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Christopher Taylor | Interview
Christopher Taylor in conversation with Naveen Kishore

N: 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 toyou 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 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 I 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?

CT: Yes.

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 could´nt imagine how anyone could find England exotic. Now when I to go back, I can understand better why they find certain things bizarre.

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