Liza Dracup was nominated for the Prix Pictet (Earth) in 2009 for her night work, Sharpe’s Wood, and then for the Deutsche Börse prize in 2012 for her work, Chasing the Gloaming, another night based work. Her most recent work was launched at the Manor House Museum and Gallery, Ilkley, in keeping with its motif of the specimens collection of Bradford Museums. Photographed against a simple matt background the specimens become disturbing real. I caught up with her to discuss the transition through her works and her underlying practice and philosophy……Images © Liza Dracup
WL Liza, many thanks for agreeing to talk to me. What is your background, photographically speaking?
LD At 19 I started my first job as a documentary photographer. I worked for the Black Heritage Oral History project with Bradford Council, then I went to Napier University to do a degree in Photographic Studies.
My dad bought me my first camera when I was 16, and I knew as soon as I started to make work, in my mid teenage years that my interest was photography. I discovered by using a camera.
WL Does that also make you an artist?
LD I do think that some people’s default position as regards photography in terms of landscape is sometimes postcard images, but yet I think that since the 1960’s there is a latitude in photography where you have got more critical engagement with it. Before that everyone questioned whether photography was an art.
WL I went to a meeting of the Contemporary Art Society who had a photography day in order to help their members understand what photography is and what art photography is. They had invited Simon Norfolk as a speaker to represent the whole of photographic art!
LD What you will find is that people will play across several categories of photography. People will be broad, they like to be in a lot of different camps. Obviously if you have an art market, and if your work has value at auction,… ..then yes, yes….. It is about being collectable, and I think it’s also about economics.
WL I was at a Redeye workshop recently which was about marketing yourself as a photographer. Anne McNeil was speaking and told a story about how she was in London at a launch of one of Simon Norfolk’s exhibitions where she overheard this comment, ‘oh that would be look beautiful on my lounge wall in my apartment in Hong Kong’. How do you accommodate that, ….its seems bizarre that somebody would want a picture of war in Afghanistan in their lounge and had got so much money that they were specifying their Hong Kong lounge!
LD Its theatre isn’t it!! I do think its quite complex, and its something I am still acquiring knowledge about. People collect for all sorts of different reasons. Many collect and basically put stuff away and it never gets shown…..its money in the bank, its commerce, its economics.
WL Lets get back to you…….it was Sharpe’s Wood that attracted you to my attention in the sense of somebody ‘doing something’ with landscape. I’d seen reproductions in books at several times over recent years, and within the WALKing photography project started to wonder if this lady would talk to me. There was an engagement there with our relationship with the world, something I keep rabbiting on about and how we develop a greater sensibility to what there is around us. It was then that I looked at your website…it immediately struck me that perhaps that’s also a possible interpretation of Re: Collections?
LD I was approached by Bradford Museum and Galleries to respond to their Natural Sciences Collections which is quite huge …global, even! I had to start to give myself constraints to work within, I couldn’t have just done something that was incredibly broad. I decided to focus on British wildlife specimens because my work is very much about the British landscape and I then elected to work with British vertebrates both bird and mammal.
The Natural Sciences Collections were originally collected for their scientific value. I thought that was quite interesting. If you are going to put your work in the public domain, you should always remember your initial reactions to things. What I found really fascinating was the data labels with each specimen. Basically it told you the name of the specimen in both English and Latin – for example the Fox, and the Latin name is Vulpes vulpes – then the name of the taxidermist, where it was found and the manner in which it died, if that was known, who found it and finally it stated the geographical location. So to me, although the specimen was extracted out of the landscape, it was placed back in the landscape by the data label.
I think it is important to see a show in terms of understanding how the artist intended the work to be. Obviously you’ve got the internet and people can go on my website and look at work there and flick through, but the actual exhibition itself is presented in the way I intended.
Re: Collections is printed as archival pigment prints…….and I was there while the work was being printed by Charlie Meecham because that’s important to me. Every stage is important in making work, not just going on location or working in the studio, it’s about everything, you having input at every stage. Like Sharpe’s Wood and Chasing the Gloaming, the final prints were made at Michael Dyers in London. They care…..they are professional. If something needs to be a particular green, it needs to be that particular colour green and they accommodate that, it’s within their remit.
