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Stephen Gill’s “Coming Up for Air”: Camera, Process, Action

Stephen Gill’s “Coming Up for Air”: Camera, Process, Action

The Stephen Gill exhibition, “Coming Up for Air”, is arranged over 6 rooms on two floors of Bristol’s Arnolfini Arts Building. Enter the museum and you enter a semi-brutal Grey Cube of an art space. Barbican-lite if you like.
From “Night Procession” 2014 – 2017 © Stephen Gill

The exhibition starts on the second floor. You go up the concrete stairs and come into a dimly lit room where the chronological layout of Gill’s career begins. There are images from Poland, of passengers photographed on train trips, his Trolley Portraits, and Billboards. Because you’re worth it is the title of one image from Paris. But instead of the sweeping hair and gendered grin of the L’Oreal ad, we get the back end of the billboard; all corrugated iron and supporting struts in a junk-strewn back lot.

It’s 2004 but Gill is already into the themes and experimentation that will mark him as an artist with an original perspective of where he lives and how we live. His photographs map the everyday, make the invisible visible (he has one project titled Invisible. It shows people in high-visibility vests), and quietly get beneath the infrastructure of urban society and a range of environments.

From “Hackney Wick” 2001 – 2005 © Stephen Gill

This is especially true of the series he made in and around Hackney Wick before the area was redeveloped/destroyed for the 2012 London Olympics. Here Gill began a chain of photographic projects that accelerated with Gill’s purchase of an old Bakelite Coronet camera at a market on a piece of land earmarked for development. Old camera in hand, Gill photographs the people and places that he so quietly inhabits. The pictures are fuzzy, lack contrast and shadow detail, but they’re great, a perfect fit for the environment they are both made in and made with.

It feels like Gill is part of this world, and his presence is evident in pictures of a man with a globe he has just bought, an ice-cream salesperson hanging out of his van, a top-hatted visitor grimacing in the vague direction of Gill’s crappy camera. It’s rough and ready and altogether in keeping with the situation – and Gill’s attempts to break free from the apparatus of photographic representation.

From “Hackney Flowers” 2004 – 2007 © Stephen Gill

Gill doubles down with the experimentation with projects like Buried. Here, pictures were buried in the earth upon which they were made, the process further linking the photographs to the psychogeographic process in which he was engaged (and he was very much engaged in the psychogeographic process at the time. Some of the rules he made for making images read like Debordian derive). In Talking to Ants, he interrupted the flight of light to medium format film by dropping incidental intrusions into the camera; springs, bugs, jewellery and other ephemera sourced by Gill in the locality make their mark in images that are spectacular on the white gallery walls, the earth-bound nature of their production overwritten by the mounts, frames, glass and grids through which they are shown. It looks great but something doesn’t quite fit. You get the feeling these should be shown in surroundings a bit messier than the Arnolfini allows. One day perhaps.

The same goes for Hackney Flowers, Gill’s wonderful collaging of various items of fauna onto images made around Hackney. This is immersion in place, a ‘collaboration’ with the environment and it is beautiful to behold.

From “Talking to Ants” 2009 – 2013 © Stephen Gill

In the gallery, the images are monumentalized. The ephemera of each project is loaded into vitrines. You can look at the bits of junk that made Talking to Ants in a glass case and cross reference them to the pictures on the wall. The same goes for the fauna of Hackney Flowers and the Bakelite Coronet camera that he bought for 50p that ended up being the tool that made so much of this work.

The Hackney Gill knew and photographed was destroyed for the London Olympics of 2012. The environment, the fauna, the freedom of movement, the biodiverse landscape were all enclosed and  replaced by the environmentally dead zone of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

From “Talking to Ants” 2009 – 2013 © Stephen Gill

With his old stomping grounds buried under a sea of stadia, apartments and shopping opportunities, Gill ended up moving to Sweden to start a new life as a partner and father to his daughter. And for his new adventure, he has a new tool; a trail-cam, the cheapest one he could find it is written.

Now Gill photographed with the trailcam. For the Pillar he stuck a post into the ground by the side of a stream, set the trailcam up in front of the post and left the operation to chance. The project brings to mind Kurt Cavaziel’s obsessive trawling of webcams, but here the environment enhances the possibilities and so birds come to stand, pose, and posture on the pillar and Gill’s trailcam photographed them.

From “The Pillar” 2015 – 2019 © Stephen Gill

As with his London work, there is a link between apparatus, chance, process, and environment and he cranks this up with his earlier trailcam-based project, Night Procession. For this, Gill set up trailcams in places around his home and captured pigs, deer, foxes, and hares in wild and verdant locations. The images were transferred from the digital heart of the trailcam to be processed using plant-based elements amongst the developers leading to green-tinged prints. When Gill won the prestigious Hariban prize in 2017, these images were used as the base for collotypes. Examples of both are shown on the walls of the Arnolfini in lines of framed prints, and vitrined ephemera for you to gaze at through the glass.

The link to the environment is there, but in their presentation, and their shift from the digital to the haptic qualities of the process-driven material it feels like something is lost from the process of connecting these images to place, a process that is genuinely embedded in the project but in some way absent from the walls.

From “Night Procession” 2014 – 2017 © Stephen Gill

The final room of Gill’s exhibition, however, is possibly the best and has a presence that transcends the prints (and I’m not sure why because it should be the other way around). In a darkened room, a simple slideshow (image, five seconds, fade to black, image) is shown accompanied by a soundtrack of his daughter Ada playing the cello. The images are projected a couple of metres high onto the back wall of the room, the slow, low notes of the cello resonating across the room as you watch. The music links into the primal, swamp-like nature of the environment Gill photographs and creates a very different world. This is a world of life and death, of a natural entropy of which we are part, Gill and Ada included. There are slugs and snails, fungal networks and an intermingling of life and death. If you have ever seen Ali Abbasi’s film Border, there is that same sense of a connection to a Swedish landscape where the primordial still reigns. In Hackney, that primordial came through scavenged flowers rephotographed over old prints. In Night Procession, this same primordial voice comes through the synergy between Gill’s marvellous trailcam images and the low tones of Ada Gill’s cello.

By Colin Pantall

Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.

COMING UP FOR AIR: STEPHEN GILL – A RETROSPECTIVE, The Arnolfini, Bristol, Saturday, 16th October 2021 to Sunday, 16th January 2022, 11:00 to 18:00.

From “The Pillar” 2015 – 2019 © Stephen Gill – Please use as lead image.
Portrait by Mengxi Zhang 2019 © Stephen Gill Studio

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