Interview: Peter Woodburn
Luca Curci talks with Peter Woodburn during FUTURE LANDSCAPES, 3rd appointment of BORDERS ART FAIR 2021, at THE ROOM Contemporary Art Space.
“I was brought up in England in a family for whom the religious belief was quite important. My father became a parish priest in his forties. I am not a believer, but this religious background to my life is very important and provided me with an introduction to much I love, including art, literature, and history. I went to school in Somerset, gaining a grounding in sciences and languages, and a passion for French and for English Literature and writing, and then came university studies and some postgraduate work in English Literature at Cambridge. My love of literature and poetry, in particular, grew at this time, I believe, out of interest that was fairly conceptual and I developed interests in abstract, geometric, and conceptual art concurrently. My strong interest in photography as an art form grew at this stage: for me, photography as art was in itself a conceptual turn. My research on landscape poetry remained unfinished, and I became a teacher out of a desire to pay back some of what had been given to me via my education. I worked in England for a while, then came to a life-based in France from the age of 30, working first as a teacher then as a leader and administrator in state international schools. From England came my great love of landscapes, my sense of how the world looks first through the lens of belief and then with God having left, and in France, I learned to swim and run and grew to love walking – all practices that immersed me in local landscapes, first on the Haute Garonne/Gers border, then just below the French High Jura, opposite the Alps and Mont Blanc, and then in Mediterranean climate and landscapes near the coast of what is now Occitanie. French landscapes and their representation in art had a decisive influence during this period of discovery. I raised a family of four with my wife, Lisa at the same time, and this connection with a loving close family and with my two sons via my first marriage feeds my work. The challenges of my life have been to keep my gaze from an overly inward focus and turned outwards towards the world, both social and physical/natural, and to follow the call that has always been strong in me and apply myself to a sustained creative project. I have written, painted, and photographed off and on all my life: only now in later life is one of these fields of creativity coming to see my sustained engagement. Perhaps my biggest resource is my convictions, coming out of nearly 35 years as a teacher, about human potential and creativity. The biggest direct influence on my work is my studies in English. I went on after a first degree to a doctorate on poetry and landscape and never finished this, but it gave me great scope to develop and follow up interests and to read widely. I especially enjoyed exploring nineteenth and twentieth-century art and the history of photography. The other big influence after this one is my love of painting, especially abstract and landscape. I enjoy paintings almost as much as I enjoy losing myself visually in the details of real landscapes, something I have done since I was a boy. I am very visual, love reading – especially close reading – and am a little short-sighted. I take inordinate pleasure in sharp close-up detail, printed with care and pleasure (I have loved prints and printing since starting in a dark-room at university) so that they become one with the surface of beautiful paper: I prefer Hahnemuhle and Epson.”
Luca Curci – Which subject are you working on?
Peter Woodburn – I’m working on images of the salt marshes, lagoons, and salt pans around the town of Gruissan in southwest France. I work mainly on landscapes I know well and visit often, ones which I believe have an affinity with my vision of the world and which form small worlds in themselves at several levels of scale. Generally, these are places which in some sense are marginal and disregarded and whose overlooked beauty and particularity needs revealing. There’s more than a touch of aesthetic politics in this. It’s no accident that water forms a major part of my subject matter: for me, its banal and protean presence is like a revelation of immanence – of what lies within the ordinary and takes it out of and beyond itself. Its surfaces and depths allow us to glimpse and share thought, desire and dream, in ways that are vivid, self-delighting, and complete. The world above and the world below the symbolic horizon that water seeks and maintains around the world also can be seen as the ultimate frontier between life and an imagined afterlife, a world that reflects ours but works differently. I continue to apply this admittedly somewhat overdetermined vision in photographing the detail and change of two or three river sites near Ornaisons in the Aude, a project which has been going on for some twenty years and represents my major sustained creative effort. It formed an apprenticeship in the practice of spontaneous, intuitive, miniature (35mm digital) hand-held photography. This I have now improved through simplification: I use one full-frame camera and one 50mm lens. I want this to allow me to bring something of static camera aesthetics (where the visual field is grain-free and contains all in limpid focused space) together with street photography ethics (which makes imperfection or edge-of-the-envelope effects into tropes and virtues), but this is a tricky balancing act.