In terms of communicating with an audience, you have to be aware of who and where your work is shown. So for me it is in Ilkley and I think most people who go to the Manor House probably are local or from the region. So a lot of the specimens selected were from the region – though some were from Scotland, and some from Wales.
I think there is a paradox that runs through my work and there is a visual language. I think this is quite interesting because there is a debate in photography as to whether photography is loosing its veracity because everyone now has got a camera. I think as in any language, verbal or visual, its how you choose to use it. How you place emphasis on it, what context you put it in. Sometimes you can’t explain things away. There are subtleties in language, emphasis. It’s like poetry. If I read a poem I can read a poem in my head or I can read it aloud. But when I listen to poetry when the poet reads it, I can feel it…..you know …it really transfers that meaning.
I’m making work, I’ve invested in it and I’ll keep on investing and learning and my knowledge becomes deeper about photography’s visual language.
To me there is a photographic paradox running through Re: Collections. The photographs present us with a series of birds and mammals. Made timeless by both the taxidermist and the photographer. Each specimen has been photographed against a black background, reminiscent of the Dutch and Flemish still-life painting tradition; this recurrent motif aims to focus the attention of the viewer.
The photographs allow us to reflect on the preserved specimens and consider the paradox of their reworked ‘natural’ form. The work resides both in an artistic and scientific context and could bring about questions about our own personal relationship to British wildlife and its conservation.
I also did a lot of research at Insight at the National Media Museum which was brilliant. You know, the feeling of having a Fox Talbot in your hands! I looked at JD Llewellyn…I think he married the niece of Fox Talbot …. a well connected and rich Victorian. He had his taxidermist trophies photographed into the landscape, because photography at that time couldn’t capture a moving deer in the wild. I do think photography is about the act of looking and it allows people to study. In photography, once you start looking, its like strata, there are so many layers, you get depth. The scale of the work is also important – in Re: Collections its about A0 – and the actual output is an archival pigment print gives a great kind of intensity…..its as if you could touch the feathers. It gives a quality and definition.
That’s why I’ve said its important to me to make creative decisions not just at the point of making work or actually thinking how the work is going to be made. I make decisions all the way through – so I have the specific ink and this fantastic hand moulded paper to give that lovely inky matt black which you don’t get in traditional chemical photographic paper. I knew that it was going to be printed on that so I worked with that in mind.
I generally selected single specimens although in the show there is some where you have got two or even four specimens in one image. What I wanted to do was actually focus the attention on the specimens and allow people to build some sort of relationship. They are detached from the landscape but what I thought – this is the paradox I was talking about – whilst the taxidermist had made them timeless, I had come along and re-interpreted. The taxidermist had fashioned say the bullfinch but when I came along and re-photographed it, it had this half-life quality. In some respects photography has brought them back to life, because they look more life-like than the taxidermist made them look. I do think photography has critical associations, philosophical ones, with death, with the past, and with truth….
WL Is that the link to the darkness of your earlier work?
LD Re: Collections did bring up questions for me that were in Sharpe’s Wood as well as Chasing the Gloaming. Going out and making work at night is really interesting. Some people didn’t realise it was photographed at night. There is a paradox there, that within the darkness there was light. I think it’s quite interesting how we sometimes critique photography or view photography as from a human vision. How we perceive the world is very different from how a camera perceives the world.
I used Fuji and Kodak film, but it was never totally pitch black because there was always the moon, transient headlights, and sodium streetlights next to the woodland. You would be aware that cars would go by and illuminate partial areas of the wood. Most time you would never know how that would be translated on to film.
The other question that came up with me in Sharpe’s Wood was about The Sublime. The Sublime is a threat in nature but I think the Sublime is a word where the interpretation, visually, has many different connotations.
I think there is awe in nature and it is still to be found in Britain. If I had been down to say photograph the floods in Somerset it would be there…there is a threat, nature has a threat, we can’t tame it. It is a wild thing. How you represent that photographically, is something I’m very interested in. I think the woodland space in our collective memories has elements of threat within it, whether that comes from Northern European fairy tales or mythology or is embedded in our collective memories. You have got all this input but I think, the night psychologically also puts you in a vulnerable state because one of your senses is down.
I was navigating a land that was concealed in darkness and shadows, and which the camera opened up. The landscape existed through photography…..it existed but I couldn’t see it. The camera sees it though and reveals it.
