Naveen Kishore in conversation with Christopher Taylor, 2008.
NAVEEN KISHORE: Let’s talk about beginnings. How did this project start?
CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR: From my first visit to India in the 1980’s, I remember being particularly struck by the architecture of Calcutta and Bombay in the sense that there was a direct reference to the colonial period, and in view of currents events, I became interested in the repercussions of that era. One of the recurrent themes in my work is that the past can be revisited in some way by through enduring symbols. I decided to make these buildings the subject of a new photographic project and I went about it in quite a systematic manner. First of all, I singled out those that appeared interesting from the outside. Later I tried to see if it would be possible to enter them and take photographs with a large format camera that reproduces a lot of important detail, and try to do this on a systematic basis by choosing a similar viewpoint each time .
A few years ago, I showed a few of these at the British Council in Calcutta. It was an interesting exercise, meeting people and gauging their reactions. Then I was approached by Soumitra Das of The Telegraph newspaper to collaborate on a book project on the Dalhousie Square area in the heart of Calcutta. Obviously that entails not just interiors, but views of buildings from the outside as well as from inside. So, we walked around the area together and identified structures of historical and visual interest.
Here are some images……
NK: The photographs are so reminiscent of some of the China photographs I’ve seen, the austere quality of what you capture. We’ll come to that later. What was the first Indian connection?
CT: I came to India for the first time in the 1980s with my wife. We stayed for six months, and travelled around quite a lot. We came to Calcutta and spent a week or so there. I remember making a couple of friends. We really enjoyed ourselves. Calcutta certainly made a very strong impression that first time, which was largely the reason I went back. It’s a place that sticks in my memory. Something to do with time. I was living in London then, and there was so much in common. It’s strangely like a version of London in the tropics.
NK: Architecturally? Or . . .
CT: Yes, mostly architecturally. It’s obvious that the British left their mark; in an organizational sense and the way people go about things, and there are some strangely retro British customs kept alive. The impression I had was that I was revisiting history . . .
NK: Like a time warp?
NK: I’ve often felt that Calcutta in a sense has been left behind. One gets the sense that other cities have kind of moved on and become like other capital cities of the world. It is this sense of being left behind that has led to Calcutta somehow remaining hugely hospitable. It has more time for other people . . . less aggressive perhaps if such a thing is possible in today’s world. ‘Kinder’, even.
CT: That was another thing I sensed in Calcutta—it was an agreeable place to be. There seems to be a kind of window to the past that is fascinating. I wanted to explore the legacy of colonialism and the ambiguities that grew out of it. It was difficult to start with—I had no clear idea of how to go about things.
Nonetheless, I returned to Calcutta in the mid-1990’s. I had been working in medium format, with a Rolleiflex that I still use. I photographed details from the streets and portraits, but I realized that it was not the right approach.
NK: You’re still doing film? It’s wonderful. I keep telling myself that the day the world stops printing on paper I won’t take another picture. I don’t think I want to go digital.
CT: I resist it, which is perhaps not very logical, but I can’t see how I would benefit from the change. I have learnt to use very simple instruments where I am in total control of the image making process. Also, second hand equipment costs nothing these days. It’s true that paper and film is becoming more difficult to find. Hopefully the market will not completely disappear.
There are all these other aspects if you want to invest in expensive equipment. But the technology is constantly evolving with digital imagery. You have to keep up with technology, whereas I can work with equipment that is 40 or 50 years old, works perfectly and is easy to repair.
NK: Does it also have something to do with the kind of pictures you want to take?
CT: Oh yeah, I think so. Definitely. I’ve never been particularly attracted to colour. I’ve always stuck to black and white. And it’s something very easy—I can do it all myself. I am used working on my own. And I don’t wish to change. It is not really a refusal of possibilities. It’s just that I’ve got to reduce things to be as simple as possible. It’s technology that I understand, that I am used to working with. I’d rather concentrate on ideas than the technical side of things.
Also, I do no commercial work so there is little pressure to change. So, in fact, before starting this project in 2003, I decided to buy an old large format view camera because the subject was architecture. I ran up five or six shots on 4 x 5-inch sheet film to see if it worked just before leaving. I learnt to use this at the same time that I researched the subject of my project. Inevitably I made mistakes—the use of large negatives is all about precision, and there are many possibilities for error that I had not anticipated.
NK: There’s also a fair amount of set-up involved.
CT: Well, you start with the naked eye rather than viewing the scene through a camera lens. Then, when you find the best position, the camera is set on a stand, everything set to zero and leveled off, and an inversed image is viewed through a screen on the back. The film and lens planes are moveable, which permits control over perspective, and the manipulation of these can be a bit of a fiddle. The film, when inserted, blocks the screen so viewing is impossible at the moment the photograph is taken. The whole process takes several minutes to perform, so you can’t be discreet about it. There’s no possibility of that. When you’re on the street, you attract a crowd. People think you’re doing a movie or something.
