As undergraduate students prepare for their final degree show, with dissertations now complete, a new feature to the blog includes interview questions from final year students. These exchanges were part of each student’s original research, and these extracts appear with their kind permission.
Sam Norris: where does your interest in archives come from and why you are drawn to them?
Nicky Bird: Initially I think it came from my interest as a teenager in looking at the photographs of Hollywood film stars, and their stories – particularly Marilyn Monroe. These photos and stories would have been in books, magazines and on TV and I had a collection of these materials. In a sense, although I wouldn’t have realized this at the time, I was making an archive – not from my own family materials – but from what is now called ‘popular culture’. I was drawn to Marilyn Monroe as she is portrayed as someone who was a great beauty, a comedy actress but was also a complicated woman in real life. The differences between the myth and imagery fascinated me.
Years later I came across the photojournalist Ed Feingersh’s photographs of Monroe, in which four unidentified women are photographed by him watching Monroe being fitted for a costume in New York. I went to New York and photographed what was left of the original site – where the photo was taken – and then went to the Michael Ochs Archive, who had Feingersh’s contact sheets. It was a strange feeling looking at the contact sheets – like following a long-gone photographer in his footsteps – but also realizing I was looking for more photos of these unknown women. These photos had not been published as they don’t have Marilyn in them – so no commercial value – and this raised all kinds of interesting questions about archives holding hidden histories – if you go looking for them. So although the commercial value of the Feingersh pictures are because of Marilyn Monroe, I became much more interested in these other women, and the lives, histories, untold stories they represented. When I was there, lying on the table was another contact sheet from another photographer. The contact sheet was of Elvis Presley in the 1950s, at a dinner table surrounded by women. There was a picture editor’s pencil mark around his head – indicating that’s the part of the photo they wanted to use. They weren’t interested in the unknown group… That was when I realized how important archives are – and you can look at them in another way, which is what I think photographers/artists do…
SN: What do you look for in your subjects?
NB: I look for what hidden histories may be connected to a photograph, a landscape or object. It is also important that this history still has relevance today – which is why I am interested in finding ways of working with people who have a connection to it in some way. Sometimes these people are literally connected (so they might be descendants to someone in the photograph, other times they might have professional connections such as the Archivist)…
SN: How do you choose the pictures/photographers/subject matters for each project? is it a single image that sparks a project or do you slowly build up a collection of photographs and go from there?
NB: There is usually a found photograph that triggers the whole thing off, so in a way that photograph ‘chooses’ me! For example, Tracing Echoes (2001) began with a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait. I was in a bookshop flicking through a book, when I came across ‘Passion Flower at the Gate.’ I was immediately struck by the resemblance to my sister. It was quite spooky as I knew my sister was not a descendant of this Victorian woman. I took a test portrait of my sister to see if she, and others, also could see the resemblance. The test portrait raised a question: what if I could trace the descendants of Cameron’s women and take their portraits? I realized that I was interested in her portraits of servants and local children. Her most famous works were made on the Isle of Wight, where my sister was born. Originally I thought the project would be a series of portraits, but as the book Tracing Echoes shows, photographs of the house where Cameron lived and worked became as significant as the portraits. Question for Seller (2004-6) began with a group of family photos bought on eBay one Christmas. In this case the actual photographs along with the seller’s statement and cost of the purchase became really important. For Beneath the Surface / Hidden Place (2007-9), it was a family snap of the two boys photographed in the same place where I was a volunteer on an industrial archaeology site. The diptych shown in the book (2010) on page 4/5 became the trigger for that project, and I talk about what happened next in the book and also in the film. What my projects have in common is that a ‘found’ photograph leads to others (photographs and people), and the reason to make a series of new photographs is to explore a relationship to a particular site. You can see the different kinds of archives I have worked in – from the official kind (such as the National Media Museum) to more local, informal types (such as family photos kept in a bread bin)…
Tracy Cornes: How long has collaboration with the public been a feature of your work and have there been any challenges in working with the public that have changed the direction of a project or work?
Nicky Bird: Collaboration as part of my practice has evolved since the late 1990s, but has become much more explicit in recent works such as Beneath the Surface. I am not sure that I would describe the people I work with as ‘the public’ – this makes me think of artists like Marina Abramovic or Jeremy Deller (particularly Deller’s Procession, 2009 or Sacrilege, 2012) who work with very large groups of people. My collaborations tend to be one-to-ones or small groups and they are usually connected to artefact, archive, or site in some way. Meeting, talking with such people always influences the direction of a project – and the biggest challenge is always making the first contact. Then it is sustaining working relationships so that people go through the art process with you as an artist.
TC: Do you think one of the nostalgic elements present in the work is the medium, to be specific the development in technology from analogue photograph to digital image? Do you find traditional methods more tactile and engaging than the more modern counterpart, the digital image?
NB: It is interesting, this question. There is of course nostalgia attached to analogue family photographs – and it is interesting to see how people handle, present them. Some photographs even have a particular smell. Although analogue photographs are great props ‘for talking’ the digital image does present other questions. How people behave with digital snaps, and their sense they are speaking to an online audience, is also interesting. But as Dear Photograph shows, digital technology has also created another layer of meaning to the term ‘nostalgia’. Digital technology also means the analogue photograph can be copied easily – and therefore ‘donated’ to an artist such as myself.
TC: What artists or artistic movements do you identify your practice with, and are there any texts you have read that have been seminal or inspirational to your practice?
NB: The 1980s were key – for example, the rise of feminist art but also a shift in attitudes towards photography. I might not have always appreciated the works at the time or fully understood the critical debates about representation that were emerging in the UK, but these have stayed with me. Artists such as Susan Hiller, the Wilson Twins, Willie Doherty, Louise Bourgeois, Sophie Calle and Christine Borland have been important reference points – some particularly with the theme of tracing and detection. In terms of reading, inevitably Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida; more recently essays like David Campany’s ‘Some remarks on Late Photography’ and books like ‘Locating Memory’ (Annette Kuhn and Kirsten Emiko McAllister), or Liz Wells’ ‘Land Matters.’ Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography has been seminal in reminding us why photography matters. Then there are the interviews with practitioners, which have been so pertinent (such as Willie Doherty) and the short, snappy articles that appear in Art Monthly – usually criticisms on participatory and collaborative art!
TC: Along with your work Beneath the Surface/Hidden Place (2010) I am currently writing about the concepts of house/home in comparison to House(1993), Rachel Whiteread and Living Room (1994) Alison Marchant. Do you as an artist identify your work with the other two works, and do you think that viewers find their own ‘home’ in your work?
NB: I reviewed Alison’s Living Room in Art Monthly so that’s been a close dialogue with the work and the issues. Whiteread’s distillation of presence/absence and loaded/disappearing histories are also obvious connections. I think the implied, shared narratives suggested by either a family photograph or an object is hopefully the way people find their way in to my work. Sometimes it is the landscape itself…
TC: The visual poetry between the past and present in your work to me speaks of the transience of life and the passing of time. Doreen Massey has said that ‘The past was no more static than the present.’ I feel you demonstrate this well in your work as there is a fluidity that although not visually present may raise issues of the future. I have used a quote by Jon Bird that I think resonates with some aspects of your work, ‘The home represents a key component in the constitution of identity, a point of reference in amongst the shifting patterns of our social and cultural formation, a focus for desires and longings, a point of origin and return, the universal experience of acquiring a place in the world.’