WL I guess most of us if we go out into the landscape, are putting some sort of representation together of what is in front of us, but in your case, I read stuff on the web, you are talking about the fear of being in the wood. But the pictures are quite enchanting, so you have the camera creating a work that isn’t really representing what you experienced?
LD Ah, but that’s your interpretation! Photographer Paul Hill, who was the MA course leader said he wouldn’t go into the wood at night. He felt that that the wood wasn’t enticing ….I think its a very personal thing, its whether it invites you in. But Sharpe’s Wood is huge body of work, a lot of it hasn’t been published. You know with the edit, there could quite easily be another exhibition in there
WL What were you editing for? Does your website represent the exhibition?
LD Oh yes its representative …but an edit is an edit.
WL What were your criteria then, what were you editing against?
LD What the edit on the website? I think the website is some of the pieces that represent it as a whole.
WL I think that’s what I am getting at. Because it was in the dark, it is far more of a creation by the camera than is typical the case with photography – I heard on another web video about how often you didn’t know what was going to be in the camera. So if you select some images for a show, on what basis are you selecting them?
LD But I am the camera…I have made the judgements, the camera doesn’t. I am the author of the image, and I’ve made a selection. You are limited in what you see in the night, but what I find interesting is that as much as there are variations in daylight, there are variations in night light. If the moon was a very full moon you would get a different colour, you know like Darren Almond’s work.
WL Yes when you first look at Darren Almond’s work, you are unaware…there is something about them , but they look like a daylight shots, but you read, to discover they are from the light of the moon. You have gone to the other extreme where you have you got reds, and oranges and strange greens in there.
LD I think colour is a thread that has run through my work…..the light in the darkness.
WL Re: Collections reminded me of was some stuff I have been reading about in ecocinema where the camera is still and it is just one shot that holds for minutes or even longer in some cases. One film, think it is called 13 Lakes, is basically a series of 10 minute fixed camera positions on 13 lakes. If you stay with it over each of the 10 minutes it becomes much more than that and you start to see how each of the lakes are different, so it brings you into this intense observation of the world that you would otherwise just pass by.
LD But some people wouldn’t….. do you see? I reckon that’s the point, and I think this person is drawing your attention to what they would normally pass by. I think that is the point of the work. I’m obviously a photographer but I do think its about getting people to look. I have made a work of something. It is my vision and my artistic interpretation. I do get feedback that my work does alter how people look at things…and I think that’s good. People have started to look at the landscape in a slightly different way, it has opened their eyes
WL There were a couple of Ecocinema books released in the last 12 months. One is called Framing the World, the other, Ecocinema Theory and Practice. The big debate seems to be one of how do you actually influence somebody. There is a real clash between the people who say that ecocinema is things which slow you down, and those who say, nobody is going to watch that, what you need to do is actually study and interpret Hollywood blockbusters from an ecological perspective as this is the way most people are going to pick up their ecological understandings. It’s a clash between the artisans and avant garde film! The film that they always talk about is called RiverGlass. This guy put his camera in a glass box and immersed it in a stream for 12 months. Then he’s done a 90 minute edit. What you get most of the time is abstract like pictures of what is going on under the water, but every so often as the stream rises and falls you get the ‘real’ landscape in the picture so you can keep track of the seasons passing. The whole point is to slow you down. It struck me that that’s where Re-collections is ….it draws you in in the same way that the films draw you in, somehow when you look at them you loose the fact that they are stuffed animals, you are studying animals?
WL …….the black background is superb cos its not distracting. I find these ones where you have the animal simulated to be doing something the strangest…
LD …the stoat…. .
WL ….or the badger?
LD There are different tensions in there. The badger was one of the first I did. You can see he is obviously dead, but to some people he is also not obviously a badger. I arranged it that way.
I could have gone on and made so much more work. Because I am serious about the work I make, I learn when I am making work. I don’t like to just confirm what I already know, I like to learn about a subject – like to acquire knowledge . It’s an ongoing thing…..
WL Do you see your work as multi layered?
