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David Gledhill talks about his art and ‘In Camera’, his book collaboration with author Nicholas Royle

David Gledhill by Roelof Bakker

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.

David Gledhill In Camera

‘Smile, please!’ said T from behind me and Father’s face split into a huge grin. (painting by David Gledhill, words by Nicholas Royle)

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.

Das Esszimmer David Gledhill

It was Onkel F who gave the Maltest Falcon to Father and Mother. (painting by David Gledhill, words by Nicholas Royle)

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.

Cover of In Camera David Gledhill Nicholas Royle

In Camera book cover

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,

BBC article, 30 November 2010,

Author David Rose interviews Nicholas Royle for the Negative Press blog about In Camera,

Renate (19mins, 27 secs), video by David Gledhill, published 5 October 2012


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‘In Camera’ in Foyles


Lovely to see In Camera prominently displayed at Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road… head to fiction: ‘R’ for Royle.

Joe Phelan has reviewed In Camera for the Bookmunch blog. He writes, “Read then reread in order to fully grasp the subtleties of the story.”

Read the full review here

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Read an excerpt from ‘In Camera’

This is the opening story of In Camera with text by Nicholas Royle and art by David Gledhill.

Father was treating a man who had slipped and fallen in the street outside our house. J and I were in the bushes, watching through the window of the consulting room. We were using binoculars made from the cardboard cylinders in toilet rolls. We would tape them together, then stand in different parts of the garden and watch each other. When the weather was bad, we would play indoors. J would stand on the far side of the dining room and I would take up a position in the living room and we would observe each other through the glass doors like 
soldiers across a frontier.

I used to like imagining what J could see from where he stood: me; two tables that stood between us; in the dining room, to the right of the glass doors, a sideboard. On the sideboard was a fruit bowl and in it, usually, a bunch of bananas. I never appreciated how much bigger our house was compared to most others. The difference between our situation and that of our neighbours only really came home to me when I saw these bananas. Bananas were scarce. I didn’t like bananas and never ate them. J ate them.

‘The window’s open,’ J said. ‘We can listen.’

We approached the house, crouching beneath the window.

‘… victim of a practical joke,’ the patient was saying.

‘How do you mean?’ Father asked him.

‘Normally I never set eyes on a banana. I can’t remember the last time I ate one. And then I go and step on a banana skin outside your front door and fall on my backside.’

‘You might say it’s the best place to slip on a banana skin,’ said Father in a jovial tone.

The man didn’t answer. We could only imagine the look on his face. I was more interested in the look on J’s face.

‘By any chance,’ I whispered, ‘have you had anything from the fruit 
bowl today?’

We would observe each other through the glass doors. Painting © 2016 David Gledhill, all rights reserved

In Camera is available from Foyles (107 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DT), London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL), Burley Fisher Books (400 Kingsland Road, E8 4AA) or visit the Negative Press Shop for worldwide delivery.

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Author David Rose interviews Nicholas Royle about ‘In Camera’

Nicholas Royle by Roelof Bakker

Nicholas Royle by Roelof Bakker

NEGATIVE TALK. Acclaimed author and art and book lover David Rose (Vault, Posthumous Stories) asks some sprightly questions to Manchester-based author, editor and lecturer Nicholas Royle about In Camera, his collaboration with artist David Gledhill.

In Camera is a beautifully realized project, and raises a number of intriguing questions. But first, when did you first discover David Gledhill’s work, and what do you respond to in it?

I was introduced to David’s work by my colleague, the writer Andrew Biswell, who had a painting of David’s in his office at MMU. I loved it at first sight. It was a painting of a house, in monochrome, but red, rather than black and white. It turned out to be one in a series of similar paintings of houses, shops, industrial units – urban scenes generally – but what they had in common, as well as being monochrome (while using different colours in different paintings) was the absence of human figures. The artist had created a particular atmosphere that was pregnant with something almost like foreboding, but not quite. Something just short of foreboding. It was almost like someone had pressed the pause button on reality, but, crucially, at a moment when there was no one around.

Coming on to the textual side of the project, at what point and why did you decide on a single narrator, and to make that narrative voice female? Was it governed by the logic of the photographic personnel, or was it tactical narratively or thematically?

I decided at an early stage that there would be a single narrator and that it would be the doctor’s daughter. I must stress here that while this decision seemed to be made easily, almost naturally, the writing process was accompanied by a certain unease and tension. David’s paintings are supersize renderings – transcriptions, if you like – of photographs of real people. It would be a reasonable assumption to make that I am writing a fictional story about real people, which maybe I have no right to do, but I felt that David’s rendering of the images in his paintings, while technically superb paintings, in which anyone pictured would recognise themselves, somehow created a distancing effect from the real subjects, which allowed me to write fiction about invented characters who were inspired by the images. I realise that this might sound like very long-winded self-justification, but there you go.

It took me a while to work out who all the characters were, or could be, and if tactics played a part, that would have had more to do with narrative than themes, I think. There was the owner of the doll on the bed and the young woman leaning against the car. I decided these could be the same person at different times in her life.

Why the use throughout of initials instead of names for the characters?

That’s a good question. (They’re all good questions.) I think this goes back to the answer to the previous question. It has something to do with the unease I felt writing about invented characters whose likenesses David created from photographs. It’s a device I’ve never used before, I don’t think, and I felt if I was ever going to make use of it, this would be the time.

