On the first anniversary of the publication of In Camera by author Nicholas Royle and artist David Gledhill, Roelof Bakker from Negative Press talks to David Gledhill about the background to the paintings featured in the book and what it was like collaborating with fellow-Mancunian, author Royle.
For your work, you source materials from both personal and institutional photographic archives to produce hyper realistic large-scale paintings, often with political meaning. The paintings included in In Camera are of snapshots from a 1950s family photo album of an East German family, which you found in a flea market in Frankfurt. What drew you to paint these photographs of strangers snapped many years ago and what’s it like painting people who you only know as subjects in a photograph?
I was given the album as a Christmas present a few years ago. At first the photographs in it looked very pale and washed out. There were a lot of interiors and some garden shots and other snaps that had been taken in the street, just outside the Doctor’s house in a small town called Teutschenthal in the former East Germany. I had been painting from secondhand photographs for a few years and having been to Berlin and Frankfurt looking for material, I had got used to leafing quickly through old albums in junk shops or flea markets and knew what to look for. There was something about this album that intrigued me. It seemed to have been put together for someone as a kind of ‘this is your life’ souvenir, and when I got the inscriptions translated, it turned out that it was meant for a Doctor Munscheid’s daughter as a 5th wedding anniversary gift. It was difficult to put a timeline to it but there were pre-war postcards, 1950s shots of the Doctor’s home and extended family, newspaper clippings and testimonials from the communist period, so it gave a glimpse of family life under two of the most extreme regimes in modern history. I also wanted to find out how it had ended up in a flea market in Frankfurt. The album was the start of an adventure that changed the course of my work and turned into one of the most profound experiences of my life.
I’ve never been content with the idea of painting as a self-contained activity, that’s mostly about its own history. Painting is a lonely enough job, without restricting its potential to communicate as broadly as possible. Using these old snaps seemed a good way to start to reach out and to make some kind of contact with the lived experience of other people, through painting. At the start I wasn’t sure what would happen, but by the time I had made about 30 paintings from the album I felt as though I knew the family, and particularly the house, intimately.
Your paintings are meticulous enlargements of small originals, exposing details otherwise not evident and therefore changing the nature of the original, it’s not just about the subject, but about every other aspect in the image too. Nick picked up on these details and used them in his writing (the Bakelite switch, the bird sculpture, the small framed photograph in the background). When and why did you decide upon this method of working?
I spent a long time making paintings in the expressionist tradition with exaggerated forms and colours, trowelling on the paint from big pots and trying to make the work as high impact as possible. Eventually this approach started to feel too aggressive. I had always thought that working from photographs was somehow illegitimate but when I started using them for reference it seemed to work. Like a lot of people, I’ve always loved old movies and black and white photography, and it gradually dawned on me that I could pull all these things together. The paintings became more like visual inventories of the way people, places and things used to look, something that perhaps motivates the taking of photographs as well. That way you can present a place or a situation to the viewer and they can make their own mind up, based on their experiences or memories of similar places.
As a photographer I believe every photograph is a lie, therefore a painting of a photograph is an even bigger lie. What truths are you looking to express or expose in your work?
Well, there’s certainly a lot more artifice in a photograph than one might think. Photography is still a bit of a mystery and philosophers continue to argue about what it does, and how it’s different to painting, but I think the instinct to present experience in a flat tableau form that can be read at leisure, seems to be as old as social life itself. I’ve always been more interested in the effect a work of art has, than in whether it’s necessarily true or real, and I suppose I’ve started from what I find enthralling and then hunted for source material that has a kind of mood or atmosphere that appeals to me. It seems to me that the most a photograph can tell you is that someone wanted to take it, and for me that’s where a lot of the intrigue comes in. Painting from photographs simply confirms that it’s not the documentary content that’s interesting but the motivation behind the recording of it.
I’ve always been more interested in the effect a work of art has, than in whether it’s necessarily true or real
When I produced literary art book Still (Negative Press London, 2012), I collaborated with twenty-six writers. The idea was for each writer to choose a photograph from a project exploring vacated spaces and breathe new life into it, to occupy the empty space with new meaning, without creative restrictions. I found it incredibly exciting and rewarding to let go of the photographs and to surrender them to somebody else’s imagination. You invited Nick to collaborate. What did you expect? Was it hard giving up whatever meanings you may have attached to the paintings? In the initial stages did you meet up to discuss an approach or did you allow Nick’s imagination free reign?