LD In my work St. Ives (night) Yorkshire 2010 from Chasing the Gloaming exhibition, were I responded to Autumn Glory: The Old Mill, (1869) by John Atkinson Grimshaw. For somebody who didn’t know first it looks like it’s daylight, the sky is blue. But the sky wasn’t blue, it was deep grey and this light – this beautiful pouring in of light – is from the road and the street lamp. So yes, you have got multiple layers of colour, and multiple layers of time because the shutter is open to give a sort of linear time. You can visualise it layering up on the film .
We are in Salt’s Mill with its Hockney connections. I think as an artist, just the quality of his work is an inspiration. But he criticised photography for not capturing time, more just to do with the moment. (Yet we are surrounded by Hockney’s photograph!) I think that you can have photography that is very quick, and photography that is very slow. Yes that camera was static – a static eye – but time was allowed to layer on to that image. I think there is depth you can see in it, there is a depth which some curators have related to painting. I just smile, I’m not saying that painting is any way higher or lower than photography – its interesting as its a totally different media and method.
WL There is almost an extra step that your photography has got beyond what you as the photographer does in the sense that the camera, whether its you or not, is doing something in its own right. It doesn’t see what you saw? Is that a conscious….
WL …OK, yes,..
LD I think it is and it isn’t. I don’t know how it is going to turn out. I’m almost surprised some times. Martin Parr came to the opening of Sharpe’s Wood and he said that I must know, the amount of times I have gone out, I must know what I am going to get! I said ‘no, I really don’t always know’.
But I rather like that, I like that tension, I like the latent image. I think if I reviewed on site with a digital camera say – and I do use digital, Re: Collections is all digital – I would have made different choices. This way slowed me down. I was working with my memory, I was working with my imagination and I was working with my knowledge. I am not going out as a novice, I am going out with my working knowledge, but there is an element of the work which is kind of ‘what I going to happen’ and I think that is something I like. I like my work to keep me interested.
WL Do you find that even with the Re: Collections work, because you have got such an obviously dead subject, there is an element where you are not quite sure how it going to look?
LD When I was making that work, they were all bagged up and I would have to select them, and the curator would then take them off the mount……. but I wouldn’t make a lot of pictures.
I teach as well. Students will go out with the digital camera and make loads of work…but give them a film camera and well…….I’ve got these little old film cameras where you get 12 frames. I lend them out and the film can remain in the camera for over a week. Its like a fear but I think it isn’t ….
So, even though I shoot digital I still make choices. I still make choices as if I am working with film.
WL I’d thought I was going today to talk to someone committed to film, I’ve completely missed that Re-collections is digital…..what motivated that change?
LD What that I chose digital?
WL Yes, ….
LD ……I think my methodology can change in response to my subject. I would say that my roots are documentary photography – working quickly, working with fixed focal length …so if the pictures are not good enough, as the old adage goes, you are not close enough! You have to get closer, you have to physically move yourself nearer to the subject.
WL That was the impression I had built up of you…..so OK, how much did you use all that flexibility of the digital camera? Essentially it can do anything?
LD Ooh no…you see, I like to use digital as I use film because I don’t like too many choices! I make choices and then kind of focus on what I am doing …..too many choices, and no, no, no!
WL So you use a digital camera as a mechanical…
LD I use it with restrictions……not too many choices. I think a lot of cameras to me have too many choices.
WL So what camera do you use?
LD What digital? Always got my little Canon Ixus with me, its a little black box that comes with me everywhere, and I’ve recently got the Fuji X20.
WL So is that the camera one you used took to make Re: Collections?
LD Whatever the mode of capture I just like photography. You see you don’t even need a camera to make a photo. You know you have Susan Derges ….. even Fox Talbot didn’t always use a camera to make photographs. I think it’s interesting how people think you need camera.
I like to work somewhere I can look closer in at things. I find that really interesting. I would use any tool, but use it in a way where I have to discover what it is and discover what its limitations are. Think really I am an experimentalist …….. not a totally wild card, I am going with knowledge but I’m hoping that things happen.
Thomas Joshua Cooper is a photographer who I see as both mentor and someone I hold in high regard. I don’t speak to him very often but when we do speak, it’s a good exchange. I can’t help but be taken by how he photographs the global landscape. How he approaches it and takes one single shot. He goes with his old camera – he’s only got one camera – but his work is as intense as he is as a man. He has both a knowledge and an intellectual depth to him behind his work.
