Stephen Gill: the escape artist

From his home in the windy far-south of Sweden, Stephen Gill is explaining what he got up to in lockdown. Followers of the British photographer’s ever-shifting career will not be surprised to hear that he dealt with that particular challenge in a typically unconventional way. “When Covid struck, all my exhibitions, all my trips were cancelled,” he tells me over Skype from a starkly furnished room. “So I thought to myself, ‘Now is the time to travel inside a fish!’”

The idea had occurred to him a couple of years earlier: to use microtechnology to take photographs of the inner cavities of a fish that (of course) he would catch himself. But, having researched the subject and assembled the specialist equipment, he lacked the mental energy to complete the project. The social strictures induced by the virus galvanised him into action.

Catching the fish, it turns out, was the difficult bit: it took 10 weeks of daily expeditions with his children, armed with “sleeping bags and instant noodles”, before he succeeded. When he eventually felt his fishing line tug, he had to be reminded by his daughter to cast his net to bag his catch. But once back in his studio, Gill was entranced by his subject, a sea trout. “I would go inside these various sections of the fish and then inside its stomach there would be other small fish it had eaten and inside their stomachs there were other small fish. And all the time we were racing against decay. It was probably the most fun I have had on a project, even though I was really sick.”

‘Please Notify the Sun’, 2020 © Stephen Gill

That sounds understandable, I say, queasily. “Well, I did wonder if it was some kind of fish poisoning,” he says. “But I actually think it was Covid. I was in a bad way.”

The results, seen in his latest book Please Notify the Sun, were more than worth the effort, he says. The photographs reveal a world — an other-world — full of improbably gorgeous, abstract patterns. “They were so beautiful, I was shaking and I couldn’t differentiate whether it was because I was sick or so overwhelmed by what I was seeing,” says Gill. “One was like volcanic lava, another was like a seascape . . . I’m not saying it was meant to be some kind of apocalyptic thing, but something about it felt really aligned with what was happening in the world. Of course you see what you want to see. But I was gobsmacked.”

Confounding expectations, not least his own, has been the signature of Gill’s work over the course of a 40-year career, which is celebrated in a new retrospective at Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery titled Coming Up for Air.

He talks fluently and avidly about his work, and says the opportunity to put the retrospective together has been both emotionally draining and illuminating. “Throughout my career, I have very rarely stopped to take a breather. To see how these different bodies of work have woven and entwined with each other, it is almost like joining the dots.”

Audio Portraits, 1999-2000: Ben Folds Five
‘Audio Portraits, 1999-2000: Ben Folds Five’ © Stephen Gill

‘Bad, Michael Jackson’
‘Bad, Michael Jackson’ © Stephen Gill

Few artists have Gill’s range and diversity. Still fewer have engaged in such a clear philosophical progression. In his case, the attempt to remove himself as much as possible from the work itself, allowing, and encouraging, his subjects to shape it.

That malleability was evident in his earliest pieces, made when a schoolboy, which already show signs of the restless experimentation for which 50-year-old Gill would become known. Having been tutored by his father, himself an enthusiastic amateur photographer, in the ways of the darkroom, he says he was always keen to try new things. “In a way they are not dissimilar to what I am doing now,” he says of the anything-but-callow early works. “I remember thinking, you could spend a lot of time in this fictional world.”

At first he was struck by the descriptive power of the photograph, its ability to record and chronicle situations that might otherwise be forgotten. An early influence was a pocketbook of pictures taken by his father of his grandfather in a variety of yoga positions. “What I liked about it was it was quite exotic, yet also quite suburban — you could see bits of damp on the wallpaper,” he says. “It wasn’t very stylistic, but I loved that [the camera] was this great descriptive tool. But as I got older, I felt that wasn’t really enough to convey all the ideas I had.”

Anonymous Origami, 2004-07
‘Anonymous Origami’, 2004-07 © Stephen Gill

Gill found himself questioning one of photography’s most fundamental strengths as an art form: its ability to capture the moment with truth and precision. “I began to lose faith in it,” he says. “I felt, in this information age, you just couldn’t really trust pictures any more.” Those feelings “collided” one day in 2002 with a chance encounter with a plastic camera on sale in a Hackney Wick flea market for 50p. He bought it and immediately started to take pictures.

The camera had a plastic lens and no focus or exposure controls. But the strange, slightly blurred images he produced with it were a kind of epiphany. “What fascinated me was the information that was being denied, muted, dialled down. You could just about make out that here was a person carrying a bag. But you didn’t have to rely on the absolute clarity of the image. I loved that.”

Hackney Wick, 2003-05
‘Hackney Wick’, 2003-05 © Stephen Gill

Gill carried on taking pictures of the market and surrounding area. “It was like being carried by the place itself, guiding and leading me, and suddenly the piece of work was shaping itself. It was so powerful. And that doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you just go with it.”

