This image, taken from Stephen Gill's series Hackney Flowers, shows dried flowers taken from the London borough superimposed on an images shot there. Image © Stephen Gill.
Ants, birds and microscopic wriggly creatures in pond water, poppy seeds and pressed flowers – that partly describes the elements in Stephen Gill’s repertoire, which he calls “descriptive”, and which ranges from the gorgeous 2005-07 series Hackney Flowers to his most recent project Coexistence, shot in Luxembourg. But he’s also taken very different images, documentary photographs recording almost a decade of his life in the London borough of Hackney and neighbouring Hackney Wick.
His confessed obsession with the area, the nooks and crannies of the endangered landscape, the waterways, the urban streets and the local people, connect surprisingly with the more lyrical elements; the urban chaos in this densely populated, multi-cultural community is also changing, thanks in large part to the Olympic Park.
One of the most quietly inventive, unusually original photographers on the international scene, Gill has built an archive of mysterious, technically intriguing, subtly descriptive and beautifully poetic imagery. Exposing his unique practical and technical skills, they show off his talent as a photographer, technician, book-maker and artist.
Unlike most of the big-name photographers of his generation, he is self-taught – influenced by his father, a trained chemist, technical experimenter and photographer who led him into the darkroom, and towards the camera and the microscope.
“Processing film, making our own chemistry, taking photographs, it was an amazing early foundation,” he says. His father’s subjects were plants and flowers, a link with Gill’s repertoire of plants, animals and microscopic life that remains unbroken today. But Gill has also worked in documentary photography, the ruling genre of the 1980s and 90s, venturing out with his bike or kayak to photograph out-of-hours landscapes and locals.
The day I visited Gill’s studio he was packing up the evidence of his passion for the neighbourhood, and preparing to move further into it. Piles of boxes labelled as dried flowers, seeds and crumpled betting slips sat alongside negatives and contact prints; his photographs still filled the walls with their incredible beauty and poetry.
All images from Hackney Wick © Stephen Gill.
“The first thing I photographed was the series Trolleys Portraits (in 2004) – this was the first in a particular way of seeing,” he says. “Then I started photographing the backs of advertising billboards, after seeing one from the back of a train. I watched as someone stared at it and it quickly occurred to me how interesting it would be to make a body of work and remove the visual but retain the wording [this series was published by Chris Boot as A Book of Field Studies in 2004]. I love that way of working – the picture is almost redundant without the words and the titles, like the ads themselves.”
A popular location for his work was Hackney Wick market, an outdoor free-for-all serving the poor, multi-ethnic local communities. There, he bought the camera that was to remain his companion for many significant photographs, a 1960s plastic model. “It was nice to use because the first plastic was invented in Hackney Wick,” he says.
“It has a plastic lens and no focus controls so I had to learn how to use it and I did get a certain amount of control. If it was sunny, I put the film in my left pocket and if it was raining and dark, in my right pocket and then processed the film accordingly. If it was cloudy in the morning, I would have to develop the film a bit more, that was my only control. So I had these really lovely muted soft colours, which look like the 1950s. You can almost smell the dusty scent coming off them.”
For his debut exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, Gill relished the idea of “scooping up a bit of East London and dropping it in Central London” and foxing his audience – many visitors asked if the images had been shot in Russia, or perhaps Poland. The group show that followed at Victoria Miró Gallery in 2005, in which he exhibited the series Invisible, led him to set up Nobody publishing. “I was really keen to make a book and it coincided with that show,” he says. “The beauty of it was that you could make a book exactly how you felt, another art work.”
It kicked off his on-going series of books and publications, which have accompanied every new body of work and which always feature sophisticated cover designs and layouts. “The book is a finished body of work,” he says, “which is quite unusual because a lot of people have books to accompany their shows, but at that time, it felt like my shows were there to accompany the books.”