WL Not as rude a question as it probably sounds but what’s the difference between what you are doing in the long exposure shots of Chasing the Gloaming – or what Thomas Joshua Cooper does with long water exposures – and what say Michael Kenna does?
LD I think the difference is because they are different people
WL I can read something in your images that tells me I’m supposed to be looking at it critically. Then I look over here to a Kenna and its just a sort of nice array of shapes and whatever …..but can’t quite work it out, what or where are those criticality cues coming from in your pictures or those from TJC? Are you consciously doing something, are you even conscious that you may be running into a potential problem and could produce something that is just a beautiful image? Am I making any sense?
LD Yes….but I think its to do with the terms of language. There are subtleties in the visual language and I think there is an intent behind each work. I just think you can’t look at Cooper’s work and say ‘oh just a blurry scene’, there is so much behind that work. There is an intensity to it.
WL You can see something which says this is not intended to be viewed as a nice collections of form and structures, but what is it?
LD I think my work has a strong aesthetic but I don’t see that as saying that it doesn’t have critical content. I do think sometimes that if it has a strong aesthetic, it can be in some people’s eyes seen as having just that one level.
I think it is about your intentions. That’s when we come back to it being good to be informed by either the primary source of what is being made or to go see the exhibition. The exhibition must always be the thing, the book is secondary and the website quite a lot further down on the list ……..it is the intent you must read, albeit that once it is in the public domain, it is out there and if someone wants to come along and see it differently, then that has to be OK. My work has been in galleries, but its also in hospitals, in GNER waiting rooms stations……..so people can approach it with a casualness. If people don’t want to look beyond the retinal. If that’s how they can interpret it, I have to say OK.
WL But how do you mesh beauty with critical engagement? Are they actually opposites or can you have something that is both beautiful and critically engaging ….or is it perhaps two features that come out depending on the people viewing it?
LD I think when you actively look at something or you experience it at first hand, then your job as a photographer or artist is to translate what you take from it and try to give it to someone else. I do think there are cues in the landscape like…well, say, the woodland is loaded isn’t it?
We can look at the landscape, and we can look at the woodland, as this space wrapped with mythology and fairy tales. But my work is not about fairy tales. When Roger Deakin writes about the woodland it becomes social, political and historical and he brings it alive with these references. That’s how I work but visually. I work with a landscape and I interpret it as a photographer through choices.
WL What photography lacks perhaps are the multiplicity of cues that the linguistic people have got. You look, at Robert MacFarlane say, by just where he puts a full stop, or he has sentences that don’t have verbs in them, that is telling you, the reader, something on how to read it. We don’t have that within a visual framework do we, in some ways its the opposite to a picture being worth a 1000 words, pictures are quite constrained?
LD But it’s interpretations. I do think there is a breadth to visual language and in photography I do think that it does have wide range but it’s whether the viewer can interpret the language.
I am sure if you showed my work to people from different nationalities, they would interpret it differently. I don’t think a photograph is something that is universally seen in the same way. I think you are really blinkered if you think that if you show someone in Britain a photograph they will interpret it the same as someone from say Germany. No, people will see it differently. I tell you the more you want to know about something, the more you go into it, the more it opens out. That’s my experience with photography. There is seriousness to it that goes back into my teaching.
WL You must have read Simon Schama, that’s essentially what he is saying is he not? Different populations will interpret landscape differently?
LD But I like coming to things like that through my work as well. You get questions when you look at things visually. But I do also think that its interesting that we are getting more nature writing today. There is a great article about the word ‘parochial’ by Robert Macfarlane on the Guardian website, and how ‘parochial’ can be a reference to the local, in other words not how many people actually pay attention to the familiar, but actually its about looking and paying attention intensely. Macfarlane talks about how in the past the word ‘parochial’ wasn’t a derogatory term like it is now.
WL I’ve put a quote from the MacFarlane essay on my website!
LD The work (Sharpe’s Wood ) is an invitation to actually really look at the space. But it isn’t just about representing it…you know this is the space. No its about how I experience it, and then use photography to try and capture something of what I am experiencing.
WL …….and your editing of the output is part of your creative process?
LD Yes, yes it is. Some of the decisions are made automatically because I think when you are editing a piece of work and its a group work, there has to be relationships between each image.
But you know there is huge amount of work on Sharpe’s Wood. It wasn’t because this one or that one wasn’t really good enough, it was about the relationship across the images overall.