NK: Your photographs are the work of a very private person . . . there is a sense that you tend to ‘capture’ stillness.
CT: Yes. In fact, I have been avoiding photographing people for 10 years or more, but I was interested in portraits some years ago. I had a neighbour where I live in France who was coming around all the time. He became a bit of a nuisance. He was a bit emotional. Sometimes, he’d been drinking. But he had an interesting face, and I began to photograph him. He had radical mood changes. It seemed like portraits of all very different people. This was fascinating. But it became a bit complicated. He thought he was some kind of a movie star!
NK: Because of the process of being shot regularly—
CT: And because he was being exhibited. The exhibition heightened his ego. It was a curious situation, a conflict of egos, till the subject and the photographer weren’t quite sure who was gaining the upper hand.
NK: Really? How did that happen?
CT: He started performing really. But then it was me who chose which moments to preserve. The images became a sort of mixture of portraiture and self-portraiture. This was over 10 years ago. I carried the process over a bit to Calcutta, and there are one or two portraits in the Icelandic series which followed.
NK: Yes, like the photograph of your father-in-law. So close that it stops being a portrait in that sense. Of course they are portraits but layered, as though textured. With the literature of the subject, the kind of person you perceive your subject to be—imagined or otherwise—from the inside. Objects that sometimes symbolize the personality of the subject or stilled frames that capture the inner person by freezing physical attributes that we wouldn’t normally seee in the dailyness of our relationship with the person. At least not consciously . . . the ear, or nose, or lip or a strand of hair—
CT: Since then, in China, I decided that people always become the centre of attention, and seem to date an image, so I decided to eliminate them from the frame altogether, and concentrate on what’s left behind. I turned my attention to details, fragments that work as symbols, a little like an archeological dig. So perhaps it was natural that I turned my attention to buildings. In this case it became a little more complicated avoiding people, so I had to arrange to go on specific times or days when they were unoccupied. I needed not only permission to go in there, but also to do so when nobody’s there. Sometimes I had to be very patient.
NK: I can imagine. As you said, you have a camera and you’re setting it up and you get a crowd like you do in a movie.
CT: There is the problem of people, but also, technically, the exposures are often very long. I want everything sharp, so I use a very small aperture with exposure times of several minutes for interior shots. People are often unaware of this and sometimes wander back into the frame.
NK: Curiously enough your photographs suggest that you’re translating your assimilated literature. All of us are made up of literature, not necessarily only what we read, but our experiences as a people, including the choice to be where we are at any given moment, our daily responses. Your own desire to give up London for example, in the context of your work and choosing instead to be in a more . . . what shall we say . . . lower profile space? I’m trying to figure out that during the process of what you choose to shoot and how you shoot and the rest of it—how much of that comes into play? Is it like a kind of total blankness, with the technicalities taking over what your eye sees? How much of it is intuitive in what seems at one level to be so meticulously planned and at another in complete communion with your subject?
CT: The thing is that it wasn’t. Because the initial idea, as I said, was to get into buildings I had picked, but then I had no idea what I’d subsequently find. And I had to get permission, which was often quite complicated, before I got to see anything inside. Actually I usually work more instinctively, working from an initial idea, and then searching until images fit into place. You are right—there has to be this kind of rapport, something that you sense yourself that you have been looking for. And, certainly I was looking for something specific. I had this feeling about Calcutta that somehow the city was left in the past, and this suited my approach. I’ve always been interested in the origin of things, history. It’s certainly the approach I had in China too. There are some thoughts that you have to get to the bottom of . With my work in Calcutta, the reference is to something very specific, more of an historical document, and there are necessarily more restrictions. At the same time there has to be this… I am looking for a particular sort of atmosphere.
NK: Yes, the atmosphere you capture is extremely interesting. Whether it is the choice of the building, the place— all of it suggests a previous inhabitance. Often ironically this atmosphere appears linked to you know, your ‘history’ interest. Whether it’s the Coffee House picture or some of the conference room pictures—the ‘now’ of the picture moment is haunted by the ‘then’ of a previous long-passed moment. For a Calcuttan like myself, the Coffee House is associated with a certain ‘sound level’— conversations, debate, chatter. You show me a still Coffee House and I imagine the ‘other’ one, the one I know. The ‘quiet’ you capture resonates with what once was.
CT: The thing is that if you visit a place, empty, you can be more receptive. There’s no distraction. So you can drift mentally into an imagined past.