Buried (published by Nobody in 2006) was an intriguing conceptual project, in which friends took all 750 books in the print run, dug holes and put them into the ground “to use the earth as ink, so that the essence of the book emerges and it’s not just a shell to house the photos”. “I really try to make the book almost like the finished body,” he explains.
The more recent transformation of Hackney deeply affected many photographers, keen to preserve the disappearing sights. Gill documented even the slightest changes. “There were a lot of tiny clues around about the changes to come, and I started to photograph them,” he said.
“I called the work Archaeology in Reverse and tried to photograph things that don’t exist yet, because photography so often looks at suggestions of the past with decay and deterioration and I thought it would be fun to do the opposite.” The clues are fascinating and sinister evidence – compulsory purchase orders stuck to buildings, gagged letterboxes, men standing in inflated dinghies with measuring poles, earth-moving lorries, and beautiful reflections in the canal of a partly-constructed building.
The red dot on the cover of the book represents the dots painted on tree trunks in the area marked for removal. Iain Sinclair, a fellow Hackney-phile, wrote a small essay for the book, published by Nobody in 2007, and titled it Diving into Dirt, after Gill took him on a trip around the Olympic zone in his inflatable kayak, pre the currently security lock-down. “Gill has learnt to haunt places that haunt him,” Sinclair wrote of the experience.
Hackney dominated Gill’s life through those years but when the Olympic Park opened he moved with the landscape, seeing it morph from the green and luscious, scummy and polluted, secretive and over-grown, into a perfectly groomed, clean and tidy, landscaped environment, with stunning buildings and green walkways, parks and gardens. A model regeneration it now nonetheless lacks the gothic romance which originally lured photographers like Gill and Tom Hunter.
The images in Hackney Flowers resemble surprisingly pretty, Victorian collages, and in the book (published by Nobody in 2007), they are interspersed with small prints of local people sporting anything floral on clothes or hair. A masterpiece of the series is a pick-up lorry tipping clouds of carefully arranged rose petals onto a dump.
Images from an ongoing work in progress, Talking to Ants © Stephen Gill.
In a very different interpretation of Hackney, Gill decided to scoop up crumpled betting slips from the floors of all of its betting shops. They became A Series of Disappointments, a classic photographic collection of sculptural shapes suspended against dark backgrounds published by Nobody in 2008. His images are unusually sharp-focussed still-lifes but they are presented like an installation on a long strip of paper folded into a concertina-like storyboard.
In similar vein, Off Ground (published by Nobody in association with the Archive of Modern Conflict in 2011) is a series of still-lifes featuring rocks collected from the streets after the Hackney riots. Again they are suspended against a dark, blank backdrop, disguising their scale and meaning but allowing their surface textures to bloom and turning them into primitive stone sculptures. During the same period Gill started to experiment with layering, placing flowers, seeds and twigs and bits of street life against prints of his earlier blurry vignettes of Hackney locals.
“The other work I do is more guided by the subject and a completely different mindset,” says Gill, describing Outside In, the Brighton Photo Biennial series commissioned by Martin Parr in 2010. “In series such as the billboards or Trolley Portraits, I was photographing things that were already forming in my head. But with Outside In the subject carried me – I had to let go because I had no idea where it was going to take me.”
Outside In features seemingly random snaps of Brightonians in the streets and on the beaches, shot using faded colours and focusing as in Gill's earliest camera works. They were photographed with a camera into which Gill had inserted objects and creatures, however, “to clamber aboard the images and be encapsulated in the film emulsion like objects embedded in amber”.
He calls them ‘camera photograms’ and the floating seaweed, a fish tail, sprigs of flowers and unidentifiable stuff off pavements and lawns create these gorgeous abstracts, which share similarities with the project Coming Up For Air, which was set in Japan’s numerous aquaria and published by Nobody in 2010.
