“It is fascinating to me that even when you interrupt, distort or remove most of the information, the strength of the photograph in our collective psyche, means that the image and the narratives they contain can survive intact.”
Melissa Campbell is a fine art photographer from the UK. In this interview she talks about her fascination for examining the materiality of photography. For Melissa Campbell photography is a means to explore memory, myths and lost histories.
Melissa Campbell, your work deals with basic questions about the nature of photography. It’s very experimental in the way that you treat and examine the photographic material itself. What exactly do you do?
Making images is a way to work through questions that I have, or themes I am interested in. Working the way I do enables me to examine them from all angles. The work is often open-ended, leading to further questions, and is led by curiosity more than academic concerns.
Why do you find it so intriguing to deal with photography from its material side?
I think it’s because I am in complete awe of photographs. They carry so much weight, even though they are just images on paper, slowly degrading over time. Even when their uniqueness is undermined by repetition in other people’s collections, they still hold such a power over us. They are amazing.
Your series “Spurensicherung” is a good example of your attempt to determine what information a photograph contains. What conclusion did you get?
It is fascinating to me that even when you interrupt, distort or remove most of the information, the strength of the photograph in our collective psyche, means that the image and the narratives they contain can survive intact.
What is it that a photograph tells us about reality? Can you relate to the film and how would you answer that?
I can relate to the obsessive curiosity that drives him to look further into the image.
I am particularly interested in the way that family photographs claim to show us reality. However, we must remember that they are the result of a collaboration between the subject and the photographer, both responding to external influences and ideas of ideology. Operating within a confused space, they are multi-layered and ambiguous, which is what makes them so fascinating.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at your photos?
For me, along with good composition and technical ability, there needs to be a magical combination of precision and chance, and some space left for the viewer to participate in the illusion.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
“Not having to worry about manners, or being caught looking, I can examine every detail of the scene at my leisure.”
Photography, vernacular photographs in particular, allows me to do some unrestricted people-watching. Not having to worry about manners, or being caught looking, I can examine every detail of the scene at my leisure. This in turn, makes me more aware of my own personal photographic narrative.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which ‘landmarks’ do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
I can remember looking through family photograph albums as a child, learning the stories that accompanied each image. And I can remember how good it felt to be given my first camera, which allowed me to record my version of events.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles; which question would you have liked to be asked?
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
“When multiple similar images are gathered together, a new dialogue begins.”
A: I am making work based on a found photograph of a white tent in a landscape. The tent as a subject alludes to summer holidays; happy, sociable times spent with family and friends. However, as I started to collect more found photographs depicting tents, the narrative began to change. When multiple similar images are gathered together, a new dialogue begins. The repetition of the tent as an icon invites us to consider different readings and scenarios.
Ideas of migrants, settlers, soldiers and the homeless begin to appear, and the vulnerability and impermanence of the tents within the landscape begin to create an uneasy scene.
The flatness of the tent references the flatness of the photograph itself, undermining it’s depth, drawing our attention to the surface of the object. It also provides a space for the viewer to mentally project onto.
These are the ideas that I plan to expand upon!