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Stephen Gill

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The photographic voice of the English photographer Stephen Gill always has a playfully inventive ring. His book ‘Hackney Wick’ (Nobody, 2005), named after an area in east London where the photographs were made, is comprised of pictures taken with a cheap plastic lens camera he bought at a flea market in Hackney Wick for 50 pence. For his book ‘Hackney Flowers’ (Nobody, 2007) he gathered plants, flowers, and seeds, arranging the material over photographs (which he then re-photographed) — creating complex dimensional collage. For other series, he has buried prints to “allow the place itself to imprint upon the images through decay or markings;” or placed objects and creatures inside his camera creating images akin to in-camera “photograms” as seen in his book ‘Outside In’ (Photoworks, 2010).

So when the Centre National de L’Audiovisuel in Luxembourg commissioned Gill to create a new body of work and a book responding to an industrial wasteland that is the remains of the steel-making industry in the city of Dudelange, it seemed to be a perfect fit for an artist who is known to physically integrate the surroundings into the process and final results of his work. Gill’s newest book Coexistence has just been co-published by the Centre National de L’Audiovisuel and Gill’s own book imprint Nobody.

Concentrating on a pond that had once been used to cool the factory blast furnaces as recently as 2006, Gill became curious about the newly forming microscopic communities of life that would be returning and flourishing. As he writes in the afterword to ‘Coexistence’; “For eight months leading up to my first visit to the territory, my mind increasingly started tuning into the microscopic worlds within worlds, and I became ever more aware of the many parallels between patterns and process in the pond and those in our own lives as individual humans within societies…Slowly I became committed to the idea of attempting to bring these two apparently disparate worlds — so physically close yet so different in scale – visually closer together.”

In order to draw these two worlds together Gill employed the use of a medical microscope from the University of Luxembourg and a pail of water scooped from the pond. With the microscope, he studied and photographed the miniscule creatures and plant life. Carrying around the pail of water, he would dunk his underwater camera into it prior to making portraits of residents he met in Dudelange. The results, page after page, have your mind jumping back and forth between the recognizable and the indistinguishable — the scientific and the conceptual.

One might be tempted to dismiss Gill’s strategies as gimmicks were it not for the immediate beauty and complexity of the images. Admittedly this writer has questioned his cleverness, on occasion, as “the idea” dominating the actual content (dipping prints into the pond water to transfer life onto the surface of the paper), but I find the two approaches to image making here flow together into the ‘tapestry’ that Gill expresses as his intent.

With its gold foil stamped titles and speckled book block edge, ‘Coexistence’ is handsomely made to resemble a leather, quarter-bound, reference book that might be seen sitting aside Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. That is, after all, the ultimate metaphor here – the primordial sludge finding its footing and slipping seamlessly into society.

Stephen Gill is a British photographer based in London.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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The thread that links much of the Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen’s work is her portrayal of the seemingly small, undramatic moments of everyday life.

It might be a photograph of friends sitting and sharing a drink or a deceptively simple photograph of a family snapshot sitting on a bureau, but the weight of much of her imagery lays in the perception of a connection her subjects. Van Manen’s professional beginnings were in fashion but after a photographer friend introduced her to the photographs of Robert Frank and other artists, she pursued a more personal direction with her work. “Both Robert Frank and Nan Goldin have inspired me, especially the directness and closeness to the subject they have. I have to like the people I photograph,” she has said. The seemingly casual language of her photographs stems from her use of automatic, non-professional cameras. “Traveling with expensive Leicas or Nikons in Russia at that time was asking for trouble,” she says. “They considered my cameras as toys… and they did not feel threatened by them, they considered me as a tourist or friend, who liked to take pictures.” What might be seen at first to be “flaws” to the images—a light leak bleeding in from an edge, imperfect focusing or flash burn from the on-camera flash—give way to the perception of Manen’s impulses to grab at what she sees before her, physically hold it, or more accurately as felt in the pictures, to embrace it.

For her first book, A Hundred Summers A Hundred Winters, published in 1994, van Manen traveled all over the former Soviet Union for more than three years photographing daily life. “I did not focus on poverty,” she says. “But the average living conditions are, of course, poorer than in the West. On the other hand I did not try to show happiness and lightheartedness where it does not exist.” Looking past the living conditions, one notices much of what is happening in van Manen’s images takes place in the sitting rooms, bedrooms or over kitchen tables where people gather to talk or get to know one another. The photos exude warmth, without judgment and with a keen eye for the unexpectedly beautiful. In one photograph from Kazakhstan, a perfectly stacked pyramid of silver metal bowls left to dry on a kitchen counter mimic the tiles on the wall behind. In another from Moldavia, golden brown loaves of bread line sets of white shelves while a man in uniform and Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder seems to stand guard.

Van Manen’s 2006 book Give Me Your Image focused her attention on family photographs she discovered in homes she visited while traveling in Europe. She photographed them where they were found or at times would place them among other objects creating impromptu still-lifes. “It was exciting to walk through the homes with a portrait, looking for the perfect place to put it,” she said. “I tried not to think and just follow my intuition. This sometimes gave surprising results, like the lady in Rome, who started crying when I put the image of her dead son in a corner, in front of a little cabinet that he always had treasured and that was all she still had of him.”

Bertien van Manen’s latest book, Let’s Sit Down Before We Go, published by Mack Books, is a collaboration of sorts. Titled after the habit of having Russians sit for a moment before a long journey to think about where they will be going and why, van Manen’s book came into being after a lengthy pause of its own. After revisiting some of the contact sheets from her work from the former Soviet Union shot between 1991 and 2009, van Manen sent some scans of a new edit of images to the British photographer Stephen Gill for his opinion. Gill in turn asked to see all of the raw material represented on the 500+ contact sheets and proceeded to make not only a selection of pictures but sequence them as well. Van Manen trusted his instincts. “I decided to stay with his selection and sequence, happy with the dynamic yet subtle repetition and rhythm of images and the combination of colors,” he says. “They are in complete accordance with my idea about the content of the album.”

Gill’s edit favors many images that were left on the contact sheets due to unsharpness or overexposure and in preparing the images for the book they were not corrected, in fact much the opposite. “Stephen had encouraged us to push to extreme results,” van Bertien says. “I was there for some days in the Lake District, with Rob Sara in his darkroom, while he was printing these images. For instance, working on the second print in the book, we held back the face of the baby even more.” The results leave the baby almost without detail – a glowing mass upended and swinging from a man’s arms.

When van Manen speaks of her books, she uses the word “album” frequently. An album, a family album in particular, makes little claim for aspiring to great art. Its purpose seems to be our desire to access memory, history, personal feelings (both good and bad) and perhaps even serve as proof of our existences. There is a shorthand of language in the gestures, faces that can be universal even if we do not know who is in the picture. Her work seems familiar because it is art that slyly poses as photographs that could sit alongside our own memories in such an album. It is such that we can feel the gift of the company Bertien van Manen keeps.

Let’s Sit Down Before We Go was recently published by Mack Books.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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