It sounds like a passive way to make art but Gill says he felt liberated by the idea of the subject controlling his work. “Often you can suffocate a subject with what’s in your head.” His pictures, captured in the books Hackney Wick (2005) and Hackney Flowers (2007), serve as striking mementoes of the time, full of wit and vibrancy. But change was about to happen. London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, and Gill’s beloved urban workspace was about to be transformed beyond recognition.

‘Hackney Flowers’, 2007 © Stephen Gill

“There were clues that something enormous was about to happen: quite subtle clues, like spray-painted plants, fences appearing in unusual places. Surveyors. There was something in the air and I tried to photograph it,” he says. The result was his lauded Archaeology in Reverse series, published in 2007. He stopped working in Hackney a year later, when the construction work started in earnest.

Gill’s hunt for new inspiration took another unexpected turn at the end of the decade: in 2009 he started a series called Talking to Ants, in which he introduced small objects and creatures into the body of his camera. Once more, his aim was to “lose control” over the image, he says.

“Until you develop the film, you have no idea what you will see,” he adds, almost gleefully. The images are inscribed with various marks and tracings, sometimes obscuring the nominal subject altogether. “I found it so exciting because chance played such a large part in it. When your intentions meet chance, somewhere in the middle, you feel that you are steering the picture but you have no idea where you are going to land.”

Talking to Ants, 2009-13
‘Talking to Ants’, 2009-13 © Stephen Gill

That feeling of creative uncertainty led to further subversion of the photographic process: in 2013, for his Best Before End series, Gill soaked and partly processed the negatives of his films in an energy drink. “I had been meaning to make a photographic response to consumerism for a while. All these people drinking Red Bull at eight in the morning — it was almost as if we lived in a time when we weren’t allowed to be tired any more.

“I didn’t want to just take photographs of members of the public with drinks in their hands, and then it suddenly occurred to me . . . the drink would actually help me make the picture. The subject of the picture would come in through the back door.” Once again, Gill managed, somehow, to find beauty in the chaos, bringing the alchemical and anthropological aspects of his work together in a cloudburst of vivid psychedelia.

His next change was geographical rather than conceptual, when he decided in 2014 to move to rural Sweden with his partner (they have since separated). He says the move was sparked by exhaustion; he had considered quitting photography altogether. “My doctor said I needed to remove myself from London,” he says. “The truth is it was great for my work, but not great for my health. I hadn’t stopped for 20 years.”

Stephen Gill photographed at home in Sweden

Stephen Gill photographed at home in Sweden
Stephen Gill at home in Sweden. ‘My doctor said I needed to remove myself from London’ © Maja Daniels

The small intrusions of nature into even his most urban-themed images — flowers in Hackney, ants in his camera — heralded something more profound: a need to get away from the city altogether. “I loved the inner-city life. I was addicted to the chaos of the city and constantly drawing from it. It wasn’t London that was the problem. It was me,” he says. “I was actually running away from myself.”

This extreme change of location surely indicated that he was finally submitting to the call of nature, I suggest. “Absolutely.” He points to the window of his room. “Visually, there really is nothing here. I knew my imagination would have to work a lot harder because of course that is just an illusion. In fact it is teeming with life here, you just can’t see it.”

Not for the first time, the challenge of photographing what wasn’t apparent proved irresistible. Gill’s imagination started to tick over again. “As an experiment, I thought, ‘I wonder if I can bring all the life out of the sky? Pull all the birds down?’” Gill arranged for a local farmer to erect a pillar in the middle of the flat, open landscape nearby, and then another one, on which Gill mounted a remote motion-sensing camera (“super lo-fi, not as good as a cell phone”).

The Pillar, 2019
‘The Pillar’, 2019 © Stephen Gill

The resulting prints form an avian “candid camera” show, revealing the birds landing on the pillar, preening, taking off, utterly unselfconscious in their various displays. “I’d never seen birds in this way before, as if on their own terms, as independent creatures with independent lives,” wrote the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård in Gill’s 2019 book, which collected the prints together. “Ancient, forever improvising, endlessly embroiled with the forces of nature, and yet indulging too. And so infinitely alien to us.” The book won a clutch of prizes.

Gill felt he had made a breakthrough. “I suppose I had managed to do what I had been trying to do for years, stepping back, stepping back and getting the subject to step forward. Finally I had stepped out altogether.”

And then came the pandemic, and Gill’s trip up the innards of a fish. “I treated it like an expedition, a voyage into space,” he says. I ask him about the title of the work, Please Notify the Sun. What was that all about? He got it from a song, he replies. “It was by Brian Eno [‘Fickle Sun (ii) The Hour is Thin’, from the 2016 album The Ship]. I heard those words and I nearly fell off my chair. It was really beautiful and so powerful.

“I don’t want to get too cheesy,” he adds quickly. “But the sun has been my closest collaborator for the whole of my life.”

“Coming up for Air: Stephen Gill — A Retrospective”, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, to January 16, A book accompanies the exhibition,

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