Interview - with Steve Bisson
published in Urbanautica Journal (Feb 2019)
Tell us about where you grow up. What kind of place it was?
Tamsin Green (TG): A small commuter town surrounded by countryside, on the outskirts of London. The town sits in the London basin, on a bed of chalk and London clay. As a family we spent a lot of time out walking in this flat, wooded landscape.
And then photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?
TG: My father and grandfather were/ are keen landscape photographers. My father tried to get me interested in photography and would take me to the Photographers Gallery in London, at the time located on Great Newport Street in Covent Garden. I can remember thinking ‘this is not art’. At the time I was making mixed media works and oil painting. My interest in photography developed organically, much later. I bought a camera when I completed my architectural education in 2010 and took it out with me walking. The walks quickly became about taking pictures rather than the pictures being a by-product. I photographed a lot of religious buildings back then, drawn by their light and sculptural forms. My archiving wasn’t very sophisticated, but I did manage to find this photograph from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul in 2011.
What about your educational background? How do you relate to this? Any take aways? Any meaningful courses? Any professor or teacher you remember well? What about being architect?
TG: My educational background is in architecture. I did my bachelor degree at the Bartlett, University College London. Strangely enough it was a series of black and white photographs of my plaster and wire sculptures that got me into the school. I have two key takeaways from my time there; firstly, the power of developing a personal visual language to communicate in both drawings and objects; and, secondly the process of researching, exploring and mapping.
Later I was awarded a scholarship from the Japanese government to study a masters of architecture at Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, where I spent two years. My laboratory master was Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow Wow. The Atelier as well as building have published a series of ‘guide books’ to urban patterns. One of these books is ‘Pet Architecture’; a catalogue of tiny anonymous constructions utilising gaps in the urban fabric, somewhere between architecture and furniture. This is the Tokyo without architects, and goes someway to describing the place that Tokyo is. Working with Tsukamoto-sensei taught me the importance of making design and research accessible.
What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking? How is the language evolving and impacting daily life of people and communities in your opinion?
TG: I think that people are becoming more fluent in visual communication, which is a very positive thing. I do use Instagram, but as a kind of visual diary. I share inspiration and images I’m making, as much for myself as for others. The pitfall is that because it’s so easy to share, work can be shown before it is ready to be seen and before you really know what it’s about. I’ve definitely fallen into that trap. But adversely, the process of sharing work and verbalising what you are doing can also be a very useful part of the process, whether online or through physical forums.
Fast interconnections and instant sharing. How this is affecting the role of a photographer and your own practice?
TG: I have a real fascination with time, and with the lack of it. In Milan Kundera's 1995 novel ‘Slowness’, he ties slowness to the act of remembering, and speed to the act of forgetting. When one wants to savour, remember or prolong a moment, one moves slowly. On the other hand, one travels fast in order to forget a past experience. I really resonate with this idea, and feel that photography is actually my way of slowing down. I am interested in photography away from the screen, in the physical, tactile realm.
About your work now. How would you introduce yourself as an author or described your personal methodology? We read: «Her work explores imprints on the landscape, mapping journeys from human to geological scale», tell us more.
TG: My work involves hunting and mapping familiar things that are often overlooked or under-explored. Over time the starting point of the projects has become narrower and narrower. My methodology is walking, looking and thinking. As a project starts to take shape, collaboration is key for me. Both to utilise the expertise of others, and to bring in an objective voice to ask questions. For my last project, Born of the Purest Parents, I sought out mentors appropriate to each stage; attending a Tri-Pod development course with Miranda Gavin during the research, then working with Yumi Goto during the book phase.
Can you introduce to the series/work Born of the Purest Parents that was selected for Urbanautica Institute Awards. What are the basic motivations and assumptions of this project? And how you planned your research? Difficulties?
TG: Thankfully there is no shortage of minerals on earth. Supplies available for human use depend on our desire for materials compared with our willingness to accept the environmental consequences of extracting them. As such salt is one of the oldest examples of human intervention in the landscape, right at the epicentre of civilisation. The earliest known town in Europe was built around a salt production facility 6 Millennia ago (4700- 4200 BC); Solnitsata, located in present day Bulgaria. Archaeologists believe the town accumulated wealth by supplying salt throughout the Balkans. The first roads in Europe were built to transport salt from these production sites across the peninsular.
The research started with reading, and then progressed to google earth to search for salt within the landscapes of Europe. As this research developed I decided to structure the work around the four primary topographies; salt vein, pan, mountain and lake. I made a field trip to one of each of these topographies to photograph and gather salt. Once I had completed several of these field trips I started to experiment with book layouts and sequences. The book making influenced the image making, and vice versa. One of the limitations of my research methodology was that the white formations I found in the aerial images were not always salt. Sometimes I walked all day to find unknown materials.