You can’t think for all the audiences when it’s in the public domain, but its about the pacing of a show. It’s intuitive yet some of it has to be considered. I think there are tensions in Re: Collections some of which are from some people who can’t get over the fact that they don’t like the work because the things are dead. But they are dead, they are taxidermy specimens. And death is part of life,and I think death is part of the images, you can’t escape it. It’s about the cycles of nature and being close to nature, and we all must die.
WL Totally with you, but in the bigger picture death isn’t death, its about rebirth is it not? Death of the individual is death, but the individual is so ephemeral. … and its all part of a cycle in nature where the whole survives through the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth of the individual. Not sure where this get me but ………
LD That’s interesting that you are not sure where it gets you…… but you are interested! Sometimes something can’t be explained away, and sometimes you find have reached a point of discovery…… but other times if you look a bit harder or you go off at a tangent, you can change how you originally thought, through practice or reading
I think growing up in Bradford, I have been spoilt in some respects for choice of photography to look at. I have taken an active interest in going to say the National Media Museum. Then Impressions Gallery moved to Bradford. They are all free you see, this is free here [Salt’s Mill] and since this has opened up I have come here, because I could, and its about looking, absorbing, looking at other people’s work – not just photography.
WL A final question around the work that you say you are doing on your website, you say you are looking at the new British landscape, an updating of beauty and the sublime?
LD I don’t need someone to commission me to make work. I do, though, need a focus, and whilst this is broad, it’s still a focus around which to make work
WL So where will it end up do you think?
LD Wherever that takes me. I don’t think you can wait to be commissioned you can’t take the pan off the heat in some respects. I’m not saying you have to keep all hands to the deck to keep an interest, but you have to keep working. You can’t stop – and I know that sometimes people have fallow periods, and that’s fine – you have got to keep thinking. You really do.
WL On my MA course, when I started I didn’t do anything in the first six months in terms of image making, just research. John Kippen would say, ‘just start, I know you don’t know what you want to do, but just do something’. When I actually started to do something I knew what he meant.
LD Sharpe’s Wood was started in the year 2000 and it was basically using an old Kershaw camera from a charity shop in Leicester that cost me £5.
The Kershaw was liberating – it was cheap but it was optically so sharp. It allowed me to put my camera anywhere in the woodland. I hadn’t got a zoom lens and I didn’t work with a tripod at first. I didn’t like tripods! To be honest didn’t think I liked medium format but sometimes I like to surprise myself. But then I started to use a tripod because I went deeper onto the woods. I started with just photographing on the boundary and you’d get transient illumination from passing traffic, like a truck, the headlights catch on different part to say a car’s. Some people had full beam, some didn’t – all different factors, uncontrollable factors. All the light was ambient with Sharpe’s Wood.
WL Do you equate what you are doing in any way with the Romantics?
LD I wouldn’t be adverse to saying yes to that
WL Is that coming out of some form of environmental consciousness?
LD I do think it is with a foot in there as well. I don’t think that you can make work to do with the British landscape and not be mindful of it, both in terms of the cycles and in terms of preserving the woodland areas and green field spaces.
WL Would describe your work as radical?
LD No……would you? Well, a subtly radical! Think there’s an oxymoron there! I like to navigate off path.
WL I think that is what I was getting at. Not sure that radical is quite the right word, its this fact that in a world that is so overcrowded with images you have to have something different, and yours are different. Yet the thoughts that you inspire are quite, well normal, everyday sort of thoughts, rather than wild thoughts that you might associate with radical…….. its this funny idea of going into a woodland in the dark. I keep thinking I need to go out there in the dark and see what happens……I should do but I’m just chicken! But you have done it combined with an intense view of the everyday. Am I making sense?
LD It is intense….
WL …..intense rather than radical, then…..
LD …..there is an intensity to it….yes I’d say that. We can’ escape talking about light, we can’t escape Turner as well and how he describes light.
WL You’ve not nailed yourself to a tree though to see what its like being fixed there all night? That’s what he did, or at least claims to have done, when he painted the storm at sea – he roped himself to a mast.
LD ……but then would it give it more validity? I guess it could do in certain circumstances?
WL Liza, that’s brilliant stuff thank you so much for such an inspiring walk around your work
All images © Liza Dracup