Hippopotamus and Guard, 2010, from the project In Situ copyright Rachel Cunningham.
Young photographer Rachel Cunningham is showing her first solo exhibition at the Otter Gallery, after winning the 2009 Photo Open Award
Author: Diane Smyth
19 Oct 2010
London-based photographer Rachel Cunningham, winner of the Otter Gallery 2009 Photo Open Award, is holding her first solo exhibition at the gallery from 29 October - 25 November. She's showing two bodies of work - Quiet Transfer, which won the prize, and which explores the Arab-Israeli conflict through the Israeli policy of house demolition, and In Situ, which explores a decrepit colonial palace in India, the Prag Mahal. BJP took the chance to ask the young photographer some questions...
Q: How did you first get into photography?
A: I became interested in photography as a teenager and even did an A’ level in photography. A few years later I did a foundation course at Chelsea followed by a BA in fine arts at Middlesex University. There I began to explore photography more thoroughly, while mainly studying painting. As an obsessive reader of newspapers, I quickly became interested in the relationship between news and representation, and the influence of the history of painting on photography. I became interested in spectatorship as well, and more particularly on the notion of pleasure involved in the spectacle of suffering.
Q: Did you study photography?
A: I did a BA in Fine Arts, during which I slowly drifted from painting to photography. My final project consisted of re-enactments of highly symbolic news images shot in the studio with models. I learnt a lot about the notion of representation and the idea of introducing a perspective and distance from news photography printed in newspapers and magazines.
I then worked as an assistant and later ran a busy professional studio in London. Both jobs allowed me to improve my technical skills as well as learn the intricacies of photography, especially in editorial and advertising. I really enjoyed these years, but I also realised I did not want to be part of this professional photography world. My inclination was definitely directed towards fine art photography as well as working in education.
After a few years and a job in the photography department of the University of Westminster, I decided to do an MA in photography. It allowed me not only to read and interiorise a lot of the recent photography theory, but also to refine my photographic practice and become more precise in my style and focus.
Q: Why do you choose to shoot architecture? What can it say that other approaches to documentary photography can't?
A: I think my work perhaps suggests similar things as other approaches to documentary photography, but in a different way. I wanted to show something, in the case of Quiet Transfer, house demolition in East-Jerusalem, without ‘showing’ the event itself or even the aftermath of the event. Rather than bear witness to the demolition, shoot many pictures as a kind of witness of a terrible event, I wanted to in some way catalogue it, in other words record it in an almost clinical way, and from a distance. Having the remains of houses sent to me in London have enabled me to both emphasise my place as a European outside the conflict and to reference colonialism via archaeology and the museum. Again, I wanted to insist on a spatial and temporal distance by creating a kind of mise-en-abyme of the images of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict we see daily.
Q: What camera do you use, and why?
A: I use mostly large format cameras. I use a large monorail camera for the studio, and when I travel I use a wooden field camera and a 6x7 to back up. My next project will be shot on 10x8.
I use large format for all the obvious reasons of image quality and detail. In addition, I enjoy the way it slows down the whole process of taking pictures and forces me to really think about and look closely at what I want to shoot. I also like the excitement, the magic-and the fear- of waiting for the films to be processed to discover the images all over again, as opposed to the immediacy of digital format.
Q: How many trips have you made to Palestine? Was it hard to work there?
A: I've made six trips since 2007, and haven't found it difficult to work there at all.Several people were extremely helpful in facilitating my work there, especially Dr Meir Margalit from the NGO Israeli Committee Against House Demolition. He introduced me to the main issues, and after I researched the project further he introduced me to people whose houses had been demolished, and to other activists who were helpful in showing me around East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is also Meir who selects fragments of houses for me to send them over to London. In addition, I received the help of the Ostrovsky Family Foundation, who helped with some of the costs and with shipping the fragments from Jerusalem to London. When I would work on my own or with an assistant, soldiers would sometimes come over to check what I was doing, but it was never really a problem, especially with the large-format camera which always creates curiosity.
Q: How do you think your images relate to older portrayals of the city?
A: What is striking about the city of Jerusalem is its almost mythological status for both inhabitants and visitors. I knew I needed to be honest about my position as an outsider, I therefore researched the history of the representation of the City through European painters and photographers. I needed to find an appropriate form to contextualise the still-life images in relation to the city itself.
I expanded my research from the history of the conflict and the work of contemporary artists (Yael Bartana, Asad Azi, Mona Hatoum, Jean-Luc Moulene and Simon Norfolk among others) to the representation of Jerusalem by painters, photographers and writers from the Nineteenth century who started exploring and representing the region as part of an increasing colonial and archealogical interest. I especially looked at paintings by David Roberts and Edward Lear, as well as photographs by Francis Frith and many other early photographs available in the Royal Geographical Society and the British Library photography archives. I also studied the work of the painters such as Delacroix in relation to Edward Said's theses on Orientalism and the portrayal of the East. In these representations, Jerusalem had to remain stuck in Biblical time and space. For both painters and photographers, the local population had to be largely invisible, only present to provide exoticism, illustrate biblical stories or to provide a scale.
For the landscape images I used pre-selected viewpoints, those of the painters and photographers as well as the designated points of view found on tourist maps (these are usually the same).
Rather than the veracity of biblical tales, I am trying to show, through my landscapes, the fetishization of a city while at the same time suggesting the demographic and space battle raging underneath the veneer of the beautiful landscapes
Q: How did you first find the Prag Mahal?
A:I visited it by chance while travelling around Gujarat. It really impacted me. Upon my return in the UK, I researched the place further and decided to go back a few months later with my camera and lights. I didn't have official permission to shoot there - I thought about getting it but decided this could prove more problematic than simply turning up. Instead I had to pay an hourly fee that was increasing by the minute!
Q: What do you think your images of this building reveal?
A: The Prag Mahal is an example of the style of Palaces designed by British architects (in this case, Colonel Wilkins of the Royal Engineers) in the 'Princely States' of Kutch in the mid-nineteenth century. Princely States were states that were not under the administrative control of the British and instead were controlled by traditional rulers. These princes were educated along British lines, toured Europe and were introduced to Western manners and norms. These influences are evident in the neo-classical style of the Prag Mahal: Italian marble, popular in Britain at the time, is used widely in the Durbar Hall where stuffed hunting trophies adorn the walls and broken chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The Palace, already in a state of disrepair, was further damaged in the earthquake of 2001.
It now functions as a museum where tourists and local visitors are invited to view the grandeur (and decay) of this neo-gothic and neo-classical palace. The images of In Situ, almost all still-lifes, question the relationship between the spectator, the artwork, and notions of preservation and display. For me it brought to mind a country going through great economic and social change while holding on to traditions out of synch with the modernization of cities and industries throughout India.
Q: How do these two projects relate to each other?
A: Both Quiet Transfer and In Situ relate to places that at some point were under the rule or influence of the British and in each I try to make my distance, as a British observer, clear. These two projects, both shot in large-format and with a wealth of detail, suggest layers of history hidden in the shadows or in the flatness of photographic representation. Although they have a somehow comparable aesthetic and technical approach, Quiet Transfer and In Situ are two different projects that cannot really be compared, as such, in their content or in their political dimension.
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