“From the very start, I was disturbed by the number of WWI casualties on the Western Front. 700,000 casualties in Verdun and one million in the Battle of the Somme,” says Brian Griffin, who shot his book SPUD in the region. “I was obsessed with the idea that the blood and the bones and the limbs of all became part of the soil.”
In 2017, Brian Griffin was invited to undertake an artist’s residency in Béthune-Bruay, northern France. Griffin, who is one of the most prominent British photographers of his generation, was initially selected because of the links between this region and his native Black Country, Midlands – both in terms of landscape and industrial heritage. But Griffin soon had other ideas, drawn from the fact that Béthune-Bruay was just ten miles from the Western Front during World War One.
“I’m just a basic Black Country boy and I do make some obvious decisions, which do many times turn out to be fruitful,” he says. “So I decided to focus on the First World War.”
Many people were killed and wounded in the region during the war – some making it back home but others “disappearing into the earth”. On discovering that there is also a McCain oven chips factory in the area, Griffin was struck by the macabre thought that the potatoes they grow there come from the same soil. During the three weeks he spent on the residency, Griffin photographed both inside the McCain factory and on the former battle sites.
Griffin has a distinctive style of photographing, and says David Lynch has been an influence in his work. “David and I have often been described as being quite similar, at least back in the 1970s when he made Eraserhead and I made my first book, Brian Griffin Copyright 1978,” he says. What they share, is a sharp eye for the surreal, and that’s evident in the work Griffin made on the residency – which is now on show in France and published as SPUD.
He recalls getting the idea for one of his photos by watching the work at the McCain factory, for example – the procedure for ‘testing’ the potatoes. “The lorry would come with all the spuds and they’d get a few potatoes and put them through a machine, which would then extract a raw section of the spud – a French fry.” After threading the French fry back into the spud, Griffin noticed they resembled tiny tanks.
In fact, the project was full of serendipitous connections – even its title. “I grew up in the 1950s when ‘Spud’ was a common nickname for common people like me, so I decided that it related to me; the soldiers (‘spud’ was also slang for low ranking British soldiers in the WWI); and to the factory—it was all uniting itself in a way,” he explains.
The finished series includes newly-shot work but also some of Griffin’s iconic shots from throughout his career, a decision which he says was suggested by the curator Valentine Umansky. “You would never think it, but I do leave people a lot of space to make decisions and that was a decision Valentine had made,” says Griffin. “I could’ve rejected it, of course, we could’ve fought over it, but I didn’t. I’m interested in teamwork,” he says.
Griffin adds that one thing he was intent on was making the book of the project look like a WW1 officer’s manual, so it has a flexi-bound cloth cover. Asked what McCain’s reaction to the project was, Griffin says “They were really excited. It’s the old saying, isn’t it? ‘Any publicity is good publicity!’”