We continue our series of interviews with the leading lights of Scottish outdoor photography. David Lintern quizzes a master of Victorian photographic techniques and finds a very 21st century artist just under the surface.
Let’s start with your exhibition of new work, currently running at the John Muir Visitor centre in Pitlochry. What can people expect to see?
It’s a selection of new work made over the last two years, mostly using old Victorian processes in the Scottish landscape. For this exhibition I’ve largely concentrated on work from the Hebrides, but in particular Skye and the Uists. Expect stark, monochrome images with chemical flourishes, handmade in the land (on location) with silver and cyanide.
Where did you grow up, and how did you first discover photography?
I was born in Germany, but had my formative years in Ayrshire. The first meaningful images I made were with an old camera handed down from a family member, of the marram grass and sand dunes near my home. At the time I was more interested in sketching and drawing, and used photography books from the school library as source material, but also had my first experiences in the darkroom. That’s where I think it took hold.
Was there an epiphany, a single moment, or did it grow gradually?
The books I used to sketch from were filled with images of Ansel Adams landscapes, and another had the work of Bill Brandt. I remember the first time I saw Adam’s image The Tetons and the Snake River (1942), and it had a pretty electric effect on me. It went past recording a real place, and communicated something from inside the photographer. It also showed me what could be done in the darkroom, which was a revelation at the time. One of the works (made on Harris) in the current show makes reference to that image, and is a tribute to what first inspired me.
I’ve always enjoyed walking in the outdoors, and that’s something that was instilled in me by my Grandfather who used to take my brother and I for walks around the Cowal hills, in Argyll. The technical elements of photography have never really interested me – for me it’s really just a means to an end, but one you need to learn, the same as you need to learn how to use a paintbrush.
Like Damian Shields in our last interview, you also studied at Glasgow – What did you learn there, and who from?
I did study in Glasgow, but not through the traditional route. I decided to study History of Art rather than take a vocational degree in photography. I was more interested in the ideas behind making work – the philosophy, motivations, and wanted to study the work of other artists. The technical elements of a photography degree I felt I could teach myself, and the rest I learned from apprenticing with photographers who I respected. The alternative process work I learned from workshops, and from a Winston Churchill Fellowship, which took me from LA, to Chicago, then to New York to learn from some of the great American art photographers, an experience I’m truly grateful for.
You’ve studied with Takeshi Shikama – What did you learn?
Takeshi is from a painting background, and I think this gives him a different approach to his work than many photographers. He’s in his 80s now. I spent some time travelling with him around the hills and mountains of Skye with his wife Yukiko. We would seldom make images, concentrating instead on getting a sense of place, allowing Skye to slowly reveal itself, and then making work if it felt right. He showed me how to make images using traditional Japanese Gampi paper, and how to print my work using platinum. As a young photographer I learned a great deal from his methodology, and his patient approach. I’m still working hard at that.
In a world obsessed by digital, can you explain your continued fascination with old cameras and techniques? What techniques are you currently exploring and why?
Digital gives you so many opportunities that weren’t available before, it’s a great tool. It’s the same with old processes. Again, it’s all really just a means to an end. When I start work on an image it’s a slow process of visualising the work, and then working backwards. I ask myself how I want to achieve a certain aesthetic, and really it’s just a case of how I get there. This means I’m not a spontaneous photographer, and when I go out into the landscape it’s generally with a certain idea in mind. With one image in this current exhibition I let the chemicals mature for two years before I made it, to ensure that I got as much contrast as possible. Elements can always change along the way however, and I’m learning to be more open to just seeing what happens. Sometimes I learn a technique to better understand the work of a photographer or artist that I admire, such as learning photogravure to better understand the work of James Craig Annan, or wet-plate collodion for the work of John Thompson. Mostly I’m chasing a certain aesthetic, and making the work using these old processes is the only way for me to achieve that.
I first discovered your work around the time of your Sonnets project, which explored the idea of the rückenfigur (lone figure), which we’ve looked at here on Walk Highlands before. You visited some quite well known locations for that project – why elaborate on that motif in a purely Scottish context?
