Q&A WITH PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTIST, SIMON ROBERTS
With a newly published monograph of his large scale tableaux photographs, Merrie Albion, we talked to Simon Roberts about his career as a photographic artist and what it takes to lead a creative life.
Above: Trough House Bridge, Eskdale, Cumbria from the series Merrie Albion (2007-2017) © Simon Roberts
How did you get into photography, and what drew you to the medium?
One of my earliest memories of photography would be sitting in the family lounge on a Sunday afternoon with the curtains closed, looking at hundreds of my Dad’s (unedited) slides and listening to his enthusiastic commentary. The sound of the Kodak projector clicking through his pictures of various road-trips he made and family holidays formed a significant part of my formative years. I was given a Canon AE1 camera when I was 14 and have been photographing ever since.
What is your area of interest, and how do you choose your projects?
Generally speaking, my work attempts to explore how our collective and national identities are shaped, interpreted, defined and transformed by our relationship to the landscape. Often creating expansive tableaux photographs, I try to chart the ambiguities and complexities of post-industrial Britain. The photographs require scrutiny and contemplation. They have a visual command that comes from their expansive nature and scale; I make use of the grand overview, recording people as formal patterns within the landscape. Where possible, each photograph situates the event in a pictorial vista from an elevated viewpoint (often taken from the roof of my motorhome), familiar from landscape painting.
How did you find your own unique creative voice?
It’s worth noting that it took some time! I graduated in 1997 and spent the next six years working predominantly within editorial photography, freelancing for publications like the Sunday Times Magazine and Esquire. Whilst I was often pitching my own ideas and selling features, I was increasingly frustrated that my photographs were often just illustrations that had no lasting impact, particularly as I would lose control of the final editing process. In 2003 I was invited on to the World Press Masterclass in Amsterdam and was encouraged to begin exploring my personal work in more depth. A few months later I moved to Russia and spent a year travelling with my wife. It was an opportunity to explore this vast nation, but also to explore my own photography. The resulting images ended up being published in my first monograph, Motherland (Chris Boot, 2007), and since then I’ve concentrated nearly exclusively on my own photographic practice, collaborating with galleries, exhibiting and publishing books.
In 2010 you were the official election artist for the British general election. What did you learn from the experience?
Elections and electioneering in the past have frequently provided artists with lively colourful subjects – take Hogarth’s Election Series, Canvassing for Votes, where he offered a beautifully painted but severe indictment of modern electoral corruption, lambasting the notorious Oxfordshire contest in the 1754. Or William Eggleston’s Election Eve photographic portfolio made in and around Georgia on the eve of the 1976 US Presidential election. For my work as the 2010 British election artist (previous to me there was Johnny Yeo and David Godbold, and in 2017 it was Cornelia Parker), I wanted to reveal the increasingly stage-managed campaign events that had become part of mainstream politics. I was certainly struck by the extent to which the various political parties, even the smaller ones, attempted to micro-manage the press and control the news agenda each day. They were all fearful about the types of photographs that might end up on the 24 hours news wire so tried kept their political candidates in as a contained environment as possible.
My elevated position affords a view that is unfamiliar to the person on the ground – in particular the eye-level, close-up view of the press photographer and television camera in the media scrum. The photographs encompass entire scenes and, what might normally appear to be banal vistas, peopled by weary campaign-trailers, are transformed into elaborate theatres, the landscapes providing the sets for the detail of the many nuanced interactions and expressions being played out in them.
The 2010 general election came directly after the expenses scandal when the reputations of politicians had been heavily tarnished in the eyes of the great British public. So I was encouraged by some of the 600 or so political candidates who were running for political office that year. Many that I met, particularly those new to politics, seemed to be very decent people who were passionate about serving the public. This was very refreshing.
Several books of your work have been published. Is it important for photographers to publish their work in book form?
In recent years we have witnessed a boom in photo book publishing with some varying degrees of success. Photographic books shouldn’t just be a vanity publishing exercise and not all series warrant being presented in a monograph. However, when the right work is brought together in a well thought-out and presented publication, it can work wonders for the artist. For me, the photo book is an object which I have authored and had a lot of control over, from the editing, sequencing and design to the text elements and cover decisions. It is an incredibly rewarding endeavour and as an object, has a permanence which neither the exhibition or magazine spread has.
Your latest book, ‘Merrie Albion’ is a monograph of your work to date, plus some unpublished work. How did ‘Merrie Albion’ come about and where does it fit amongst your other books?
For over a decade, I have been photographing events and places across Britain that have drawn people together in public, reflecting on the nature of our shared histories and communal experiences. Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2017) brings together photographs that record social practices and customs linked to the British landscape, as well as some of the economic and political theatre that has helped define recent history. The book builds directly on my two previous studies of the British (or English landscape) where We English (Chris Boot, 2009) centred on the English at play and Pierdom (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2013) was a photographic record of the last remaining pleasure piers dotted around the British coastline. With these publications my interests gravitated towards evolving patterns of leisure, and the complex relationship between history, place and culture. In Merrie Albion I have also photographed events that have had a more immediate, topical significance in Britain’s recent past, and which collectively form a detached visual chronicle of the times in which we live.
It’s been said that great photography helps us to see the world anew. That sounds like a pretty tall order! Where do you begin to start with something as grand as that?
There’s no denying that photography has played one of the most significant roles in documenting and shaping the course of history as it has progressed over the last century. Even in our era of so-called ‘fake news’, memes and banal images on social media, a great photograph still has the power to stop us in our tracks, question government policy, and just possibly, affect change. Or maybe I’m just optimistic.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to lead a more creative life or become an artist?
Here are a few tips that have served me well:
– The best delivery is simplicity – start by doing one thing well.
– Generate your own projects and remember that ideas are your currency.
– Stay focused on the projects that interest you and try not to waste time on trivial assignments.
– Make time every day or week to create something new.
– Seek out mentors to help edit and critique your work, but only seriously consider the feedback from those you trust.
– Build a network of people who like what you do and nurture these relationships.
– Write an artist statement clarifying what your work is about, even if it’s just for you. Re-visit this statement every so often.
– Remember that the uncertainty of a freelance career can prove a source of motivation as well as frustration.
– Be an author of your own work not an illustrator of others.
– Watch an Andrei Tarkovsky movie.
Merrie Albion is on show at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London until 10th March.