NK: It’s just you, your equipment, your sense of what you imagine the ‘history’ of that place to have been through your own personal lens— or should one say ‘literature’? Your imagined ‘stilling’ of time passing.
CT: One of the problems is that often I would not be allowed to be alone. Once given permission to photograph a building, I would usually be accompanied. In China it had been quite different in that respect. I had confined myself to a particular region, the region around the yellow river where the Chinese civilization is said to have started, although this is a geographically large territory. It has become a rather backward area, most of the new development is taking place near the coast. The places that interested me are fairly rural, and small town. China is full of huge cities which are difficult to escape. But those small towns interested me more because you can just walk out into the surrounding countryside, and it was often in the borderland between town and country that I would find things. Much is dry and dusty, semi-desert. Just the place to find yourself alone, and drift into a personal reverie. In Calcutta, I would often have people behind me waiting to go back to their desks, so I had to shut myself off from that somehow. It’s hard to explain. It is all about a sort of resonance and that’s informed by a multitude of things, sources such as those that you were talking about. Literature, for example. It’s a cumulative experience. Often, it’s the very nature of what you are searching for, something that you are trying to understand about yourself.
NK: A lot of this is about yourself. For someone who does not know you enough, like myself, there’s a shyness to everything. And on the other level, these are not shy photographs. Say if I walk into a space particularly want to photograph in which everything is against me — people staring, watching. Now, I am hugely awkward about being watched. So, I quickly get up and capture whatever the hell I sense I have to and then wait for the accidents to happen and hope that some magic has been ‘made.’ In your pictures, there’s a sense that you have somehow overcome that kind of shyness. You’re there, the people around you have been blocked out, imagined away, even replaced by a ‘firmness’. There’s firmness to these works, a purposefulness, if you will—
CT: That’s very perceptive. It’s true that I am shy and reserved, if you like … and just to enter these places I had to overcome that shyness. What made the process easier is that people were always very helpful. They would very rarely refuse to listen… on the contray, in fact, the whole process became part of the attraction of the project. I met an enormous variety of people, sometimes in quite powerful positions who I would not ordinarily have the opportunity to meet. I was surprised at how accessible they were. In Europe, people in similar administrations would not be so easy to meet. They wouldn’t find the time to see people like me who just turn up on their doorstep. Then there is the security factor to consider.
NK: I think there’s a kind of paranoia towards photographers—
CT: It’s amazing—people target photographers in particular. Forgotten buildings have to be protected against terrorism—there’s no sense to it! I’ve been stopped several times on the street by the police for taking photographs, in India while anybody can walk around with a mobile phone camera and do whatever they want to.
NK: Yes, it happened to me in Paris. I have this Russian horizon, the panoramic 120-degree camera, the kind you can fire from through a spell of sharp rain—heavy drops, loud—and suddenly, the stairway from the Metro was flooding over with toddlers! There were all literally ‘gushing’ out, like a flood. I just clicked that ‘hailstorm’ of people rushing towards me— it all happened in a flash: the image, the thought, the act of picture-taking from the hip. And this woman just came up to me: ‘No, no! You can’t do that!’ Sharp. Angry. And then again in the same flash I noticed that she may have a reason— each kid had a little something around their neck, like a tag. Perhaps part of some institution or something suggesting a disability, but clearly not a visible one. Deafness for example. I was so taken aback. As I’d intruded where I never meant to. As though taking their picture was incorrect because of their affiliation to a particular school.
CT: There’s certainly a paranoia to which there is no logic at all. Some people react quite bizarrely. I guess the media is largely to blame. I can think of several instances. I tried to do something a little bit similar in my hometown. A small town on the east coast of England. I go there from time to time to see my parents. Quite a strange place really from an outsiders perspective. Essentially, it’s a coastal holiday resort for industrial workers— a class of people now largely disappeared from European society— built about a hundred years ago. The town’s name is Skegness, and it’s a smaller version of Brighton or Blackpool.The town lives on in that tradition and is still very popular. A lot of day-trippers – like in the famous Beatles song.
I grew up there, and that’s where I started to take photographs. I worked for a beach photography company that employed a lot of young people in the summer to stand on the street and photograph the tourists who passed by.
Since many were day-trippers, we had to prepare the photos the same day. We would photograph pretty well anyone who passed by, and some would be curious enough to collect the photograph later from a kiosk on the seafront.
N: There’s a whole industry in different tourist places now. It still happens—‘We’ll take two pictures of you’—
CT: This business went back the time to when most people didn’t own cameras.
NK: Your father was there? He started his life there? Or he moved there?