It’s a German motif in a Scottish context, but one that became very popular in early Scottish landscape painting thanks to painters such as John Knox. For me however It started as a critique of uninspiring landscape photography. The same locations, the same blue skies, the same shortbread tin images of Rannoch Moor, Glencoe, the Isle of Skye. I thought Scottish landscape photography was pretty stagnant at that point, and this series was my attempt to really take it to a natural conclusion, which was to try and make it as romantic, and as kitsch as possible – to consign that kind of Victorian view of the Scottish landscape to the dustbin. Naturally I failed!
I couldn’t make that body of work now. It’s the kind of thing a younger man would make, but I think it was important to go through that process, even though it was fairly hubristic of me to attempt it.
What was the link with the poems of Edwin Morgan specifically, and what shape did that collaboration take – was yours simply a response, or was there lots of dialogue?
I read his book ‘Sonnets from Scotland’ when I was still at school, and it opened my eyes to the depth of our art and culture, what the Scottish and European experience could be. Morgan’s Scotland reached from the early birth of Lewis to the outer regions of the galaxy, and made me look at identity and history with a much wider scope. When I began Sonnets I wanted to take many of the locations mentioned in his poems and feature them in the series, and as it developed I started choosing my own, some with dark pasts such as Gruinard Island, or Lochan Na Fola (The Little Loch of Blood).
I met EM a few times, visiting him at his nursing home in the West End of Glasgow. He was supportive of the series, and liked the sense of humour that underpinned it. We worked together on Anthony Gormley’s 4th Plinth project in Trafalgar Square where we staged Sonnets in the heart of London while I read a selection of his poems that he wanted an English audience to hear. One of these is The Coin, a work that gets more powerful with each passing year.
There seem to be close links between your own visual work and the music and poetry of others. In what way do they feed into your practice?
I like to collaborate with people I respect, and that naturally crosses art forms. There have been some fantastic collaborations with artists, photographers and poets, and I hope to continue in that tradition. My library contains some beautiful work by Gunnie Moberg, Fay Godwin, and Robin Gillanders, all of them creating quiet, meditative images in response to texts that have inspired them. I often return to that work if I need some inspiration. It’s the same with music.
Which artists, photographic or otherwise, continue to inspire you?
It’s pretty eclectic. I’m continually amazed by artists like Tom Waits whose music is played at least one point every day. If I look at my coffee table at the moment I have books on Japanese landscape painting, Faroese print makers like Marius Olsen, and a book of work by Irish artists Hughie O’Donaghue and Donald Teskey. Closer to home I think printmakers like Murray Robertson are doing interesting things, and photographers like Chris Friel.
Is ‘landscape photography’ political for you? If so, how?
I think the landscape is a space for projection as well as reflection. In Scotland of course it’s a hugely political space, and it’s hard not to engage with contemporary issues such as land ownership, and historical ones such as Highland and Lowland clearance locations. This will probably become more apparent in a body of work I’m currently involved with in the Highlands of Scotland.
One of my key interests is the spaces used and occupied by the MOD in Scotland, especially Cape Wrath, and the Ardeer peninsula in Ayrshire, formerly one of the largest munitions factories in the world. In 2014 I made a body of work to do with the Gareloch and Faslane, and the nuclear weapons stored there. I created a series of 2 metre wide photographic works inspired by Andreas Gursky which removed the barbed wire, bunkers, watch towers, check points and installations in favour of turning it back into an atypical Argyllshire landscape of trees and heather, or a ‘wasteland’ as the conservative MP Chris Grayling called it. A poor choice of words given what kind of damage might occur if something went wrong with one of his beloved Trident warheads.
Do you consider yourself a specifically Scottish artist, and if so, how?
I think of myself as culturally Northern European. That becomes more apparent the more I travel, and when I see the kind of work made in the Nordic countries that border the North, Baltic and Norwegian Seas. I think to be Scottish today is to be an internationalist, to look outside our own borders – it’s to make work in a wider context.
Which part of photography you do find the most challenging and why?
I think photography is the most straightforward part. The most challenging element is running a business, trying to get the support of curators, and long hours in the darkroom. It’s a fairly competitive field, and making work in Scotland can sometimes feel like a pretty lonely endeavour. In terms of change, I think audiences are becoming more receptive to it as an art form. Initiatives like the Season of Photography are fantastic, but I still think a Scottish National Gallery of Photography is something we need to work towards. What probably needs to change most is that there really isn’t a great deal of equality or diversity in the field, and issues such as sexism are still fairly common. The only way to change that is from within.