LC – Where do you find your inspiration?
PW – From the known landscapes I return to, from being in them and using my camera (of all things!) as an instrument of vision, from the rhythm of my returning to them, often linked to the seasons, from new landscapes I discover, and that sometimes feature as guests in my subject matter. The second stage of my creative process too, involving allowing my images to be lost and forgotten, to pass into the dark, a kind of underworld of forgetting, so they can be re-seen, rediscovered, experienced anew, and become fully selected, chosen, taken up, worked on, agonized over (sometimes) and turned into something (a print) that has full place and presence.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
PW – Accepting that the best images find you, are given or afforded to you by the place, the time, or by the world in a given place at a given time and that you can’t hunt down, capture or force into being images that you desire – ones that we feel we have dreamed or that cause deep recognitions or that fascinate or move. Accepting that there’s no rhetorical rule book that tells us how to achieve the maximum original effect on certain others. Accepting that if one trusts and has faith one will be afforded moments that may look like revealed truth, but that one won’t necessarily recognize them until later on until possibly it’s too late. Accepting the numbers – the thousands taken, the terrible odds, the single-figures numbers that make it.
LC – What is your creative process like?
PW – Quite extended and slow, moving at a seasonal pace. Conceived as a long term thing, from the beginning (being there and shooting) to end (the print and its exhibition); driven by intuition, luck, and openness to the aleatory (my best images are almost all incidental to the conscious project I had when shooting) but within a framework of structured exploration and technique. It can seem arduous at times: in the end, it is productive of finished results that are few in number, but that delights me for a while – especially when others share the delight. My process is heavily time-weighted at the printing end. I want to print huge, immersive images from 35mm digital negatives shot hand-held and often in low light: I have to work hard to be able to achieve this technically. But the end of my process is sharing my work, its ‘purposeful purposelessness’ and what it means, and sharing this socially, seeing others react to it, and tracing the way my experience and emotions pass into their gaze, consciousness, and world -picture, imagined and real. It’s for this reason that I’ve come to see the interactive social setting of the exhibition or short art fair as the true endpoint and purpose of the process.
LC – Can you explain something about the artworks you have in our exhibition?
PW – These two works grew out of my first encounter with the saline marshes and salt pans around Gruissan in southwest France. They are medium close-up views with the lens pointed at the ground and water, and were intended to create first of all an edge of ambiguity and defamiliarization and, through this edge, a sense of being taken up and shown something fleeting which has been preserved for contemplation. They show the influence that certain aerial and satellite images have had on me, and also some conceptual undercurrents which are obscure to me, but quite strong.
LC – Do you agree with our vision of art and what do you think about the theme of the festival?
PW – ITSLIQUID seems driven by a serious sense of purpose plus a strong appreciation of all that art means for individuals and the world. As an organization, it seems to value emerging artists individually and personally and to offer support and encouragement, without encouraging any kind of delusions of having ‘made it’ too easily or glibly. Working with this team definitely has felt like a new opportunity, and I’ve enjoyed all aspects of the process, especially the clear communication. Like many emerging and/or self-taught artists, I have a long way to go in the journey and the Itsliquid organizational approach seems to be based on a tacit understanding that those setting out on journeys need staging posts. I have been pleased to be communicated with so professionally and to be given the opportunity to show in the center of Venice. I like the impartiality and objectivity of the organizational approach that goes hand in hand with the alluring prospect of showing in famed European cultural centers, places once on the Grand Tour. Covid restrictions kept me in Holland and away from the show’s opening, and I regret this, but this inconvenience is trivial in the larger scale of things. The theme of the festival (Borders) called out to me at once: I have long lived near a border and have documented the landscapes and light on that invisible discontinuity for many years.