My first problem in writing an Artist Statement is that I am still uncomfortable referring to myself as an “artist”. Academically I have 3 degrees in the sciences and have no formal qualifications in the arts. When I mentioned this to Dr. Mike Ware, who like me did a doctorate in Physics at Oxford before turning to photography, he told me the way he approaches the problem is to refer to himself as an artist to his scientist friends and a scientist to his artist friends. It appears that specialisation has led to people feeling threatened by the arriviste. Even in the late nineteenth century it was still the norm to maintain broad academic interests - for example Sir John Kirk, who made calotypes along the Zambesi river as part of the Livingstone expedition (1858-64) was comfortable both as an artist and a respected botanist sending samples back to Kew. He has several species named after him. But today one has the impression that the artist-scientist is to be regarded as someone who is an amateur at both, in the derogatory sense of the word.
However, the photographic processes I use require the practitioner to take on the role of artist-scientist, involving as it does some troublesome chemistry before you can address any artistic vision.
So what can I say about my work? I work with nineteenth-century photographic techniques because I enjoy the process. I don’t see myself as having any particular driving concern. It’s not usually my intention that the work “speaks to” anything, nor is it usually “concerned” with anything beyond my own personal satisfaction. However, my work has been described as nostalgic. But Nostalgia implies distress (Glenn Albrecht 2003). The lack of people in the images and the choice of subject matter I am drawn to are both a consequence of the long exposures required. Many of the images are what might be described as environmental portraits of built structures but that have some historical interest either known to me or inferred. Maybe the Portuguese term Saudades is a better description for some of the images as they examine structures that hark back to earlier times in a wistful way.
I read a lot of Artist Statements couched in pretentious language (often with typos). I have a rule that when the Greeks appear I click away. By the “Greeks” I mean terms like eidetic, mimetic, semiotic or ontological. So I’ll stick to plain English and simply explain the drive behind my work as one of seeking an elusive technical perfection whilst deriving a thoroughly selfish enjoyment from the process.
In a current project, Mosques of Mozambique, I took a six-month apprenticeship with a Swedish Master Cabinetmaker, Thomas Erikson, in order to learn the skills I’d need to build a view camera. We set up a workshop in Mozambique and I built a 16x20” and the 10x12” Capulana Camera. The latter incorporates a bellows made from colourful Mozambican fabric known as Capulana. Both cameras were made from sustainably-grown Mozambican hardwoods. The Capulana Camera was built specifically for the Mosques project. I suppose it’s the photographic equivalent of Method Acting.
For the moment, six years after starting to experiment, I’m still excited by the magic of seeing the image appear in the developer even though it takes between 1 and 2 hours to build the full density. I’m still frustrated by contact printing, still struggling to achieve repeatable quality with both salt and albumen prints. In the near future I hope to explore Copper Plate Photogravure as a means to obtain prints which are as unique as artefacts as the calotypes themselves.