Here the scale of the images is expanded and Gill describes them as “almost as if the photograph was a living thing; I’d always think it’s only just got a pulse if you only just see these shapes”. In comparison with the noise and chaos of the Hackney Flowers, this is a strange, dream-like aquatic world. The backdrop here is of people on the streets of Japan, pre-tsunami, and the project saw Gill settle into a new obsession with aquarias.
“When I came out of the aquaria, I was seeing people in the same way I was seeing fish: I tuned my mind into it almost like you are swimming through a fictional underwater world but not quite sure which side of the glass you’re on.” He shot the project on a 35mm camera, “embracing” what are considered bad photos in a reaction to the modern world.
The results seem to take him back to early Hackney with the similarly blurred documentary portraits of people going about daily life but the street photography-style portraits add a new dimension to his work, and the use of full-bleed images in the book brilliant adds to the claustrophobic effect of the tanks. Giant and tiny creatures, from the silhouetted seahorse to huge fronds of seaweed, are purposely blurred and vague inhabitants of a dream world.
The forthcoming book and exhibition in Luxembourg led Gill into a fantastic revision and extension of his objects-inside-the-camera work. The invitation to create an installation in the cooling ponds of an abandoned steel factory hit the spot when he decided to turn it back to his childhood with a microscopic study of ponds. “For health and safety reasons, I wasn’t allowed to invite people into the ponds so I took the pond in a bucket to the people in cafes and pubs, then dipped the underwater camera into the bucket and asked them if I could take their portrait,” he says.
“Then I made the prints and put them back into the pond so they’re now teeming with microscopic life lying on the surface of the prints. It almost looks like Outside In. I called it Coexistence because we’re surrounded by these microscopic things, and I thought it would be interesting to bring them together visually. The backgrounds of the 90 images include a shadowy man working in a water tower, tiny squares of litmus papers which change colour, something resembling eggs which are oil droplets, worms.”
The final phase is the marbled book jacket, which Gill made by hand after intensely studying the process. The gorgeously patterned designs and colour schemes add another craft to his name.
A surprising part of Gill’s work includes editing for other photographers, including editing the gem of a book Tarkovsky’s Polaroids, published by Tarkovsky Foundation and White Space Gallery in 2008. The images were inherited by Tarkovsky’s son, Andrey, who asked Gill to edit the book after seeing the Hackney Wick series, and invited him to the family house in Italy to do so because the Polaroids were too valuable to be transported. Gill spent weeks there editing and sequencing the images, and editing is now a serious part of his creative spectrum.
“The condition is that they show you everything, because often people show what they think is good but the bad ones are usually amazing!” he says. “There has to be that agreement otherwise there is no clear voice, just a mixture of other people’s voices and it is neither this nor that.”
I ask what he felt about the Polaroids and he was vague, explaining that the film director often used the Polaroids as a tool, revisiting the same place at different times of year or while he was thinking of shooting a scene. “Often they were film linked,” he explains. “But they were family pictures too. What came across clearly is that the balance of work, life and family life was central. It was so present in the photographs of children and dogs, and he even asked his wife to stand in for potential actors.”
His favourite picture is the typewriter, “a picture holding all those scripts written by the Italian writer who collaborated with Tarkovsky – they were carried from his head, through his fingers and into this typewriter!”
But although Gill’s work is constantly, though slowly, evolving, it will probably always be synonymous. Hackney was the source of inspiration for some of his most elegiac and intriguing images and they will serve as a vital visual archive for that area of London, just as his Iain Sinclair’s writing serves as the literary equivalent. It’s something Sinclair himself has recognised in their collaborations, writing: “A camera travels with Gill like a second heart. A camera and a bicycle: without these implements, he is incomplete.”
Stephen Gill’s new book, Coexistence, is published on 28 September by Nobody and CNA (ISBN: 9780955657788 for the trade edition, ISBN: 9780955657788 for the special edition with print). nobodybooks.co.uk. The project will be exhibited at the Centre national de l’audiovisual in Luxembourg from 28th September – 12 February 2013. www.stephengill.co.uk
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