As far as I remember, Nick looked at the work and came up with the stories entirely by himself. I had read some of his stuff and loved the atmospherics as well as the momentum of the storylines. I was really pleased that he was up for it, because although I had all kinds of theories about what may have happened to the family, I didn’t necessarily want the paintings to make up a coherent narrative by themselves. I like John Berger’s idea of a photograph as a ‘trace’ but I’m also fascinated by the possibility of other interpretations drawn from the visual clues you mentioned. Now, with the book, there is a constellation of stories, including what I’ve learned about the family since finishing the work. Although the truth may be out of reach, I think something emerges from the writing and its relationship to the paintings, the photographs and the people in them, that comes close to how we narrate our lives by piecing together stories told about us by ourselves and others. There are contradictions. For example Nick has introduced a brother, and when I met Renate it turned out that she was an only child. But then many of us invent fictional friends and even relatives when we’re young. To my mind, Nick has performed an incredible feat of imagination in evoking the tone and dynamic of family life at that time, and the stories have an austerity and a kind of rectitude that I recall from my childhood in the early 60s. So, the meaning of the work is not necessarily only about the story, there’s so much else going on.
With the help of a German neighbour and an article by the BBC, you managed to locate one surviving family member included in the photo album (Renate to whom the book is dedicated). What happened?
I mentioned the project to a German couple who were neighbours in Old Trafford, and incredibly, they had a contact in Teutschenthal. This friend knew a Dentist who had taken over the Munscheid house when the Doctor died. I contacted the Dentist who in turn put me in touch with surviving members of the family. They were really helpful and told me that Renate herself was alive and living in a nursing home near Frankfurt, where the album was found. I managed to win their trust and arranged to visit her and to return the album, which apparently she knew nothing about. It turned out that despite all the care and effort that had been put into this thing, it had somehow been forgotten and she had never received it.
I arrived one freezing January with a film camera and tripod, carrying the album and a little painting I had made from a photograph she had sent me, and she welcomed me at the door of her flat as though we had been lifelong friends. She had prepared afternoon ‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ and we chatted for hours about her early life in the East, and her marriage to a West German businessman. She had moved to the West before it became too difficult, but her husband occasionally drove back to the GDR on business, which meant they could visit her parents. It must have been during one of those return trips that some of the photographs were taken. The ones in front of the car that the cover painting is based on, and another where they are sitting in the garden, radiate love and contentment. As she leafed through the album these shots seemed too painful to look at, and it was obvious that she missed her husband terribly. The afternoon passed very quickly and as I was leaving I had to insist that she keep the album, because she was trying to give it back to me. The whole experience was incredibly affecting. The flat was full of the furniture that I had spent so long trying to paint that it felt like I had grown up with it myself.
Back at home I made a short film about the trip, which I posted on YouTube. I wouldn’t pretend to be a professional filmmaker, but finding Renate hadn’t just completed the project, it had also convinced me that painting needn’t be an isolating and hermetic pursuit. I made a lot of mistakes during the time when I was researching the album, but I think I learned more about what art can do in those three hours of conversation than I had in the 30 years I’d spent painting up to then.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Immediately after the Munscheid paintings, I wanted to open out some of the political themes I had been thinking about. I worked with press photographs of the House Un-American Activities Committee trials, but I’ve also carried on working with German subjects. Susan Hiller said all the artists she knew who had been to Germany had made interesting work and when you go, it’s obvious why. German history is literally lying on the road waiting to be picked up over there. I made a series of paintings from another photograph album put together by a civil servant working in Poland during the Second World War that I found at the same Frankfurt flea market. At the moment I’m working on paintings of the athlete’s village that was built for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This project is slightly different in that I started with a visit to the site and I’m working from my own photographs as well as from historic material. Just the other day I was sent a box of photos and papers belonging to one Karl Hoffmann; another flea market ‘find’. It has the deeds of a plot of land in Czechoslovakia and the blueprint of a house design, as well as all kinds of official documents. I can’t wait to get started on it! Finally, as co-director of Rogue Artists’ Studios CIC I’m involved in the relocation of the studios to a major new facility, but I’m not allowed to talk about that yet!
Buy In Camera, http://negativepresslondon.bigcartel.com/product/in-camera
BBC article, 30 November 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-11849178
Author David Rose interviews Nicholas Royle for the Negative Press blog about In Camera, http://www.neg-press.com/david-rose-interviews-nicholas-royle/
Renate (19mins, 27 secs), video by David Gledhill, published 5 October 2012