Generally speaking, your work raises a strong awareness on environmental issues and on the impact of development within local communities. The above mentioned project as much as others (urbanization in China - the fall of seaside towns - the impact of a new highway).
TG: I’m interested in human intervention in the landscape. Some of the early projects were directly looking at issues that I was uncovering in my architectural work. However, my interests have changed over time, from looking at broad easy to see traces of the human hand, to more hidden subjects and abstract ways of visually communicating my ideas.
We are witnessing an interesting evolution of the way to narrate concepts related to nature and the environment through images. Arts are challenging the way we are used to perceive certain issues. Regarding the effectiveness of your arguments, what questions do you ask yourself?
There have been some incredibly provocative photographic projects exploring themes of the environment and nature. A project that comes to mind is Chrystel Lebas’s, Field Studies: Walking through landscapes and archives. The work was a collaboration with the Natural History Museum, and scientists, and is an exploration of their archive of the photographs and field notes taken by British botanist and ecologist Sir Edward James Salisbury (1886-1978) in the British Isles. By retracing Salisbury’s steps within once wild environments, the impact of human interventions in these landscapes are shown.
In terms of questions, I think these are essential to navigate and discuss a project. With salt, the work could have gone in any number of directions, so I had to constantly ask myself: What is the story? Why does it matter? How could the idea be communicated? And, lastly, how does the work relate to the core theme of my work; civilisation.
Born of the Purest Parents is also a book. Tell us about this experience. How the book digested your intentions?
TG: I find that books are the medium that I am drawn to as they can contain many types of visual material and are physical, tactile objects. Scientists use drawings, photographs and digital images to illustrate written accounts of their work; all of these ways of capturing information work together to form a record of the natural world. In the nineteenth century, topographic surveys were commissioned to produce detailed visual descriptions of the land for scientific and political purposes, one of the key drivers was in the development of mining for natural resources. Born of the Purest Parentsworks in this vein, utilising photographs, google satellite images, and drawings, but to illustrate an idea, rather than produce a useful scientific document.
Experimenting with physical materials and printed imagery is essential to my process, developing into physical book dummies and mock-ups as the project progresses. It was important to me to be able to include physical salt within the book object. I worked with salt printing, whereby paper is soaked in saline water and then coated with silver nitrate, before being exposed together with a negative to UV light. I spent many hours in the darkroom at Photofusion in London with alternative process champion, Paul Ellis. Salt printing is not a technique that is well suited to mass production, so we had to find a methodology of being able to print semi consistently, but also to embrace the charm of the medium in producing unique prints. Each of the handmade books has a set of 4 slightly different salt prints depicting the salt specimens brought back from the field trips.
Three books (not necessarily of photography) that you recommend in relation to your work.
TG: The first book is Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. McFarlane's writing is all about walking out into the landscape and observing. This particular book takes individual materials as the starting point; chalk, gneiss, granite. The way that I make my work, wandering and looking, is how I imagine Macfarlane’s explorations evolve.
The second is Explorer’s Sketchbooks, published by Thames and Hudson. Despite the huge developments in technology, the journal, or sketchbook, is the one piece of the explorers kit that hasn’t changed. I love looking at the many different methods of visually recording information.
The third book is the Eyewitness Guide to Rocks and Minerals. It is a book that I enjoyed very much as a child, using it both to identify found rocks and to marvel at the fragments of layered, textured materials and their uses. It is a book that I often come back to.
Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?
TG: I am going to interpret ‘show’ in the widest sense and say Anthony Gormley and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ‘Icon’ shown at Sadlers Wells theatre in London. It’s a piece of contemporary dance whereby three tonnes of clay is moulded, pounded and remoulded by the hands of the dancers. The piece sets out to show how we create objects, communities and ideas, and then destroy them and start again. This show has stayed with me due to its use of a single material to tell an incredibly evocative visual and sensory story.
What are you up to?
I am working on a new project in London, for the first time. The idea of the urban geologist, conducting field work on the streets of London, has provided a framework for exploring my immediate environment. It’s too early to be able to really talk about the work, but I’m excited to see where it will lead.
I am also working with a publisher on a new expanded book of the ‘Born of the Purest Parents’ work. The collaboration has been an incredibly fruitful one, leading to new research, imagery and drawings, which enable us to tell a complementary story to the handmade book. We are targeting spring 2019.