1/ Susan, let’s first talk about Photographs from the Car series. You describe your desire to photograph Whitechapel High Street as a way to “alleviate the frustration of the heavy traffic” but did you feel now there was an under current that made you want to document the transient East End?
I suppose it was both really. When you look at this section of the A11 (the historic road into London from Colchester) from Bow to The City of London, it represents a real cross section of our modern society, both socially and culturally. Additionally, a sense of this mixed community is very much apparent in the architecture of the street; I never tire of looking out of the window at all the people and change. In some ways I feel as if the street represents a microcosm of the world, as if all humanity is somehow represented there! It obviously isn’t but sometimes it really feels like that and it’s so exciting. My journey to work seems to take me around the world!
2/ How would you compare that notion of flux experienced whilst driving/shooting the environment with the digital era?
I’ve never considered comparing it to the digital era. Of course the digital era brings with it a large amount of rapid change, which is ongoing and affects all aspects of our lives. Photographically speaking, digital technologies have made this project possible, through the adaptability of image capture irrespective of light levels and the low cost of shooting multiple frames, enabling rapid response to diverse situations.
3/ What did you learn from that process? Has it changed your practice?
I suppose I’ve re-learned the joy of simple looking and recording, which is such a refreshingly uncomplicated way of using the camera and it probably takes me back to where I first started: looking at what surrounds me and making a record. This is not a conceptual piece, I have merely responded visually to what I see, which has been quite liberating. This is not to say there is nothing to be considered that arises from the work because I believe it does raise issues about the structure of society, modern urban living and the positive aspects of integrating social classes and culturally diverse communities; this is something to consider when we plan our cities.
4/ Would you continue this series over a long period of time? Has it triggered new projects?
Not really any new projects, it’s very much contained as a discreet piece of work but I love it because it keeps me looking closely. I have already made the photographs for a long time now, since 2008, and I don’t really know how to stop; there seems to be no reason to do so but I have slowed down as some things seem so familiar now and work on the road comes and goes. It’s not as intensive as it was, although that could, of course, change again.
5/ Do you see this series as a turning point in your career?
I don’t see it as a turning point, just something else, which is very different from the work I have made more recently which has been connected with intimate photography, portraits, representation and perception, a large proportion of which was staged and collaborative. Here, I operate as a largely unseen observer. It felt very strange initially not to ask, just to wait and watch from the car windows. However, it doesn’t feel like exploitation, probably because I genuinely love what I see and record; the project feels like a celebration of life.
6/ Now let’s talk about this vast project you direct which is the East End Archive at the Cass. Could you explain how the idea sprang? What are the goals?
Firstly, it’s not yet a vast project, although it does have potential to be so. Initially, the idea came though a team of staff at the University talking to a local photographer, Paul Trevor about his huge collection of work. He had lived off Brick Lane for over 30 years and had amassed a great archive. The first deposit made to the archive is of 270 images of this work, published online by VADS. From this we decided to build a contemporary archive of the area looking at only bodies of photographers’ work in order to maintain a context for understanding the images, which means there are no one off images. All the collections so far are relatively recent, from the 1960s onwards but represent very diverse practices, from works of the imagination to traditional documentary. Some of the photographers include: Tom Hunter, Brian Griffin, Jo Spence, Steven Berkoff, Mike Seaborne, David George and Don McCullin. We also collect lesser known photographers and this is also important so that we represent work outside the mainstream too. The work is largely digital and the photographers retain control over all aspects of their work. We use the material only for exhibition and educational purposes but the digital collection is available to students and the public. We are also currently working with Graham Diprose and Mike Seaborne on a digital conservation project. The collection has grown organically to date as people with an interest in the area approach us with possible collections of work. However, the process is slow as funds are very limited. We hope to find a new home for the archive later this year in the former Women’s Library in Old Castle Street and I expect this to be an opportunity to expand the archive and seek new funding.
7/ You also integrate other archives such as Jo Spence’s and Found Images. I personally really love this diversity of sources. Can you tell us why is it so important to you?