C: He moved there. My father was a solicitor. My grandfather worked for a firm of solicitors . . . he had moved around the country a fair bit and eventually found employment in Skegness. My father studied at law school after the war and became a solicitor for the firm for which my grandfather worked. So I guess my grandfather found my father a job.
NK: And you broke that tradition?
CT: Well, the tradition doesn’t go back very far. Just two generations.
NK: You never studied law?
CT: No. I went to university and studied zoology, and worked in research for a little while afterwards. I don’t think my father was that passionate about it really. I think he is a romantic at heart. And he had a lot of other interests—amateur dramatics, painting, photography for a while. Music too, which as well, which was an important influence on me. My mother was a teacher. Quite a curious place to grow up in. The winter population was around 10,000 which increased 10 fold in the summer. Day-trippers, huge caravan parks, bed & breakfast guest houses, it got extremely busy in the summer, and there were always seasonal jobs to be found. And I found one of the better jobs really. Working for this firm as a photographer on the seafront, because the hours were relatively short to accommodate the day-trippers, and we were outdoors rather than being in a café or fish & chip shop.
NK: Where did the camera come from?
CT: The firm supplied it. I’d never taken pictures before, and no real skill was required.
NK: So you just landed up?
CT: anybody could do it. The sites were specific, and you were required to just stand in one place, basically, and snap anyone who came by. Most people wouldn’t want their photograph taken. So, you learnt to be very quick. You bent down a bit, snap a photograph and hand a ticket out all in the same movement. The gesture was quite fast, and the automatic reaction was to take the ticket.
NK: And what did the ticket say?
CT: That you can go to a kiosk at a certain time and your photograph will be ready.
NK: The photograph they may not have wanted at all in the first place!
CT: No, but then some were curious! We used to work in pairs from time to time.
NK: Gosh . . . it sounds like benign scam!
CT: One of us would be dressed up in a costume. We had a gorilla costume. The gorilla would be caged. Then, the gorilla would rush out of the cage, grab someone and get in again.
NK: And the other one would shoot?
NK: Did you do the gorilla bit ever?
CT: A little bit—
NK: And then the other guy shot?
CT: Yes. We had various costumes, a pink elephant, a bear, and some cartoon characters from the television…
NK: It was like a daily wage?
CT: Mostly a commission. You got a basic wage and then commission. That’s how I started taking photographs.
NK: I think that’s amazing, because it is completely outrageous!
CT: That was my photographic training. I never actually thought that photography might be used artistically, till somebody working for this firm showed me some photographs that had been taken on the beach. Black-and-white images of patterns left by the tide in the sand.
NK: It’s quite amazing starting off like that. Considering you ran away from there . . . I seem to remember a random remark which you made about not really wanting to be part of a certain kind of commercial circuit that the art and photography scene in England appeared to have become. How that prompted the choice to move from there to the outskirts of Montpellier. Not settling in England. Tell me about it.
CT: I’ve always enjoyed the sensation of being a foreigner.
NK: What does that mean?
CT: It means not having particular ties to the place where you are. There’s a sense of freedom.
NK: Not having historical ties?
CT: Yeah, although I do seem to have become a bit French now—
NK: What is that? What is a bit French?
CT: Changing my habits about food, and perhaps a somewhat different sensibility to certain cultural issues. The British do maintain a certain island mentality of being apart from Europe.
NK: So here’s an Englishman settled in Montpellier, taking photographs, married to an Icelander: yours is a whole completely, totally exotic pirate-like image—
CT: I must admit it shows a certain attraction for the exotic. I’ve been told this in the past as well.
I like to put myself a little apart when close to my own roots, I have difficulty seeing beyond that. The French word describes it better—‘L’etranger’, like the title of a book by Camus—meaning ‘outsider’. The idea of maintaining a distance, like stepping back going back to the subject of England. Other Europeans find England exotic. When I lived there, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could find England exotic. Now when I to go back, I can understand better why they find certain things bizarre.
NK: You, surprisingly, the first time I ever stepped out of India was when I was 27. The moment I landed—there was no jet lag. I just dumped stuff and just hit the city so to speak. It was as if I was completely familiar, I knew my way around because there was a whispered commentary in my head from the cradle so to speak—again, the word ‘literature’ springs to attention. In India, we do grow up with a certain kind of reading and, therefore, ‘experiencing’ other landscapes. So, coming to England was a bit like coming to a familiar, already visited land. Almost like ‘returning.’
CT:It’s doing the opposite to my experience. That was the thing about going to Calcutta, I felt very secure.
NK: As if I would never need to ask for directions. I just knew where to go. Not to say that I never stopped and enquired but, yes, I felt safe and not the alien I may have felt otherwise.
CT: Because you understand the culture.
