An interview that appeared in the ‘Bleak House and other Places’ eBook 2012.
With London Independent Photography.
LIP: Could you tell us how you originally got into photography ?
AS: I was introduced firstly to the science of photography at school in chemistry classes through gum bichromate and cyanotype printing, this makes me sound ancient but the science teacher was keen on arcane photographic and printing processes. We also did salt paper contact prints in the class using old glass negatives that the teacher had brought in. This stirred an interest and in my early teens I acquired a 35mm rangefinder camera and started developing the black and white negatives. I had no means of printing and we couldn’t afford to get them printed at the chemists, so I just had to content myself for a while looking at the negatives and trying to guess what the positives would look like.
LIP: This was in the early 1960’s so what did you photograph ?
AS: The area where we lived in South London had been severely damaged during the blitz and many of the factories and houses had been damaged beyond repair. It seems strange to think about it now but these were great places for children to grow up, there were always plenty of adventures to be had amongst the rubble.
I had to ration my exposures but most of the pictures would be taken amongst these ruins especially the factories. When I ran out of film I would carry on practising framing in the view finder, and this is something I still do to this day.
LIP: When we’re you able to get into a darkroom ?
AS: This came later when I was around 20 I built a simple darkroom in my bedroom and printed black and white 10×8’s with a Paterson 35mm enlarger. By now I was quite keen and I had bought myself a Russian Zenith and a Zorki 35mm camera. On a whim I punted some images around a few staff agencies and on the strength of my portfolio I surprisingly landed myself a job with a London society photographer as an assistant printer. This led to camera work with speed graphics and 5×4 monorail cameras and eventually 16mm agency film work for Pearl and Dean.
LIP: So now you were doing this for a living you must have been quite happy ?
AS: Initially, I wasn’t so keen on the ‘social’ photography high society weddings and the like although I quite enjoyed the studio advertising and architectural photography that the company covered. After a few years I got a bit bored with the whole idea and moved off to do a 9-5 office job. This is where my love hate relationship started with photography. For a number of years I didn’t even pick up a camera, then around 1990 I started up again I now had the funds to be able to afford some reasonable gear.
For years I had been a Minor White fan and I felt myself being drawn to large format in the shape of a 5×4 Toyo field camera. During the 90’s I achieved my LRPS and ARPS in contemporary photography but during this period I was becoming increasingly frustrated and confused with my photographic output.
LIP: Why was this ?
AS: I think my obsession was with the craft and this turned out to be at the expense of the image. Although I was relatively successful in getting my images published and exhibited I certainly didn’t derive much creative satisfaction from the work. All this resulted in another break from photography for a few years.
I had been working in digital media for some time and this resulted in my moving into video post-production professionally, I also produced short films with a friend of mine, one being an animation. In this 5 minute short I made the sets and animated figures and objects, although incredibly time consuming it was very satisfying to actually build a physical scene that one had imagined. I think on average I was producing around 3 seconds of action a day.
LIP: How did you learn about animation principles you didn’t have any previous experience did you ?
AS: There is plenty of reading matter and the Web is a wonderful resource. I also started getting interested in east European animators such as Jiri Barta, Jan Svankmajer and Vladislav Starewitch. Of particularly importance were The film makers Steven and Timothy Quay as these guys were creating the sort of atmospheres and worlds that I had been trying to create in my photographs all those years ago.
LIP: How did this cross over into your stills photography ?
AS: I am a great believer in serendipity. About this time I was casually messing around with a pinhole camera, developing black and white films, scanning them and printing the images. One day I put a small animation set in front of the pinhole camera just to see what it would look like photographed with this primitive equipment. This picture immediately struck me as being odd, interesting and surreal and something that I should pursue. I made more test shots with existing sets, I then produced a bespoke set for my first ‘Bleak House’ series.
LIP: So this new direction, was it photography, model construction, mini installations or something else ?
AS: The sets are fragile worlds that currently don’t exist outside of the photographs, the lighting and atmospherics are produced at the time the photograph is exposed using light hosing, smoke and projection these effects would be difficult to emulate if you were viewing the actual model say in a box, the illusion would be ruined. I don’t use Photoshop to create these effects although it is used to adjust levels and colour correct.
LIP: Bleak House and your current project Carrey Street both feature decaying ruined buildings, is there a reason behind this treatment of the subjects ?
AS: A couple of years ago I lost both my Parents and about this time I started to think about my childhood and the relationship that I had with them, These images of early childhood kept drifting up from the past, the bombed out buildings and factories that we used to play in, the way that we roamed quite freely through swathes of destruction. These buildings although damaged beyond repair all demonstrated how life goes on. All of them had a covering of lush growth, wild flowers grew in the spring and summer and the roots of trees quickly took hold of any nook or cranny, the never ending cycle of nature modifying mans achievements.
LIP: Could you explain what process you go through once you have a concept in mind?
AS: I work in series with quite long timescales, so a 12 image set may take a year. In my mind Bleak House resides within Carey street, so when the Bleak house series ended the ‘street’ seemed to be a natural extension for the next project.
The projects grow almost organically and tend to shoot off in directions I never thought they would. This is part of the fascination for me, its a bit like travelling somewhere you have never been to before. Side projects develop like little mysterious dark passage ways which are quite experimental and its nice to play in these areas, they almost always influence the main project in some way. The models themselves can take between 20 to 30 hours to complete and theses are normally based on a real place. I will take lots of reference pictures of the building, street or whatever has caught my eye. Normally about halfway through a model I will start getting ideas for the next one. Some don’t work but its not wasted time as I will have learnt from the build.
LIP: What or who has been the greatest influence on your photography?
AS: As I mentioned above the Quay twins have been very influential. As far as Photographers go I suppose Minor White is still in there along with the likes of Joel-Peter Witkin, Cindy Sherman and Ralph Eugene Meatyard. I love John Blakemores work and especially his black and white printing and I have been fortunate in sharing a darkroom with him on a couple of occasions on courses he has headed up. The late Author J G Ballard has also been an influence especially his novels: High Rise, Concrete Island and Crash.
LIP: Do you have a method for finding new subjects to make/photograph?
AS: They seem to evolve from one project to another, ideas will pop up triggered by objects or places. Some elements will come from dreams, literature, paintings, music or something someone has said, its a mixed bag really.