Interview with Simon A. Clarke
by Louis Braddock Clarke
LBC: Do you see more importance in sequencing than content?
SC: Fundamental is content whether in a specific picture or in the overall visual narrative. In many of the pictures I have a good idea what is there when they are made but then in others, afterwards, I see content on the periphery, which adds another degree of nuance. I am very conscious of aesthetics; colour is important for instance. But what each picture communicates on its own and collectively is central to a project. Sequencing is critical and while the natural thought is this occurs afterwards in the process of editing it is not necessarily the place in reality where it occurs. I am interested in the chronology of a series of pictures when intuition can also be at play. Here I can begin to see a narrative unfold within a particular location. In this instance there might be a number of pictures that are true to the order they were originally taken. So, neither content nor sequence takes precedent over the other.
LBC: Does the one-off photo moment exist, or is it more about a series/collective of images?
SC: Henri Cartier-Bresson makes sense in particular situations with his ‘decisive moment’. The reality for me in making a picture is in the heightened senses; visual perception and a reaction and response to the situation. When you realise you have arrived at a location by design or serendipity and you begin to see things overtly or there are signs and traces, these are elements in the dynamics that motivate me to take photographs. I thrive on the uncertainty and then the opportunity, like an explorer discovering. The point is, the one-off moments completely exist but you have to go looking for them. You are capturing time as well this intrigues me. Forming a series of pictures is a reason for going to a particular location and recording it to make it formal, a tangible realisation, achieved through the taking of the picture. The series enables a broader narrative to be told, from my perspective, about a location or for that matter, things that are happening at a location. There are intended locations and then places I encounter by chance each type can become significant as a series of pictures. So the one-off moment and the series are intrinsically interconnected.
LBC: How important is location for you?
SC: I think, I have begun to answer this in the preceding question, but I can expand. The Birmingham pictures are from the ‘two cities’ series. The pictures have been taken over four years’, over eight visits and are within a relatively geographically compressed central urban area of the city, this was not planned it evolved. In London, which is another part of the ‘two cities’ series and the Paris projects the principles are similar. America is slightly different and in Africa it is different again because of other variables coming into play. In Africa, for example: it is a road drive onto the Highveld or a long walk on the Cape or a series of streets
in Johannesburg that have situated the photographs and story. In West Cornwall, where I live, there are particular places that I have known all my life, so again that is different. Around these locations I become aware of social, political and economic layers of meaning that can be attributed to these places, during, retrospectively and prior to recording. In remote locations the fact there is often a trace of human activity however minimal is intriguing, David Goldblatt speaks about this in his series ‘Intersections’. Whereas in the city there are other types of complexities, often determined by recent histories or events. Whether rural or urban histories they can shape the narrative, it always starts with a non-fiction, the fact of the matter and elements of fiction are formed sometimes within a series afterwards. I like how fact and fiction interconnect on occasions, playing-off each other so as to convey a concept, often not one linear story.
LBC: Do you see taking risks in your work as a necessity?
SC: In some cities, for example, Johannesburg I have had to calculate, and decide where to or not to go, advice is valuable here from those who live and breath a place. If this is what you mean by risk. The question whether to make those extra steps forward or not can be defining in what makes a picture and safety. In urban settings, which includes Birmingham nothing is taken for granted if people are in the picture or the location is unfamiliar. I am not interested in getting in harms way. In Paris I have seen a change, because of terrorism. Police and public have challenged me while doing what I have always done on the streets of the city. I have been in difficult situations in Kenya, but this is due to naivety on my part during troubles in Somalia spilling into Kenya and during tribal clashes. I hope I am on the right track here. For subjects and themes I want to say something and it can be provocative socially, culturally, politically things need to be said and as an artist the opportunity is there. Photography is a great communicator and I want it to provoke a response in the recipient. Otherwise there seems little point but not as a documentary photographer would be working for a magazine.
LBC: Does one image trigger a fictional narrative that leads to how you carry on photographing or is this plot derived from a post-rational reflection?