NK: I think it had something to do with the fact that I grew up reading in a certain environment. Every child, let’s say the privileged child, whose privilege being not money, but the privilege to go to schools, have access to books, to libraries, of other people, relatives, friends, families—so you know you discover your sense of history— even a fictionalized history through a literature. So when you see a certain kind of colouring on a building, it triggers off memories that you have not experienced except vicariously through literature. So, in that sense, the feeling of, ‘Oh I’ve been here before’. A feeling that’s strange and stimulating all at once.
CT: No, I understand perfectly, it is exactly what I felt
NK: It’ll be different if you go to a place like Tokyo.
CT: I’ve never been there, but I’ve been told that it is very disorientating.
NK: Ironically, there are other parts of Japan, which are completely ‘comfortable’. Kyoto, for example, I find almost European in its sensibilities. Very accessible place. Cosmopolitan certainly and there’s a much more lived-in walkable air about the whole place. There’s history, of course, and romance. So contemporary and yet comfortable with it’s past and its dailyness.
CT: I imagine Tokyo was totally destroyed during the War.
NK: Tokyo, to me, at any given moment, is like a hundred years ahead. If you go back to cities like New York, or other cities of the world, it’s like you’ve come to an older civilization. Then you move to a Tokyo situation. It’s the way they use their technology, I think, to ‘ease’ their dailynesses—
CT: I get a little uncomfortable with too many gadgets. When I lived in London, I worked as a computer programmer. I’ve never been very interested in computers, but it was easy to find work in that line during the early 1980’s. But all that use of convoluted and quickly redundant code, and the constantly evolving technology rather confirmed my suspicion of the digital revolution.
NK: That’s picture of the Post Office?
CT:Yeah, it’s the Calcutta GPO.
NK: How did you get in there?
CT: It wasn’t difficult. I met a man who put me in touch with Tilak De, the director of the GPO at the time, who was extremely friendly and helpful. I was able to go there one Sunday when the place was almost deserted.
NK: It’s amazing that there’s such a network of ceiling fans up there.
CT: The fans became a bit of a feature in my photographs. This is Statesman House. Something that is of great interest to me, is actually how these images will be received in India, what sense will people make of these now in India. My perspective is directed somewhat towards the past.
NK: I was taking a few mental notes of your pictures and the first thing I noticed— which fascinates me for various reasons—is the complete lack of noise in your photographs. Something I wrote a long time ago comes to my mind—‘peopled by silence’, ‘inhabited’ as it were by an all-engaging quiet. I am seeing connections all the time. You show me the Statesman House archive, and I immediately think of one person’s experience with that archive: there used to be a drama critic who used to sit in a place called ‘the morgue’, because we’d think he was writing obituaries in the drama column—his vitriolic reviews would be the death of most performances! I see your picture of the Coffee House and I find myself there, listening, eavesdropping on my past. So I think there’s going to be a lot of resonance with the viewing of your photographs in India which is, I guess, one of succeeding
CT: I was looking at things from my own personal viewpoint, that of being British. Calcutta was historically the colonial capital. It carries a lot of stock and baggage. There seems to be a lot of ambiguities attached to this today. I didn’t quite understand why the city was reluctant to look forward.
NK: You get that sense?
CT: In a way. The city seems nostalgic, which seems at odds with the context of the current emergence of India on the world stage in contrast to colonial rule. Perhaps it looks back to that time when the city was truly cosmopolitan, great fortunes being made. Perhaps a nostalgia for that prosperity—
NK: It’s almost as if we are mourning a past that is ground-breaking, when people genuinely doing what seemed like interesting, pioneering work, culturally or commercially. It was a thriving port, for example. Then the erosion began. In more ways than one. Vessels that went up the river found it more difficult to do so because the river had silted. The silting process has also happened culturally but is never talked about. There was a vibrant something which, at a certain level, has gone out of our lives, replaced by a certain exhaustion. Not a nice way to fill a vacuum.
CT: That’s because the economic centre of the country moved elsewhere.
NK: It’s not just about the economic centre shifting or the fact that the way the country works, for the political centre is New Delhi. It’s a reality we can’t ignore. If you’ve visited Calcutta in the last few years you’ll find there’s a lot of talk of a certain kind of resurgence, a sort of architectural resurgence, which means more shopping malls are coming up. That’s not the kind of employment that changes economies. The other thing that’s interesting to talk about is something that one sees whenever one travels—simply locating yourself in a different country and seeing exhibitions, seeing photography. Now it’s kind of come back to haunt us at a certain level in the Indian context, which is completely the opposite of what I think you’re doing—there’s a sense that photographers are running out of subjects. They are documenting the banal with a certain kind of deliberate ‘give-us-this-day-our-daily-bread’ kind of feeling, where is this going to lead to? Or maybe it simply does not matter? Maybe I haven’t figured out connections or resonances in my own head with this kind of photography.
