Stephen Gill‘s practice is driven by a desire to connect with his immediate surroundings – something he achieves in innovative ways often by introducing unconventional elements or processes into the act of making or processing his pictures. As a child Gill was obsessed with collecting insects and pond life and examining these under a microscope, this developed into an interest in photography which he recounts, eventually morphed into a career. Nahuel Contreras (s.d) describes Gill’s work as “manipulated documentary phototropic images” because of the way external parts of a scene are incorporated or superimposed onto the images, such as seeds, flowers and insects. In response, Gill states that although he has a love of descriptive photography – something he believes is one of photography’s “great abilities”, but, he is driven to capture how a subject feels rather than how it looks and to articulate ideas with images rather than words. Despite considering himself to be a “straight descriptive photographer” he feels photography cannot convey all of his ideas alone, hence, he incorporates other elements. In producing his series’ he focuses on subjects that fascinate him personally as too much consideration for pleasing a potential audience can stifle creativity:
“Always have motivations behind everything you do, work in a standard way and stay loyal to your subject and concept, forget the viewer. Immerse yourself entirely in a project.” (Contreras, s.d.)
Another defining aspect of Gill’s practice is that the experimental collage nature of the images is achieved either in camera or through the developing process rather than through digital post processing techniques. Examples are part processing in negatives with energy drinks (Best Before End), allowing photographs to decompose in the ground (Buried), applying pond water during various stages (Co-existence), or, introducing insects, foliage, dust and debris directly into the camera (Talking to Ants). Gill describes photography as being about control – something he consciously works against, taking steps back and encouraging “slippages of control” through his conceptual strategies. In some ways his work is a response to our times and the way we are bombarded with information and apparent clarity – he is interested in how information can be denied and yet images can still retain meaning. (Brown, 2014)
Gill set up ‘Nobody Books’ in 2005 as a way to self publish his work in order that he could ensure his photographs could be presented with the full expression that he intended and reflect his state of mind at the time. In an interview, Gill describes his views on self publishing:
“I think there are no disadvantages to making your own books, and I would encourage people to find ways to do it. Very often, key art and photography publishers will rely on the author to self-fund or raise the funds to make a book, with little to no financial return (as I experienced in my first non-self-published book). Plus, the book itself could fail to align with your feelings towards the subject. With this in mind, you may as well find ways of making your own books and create a book you are happy with.” (Ceschel, 2015: 92)
Hackney Wick (2005):
This project is a documentation of an unusual Sunday market that took place at an old greyhound/speedway stadium in Hackney Wick between 1996-2003. Gill recalls that the market existed as place for people who were struggling to keep themselves afloat, it was not a market for luxury goods – most of the items on sale looked like scrap. The images were made over two years using a plastic camera with no exposure or focus controls bought from the market on his first visit for 50p – an approach which links the series to the subject he is recording. Without context, the images are difficult to either date or place – without knowing where they were shot I would guess they were shot in Eastern Europe and potentially some time ago. The market was closed in 2003, partly by Trading Standards who said it had become swamped with stolen and counterfeit goods, and partly to make way for the development of the area for the 2012 London Olympics. The aesthetic of the images seems to fit the strange scenes that are shown and there is an ambiguity about whether the market being closed, developed and the area gentrified is a positive. For Gill, the market represents an aspect of the great diversity of London, and while the developments will see much needed infrastructure improvements there will also be losses in terms of diversity and character.
With ‘Buried’ Gill literally made his images connect with the landscape by burying the prints near to where they were shot. The photographs reacted differently depending on how long and how deep they were buried and the acidity of the soil. The images are transformed by the process with colours and emulsions running to create abstract patterns that are at once part of and separate from the pictures. Gill describes the process in the introduction to the book like this:
“Not knowing what an image would look like once it was dug up introduced an element of chance and surprise which I found appealing. This feeling of letting go and in a way collaborating with place allowing it also to work on putting the finishing touches to a picture felt fair. Maybe the spirit of the place can also make its mark.”
Hackney Flowers (2007):
This series evolved from ‘Hackney Wick’. Gill created collages in the studio made up of his photographs of the area combined with seeds, flowers, berries and objects and other ephemera – something he describes as a collaboration with space. These compositions were then rephotographed creating multi-layered images which he sees as being an attempt to “extract a feeling of what a place is like”. (Warner, 2019)
Best Before End (2013):
‘Best Before End’ attempts to respond to the intensity of modern inner city life with Gill employing the conceptual strategy of using energy drinks in the processing of the images. For Gill, these increasingly popular drinks, represent the conundrum of modern life and the growth of a 24 hour society which apparently forbids us to become tired despite the health implications.
