13 01 2015
Bruce and Alice Connew
Exclusively for Photobook Melbourne – from Dec 2014 – Jan 2015 – Father and Daughter Bruce and Alice Connew had an emailed conversation about their respective photographic practices and current projects.
Papa . . . I know so many of your stories already—some long, some short, all interesting—a good place for me to start is by asking how a young boy from a State house in Panmure ended up at art school in London in the ‘70s? I’m going in hard here: the how/what/why of your first steps into photography, ha!
Ah, the State house .. back then a brand new suburb of Auckland, where your grandmother (94) has lived for 65-years, the last 20-years on her own, and where I was raised, part of a cradle to grave failed socialist experiment. Pre-television, we lived on the street, Publics fighting the Catholics! They were rich working-class times. The politics of it came later.
I skipped university to labour at all manner of work, and eventually photography found me on a road trip around Australia in my very early 20s, a camera with a long lens, stumbling across the Aboriginal end of very bad colonial and contemporary politics. The photographs were not good, but I would return five years later (1976) to a small town in north-west Australia to photograph in earnest, to find meaning amongst what I had seen.
As a child and teen, LIFE magazine came into our house during the American civil rights period and into Vietnam, when magazines were noble, even if in hindsight their politics were suspect. When I was 12, a teacher introduced the class to apartheid. These things were formative. Far more so than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Velvet Underground.
In between the road trip and returning to north-west Australia, I left New Zealand for art school south of London, in Guildford, having read of English photography schools while resting over in Perth. I was unaware of art schools in New Zealand. Newly married, it was a reason to depart Panmure, Auckland and New Zealand.
I still say art school was a skirmish. I figured out fairly quickly that I was bound to be an autodidact. I stayed one year, and single-mindedly cleared off to cobble my own path.
The art school’s one redeeming feature, I figured, was a magnificent library stacked with books, in every direction, the like of which I had never imagined. I began in one corner, and worked my way around through months and months, ignoring tutors, ignoring class, devouring everything: books of photographs, books about photography, books about life, from Cartier-Bresson to Robert Frank, from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough to Igor Stravinsky’s The Poetics of Music. If you replaced the word ‘music’ with ‘photography’, in Stravinsky’s book of his Harvard lectures, the book was about photography as expression, about emotion, feeling, spirit, passion, intensity. This cross-discipline connection, and the depth of transcendent experience that flowed from the book was a revelation. As was much else in that room of books. I read the library and headed out into the world.
I could ask you a similar question . . . off to art school to study film, turning to photography, and eventually majoring in graphic design, which you grew to loathe. But the question is why did you work your way towards photography as a means of expression, and how did you so quickly develop a way of photographing that, even in its various directions, is peculiarly you? I love your work.
Oh, I don’t loathe graphic design! I would say my relationship with it is complicated however. . I think the years I was at art school were the slump years of that particular school. The structure of it was kind of crumbling and, particularly during my third year, it didn’t feel like there was enough support or passion in the departments. The politics of what was happening to the infrastructure really affected the students, and it felt that a lot of the negativity brewing inside really rubbed off onto a lot of us. Then to top that off, the Christchurch earthquakes interrupted my final semester (and first year out of university) so I really needed a break from graphic design.
I grew up surrounded by photography thanks to you. Though I actually remember you telling me when I was at high school that I shouldn’t take photography as a subject, as it wasn’t academic enough! Somewhere along the way I got very interested in filmmaking, and was striving toward that goal, but what didn’t sit well with me was how reliant on others you must be to make a film. I think that’s why I took a U-turn into design. Photography, for me, is somewhere in the middle of it all. Like one of those overlapping circle diagrams I’ve found a kind of middle ground between film and graphic design. I suppose my background in the two subjects must each play a part in how I approach taking photos, but it feels like it comes far more naturally to me than film or graphic design ever did. It’s a way of communication and expression I feel makes sense to me, especially because my work so far comes from quite a personal place.
When I look at your work, I see so many varying layers, but politics is always an obvious theme. From South Africa and On the way to an ambush to I Saw You and I Must Behave plus everything in between, I have always got a sense of patient unrest from your photographs. They’re sort of quietly confrontational, but always a pointed comment and observation on political climates. What urged you to tell these stories, and how do you decide where you want to focus next? You’ve said your work doesn’t come from “orderly research”, so how do you end up in places like Kosovo, Burma and most recently in a horse breeding barn down in . . . where were you again?? Coromandel? Cambridge? I’m lost in NZ!