CT: As a kind of critique of contemporary society—
NK: I don’t know whether it’s that. Well, certainly they give it that articulation: ‘We created it as a project’, ‘We created it as an event’. It’s not photography that certainly at a very personal level that moves me. But there’s a lot of it going around.
CT: That’s been a tendency in Europe for a few years.
NK: I’ve suddenly become conscious of it because I’m noticing that a lot of contemporary photographers are creating projects for themselves about ‘banal’—
NK: ‘Ordinary’, not even ‘everyday’. Subjects or objects. Somewhere in my head there’s a distinction between an ‘everyday’ and the ‘ordinary’. You can take the ordinary and turn it into something that bobs up to the surface.
CT: Or something that has other references for whatever reason.
NK: Sure. And at the end of the day—
CT: It’s about association . . .
NK: Association, and what it does to your senses—making you feel happy in the head when you look at it. I don’t mean happy as in ‘everlasting happiness’ because it could be the most traumatic thing that you’re showing me visually, but there is a sense that I am glad I watched, or viewed or saw this particular photograph. But that’s not what I am talking about. When you have a photographer who will show you seventy frames in succession of a certain daily event in his or her personal life, and not actually succeed in communicating or make it resonate, as in connect, because I should be able to understand what’s happening, respond to it. I’m not saying that you go and photograph really complex subjects—that they are in any case doing often enough— but there’s a kind of—and I keep coming back to the ‘B’ word —‘banality’ taking over. I would like to know your own thoughts and linking it with your own process of why you chose to shoot what you shoot.
CT: Well, I think from my point of view I talked to you about my first visit to India with my wife in the late 80s. At that time I was taking photographs on a more superficial level. It had to do with my travel experience. They were important experiences, but at the same time they were not leading to anything particularly profound. So once I had finished that, I started looking much more closely at my life, trying to get to the bottom of something much more personal. I started a project that was completely different to the kind of travelogue that had interested me while in India. I went back to my hometown and started photographing the area on the beach where I had spent a lot of time as a child. It was nostalgic in a way, and it also had a lot to do with the way I felt in this particular place, a sort of peace, but also a strange anxiety somehow linked to the experience of growing up. The coast there is evolving through the action of the sea.
CT:No. Quite the opposite, in fact. Silt is being deposited, and the sea is retreating leaving a rare place of wilderness on the edge of highly cultivated farmland. A series of salt flats have formed which fill with water at very high tides, surrounded by dunes overgrown with bushes. It’s a very beautiful area. Now it has become a protected nature reserve. The surrounding countryside is absolutely flat and featureless, and the nearby town is packed in the summer. This is the place I’d love to go to as a child, and just get lost in the bushes, build dens and so on. So I decided to photograph this area. At this point, I also started making large prints. The idea was to make a small number of quite intense images—a maximum of 15 images. These were distilled from a lot of photographs. I was trying to get to the essence of something. The objects themselves were quite unspectacular in a sense. They were quite simple details. A couple of blades of grass, some rubbish washed up by the sea, things with somehow conveyed feelings, symbols. So this became the start of something, which I’ve been continuing ever since. The series in Iceland, for instance, which followed, where I combined carefully selected details with a few landscapes and a couple of portraits in order to evoke elements of a complex family history.The photographs themselves are not particularly spectacular—
NK: But that’s what I mean. You appear to take the ‘ordinary’ in the nicest kind of sense, turn it into something full of echoes. I’m sure there is more to this than just instinct—
CT: Well, actually, the objects were very carefully chosen. This particular cushion isn’t any cushion, it was made by my wife’s aunt and there is a considerable history attached to that—
NK: It shows through . . . in the most unexpected manner . . . in fact it ‘thrills’ in the manner of ‘discovery’—the viewer as explorer—complete with accidental ‘findings’. Hence the thrill.
CT: This is my mother-in-law’s seat in the kitchen where she spends her days. The places and things are very carefully selected details which have significance, but which are not necessarily descriptive. I am not expecting people to guess the exact history of a particular object. Nonetheless my idea is to try and show a hidden tension associated with these details, and build an overall ambience.
