Universal locality: experimental documentary photographer Stephen Gill

Experimental Bristol-born documentary photographer Stephen Gill reflects on an enriching journey of learning, creating, dismantling and ending up back where it all started, ahead of his home-city retrospective – and how photography saved him

Stephen Gill has built his photographic career upon an ethos of conceptual experimentation. Eschewing a signature style, his creative processes have included photographic burials, floral collage, in-camera photograms and the submerging of work within a watery world, and this month over 30 years of extraordinary, intense practice will be celebrated at the Arnolfini, drawing together new and previously unexhibited work. ‘Coming Up For Air’ includes works from Gill’s latest series ‘Please Notify the Sun’, alongside images taken from others such as ‘Hackney Flowers’, ‘Buried’, ‘Talking to Ants’, ‘Night Procession’, ‘Pigeons’, ‘Coexistence’ and ‘The Pillar’.

A solid two years in the making, the show will be accompanied by a 600-page catalogue that Gill has edited, produced and just printed in Denmark, using colourful recycled book cloth and featuring plenty of work that won’t feature in the exhibition.

From his bright, airy studio in the Swedish countryside – all whitewashed walls and rustic wooden beams – Stephen Gill smiles over Skype as we talk of his retrospective and his return home. It’s a dream come true for the Bristol-born photographer who worked the one-hour photo lab in Asda Bedminster in the late 1980s. His 16-year-old self would never believe it.

TBM: What would you like people to take from the retrospective?

SG: Encouragement, especially for young people, to walk their own path; to trust their instincts if they feel compelled to do something; to not make work that they feel is expected of them. Sometimes it is a long, lonely path or you’re swimming against the current trends. Do what you deeply want to do rather than thinking of an audience and what they want to see. I think this show may conjure up all sorts of emotions; the Swedish work, for me, is still quite overwhelming when I see it. It’s intense but funny. There’s quite a lot embedded in the pictures. Even though they’re of nature and animals they’re quite human as well; there’s a fragility.

How has living in Sweden for the past eight years shaped your photography work?

Massively. I never knew quite how it would but I knew nature would play a big part. I tried to have an open mind as to how it would steer everything. I knew beforehand that my imagination would have to work much harder; in London you’re so visually bombarded. After a while, living here, I understood that in London I was doing a lot of filtering out. You select and immerse yourself in a particular subject, whereas here it’s the opposite; you have to really extract something because you can’t necessarily see it – but it’s all here. It’s infinitely inspiring, there’s so much to do. I thought: I’ll move to Sweden, slow down, have a quieter life after 20 intense years in London, but it was a complete mirage – I fooled myself in a way and realised I wasn’t running away from the intensity, I was running away from myself in a way. It’s still mad. I’m still waking up at four in the morning; nothing changes. It’s you. And the work I’ve made over the years tends to generate more work, more emails etc.

Tell us more about the new Swedish work that will be showing

All of it is being shown for the first time in the UK. There are three Swedish nature studies; the first of which is a nocturnal study around the idea that while we’re all sleeping there’s this parallel world that comes alive. It’s not that dissimilar to the city life that I knew; it’s equally 0intense in terms of abundance. In the same room at the Arnolfini is this series called The Pillar which is a study of birds; trying to funnel the birds from the sky onto the surface of a 6cm-diameter pillar. When you look out of the window it doesn’t look like there’s much happening at all but you know there’s so much life – so as an experiment I asked a local farmer if I could put a pillar in his field. Opposite, I put another pillar with a camera and over a four-year period I recorded all the birds; anything that landed on this ‘stage’. In a way it’s all a bit wrong; they’re falling off or somehow offbeat, but there’s something nice about the fact they’re not typical nature pictures. The birds almost made the work. I built a place where things could unfold but I was not there. I would visit three days a week, clean the camera, take out the SD card, change the batteries, and just maintain the thing.

There are three Swedish nature studies; the first is a nocturnal study around the idea that while we’re all sleeping there’s this parallel world that comes alive

– Stephen Gill

How did you create the unique nature series Please Notify The Sun?

Please Notify the Sun is a journey I made last year. It was a 10-week expedition I’d been planning for years – to travel inside a fish – but hadn’t had the energy, time, courage or confidence to do. I bought these special optics and cameras and microscopes from eBay, then Covid came and my overseas trips were cancelled, so it was the perfect time to take the journey. I saw it like an expedition to space or something, but inside a sea trout. I went fishing with my kids and after 20 attempts we finally caught a fish. I was stunned to see what’s in a fish – a whole world of seas, stormy skies, stalactites and so many colours. Of course, you’re seeing what you want to see… I built a stage with 12 different lights and in a way it was revisiting what I did as a teenager in Bristol; I was into pond life and the microscopic world. I must have been such a weird kid, walking around Bristol in legwarmers and breakdancing to hip hop at the same time… It felt like things had come full circle. There’s no question that with the fish and the birds there’s a clear line tracing back to my early teens in Bristol when I was photographing birds from my parents’ bathroom window or birdtable; it’s almost the same language. It’s funny I’ve ended up where it all started some 38 years ago.

You’re celebrated for your ability to conjure and reflect a sense of place. How did the idea come about to collaborate with place itself and extract from subject matter?

By 2004 or 2005 I’d already been making pictures for 20 years and started to feel I was reaching the technical parameters, the limitations, of photography. As much as I love photography’s great descriptive strengths, there were occasions where it just wasn’t enough; it couldn’t convey all the feelings or ideas. It was like hitting a glass wall and trying to get to the other side. I started to try to step back as the author and encourage the subject or place itself to help make the work.