Well, the archive represents all kinds of practice, as I mentioned before, and really keeping a broad cross-section of committed practice is essential as it reflects both the photographers concerns and the ethos of the area itself. Photographers work in myriad ways and this fascinates me; the photographic approach is so tied in with the message and indeed often functions as a cultural signifier of its time. Jo Spence worked for many years in Hackney and it seemed such a great opportunity to include this very important work in the archive. Our understanding of East End as a place of constant change and shifting boundaries, an area existing on the margins outside the mainstream, also made Jo’s ground-breaking work a significant collection for us. The found images you mention were rescued from a skip when the Geography department at the University closed; they had been kept since the early 1970s (originally made to document the widespread changes in the area at the time) and jettisoned when the University itself underwent fresh changes at the end of the century.
8/ How do you feel about integrating new technologies and accepting a wider spectrum of interpretations in this project? Do you separate what we understand as Photography and Image Making from your context?
We see photography very broadly as any lens-based or light-sensitive work, we want to look at how the images are made and how the process contributes to meaning and an understanding of the area. Essentially, we are a digital collection, with only a few artefacts. The decision was taken to be digital both due to limited storage space and because we wanted to extend the learning opportunities offered by new media. However, much of the work has had a different technical origin, which is something we discuss when we put the collections together. We are looking for ways of making the most of new technologies from a technical, conservation and art perspective, and we are interested in work which combines old and new media in order to extend the boundaries of practice.
9/ As a Photography Reader at the Cass you have a unique understanding of how younger generations engage with Photography. What are the tendencies observed in the recent years? Do students still embrace a sort of documentary style or do they distance themselves towards abstraction?
In fact, lately there has been a renaissance of interest in both street photography and analogue practice, particularly amongst the younger cohort. Whether this is a reaction due to the predominance of staged work in recent University practice or due to renewed social engagement as a response to issues such as austerity, I’m not sure. Maybe both factors contribute? I think the interest in analogue work is definitely a response to the prevalence of digital photography and the “throw away” aesthetic, which is rooted in a lightly considered technical and intellectual approach. Analogue methods offer the opportunity to “carefully consider” and re-connect with photographic practice, re-bestowing value on the work. Of course, everyone uses Facebook, blogs, Instagram and the Web to network but I believe young photographers want to make something meaningful, that they can connect with. Of course, some are exploring the new technologies and non-representational work too but I think there is a bit of an “analogue ethos” in the approach to their practice: slow down, think carefully and extract meaning from the superfluity.
10/ Last and vast question (sorry) about Photography today. Where do you position yourself? Do you feel Photography in UK is different from elsewhere?
A big question indeed and too vast to accurately answer. Personally, as an educator, I’ve had a tendency to adopt a variety of photographic processes that reflect my research interests and this particular work is broadly speaking a long-term documentary project, with no defined end. The East End Archive represents, I hope, a broad approach to documentary practice which reflects contemporary interests. Its focus is essentially on building an archive for the future, rather than representing a retrospective of past practice, although UK photography has had a long tradition of documentary work and these collections build on that tradition. Of course, it is inevitable that photography reflects its cultural and temporal roots, it’s literally the mark made by light bouncing off a surface at a particular moment in time; and the photographer’s gaze falls on subjects selected out of personal interest in a specific space at a particular time, so yes, Photography is always different everywhere. Some interests and practices will, of course, overlap in different cultures, particularly now we have access to so much influence. But I would like to finish with a quote from Paul Graham, which sums up so well what photographers in different parts of the world strive for:
“And hopefully I will carry on, and develop it, because it is worthwhile. Carry on because it matters when other things don't seem to matter so much: the money job, the editorial assignment, the fashion shoot. Then one day it will be complete enough to believe it is finished. Made. Existing. Done. And in its own way: a contribution, and all that effort and frustration and time and money will fall away. It was worth it, because it is something real, that didn't exist before you made it exist: a sentient work of art and power and sensitivity, that speaks of this world and your fellow human beings place within it. Isn't that beautiful?”
Yale MFA Photography Graduation, February 2009.