, ideally on a large table or everything goes south quite rapidly. Mixing the two chemicals is easy enough. You make two bottled solutions at the appropriate dilutions and keep them apart. Then when you want to make prints you mix them at 1:1 and use all the liquid because it won’t keep. After that, for me at least, it was trial and error all the way. First you need to choose good paper. I tried a cheap light acid free watercolour paper and everything came out washy and faint. Same with a Bristol Board - it didn’t have enough ‘tooth’ to hold the liquid. Eventually I had good results with a heavy textured art paper which I’ll stick with till someone persuades me otherwise. You can see for yourself the texture in the photograph. Coating the paper has to be done in dim light - tungsten is fine but no UV or the coated paper starts to develop. The liquid has to be spread evenly and deeply enough to soak right into the paper. I worked to a small quantity for each A4 sheet and it wasn’t nearly enough. I then marked out 4ml on two different syringes, clearly colour coded for each of the two liquids. I don’t think I mixed them well enough in my early experiments so I’ll be mixing in a test tube from now on and giving it a good shake. With plenty mixture I pour out a thin line and spread using a rubber spreader then work the chemistry into the paper using a brush. I take time to check that the coating is as deep and even as possible. I coat the paper on top of another cheap paper taped to a ceramic tile. Next the paper has to be dried. I forgot once and it all turned to mush. Some people leave the paper overnight. I make sure it’s light tight and leave it somewhere warm.
Contact The next step is quite easy. Place the paper (textured side up - not always obvious) on a hard surface like a ceramic tile. Lay the contact print ink-side down (I even managed to get this wrong a few times), place a plate glass on top and clamp everything together or light leaks in and fogs up the paper at the sides.
Exposure I haven’t worked out how to get the ‘correct’ exposure because it's an occult practice. In the forthcoming winter I’ll build an ultra-violet (UV) lightbox which apparently affords more reliability. Outdoors the UV is all over the place, from intense sunlight to overcast with very bright skies to quite cloudy to dull. In bright sun you see the paper change rapidly. Because I’ve coated and then placed my art paper on top of another cheaper paper taped to the ceramic tile I can tell from the coating on the cheaper paper how dark the exposure is turning. I can only go by what I see and so far, with good paper, I’ve managed to get a decent exposure but times can vary from between 30’ and 90’.
Wash and Dry Finally, the wash and dry. I place the print face down in a large plastic tray and jiggle it around a bit. After 10’ or so I use a fine spray on the garden hose and wash it face up in the tray for about 20’. You can see the chemistry wash out and the print change colour as you go.
Drying A mistake I made with drying was to hang the prints up in a very hot conservatory. They hardened up and warped considerably. Now I dry in a dark garage at a much cooler temperature.
Choice of Subject I mentioned the importance of choosing the right kind of subject for a good print. This is very subjective but one of my first prints was of a tightly composed still life with good contrast between the three elements. I found it to be quite magical probably because I managed to get that lush deep blue. Some of my many failures came out on the green/blue side of the colour wheel.
Bleaching and Toning Apparently one way to get a good deep blue is to bleach the print in a weak solution of Hydrogen Peroxide prior to washing so I’ll experiment with that next. There are also some interesting methods of toning the prints, though I’m questioning why you’d do that when the point is to get the blue of the cyanotype.
In conclusion I’d say it’s worth persevering. With some time and effort I might be able to produce a decent series of still life prints and then later experiment with actual botany or interesting tree prints.
Throughout the darkest days of the pandemic I spent time trying to understand historical and contemporary practices of still life photography and painting. This led me to my own experiments with still life photography. Although I’d love to be able to gracefully happen upon compelling ‘found’ still life compositions, just by having a camera ready at all times, I’m drawn to the reflective processes of selecting and setting up objects, working with colour, form, perspective, depth of field and of course light. There’s also the problem of choosing and setting up tables and backdrops which are almost as important as the objects themselves, something I underestimated in the early experimental phase. I decided from the beginning to work only with natural light and am fortunate to be able to set up my compositions in two domestic locations, one with a fairly even north light, the other with a south facing, less unpredictable but wonderfully diffused light, especially in a short window during the Scottish spring and autumn.
By way of research I began with a close look at the Dutch still life painters of the 17th century. I can never have enough of that period, be it still life, landscape or domestic interiors. This led me to more modern painters like Nicholas de Stael, Pierre Lesieur and Giorgio Morandi. In photography I was particularly interested in the work of Josef Sudek, Laura Letinsky and Andrea Modica. I could go on at length about the work of these artists.
