Taking a systematic approach and drawing on modernist ideas, David Watson photographs folded sheets of paper to explore notions of space and photography’s abstract potential
“Around the middle of last year, I found that the compositions and motifs in my work tended towards flatness,” says David Watson, who is based in Essex. “So it was a logical step to explore that flatness on its own terms, stripped of anecdote or external reference. I started by photographing a single piece of paper and then adding a crease and reshooting it. The result surprised and intrigued me. I had imagined I might make a handful of images, but I quickly realised a huge range of possibilities was opening up.”
In his ongoing series, Works On Paper, Watson, who was named runner-up for the Series Award in this year’s renaissance Photography Prize, folds and photographs a range of A4 sheets of blank paper (squared, graph, isometric dot, everyday photocopier paper, black paper) square-on, under raking light. The images are then enlarged and printed to mimic the scale of painting when exhibited. It is important, says Watson, that the images are not enlarged to a point where any degradation is evident. While some images are presented as single sheets, he increasingly arranges multiple shots into composite images.
“I wanted to strip back my work to its fundamentals,” says Watson. “It became difficult to resist the desire to read the tone and shape of the folds as renderings of fictive space. This picks up on certain modernist ideas that seem to have been jettisoned in [favour of ] the current art world focus on the ‘post-medium condition’. In an act of perversity, I wanted to do something that was absolutely medium-specific.
“On a technical level, I discovered that it is more or less impossible to satisfactorily photograph a white sheet of paper in colour with raking light, so I defaulted to black-and-white [in most cases].”
Taking inspiration from conceptual artists including Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner and Richard Serra, he says he is drawn to the way these artists work with systems.
“The purity of the system engages me. Each work starts with a simple proposition, but the results are often surprising and unpredictable. When I think I know in advance what the result is likely to be, it usually disappoints. It is also fascinating to see whether viewers can ‘read’ the system behind a given piece.
“At a certain point I find myself tinkering with a family of images and try to find contrived or clever ways to continue them,” he adds.
“That is when I stop and move on to something else.”