“In a way, the birds made the work themselves, I've just orchestrated an environment in which the pictures can be born”
Beyond his fascination with birds and animals, Stephen Gill’s practice is driven largely by a desire to connect with his immediate surroundings – from his longing to engage with the hidden wildlife that surrounds his home in rural Sweden, to the years he spent cycling through Hackney Wick, scouring its vast markets and narrow towpaths. It even goes back to his childhood, and his initial obsession with collecting insects and pond life to inspect under his microscope. “My hobby morphed into what I do for a living,” he reflects. “Making this new work took me right back to those early years, as if completing a full circle.”
The Pillar is the latest of Gill’s 20 self-published photobooks and follows on from Night Procession, for which he used a lo-fi motion sensor camera to photograph wild animals as they roamed the night. Similarly for The Pillar, Gill set up a camera in a nearby farm, opposite a pillar of wood. He knew birds were up there, and hoped to funnel them down from the sky.
To his delight, it worked. “It was like magic!” he says. From a small tree sparrow to a magnificent golden eagle, for over four years bird after bird descended onto the pillar, clenching their claws around the weathered wood to groom their wings, nurse their young, or simply perch for a little rest. Sometimes the birds landed on top of the camera, creating abstract patterns with their wings, sometimes they stared into the lens, as if posing for a deadpan portrait. In other images they squark, flap, waggle and pluck, creating offbeat photographs that are chaotic, at times awkward, and often humorous.
The Pillar is Gill’s second book since moving to Sweden in 2014 with his wife Lena, who is Swedish, and their children. After living in London for 20 years, he felt it was time to slow down. “In London you are so visually bombarded,” says Gill. “It was great for my work, but I never rested in 20-odd years.” But he adds that he soon found out that wasn’t London that was over-stimulating him, “It was me,” he says. “I’m still doing the same since moving here… I just love making things.It’s not anything to do with ambition, when I make things I feel really relaxed.”
Still, Gill feels that an external pressure has been lifted since leaving the city. His warehouse studio in Bethnal Green is worlds apart from his home studio in Sweden, where he has moved his entire archive of prints and books from the last 30 years. “I knew even before moving that my imagination would need to work harder here. So much is given to you in London, here it’s the opposite, it’s just vast landscapes and blank skies.”
The challenge of extracting a subject out of a blank canvas appealed to Gill. “It is intensely busy here,” he says, “you just can’t see it”. The region of Skåne, where he lives, is home to 192 species of the 250 birds that are native to Sweden. Gill managed to attract 24 species to his pillar – as well as a fox – all listed in an index at the back of the book.
From ordering the paper and cloth, to overseeing the printing for 10 days in Denmark, the book is solely and entirely produced by Gill. It is distributed by his publishing house Nobody Books, which he set up in 2005 to make sure his books would be a full expression of the photographs and the frame of mind that they were made in.
Gill wanted the sequencing to reflect the spontaneity of the images. “It’s almost like playing a song backwards,” he says, explaining the mix of black-and-white and colour – something he’s never done before – and the off-beat sequence, which includes a single fold-out triptych of a common buzzard shamelessly plucking at its wings.
“In a way, the birds made the work themselves, I’ve just orchestrated an environment in which the pictures can be born,” says Gill, who finds that nature is too often presented in absolute clarity, “like a wildlife show”. “That clarity can suffocate nature, it can suffocate the spirit of the animals. I love how [the birds in The Pillar] are not fully settled. The lack of clarity gives them a little more breathing space.”
As with his fascination with wildlife, Gill got into photography at an early age, and he was taught how to process film by his father, a keen photographer, when he was just 11 years old. “It was almost like riding a bicycle – I understood the technical side quite early,” says Gill. “In adult life it’s been more about dismantling those technical parameters and going beyond them in some way.”
Many of Gill’s projects have an obsessive quality to them, often expressed through collecting and reusing found objects. For A Series of Disappointments (2008) Gill scoured the doorsteps of bookmakers, gathering 71 failed betting slips – each screwed up into tiny sculptures of frustration – which he photographed and presented in a book. Similarly, in Off Ground (2011), he collected bits of rubble from the aftermath of the Hackney riots, and for Talking to Ants (2014), he attached found objects from the local area to his camera lens, creating what he calls an “in-camera photogram”. Other projects see him experimenting with the process of making images, such as Hackney Wick (2004), which he shot on a plastic camera bought in the market for 50p.
Though Gill’s shift towards wildlife and nature correlates with his move to Sweden and connects with his early childhood, in between, there is a sense that he was searching for traces of it, especially in projects like Buried (2006) Hackney Flowers (2007), and Best Before End (2014). His years in East London were spent making pictures of not just the place and its people, but also the insects, birds, and plants, which he often took home to collage into his images.
“Perhaps I was in search and in need of nature,” says Gill. Now, looking over his long arc of work, Gill sees a dialogue between his many publications. But thinking back over it, he says collecting pieces of the landscape is a way to “extract a feeling of what a place is like” – just as he was able to extract the birds out of their home in the sky.