There’s a lot of literature on still life painting and photography but two books in particular helped me understand the deeper mechanics of still life art. Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century is a book to be read and re-read. Then there’s Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: 4 essays on still life paintings who came at the subject from some very interesting perspectives. I’ll quote, paraphrase and comment freely upon some of the points that struck me.
The removal of the human body is the founding move of still life. The same of course could be said about nearly all landscape photography and painting. Obvious yes, but I’m led to ask why.
Bryson then introduces the notion of still life as an investigation of rhopography (the big word for little things) from rhopos - trivial objects, the discarded and useless, things excluded and passed over. In this I find parallels with some contemporary musical and sonic practices, some of which have been at the core of my own works over the year, for example musique concrète which often seeks out disused, found and forgotten objects for their sonic properties. One could also find some common ground within musique brut, arguably the sonic equivalent of arte povera.
Attention itself gains power to transfigure the commonplace. I understand this to mean that we have to spend time with still life, to slow down and pay attention, to allow the transfiguration to take place or emerge. Again, parallels with many of the musical and sonic practices that interest me.
Bryson makes the argument that there’s a disinclination (in early still life painting) to portray the world beyond the far end of the table. A lot could be made of this in terms of frame, content and concept. In my early fumblings I struggled not only with the table itself but found myself in the midst of heated conversations between the focal length of lenses, angles of shot, table size and orientation. I still have some way to go to resolve these conflicts. This is of course unique to photography - painters can design their backgrounds and angles in an infinite variety of ways.
Objects are made to appear unreal or unfamiliar. This becomes apparent the longer you gaze at paintings in particular. In my recent series Evidence I’ve found myself tapping into this tradition in a more immediate manner by masking objects (disused, forgotten and found) in what look like forensic evidence bags.
Cultural memory, an authentically civilised world. This fascinates me, if we extend to the idea that the best evidence of civilisation, the memories of past civilisations, are most often manifested in the objects left behind. And that these might be the humble objects of domesticity.
I’ve blogged a little already about the Words on Resilience residency. I’m waiting for the final tweaks to the three screen audio-visual installation to be made for the virtual gallery and in the meantime I decided to begin work on ways of presenting the work for radio and sound installation.
The audio work can be streamed or downloaded from Bandcamp
There are two components, the spoken word and the music. I took some time with the music - recording, re-recording and remixing both new and old ideas from both musique concrète and electronic sources. For the spoken word layer I listened through hours of recordings and selected those passages, both conversational and read, that I thought best represented the writing and the ideas of the writers.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty in a conversational practice with a tangible outcome is that of discovering how to draw the listener into the pace and flow of the actual conversations themselves without merely presenting a document of the events. There’s also the added challenge of lending some kind of consistency to conversations and readings captured both in the field (literally) and in different interiors. The next phase is to experiment with the spatial distribution of the voices in a multi-channel version of the work.
As a landscape artist, amongst other things, I'm obviously fascinated by landscape and all its ramifications but am also drawn to scenery which is usually one's first impression of a landscape. I spend a lot of time finding locations and 'designing' walks from which to view landscapes. In this way I’ve come to understand more about Scottish landscapes, most importantly from their social, economic and political perspectives.
But I’m intrigued and somewhat obsessed by certain aspects of English landscapes, initially by their unique beauty (I don't know if that's a very 'arty' things to do, to talk about beauty - perhaps I'm becoming sentimental). Through explorations of English landscapes I've experienced delicious moments, hours and days in some of the softest, almost perfect, rural settings one could imagine, particularly in the home counties and East Anglia. But it’s that near-perfection which causes all the problems and thereby lends great value to artistic investigations. I’ve come to understand the extreme pressures on the specifically English landscape and am particularly struck by a notion, articulated very clearly by writers such as Robert McFarlane, Joe Kennedy and Adam Scovell. If you don't know of their work I recommend having a good dig around for interviews, books and blogs and the inevitable trail of links. Here I've picked up on the idea that some of the most probing English landscape art - writing, film, photography - has an essentially unsettling, eerie, uncanny quality and that this might stem in part from the historical shock or trauma of a landscape brutalised by industrialisation and exploitative development policies. We therefore have one reading which assumes an Edenic utopia smashed to pieces by amoral greedy ruthless profiteers and equally that of a landscape sitting on a powerful and resilient substrate of uncanny social history. I'm following both threads with equal fascination. At the moment I’d like to know more about how the industrial revolution in particular comes into play or lies at the roots of this tension.
In the Scottish Borders where I live, dwell, wander and roam, the landscapes would at first blush seem to combine features of both Scottish and English landscapes in their blend of typical or stereotypical pictorial attributes, at times rugged, at times soft. But above and beyond this first impression this is a unique landscape, one that carries heavy baggage of its own, something I look forward to unpacking in my Landowner project.