Why, in a nutshell, are you are so interested in place?

When I was younger I thought that in order to make work you had to travel to a far-away place to look for the exotic. As I grew older I realised it was all here. It was a heightened obsession with the place where we are, an enclosed proximity, drawing from locality but understanding your local surroundings and place can be related to by many. With the flea market work in London in the early 2000s I was getting emails all the way from Italy; there was a human empathy with the times we live in as well as geography. The world is small. My work the last 19 years has been very local; a fascination with place within the parameters of where I was living and working.

How did it feel when you dug up the pictures you’d buried for your 2006 project Buried, not knowing what would be left?

There was that element of surprise. Of course, you envisage what might happen to some extent – you’re steering pictures, but you’ll have no idea where they’ll land. I remember being excited by the idea of both destroying and creating simultaneously; by introducing something else you’re obscuring and revealing at the same time. Later I tried it with Talking to Ants where I added things into the film chamber of the camera. In a time where everything leads to control of vision, it’s so nice to let go and think about where your intentions meet with chance.

Have we forgotten how to have fun, be individual and leave it to chance with photography?

In the late ’90s when image-making conversations were all around megapixels, DPI and clarity, it felt like by gaining, we were losing soul. The heightened technical clarity, in some ways, oppressed. When I was making photographs in a flea market in east London in 2001 I was using a plastic camera and even though it had its own limitations in terms of clarity it always had the suggestion of something; you could just about make out that it was a person wearing a bag, or it was some plants in an allotment, but it wasn’t hyper clear. It didn’t enforce too many preconceptions. Sometimes we bring almost too much. I discovered that even when information was denied, strong feelings still came through. It was pushing content to the forefront again, with technique second. That was really exciting in the early days of digital. It was almost like information gave way for feelings.

Which has been your most successful experiment?

Talking to Ants, made in London between 2009 and 2013; an amazing period for me. I was carried by the subject completely; getting bits of London and sprinkling them in the camera. It was like a going inside your head; similar to when you go into your own world when you’re a child. I enjoyed that process very much; and the pictures are quite disorientating. There’s a real confusion of scale – the prints are quite big so if there was an ant in the camera, the ant is the size of a cat in the image. For me, it fitted quite well with the bombardment of modern inner-city life; feeling overwhelmed just walking around. Even though the pictures are not so descriptive of a scene, perhaps they encapsulate and document a bit of what London felt like to me at that time.

What have you learnt about yourself through your work?

When I was younger I was striving to make what are considered ‘good pictures’ and after some time – it’s like playing a musical instrument – you master your craft (although I’m not saying I have). It’s something you’ve done all your life and you could almost do it with your eyes closed. After reaching a certain point, I found, the fun starts when you start dismantling everything you have learned and having the confidence and courage to let go, strip back and have fewer elements and less control. You’re stepping back and the subject takes up that space. Finally I’ve stepped out altogether with the birds; orchestrating the work and helping it to be made, but it’s not made by me. There’s no human presence. That wonderful learning experience comes with time and understanding your craft.

How did Bristol shape your photography practice?

I’m so grateful to photography because I wasn’t academic. I had insane amounts of energy; me and my friends were lucky to find paths which didn’t align with subjects at school, to channel this excess energy and articulate ourselves. It saved me, in a way. As much I sometimes feel I’ve exhausted photography, or it’s exhausted me, I am still really grateful to it. Certainly as a teen in Bristol, it was the perfect way to respond to the world around you if you were curious or you liked or didn’t like something. I learned the technical side quite young; my dad enrolled me in a summer course at the Watershed when I was 12. There was a group of us at the city farm in Bedminster and it changed my life. I was really sure that was what I wanted to do then. It was amazing to have that foundation, being taught to process and print my own photographs from an early age. I loved nature, insects, birds; that was an obsession. I photographed at school, parties, and for friends who’d followed their own paths in fashion and music. I did a project at Bristol Dogs’ Home and made a study in launderettes in Bristol when I was 17, but they were traditional, quite photographic images, which said more about me wanting to be a photographer than they did the subject. I was still learning how to articulate myself. There’s a point at which the subject completely takes over and that’s when things get exciting – for me that was London in the early 2000s.

And you processed a few Bristolian holiday snaps back in the day?

Yes! When Asda was first built in Bedminster, they opened a one-hour film processing lab there. I left school at 16 and was the assistant manager there. I loved it. I couldn’t believe I had a job and I could wear a tie and go to work, I felt really happy about that. I didn’t do well at school so it was a big deal for me. But I realised I wanted to make pictures rather than process other people’s.

Are there any Bristol photographers or groups you really admire?

The Watershed; I’m so grateful to that course all those years ago. I know Martin Parr and I’m happy he will visit the show. I have such good memories of Bristol and it’s such an honour to show with the Arnolfini, I can’t believe it. I hope people enjoy it. It’s been the most intense 35 years; I just haven’t stopped. It’s going to be funny for me; in life you tend to keep going and look forward and never have I stopped and had a breath and looked back the other way. It’s going to be nice to see these series and how they ricochet and talk to each other; even though aesthetically some are quite different there is a narrative somehow. I’m sure it will be quite overwhelming for me.

Coming up for Air: Stephen Gill – A Retrospective, 16 October – 16 January; arnolfini.org.uk

Main image: From ‘Hackney Wick’ 2001 – 2005 © Stephen Gill