NK: Which comes across in a sense because if I were to look at that chair, my first impression would be to look at the way it sort of sits there. A physical presence that is akin to a human one. Not an inanimate piece of furniture but ever so still. Occupied? By what manner of invisible being ? The table . . . the wall is kind of strangely divided, almost like a painting. It’s really the way your objects live in the space that you are presenting to me, which to me makes them extraordinary. I don’t mean it as just praise of a certain kind of unity, a sense of bonding, I use the word ‘extraordinary’ as something that rises above the mundane,the ‘ordinary’. Bringing to mind stories that have nothing to do with your history. That’s the literature! That’s what I call my sea-faring window, the window one associates with a certain kind of looking out into the sea from the ship. The other photographs—just to extend it from the ‘object’ to the ‘nature’ of the things—some outdoor shots that I saw? Those very pale flowers?
CT: I work in terms of specific projects which are quite diverse. Yet there are common threads that link them together. It’s a process of discovery which is often triggered by something, by some experience. Literature has also always been important. I’ve been visiting Iceland since 1983, but it was not until thirteen years later that I started a my project. I had been receptive to certain things without understanding the full significance. Then I discovered the Icelandic writer Haldor Laxness. Discounting the authors or the early sagas, he is probably the greatest ever Icelandic artist. Iceland has a very important medieval literary history and he continued that tradition in the context of Iceland emerging from centuries of poverty at the beginning of the twentieth century. He wrote about people, not in the way Icelanders always liked to hear. It was not insulting, but it didn’t shy away from a sometimes ugly truth. But there were also heroic struggles for survival in a very inhospitable climate—man pitted against the elements where nature became linked to a sort of mysticism. He was a bit of a mystic himself, someone who exploring different avenues. He became attracted at one time to socialist ideals, but also joined a monastic order in Europe for a while. These experiences were eventually directed into a broad understanding of human nature. He wrote about Icelanders as very isolated people. There was one book in particular, the first one I read, a present from my mother-in-law. In English translation, it carried a strange title, Christianity at Glacier. I’d never heard of Laxness, and knowing my mother-in-law had no taste for literature,
I had my doubts . . .
CT: I thought that she had sent some Evangelical Christian work by accident. One day, having nothing else to read, I picked it up and found it fascinating. The subject is a priest who locked up his church, and turns his thoughts to a mysticism based in the power of nature. And this presence of nature has always been a very important aspect of Icelanders’ lives. People have lived and died on the whim of powerful natural forces, which are still a source of inspiration. Sometimes even ordinary objects seem take on a kind of aura. I don’t know if I am making myself very clear—the changes of light, volcanoes, rapidly fluctuating weather . . . It’s a very curious place to be.
NK: The changes of light are hugely important, even retrospectively, to your work. Every single picture seems to devote itself to depicting the passing of light. The landscapes in China, that strange dark rock-like mountain—there’s a kind of Proustian quality of light in your work. Time that recalls not the way a painter would do it but different. And difference is vital.
CT: In China, the light is quite different, but equally distinctive. They are very different places. But I learnt something definite from the Icelandic experience which I think I certainly used again in my Chinese work. Again a text played a part a French poet called Victor Segalen, who was an archaeologist and Chinese scholar. He made expeditions to China around a hundred years ago, and subsequently wrote a book of poems called Steles. I borrowed the title for my own series. A Stele is a block of inscribed stone. The inscription might be an official decree by a long dead emperor, or it might also be a poem, or it could be a religious text, Buddhist or Taoist. There is even library on stone in the city of Xi’an. I had been to China years before, and again the experience was such that I felt compelled to return. I started a photographic project there in 2000, and in reaction to the initial images, a friend introduced me to the work of Victor Segalen. His poems were formed in ‘stele-like’ rectangles, a form which by coincidence frequently resurfaced in my photographs. In his poems, Segalen refers to philosophy or events from ancient Chinese history, but in a highly personal context. My images were in a similar vein. Thereafter, Segalen’s poems accompanied my trips to China.
NK: I’m getting a sense of a strangely lonely traveler, a sense of reclusiveness . The quality that you portray in those objects that you shoot, in China certainly but I was also thinking of how a certain reclusiveness is enhanced by light. There’s a quality of light that retreats inwards as if seeking its own shadows.
CT: That’s one reason I have always stayed with Black and White, because that’s all there is: it’s just a question of light. With colour comes a bit of a—
CT: Yes, an unnecessary distraction. I like to keep things as simple as possible. I chose the square format because it’s the simplest possible form for composition. For instance, one image is just a white square of fabric against a brick wall.
NK: The one that I like is that one with what seems to have a white towel in it . . .
CT: Yeah, actually, it’s a vent on the wall blocked with a towel but yes, you’re right. Again this extremely simple image. At an exhibition of the series in Paris, one woman once said that she could see the Madonna in that image! Well, I was quite happy that she felt that, although that was not at all my intention. She was a little strange. Then again, there’s no way that I expect or want other people to feel exactly the same thing that I feel about an image. Their ideas could be completely opposite. In that sense the idea is to try and create some kind of a tension in the image, something that should be interesting to other people. Sometimes it works in unexpected ways . . .