You’ve recently been back to the Faroe Islands – what were you up to?
I’m working on a big project named The Land of Maybe, a socio-documentary project which is really the first of its kind on the Faroes, and has been three years in the making. I’ve photographed countless people, walked hundreds of miles, and seen the archipelago from a thousand viewpoints. The results should hopefully be released in a book next year, and will give a glimpse into the several months of my life I’ve spent living and working there so far. You will be able to follow the project soon via the website www.thelandofmaybe.com
Some people are uncomfortable about the whaling there. What’s your take on that, having spent time there?
I think it’s a complex situation. Many are quick to pass judgment on the Faroese people without really engaging with the subject. If your stance is that killing whales is morally wrong, then that’s a position that it’s hard to argue with. Personally I’m not in favour of the slaughter of cetaceans, but try my best to see the argument from both sides. I often asked myself what is the best way for this to be done if they plan to continue the practice regardless in the face of international pressure.
I spent several weeks with a Faroese crew on the Johanna, an old sailing sloop, and the subject came up continually in conversation. The changes in Faroese life in the last century have been huge, and the Grind (the Faroese name for whale killing) no longer plays the role it once did, ensuring the survival of the archipelago. A 94 year old woman Vestmanna told me that in the past you could physically see the change in the faces of malnourished children before, and then after a successful hunt.
The days of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of whales in an uncontrolled manner are now in the past, and now the slaughter of pods is limited, tightly controlled, and ensures that overall numbers are still healthy, given that pilot whales are not on the endangered list. Those working the Grind are trained to kill as quickly and humanely as possible, using a spear designed to enter the blowhole. All the while the process is watched by officials, and those who are judged to prolong the suffering lose their licenses. The meat is then distributed equally amongst the Faroese people, is not sold for profit, and is given to priority groups first. It’s completely different for example to Japanese commercial pilot whale hunting, which seems to be without regulation, or concern for conservation or animal suffering, a key concern to the fishermen I’ve spoken to who hold whale killing licenses.
Arguably, organisations such as Sea Shepherd make the situation much worse by entrenching both sides, and if anything has encouraged a degree of local retrenchment by threatening and shouting down the Faroese people. Having seen Sea Shepherd’s tactics first hand last year, I think there’s a huge disconnect between their online media presence and what they are doing on the ground.
Speaking to younger Faroese people I think the mood is changing, and other factors like mercury poisoning are also making locals reconsider whale meat as food, if not the practice itself. If anything we should be looking at the colossal pollution of our seas, and see the situation in the Faroese as another warning of how we are now environmentally past the point of no return.
Tell us about what you were doing on St Kilda recently.
I’m currently working on a new book with the Scottish publisher Luath titled ‘The Silent Islands’. The name refers to the way in which the wider story of the islands has been somewhat ignored in favour of the 1930 evacuation, and the fact that the islands are still an MOD Radar range and listening station. It’s also somewhat of an ironic title given the cacophony of the bird colonies on Boreray. I’ve been out to St Kilda several times now, camped on the island, slept through the storms, and spent a few weeks getting to know the landscape, exploring many of its hidden places. There is much more to the islands than the ruined cottages of village bay, and I hope the book reflects that.
You have a new piece of work starting on the Isle of Lewis in the Autumn, working with the arts centre An Lanntair in Stornoway. What will you be doing there?
I will be based on the Outer Hebrides for two years consolidating a project I’ve been working on since 2013. It’s about the people and landscapes of the islands, somewhat in the footsteps of greats like Gus Wylie and his Hebrides series. I’ve met some incredible people already, but living on the islands will hopefully give me the chance to really engage with the subject.
An Lanntair have also appointed me to help encourage artists from across the Outer Hebrides, and that’s the role I’m most looking forward to working on – helping others make their own work, and helping to nurture the next generation of talent. That’s the most exciting thing you can hope to do as an artist.
Alex’s work is on show at the John Muir Trust Wild Space on Pitlochry High Street, from July – September 2016.
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