I don’t work from a theoretical position. I’ve always distrusted points of view, including my own, and especially the French philosophers, or photographers’ academic led interpretation of them. Orderly research I’ve found to be a dark cloud. I want to see what’s there, and eventually sequence work that suggests what it might mean. My world view has always had a political and social sensibility. I was brought up, as I’ve said, in a brand new working-class suburb, a cradle to grave failed social experiment, at the time of the Cold War, when the US would produce a beauty queen called Miss Atom Bomb, and the Cuban missile crisis insisted the end of the world was nigh. Today, we have a super wealthy corporate elite who can control what we eat.
A teacher, when I was twelve, instructed us on apartheid, a couple of years after the Sharpville massacre, and, as you know, I’ve photographed twice in South Africa. I think there’s a link. My research, if it should have that tag, is what I’ve learnt along the way, whether by reading all manner of literature or combing through Kosova or Burma to see for myself. What I’ve found so far flouts any simple explanation.
How has social media impacted on your work coming from “quite a personal place”, and how have some of the more major events in your life lent a hand in that?
My work is quite instinctual; I don’t photograph with a plan. But final projects are always informed by ideas and musings I’ve had—political, personal, whatever. Of course, the major events in my life play a part in it, they’re all part of what I’m going through when I take photos. I’ve only just begun to realise how significant and heavy the Christchurch earthquake, and the events that followed over the next two years, were to me. And I’m realising it through the photos I took during that time. It’s taken me this long to properly understand what I went through, I think, so as a result, my two most recent projects, 43 and more obviously Self (working title) have very personal tones to them. Maybe my next work won’t, now that I’ve been natural disaster-free for a few years! Touch wood.
For me, social media plays a useful part in networking. It has really opened up a bevy of sources and opportunities to young photographers and artists. All the magazines and exhibitions I’ve wanted to be a part of I’ve found just by scrolling through different social media outlets or by online research of other people’s work I’m interested in. It’s the easiest way to get your work out there as well. I think that access to social media has been particularly helpful in Berlin, especially where at first I didn’t have the photography contacts I would have had, had I’d stayed in New Zealand. My networks both online and IRL (to quote the internet), are growing and it’s amazing when it crosses over. Daniel contacted me through Facebook after following me on Instagram, and seeing the selfie I posted of you and me in the elevator at my apartment, then connecting it with your books in his archive! Did we think that taking that photo as we headed out for ramen soup in the final hours of your Berlin trip would spark this interview? I love that!
On the way to an ambush was a rather personal book from you. How do your own personal life events affect your work, especially work that isn’t necessarily deemed personal?
On the way to an ambush became something I had not anticipated. It began as a personal war project, a small unheralded war that caught my attention, and nearly had me succumb to malaria in an Auckland hospital. I returned two years later to the collected material from those five weeks in the jungle to discover something quite different from my original intentions. I worked out, in a sort of intimate search, what had really prompted me to leave my three young, very adored children, your brother and sisters before you, Alice, who had lost their mother in a car crash two years before, with the next-door-neighbour, and set off to a war in Burma. It took four years to write the text, to get to the bottom of everything, and then more time to bring the image layer into play and the letters and faxes and found material, to make the meaning I knew was true. Somehow, we survived my madness of grief, perhaps with a little damage on the way.
This process is my method of choice . . . a subject attracts me, and I do not want to be sure why. With minimal research, I set off to explore that subject beyond my primary concerns. With experience and strategy, which pay heed to a small trail of past failures, I know, if I bring my mind and accumulated empathy to bear, there will be an outcome, most often an unexpected one.
There is series you have made that is not yet on your website . . . the self-portraits of you unhappy, often alone, in different countries, seemingly following around natural disasters. This is very personal and elegant work. What is your motivation with this work, and where do you sense it might lead? You see, I figure our prompts to make work are not that different. They are deep responses to our place in the world.