It’s also important to play images off while working on a series. One image alone only tells part of the story, but as part of a sequence its value can be increased.
NK: What happened to the Mongolia trip you were going to do last time we met?
CT: I did go there, it’s true. In fact, I had planned to do another project in China. I seem to need to keep going back to the same places. So Calcutta, Iceland, China . . . these are places I frequently visit. Initially in China I had been interested in a very specific idea which I explored through three trips each of two months, and then that came to an end. A fourth trip came about through an exhibition, and I stayed on a few weeks to take some more photographs but only succeeded in adding one or two more images to the series, so it was quite clear that it was time to start something new. Nonetheless, China continues to fascinate me, and the idea for a new project emerged. Again I was inspired by a text. In this case it was the Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. And it coincided with another exhibition in China for which again the trip was paid. This was a little over a year ago. Each time I’ve been to China, I have always flown over to Mongolia and there are fabulous views over the countryside. This was very compelling, so last year I decided to return to China via Mongolia where I spent the first two weeks. I’ve been there just once, as part of my trip to China. I thought about combining images from both places, but it’s a very different place. Mongolia is a huge empty expanse: just one city, and a couple of smaller towns. The capital is just a hundred years old, a place where people used to camp which grew into a city under the communists. Then there are a couple of other towns which hold maybe ten or fifteen thousand people. Small towns, built by Russians because of mines. Such a huge empty expanse was fascinating to witness.
NK: There’s also this other thing I have noticed: your pre-occupation with the sea. It’s of course linked to the quality of light . . .
CT: Yes, probably no accident. My experience as a child was very important in that respect. I grew up by the sea, so the sea’s always been an important reference and also the semi-wild area near the beach. I would love to explore the ponds and suchlike as a child. I studied biology before I started photography.
NK: There’s certainly the text—the literature and the stories—but there’s also a certain texture to all those pictures. Personal associations, a tactility triggered off by memory?—perhaps. In fact the calligraphy on stone that you were talking about, and a couple of images of China that you showed—outdoors, no-man’s land, stone structures—you had a word for it . . . ?
CT: Burial mounds. The ground is too stony to dig, so the dead are covered by mounds. The location is often significant.
NK: The strange thing is that it is so definitely your take on China as against China inviting us to go in as excited tourists or our version of an imagined China. I’m not getting or discovering China’s China, I’m discovering it through you. That’s a kind of thing you tend to do.
CT: Oh I did that with India, because in China things are hidden, you have to scrape beneath the surface. It is quite different to a place like Calcutta where tradition is preserved. The Chinese of course have these age-old traditions, but they are more conceptual. The past has been built over and is often no longer visible. Except, in association with a place, even if nothing visual remains. Of course it has several thousand years of history which people constantly refer to. The history is there, as a location. There is a certain way of thinking that goes back to ancient times. Maybe not so common now to the young Chinese, who are much more materialistic, less interested in cultural heritage. but certainly amongst artists and intellectuals. This is one thing I was looking for—a different way of perceiving the world. Even if the object itself is completely unimportant, it might represent something else. I have left myself open to an extent to the philosophy of Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism (although I am wary of the cliché), and have been flattered that Chinese artists have recognized and appreciated that.
NK: But it’s very true. Using the word ‘Buddhism’ may sound clichéd, but you’re actually practicing a certain degree of Zen here, a reticence that is positive, minimal , incisive, cutting to the core. The only concession you have made to the Chinese seems to be a particular shot of these gates.The archways, the brick-type debris, the sense that there was life here, that there is life here—
CT: There’s a sequence of arches that appear to disappear into infinity . . . doorways or openings appear to offer new possibilities.
NK: The possibility that you could be in China is only because you allow the odd bit of calligraphy to sneak in. But other than that there is—I’ll stick to my current feeling of the process of photography as a practice that is believing in a certain philosophy, quietness, a resonance.
CT: Oh I got a lot of inspiration from the Chinese classics. On a very personal level. And the simple beauty of antique ceramics. I regret that I am unable to understand Chinese calligraphy, but the simple use of ink on paper… just a couple of lines, the idea that everything can be expressed by such simple means. For me, it is the ultimate finesse in artistic expression.
NK: Was there any religion in the growing up?
CT: It was a Christian upbringing. I used to go to church once a week with my father, and Sunday school, but apart from my Grandfather, I don’t consider my family as being especially religious. A religious education was just considered normal in those days. Personally, I am not religious, nor can I build up any enthusiasm for current political debate. I have a more analytical way of thinking following an education in science. Nevertheless, without an element of mystery, there is little to sustain interest.