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Coming up for Air: Stephen Gill – A Retrospective
BRISTOLIAN Stephen Gill’s photography confounds all expectations. Like with Marmite you’ll either be intrigued or not bothered at all.
Anthropology, archaeology have been uttered as descriptions of the multilayered visual textures of his work. Is there any truth in that, we ask.
Gill is philosophical, he believes his early work are studies of people and the things we do and what we encounter: “It was a genuine interest and something I think photography is really good at; making such descriptive studies.”
With regards to archaeology, he believes: “Photography so often deals with suggestions of the past, like decay and deterioration and Archaeology in Reverse series was an attempt to leave tiny clues or suggestions of change that were yet to take place.”
Most of Gill’s images appear to be a fragmentation of greater wholes. When asked about what is being suggested/communicated he says that photography has a terrible habit of forcing a point and suffocating the subject with the author’s preconceptions.
“I am [by contrast] implying something as opposed to imposing,” he points out.
An impact of real-time events often feeds Gill’s through-the-lense observations: “For example, Coming up for Air (shot in Japan between 2008-9) was made during an intense time in my life and probably reflects more about that and a reaction to modern inner-city life than it say does about Japan.”
Each of Gill’s series is a separate visual universe. The Coexistence — a study of an industry left behind — puts visually side by side the microscopic and human worlds, while Pillar, shot in a bleak Swedish rural landscape, consists of random snaps of birds — without focus or composition. A kind of inversion of an “Attenborough’s” discipline?
Unexpectedly Gill reveals that “the birds made the work themselves, I just kind of orchestrated it, gave a platform [the pillar] to help these visual miracles to unfold — it felt like opening a little invisible door and stepping through like the edge of this life and a glimpse into another.”
Staying with ornithology, we ask about the Pigeons series, which Will Self believed to be an allegory of anthropomorphism.
For Gill it is more about fear and prejudice and hierarchy. In the birds’ universe the swan is at one end and the pigeon at the other a mere “flying rat.”
His exploration of their world of colourless labyrinths is an exposition another layer of city life, parallel to and simultaneous with our own.
Most of his works are quite deliberately “out of focus,” thus negating one of the cardinal principles of classical photography.
Why is that? In the early 2000s his distrust in aspects of photography grew: “It was almost like where things are super in focus, like in print or on TV, we are supposed to trust them more.”
This level of lucidity, he says, was being presented as truths.
His response was to trust precisely the absence of information. “Through a lack of focus, the thing that seem to be retained is the feeling, the spirit of place,” he says.
Humans make only sporadic appearances in Gill’s work and his thoughtful explanation intrigues.
“In order to describe humans and the things we do or encounter we don’t need to show humans,” he says adding the caveat: “Photography can be such an exploitative thing.”
Given the Morning Star’s long residence in Hackney Wick, we have to know what drew him to the area and inspired the series by that title.
Gill says he was attracted by Hackney Wick’s contradictions — an industrial land but also the beauty of the allotments and canals, the waterways and the meadows: “I was living 10 minutes down the road from Hackney Wick and trying to photograph near a place where I lived, was familiar with and grew to love.
“There was something in the air, it was in some ways quite magical too.”
The Hackney Wick series was ”geographical rather than conceptual,” he explains.
His Indian grandmother would talk to him, in Bristol, about London as this melting pot but when he got to here he realised it wasn’t always necessarily the case.
Some parts of it felt quite segregated. Hackney Wick “really felt like every nationality side by side. While quite hard in some regards, there was also something amazing about that place too.”
Asked what he’d expect us to take from this exhibition, Gill alludes to the messages left in the visitors’ book, which overwhelmingly empathise with the work.
“It appears to genuinely touch them,” he ventures with a tinge of pride in a job well done.
He’s also got some uplifting advice to young visitors — an encouragement to trust their instincts and persevere: “Even though sometimes you are working against the current or grain of your chosen field,” he advises.He hopes to motivate and inspire them to explore the world without fear.
Ends January 16 2022. Free.
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