Will Self, in the introduction to ‘Best Before Date’, describes the images as a beautiful, but bitter sweet, memorialisation of the “freewheeling Decline of the West…a downhill bicycle race sponsored by a major-brand energy drink.” Despite the truth that tiredness can kill, and the increasing need for sleep in order that we can process split second decision making that our increasingly accelerated world demands, “We swim through an orangey brinelight: a carbonated energy field of unified, fizzing awareness; its dreamlike this existence most certainly but its a waking dream, and for that we have energy drinks to thank.”
This analysis appears to confirm Gill’s intention which he describes in an interview for an exhibition at Foam, that although the subject of the work is not actually in front of the lens, it is literally embedded in the photographs – a strategy he describes as “going through the back door”. He also describes being attracted to the idea of uncertainty that the process allows and the resulting intersection between intention and chance.
Talking to Ants (2014):
This series was made in East London between 2009-2013 and involved Gill placing objects and creatures from the areas he photographed into the body of the camera – something he describes as in camera photograms. The resulting images have either a conflict or harmony which depends entirely on the random chance of where the objects land. Gill explains his motivations as wanting to “encourage the spirit of the place to clamber aboard the images and be encapsulated in the film emulsion, like objects embedded in amber.”
The images in the series are literally connected to Hackney where Gill has worked and explored for most of his career. It is somewhere he describes as “a place that attracts obsessives” and with ‘Talking to Ants’ he attempts to capture the duality and contradictory nature of the place which can be both beautiful or full of chaos and dirt. (Klingelfuss, 2016)
Night Procession (2018):
‘Night Procession’ marks a change in direction for Gill that was brought about by a move from London to rural Sweden. As place is central to his practice this is unsurprising, however, themes of nature and the natural landscape remain. On the surface his new home appeared to be flat, open and bleak, but, closer inspection revealed small clues that the area was teeming with life that appeared at night. Gill set up cameras equipped with motion sensors and infra-red flash on trees in areas he guessed animals would be present. The results see Gill take a step back as the author of the images due to their reliance on chance, a process he describes in the introduction to the book as follows:
“it felt as if I was stepping out altogether, so that the subjects would orchestrate and perform and take on the role of author while at that moment I was likely to be sleeping. This was natures’s time to speak and let itself be felt and known.”
The Pillar (2019):
‘The Pillar’ represents an evolution of the strategy employed by Gill in ‘Night Procession’. For this series, he placed a wooden pillar, 6 cm in diameter, in a field near his home as an attempt to entice birds to use it as a ‘stage’ on which he could capture their behaviour using a motion-sensor camera placed nearby. His reason for doing this is that the vast flatness of the landscape give the incorrect impression that there is little going on, in fact, the area is home to 192 out of the 250 species of birds that are native to Sweden. Gill had no idea initially if the strategy would work and yield results, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the pillar acted as a funnel for the birds offering them a place to rest, feed, nurse their young and look around:
“the images were often chaotic, the birds offbeat and awkward like contortionists, but the shapes and soft lines made by their bodies and wings were arresting.”
Sean O’Hagan sees parallels in the series with Masahisa Fukase’s beautiful, poetic and elegiac photobook ‘Ravens’. There is an “otherness” in the appearance of the birds, an unearthly presence which despite the constant in the composition of the pictures means they are not monotonous – each image showing a unique moment in time:
“In image after image, the top portion of the pillar rises in the foreground and, beyond it, a flat landscape of earth, grass and windblown trees gives way to the silhouettes of buildings on the distant horizon. If the pillar is the still centre of a series that evolved over four years, it is the birds drawn to it that mesmerise.” (O’Hagan, 2019)
Brown, J. (2014) Studio visit: Stephen Gill.Paper Journal. Available at: https://paper-journal.com/studio-visit-stephen-gill/[accessed 6th August 2019]
Ceschel, B. (2015) Self publish, be happy: A DIY photobook manual and manifesto.New York: Aperture.
Contreras, N. (s.d.) Interview with Stephen Gill.The Dots. Available at: https://the-dots.com/projects/interview-with-stephen-gill-176363[accessed 6th August 2019]
Klingelfuss, J. (2016) Photographer Stephen Gill finds harmony in Hackney’s visual chaos.Wallpaper*. Available at: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/stephen-gill-finds-harmony-in-hackneys-visual-chaos-myeyefellout-at-photographers-gallery[accessed 6th August 2019]
O’Hagan (2019) The Pillar by Stephen Gill review – lingers in the mind.The Guardian, 28th May 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/28/the-pillar-stephen-gill-review[accessed 6th August 2019]
Warner, M. (2019) The Pillar by Stephen Gill.British Journal of Photography. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/07/the-pillar-by-stephen-gill/[accessed 4th August 2019]