Sam Laughlin / A Certain Movement
March 2018 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Sam Laughlin is a photographic artist based in Brighton whose latest series ‘A Certain Movement’ has just been unveiled in London this past month. Laughlin was one of the three recipients of the most recent Jerwood Photoworks Awards and the current exhibition in London’s Jerwood Space presents some of his quiet and contemplative images involving the natural world. Below, Christiane Monarchi recently asked Laughlin more about the background and inspiration behind these images.
CM: When we first met a few years ago it was in the context of looking at your series ‘Frameworks’ , where you had sought out the skeletal remains of unfinished buildings and structures, rendered almost alien in night-time and greyscale treatment. It is with great interest that I keep this in mind when considering your newest series at Jerwood, ‘A Certain Movement’ concerned with animal habitat, not human. Could you tell me a little bit about the background of wanting to move away from the man-made built environment into nature?
SL: I suppose the move away from man-made subjects coincided with a shift in my thinking. I had been working on ‘Frameworks’ in a strictly typological way for a few years and the subject became somewhat stale for me. At the same time (in 2014) I began to embrace being in – and trying to understand – the natural world. I embarked on several extended walking/camping trips and in doing so I re-aligned my priorities. The photographs I took on these journeys formed the starting point for my ongoing series ‘Slow Time’, which was the real point of departure for me. The work I’m making now is concerned with animal behaviour, but still has a focus on structure, so the progression from ‘Frameworks’ was an organic one, with my work instinctually following my interests. I would say that my relationship with the natural world is now one of the defining aspects of my life, so I can’t imagine not making work about it.
CM: Could you talk a bit about your decision to use this rich greyscale and very matte prints – decisions which I think really encourage the eye to look and seek patterns, clues and perhaps even divine reason within the natural world presented.
SL: The decision to produce my prints in that way was made from the very beginning. I’ve been developing various techniques over the past few years in order to achieve a particular aesthetic, which I first employed when I showed ‘Slow Time’ and ‘Nests’ in Brighton in 2016. As you have alluded to, printing in this way allows the eye to seek textures and patterns across the whole frame. For example, the viewer may be as drawn to the sandstone ledges on which seabirds are nesting, as they are to the birds themselves. This is very important, because part of what I’m trying to do with ‘ A Certain Movement’ is elucidate wider eco-system relationships, and the connections between animals and the physical environment. In the case of the seabird colony this means the relationship between the seasonal nesting behaviour of pelagic birds and the geological features which allow for it.
CM: Have you had any artistic influences, or other guide, in making this body of work?
SL: Although I have some artistic reference points (Jochen Lempert being one) I feel as though I’m mainly influenced by nature itself, and by what I read about it. Walking is key; time spent in landscapes, observing animals and thinking. Reading provides an understanding and suggests possible subjects, often ones which might be incomprehensible without some prior knowledge, but you have to venture out to find them. Once found, those subjects then suggest to me how I should approach them. It’s a question of sensitivity. I worked with researchers to make a few of my pictures, so collaboration was an important guide in those instances. For example, it was essential with occupied birds nests to have a knowledgable person helping me to locate and photograph the nests without causing disturbance.
CM: I don’t see a ‘human’ trace in these works, except perhaps thinking about the location in parks and nature reserves that are created by man. But I do see similar traits – the desire to nest, to burrow, to hide within structures. Is there an anthropomorphic reading available here?
SL: I’ve left the series quite open to interpretation, so that reading is available, but personally I’m wary of anthropomorphism, because (for want of any shorter words) anthropomorphism is inherently anthropocentric. By studying the habits of animals, the ways in which they meet their needs, I’m trying emphasise their individual existence, rather than impose human characteristics upon them. Regarding human trace, I would argue that it is now impossible to represent nature outside the context of the worsening environmental crisis, so although there is no direct trace present in the pictures, human activity is implied.
CM: Has this project now found its completion, or are there other chapters you may like to create?
SL: ‘A Certain Movement’ is far from complete, so I think there will be many more chapters (I have some trips planned to photograph for it in the coming weeks). Although I managed to produce a lot of work over the last year (far more than I have exhibited), there is still a lot of scope to continue, this is mainly because it’s such a broad subject. The biggest challenge for me will probably be to keep the series coherent, so I think there will be lots of ‘splinter’ projects as a consequence. I tend to work on several series in parallel anyway, so that’s normal. Eventually I’d like for it to be a book, and for that I feel I need more photographs.
CM: What are you working on next?
SL: Aside from continuing to exhibit and work on commissions I’m planning to start a series on ‘garden birds’ i.e. birds that visit gardens. There also a few projects that went on the back burner when I received the Jerwood/Photoworks Award, so I’ll be revisiting those too. I tend not to say too much about what I have in development, but I’m sitting on a lot of unreleased material, which is an exciting position to be in.
Sam Laughlin’s site: www.samlaughlin.co.uk
The Jerwood Photoworks Awards exhibition, with works by Alejandra Carles-Tolra , Lua Ribeira and Sam Laughlin, continues at Jerwood Space, London until 11 March 2018, before it moves on to Impressions Gallery and Belfast Exposed later this year. For more details see the Photoworks site.