Yes, it certainly sounds like we have a similar approach to how we make work, which is a nice thought for me. I must’ve absorbed your methods by observing your process over the years, which can only be a good thing. The self-portrait series, started without meaning to be a project. They were just photos I took of myself as I moved from city to city, country to country while navigating the waters of a long-distance relationship. All the photos were taken using my laptop camera which was significant because the laptop was such a requirement for the relationship through that time. So again, it’s a project that occurred through thought processes, and looking back at that strange time in my life. It’s not yet on the website because I’m still piecing it together. In its current form, part of it is a small statement to add to the conversation about the art behind the selfie, and I think they hint at an interesting line between self-portraits and selfies which is all very topical, but there are some other, darker layers in there. I’ve already spoken with a woman who may be interested to make a small show with them, so we’ll see how that goes. I would love to make a photo book using the images too – that’s how I’ve envisioned them for a wee while now. But first 43 has to happen!
You’re a big advocate for the photobook, you’ve certainly published a lot yourself and every second email I get from you asks how 43 is coming along. There seems to be a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the self-publishing movement. What are your thoughts on self-publishing and how it compares to having an actual publisher? Can you talk a little bit about how the relationship between photographers and publishers may have changed over the course of your career, and where do you think it might be headed?
Self-publishing was once reproached as ‘vanity publishing’. I’ve always figured ‘vanity publishing’ as a way to maintain control over how your idea is rendered. If you work with ideas, that’s critical. Of course, the cost is, you pay, and then must fathom distribution. South Africa (1987), my first book, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in Auckland, who actively encouraged my edit, sequence, layout and book dimensions. We argued about the covers to the point of bad language. The publisher controlled production from choice of paper to offset printing, which, back then, I had no opinion about. Their distribution took it around the world, which was very pleasing.
If materiality is important to the book, and with mine, since On the way to an ambush (1999), it is fundamental, then it requires either deep personal pockets, or a well-funded publisher with enough penetration to recognise the need for an eloquent object as a principled response to the content.
I Saw You and I Must Behave, both self-published to high production standards, cost a small fortune, which came from our not so deep pockets. Neither had arts council support. Since then our pockets have remained sewn up. I Drive You Crazy, to the Moon, the third in this trilogy, another unsupported by our arts council, is still to be published. We’ll find a way, this year with luck. Crowdfunding? On the way to an ambush and Stopover were published by Victoria University Press, New Zealand. Stopover acquired a co-publisher, University of Hawai’i Press, which made funding simpler. With both, I was involved heavily in organising the quite different deals to have them published. This gave us a good degree of control over design and production standards.
Body of Work, from the thoroughbred breeding barn, my next book, has nuanced blacks throughout, which will require quality paper and fine printing. With Catherine’s typography and design, we are able to craft a design together, and produce a print-ready file, a significant cost saver for us, if we self-publish, or for a publisher. I’m diligently seeking a publisher for Body of Work. An Italian publisher just before Christmas said, “your work is too strong for ******, we cannot publish it.” My best rejection. I’m quietly confident a perceptive and ardent publisher will recognise it as a useful work. If not, we’ll self-publish.
I reckon, with smart effort, you can figure out the whole process yourself, including distribution. We’ve done it, and we’re not completely smart. Your dignity might be stretched, but anyway that’s part of depositing your work in the public amphitheatre.
A publisher with integrity will have a helpful reputation, but most these days will require you to bring differing degrees of funding. With this, you buy that reputation, of course, design maybe, and production and good distribution and promotion. Yet, not even that will guarantee your book momentum. A well-regarded German photographer friend explained the other day that a top-shelf publisher had sold, after significant press, only 700 copies of his latest photobook.
While for most self-publishers, that would be an extraordinary outcome, for a mainstream publisher, it would surely be a disaster, unless it was part of some wider equation.
Photobook publishing is persistently re-inventing itself, which is at once thrilling and disconcerting. The tsunami of new editions is overwhelming. But the democracy of the delightful disorder of self-publishing is galvanising. Power to the people.
In 43, your winter series, you have an armless mannequin, who I know you have named Roy. What is your relationship with Roy . . . a prop for an idea, or have you taken him in as a member of the family?
Roy was found discarded in an alleyway by Chester, and used (abused?) for what is now 43 . . . today, he is a fond albeit creepy member of the family. He stands in a freezing spot on our balcony, wrapped in fairy lights, and gazes longingly in through the window while Chester and I watch movies cosied up on the couch.
Beware any guests that come to stay at our apartment though, as Chester has a penchant for pranks and Roy is often at the centre of them . . .