SC: I think this occurs on location where you begin to see the germ of an idea in the mind taking form as you move through a location. Here threads and associations between pictures take form. I might not be thinking about a fictional narrative consciously but it might be happening at a subliminal level, which carries forward when looking at a full collection of pictures about a location or situation. Full reflection usually happens afterwards where you have time to think about what you have done, your concerns and your voice has a chance to percolate, and a process of moving pictures in narrative occurs defined by what I want to communicate and how I set about this in a certain way. It might be obvious what I want to say and then a little harder to see what is actually going on in the pictures, I do not want the story all set out, I want uncertainty and the viewer to realise there is ambiguity in places but there will be a reason, a thought that the rhythm needs to go in a different direction, surreal even. Conceptually, I like the idea of the puzzle, where you have to make people work at what is in front of them. Therefore the approach definitely has to be from your phrase ‘a post-rational reflection’.
LBC: Is it important that people who view your photographs immediately understand the surreal narratives you explore or should these remain as hidden alternative meanings?
SC: I like the idea, that there is the aesthetic, a visual attraction to the picture but that time observing the picture, perhaps not for that long, gradually reveals other types of visual material possessing differing characteristic in some instances surreal and even tangential but relevant to what I want achieve in a series. I think text can help to explain and complete the idea, intent, experience of a picture, but it should not be a pre-requisite to understanding. But I also like the idea that all the detail of the life and concept of the picture can remain in part locked up.
LBC: Do you arrive at a place with the intention of telling a story or do you wait for the place to reveal a story to you?
SC: I think time with the Birmingham pictures has given me opportunity to reflect in-between visits regarding what has been happening. And while the duration of taking the picture spans four years it is really the last couple of years that a narrative and ordering began to be formulated. Whereas on the Highveld in South Africa and not knowing whether I would return, the particular locations are a small series that form a bigger picture when linked with the Cape pictures on the same trip, what is good here is I will be going back this year. I think I must wait for the location to reveal itself.
LBC: How important is the identity of a person in your imagery, and does the interruption of human presence effect your vision?
SC: I like the word ‘presence’ I think people are important but everything has to add up. The human factor can be in the middle distance rather than foreground so they are intrinsic to a setting or situation. It all depends’, there are so many variables at play when taking pictures and the human factor is hard to have precise contingency for as you are never entirely sure what a person will do. If they are unaware I think that is fine if they are aware and content equally this works even when the person is conscious this can work. But it can be hopeless when they pose and the situation becomes contrived, others might disagree with this view. I like the street where many differing scenarios occur in a single picture because of the number of scenarios playing and being recorded. Then you have to reflect afterwards on what is there in the picture and at the time composition is often a major focus and timing, it is about a reaction then having people in the picture can help construct a narrative, storytelling. So human presence can be good but I would say my pictures are often quiet in terms of actual human presence but there are always signs and traces of our human presence, which are components in forming the narrative. In Birmingham this is a balance in these photographs of the two types of points I have made. In South Africa I took portraits, which I liked of photographers David Goldblatt and Roger Ballen, which I thought were a success but I am not sure others thought the same as me.
LBC: Do your digital abstractions also inform the way you create imaginary landscapes?
SC: The digitally generating paintings are important and the stories have become stronger in relation to environment and the surreal direction in them has become significant. I like this and they are similar in that the making of the idea, concept is formed in the action of making each digital painting but the narrative is extended on reflection afterwards. They have definitely strengthened my position on the photographic series and storytelling, Artists can contribute to social, cultural, political and other issues such as environment and I am happy to try and do this in my work when it feels the right way to go forward.
LBC: How do you review the everyday into your own visual language?
SC: The everyday, is full of differing forms of nuance and opportunity, even in the familiar or out in remote places. As mentioned histories resonate in locations and their traces have relevance in amongst the presence of things happening when taking the picture even in the most familial settings, there are social, political, economic factors hidden within I build around this. Whether it is imperialism or terror, both of these concern me and I am sure other people as well, I want to construct a visual language around these subjects, at least at the moment.
LBC: How do you select and edit a series of photographs, is place an important parameter or does it evolve through your constructed storylines?
SC: I have to be in a place and a constructed story needs to be situated. That’s why ‘two cities’ is interesting because it expands across two locations even though each location is very particular. Choices, decision-making I revel in this process. In the ‘Paris’ series there are many different sites within Paris and the temporal element is important as they precede or follow the terrible events that have occurred there in recent years.