The process of converting photographic images into large-scale sepia-toned oil paintings – a form of hyperrealism – is a fascinating one, reminiscent of some of Sickert’s late work using newspaper photographs. In this project, the paintings, in reproduction in the book, almost revert to photographic images again. To what extent did you respond to that circularity? Did it influence your approach to the narrative? Or was it purely the potency of the images of a lost world?

I do love the way, as you say, that the design has allowed the paintings to revert to, at least, the size of the photographs on which they were based. I suppose since the writing obviously happened a long time before the design of the book, I was not responding to the apparent circularity, for which credit should go to Roelof Bakker, the publisher, also the book’s designer. I became very interested in Sickert in the 1990s, in particular his Camden Town nudes. I remember standing outside his former address in Mornington Crescent gawping up at his blue plaque and wondering why I’d just spent more on a monograph on him than I would be likely to receive for the article about the artist I had been commissioned to write for an art magazine or the short story I was writing for an anthology. Shortly afterwards, US crime writer Patricia Cornwell bought a Sickert painting and tore it apart in an attempt to prove a theory that he was Jack the Ripper. It was a bad time to indulge in conjecture about Sickert and the Ripper because it looked like you were just copying Cornwell.

At what point did you decide to add narrative captions to the illustrations, replacing David’s titles, which are given at the end of the book? There does seem to be a fashion now, post-Sebald, to have uncaptioned photographs, often marooned in the text. Were you anxious to counter that trend?

Funnily enough the pictures were free floating to begin with, and then Roelof suggested we caption them. David agreed, and I was also happy to agree. I didn’t have a strong feeling, although I had quite liked their being uncaptioned. I like Sebald, of course (who doesn’t?), but I hadn’t had his books in mind.

There was a discipline to the writing. I set Word to 12pt courier, double spaced, and did not allow myself to bust the page on one piece. If it did, I cut it back.

The narrative sections were clearly inspired by individual paintings, and presumably written discretely, but cumulatively they form a tightly integrated, faceted story. How far did you feel in control of the overall narrative arc? I’m thinking of the small details that are later picked up and clarified or narratively expanded.

When I started, I conceived of the text as comprising a number of very short discrete stories, as you suggest. I will not use the term ‘flash fiction’ because I strongly dislike it, with its implications of pyrotechnics and ephemerality, even conjuring up geezer culture, 1970s-style perverts in dirty macs and anything that might be described as a ‘flash in the pan’. Is that a set of associations you’d particularly want hanging around your work? I soon found that two or three strands emerged, relating to different periods in the narrator’s life. I suppose in the end the text adds up to one story, multi-faceted as you say, but I still think of it as 18 short pieces, as that’s how they were written. There was a discipline to the writing. I set Word to 12pt courier, double spaced, and did not allow myself to bust the page on one piece. If it did, I cut it back. Part of the pleasure for me lay in picking up details from one text – or painting – and using them in another.

Given that historians have pointed out that both Nazi and Communist state control depended far more on individual denunciations by neighbours – informers – than on physical surveillance, do you regard this story as historical, or do you believe there are parallels with today’s surveillance by the state?

I was really struck by this culture of informing. It added texture and colour to the only visit I ever made to East Germany, at Easter 1986. I spent a long weekend in West Berlin, crossing over to the East for a day. Without that single day spent in East Berlin I wouldn’t have written my first novel, Counterparts, and I wouldn’t have felt able to write In Camera. I don’t get as exercised about surveillance in the twenty-first century as I feel I ought to. Edward Snowden, blanket CCTV coverage, hacking terrorists’ iPhones – I’m not that bothered, to be honest. I can think of more sinister aspects of modern life. They can monitor my communications all they like. They won’t find anything very interesting. I do appreciate, however, that while I personally might feel safer living in a surveillance society, there’s always a danger that innocent citizens might be targeted or that data could end up in the wrong hands.

Can we look forward to further collaborations between you and David?

We have talked about collaborating again and I very much hope we do so.

In Camera is available from the Negative Press online shop, Foyles (107 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DT), Burley Fisher Books (400 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AA) and London Review of Books (14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL).

In Camera David Gledhill Nicholas Royle

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‘In Camera’ Manchester launch at Anthony Burgess Foundation

In Camera had its Manchester pre-publication launch on Tuesday 3 May at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. Andrew Biswell, director of the Foundation, chaired this entertaining evening, with Nick reading two texts from the book and David explaining his approach to painting. Three paintings featured in the book were exhibited on the night.

Big thanks from Roelof Bakker at Negative Press London to everyone who attended and many thanks to the Anthony Burgess Foundation for their hospitality and for making this event a resounding success.


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A new book: In Camera by Nicholas Royle and David Gledhill

In Camera by author Nicholas Royle and artist David Gledhill, is published 10 May 2016.

New texts by Nicholas Royle are mixed up with paintings by David Gledhill adapted from snapshots of a family photo album discovered in a flea market in Frankfurt.

This fourth book to come from Negative Press London is set in East Germany during the Cold War. A doctor’s daughter experiments with her father’s camera and eavesdrops on his consultations.

Roelof Bakker of Negative Press London says:“When I was putting together the anthology Still in 2012, Nicholas Royle told me about their project and when he sent me some of the writing in progress alongside related imagery I was immediately hooked. Almost four years later, I’m thrilled to publish the result of this collaboration.”


Cover of In Camera David Gledhill Nicholas Royle

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