> Beyond Words

Chris Sykes / Beyond Words

October 2018
Interviewed by Daniel Pateman


Chris Sykes was born in Barnsley in 1971. An emerging fine art photographer based in Sunderland, North England, he adopts narrative based structures in order to communicate a broad range of issues with a universal human dimension, whether exploring personal traumas or approaching deeply philosophical questions. Chris’s work pushes the boundaries of the medium, often adopting experimental approaches to find novel endpoints within his projects. His latest series, Beyond Words, is exhibiting as part of the group show Changing States at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art until 14th October 2018.


Daniel Pateman: When did you first become interested in pursuing photography creatively?

Chris Sykes: My friend, I think it was back in 2004, he had a Canon 350d and was showing me some of the stuff on it, and I hadn’t really done anything with photography before. He was using depth of field and blurring out the background and so on and I thought, given the era, it was a digital camera that was doing that. I didn’t realise cameras could do that. So I was amazed by it, and it went from there really. So I ended up buying a camera myself and I took a little landscape course and learnt more about the rule of thirds and that type of thing. And then I wanted more from it and to do something conceptual and a bit more creative.

DP: How would you describe your particular approach to photography? And what inspires your choice of subject? Looking at your website your projects all appear rather eye-catching and abstract.

CS: I kind of want to tell a story, but at the same time I’m really process-driven as well. Process and experimentation drive a lot of my work. The inspiration for example for Romanticism [his series from earlier this year exploring the relationship between photography, music and technology] stems from starting to play piano. It started off with me seeing if I could do something visually with music, but initially just by using a phrase. A phrase in music is just like a stand-alone sentence, usually two-bars, and it can stand alone by itself like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth. I initially wanted to capture a whole piece of music in one image.

DP: Your latest series ‘Beyond Words’ is currently showing at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art. What made you decide to represent emotive speeches by well-known figures, such as Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, as single images?

CS: It stemmed from my experimentation with music. When I did Romanticism I was looking at what I could use to represent sound, and I’d looked at Gallium [a precious metal that turns from solid to liquid at thirty degrees] and I thought, that’s not really appropriate. But I’d bought it and felt it would work with speeches, because of the fact it melts at body temperature. So it was inspired by Romanticism. But I didn’t want it to be the same thing. And so even though they use the same process they look worlds apart. Like I say, I’m quite process-driven as well, and so after music wanted to see if this could be done with speeches, what it would look like and whether it had any relevance to people when they look at the work. Because obviously you’re only capturing the audio and are taking out all the body language, which they say is seventy to eighty percent of face-to-face communication.

DP: Can you elaborate for me about your use of Gallium? Is the fact it reacts to body-temperature symbolic?

CS: Gallium is a solid that comes in a plastic bottle which I pop into hot water to make into a liquid. I place it on top of the speaker and play the speech while taking lots of photos of the mixture. So, when there’s a moment of reflection then it’s not moving much. If their voice has a bit more bass or goes higher it reacts more. But I wasn’t just taking photos when it was reacting. I would take a photo every three seconds, as I wanted to encapsulate a whole speech within one image, and in the process disrupt linear time. But at the same time, I was trying to disrupt what an image can be as well. An image is a moment caught in time but I’m capturing lots of moments and condensing them into just one, which is a little bit mindboggling in some ways. Also, when you see people giving speeches, whether they’re famous or not, you look at body language and they’re quite ‘alive’. Their body temperature rises and so I think that’s the connection with why I used it.

DP: Given the power of spoken language to engender strong feelings in the listener, how do you think the experience changes for an audience when the fluid, aural qualities of speech are then transformed into quantified visual images?

CS: In some ways this is quite difficult to answer. I obviously want them to be curious, because they know it’s come from a speech and they’re likely to want to work out how I’ve created the images, and to look and get lost in the images. Perhaps also on some emotional level they’re thinking of a speech they’ve had with someone close to them. Or, although I haven’t specified the speeches these images come from, most people will know those these people gave and will probably be contemplating which ones the images relate to.

DP: What effect does it have on the viewer that you haven’t labelled the works with the speeches they were created from?

CS: I visited the exhibition with a friend and the invigilator was curious to know which speech referred to which image. I got her to guess first, and she was wrong on all but the last two. The one that she thought was Hitler’s, with all the peaks and troughs, was actually Hilary Clinton’s, which is a very passionate speech in itself, because it’s the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, talking about women’s and human rights. When I explained this, she understood why the image was so erratic. So maybe there’s something to be said for providing details about what the speeches were.

DP: The images of ‘Beyond Words’, created by sequencing photos of Gallium in reaction to sound waves, generate wild and unusual topographies. Some areas look like dense forests, others like still bodies of water, while in-between are different patterns of thin lines. Do these particular manifestations of visual data symbolise specific qualities of the speech to you (such as anger or passion) or is the final image to be considered separate from its origins?

CS: Where the image spikes up definitely represents some power or emotion in the speech, or perhaps even crowd engagement such as clapping. Even the stillness I find really important. But at the same time it represents that idea of condensing linear time into one image.

DP: How much did you interfere with the creation of the final images once the photographs had been sequenced, mapped and processed? Are the images solely interpreted by the software, or do you play with certain technical parameters or outputs for particular effects?

CS: I didn’t really change any technical parameters as such. Photogrammetry has got six or seven steps to it. There are point clouds and dense point clouds, lots of things. What I did is interrupt the process, so I didn’t take it to its final end point. I interrupted it at the textual level and what I did then was pop it into Photoshop. When it goes into Photoshop it is placed as a 3D model. I took the shadows out that are automatically included and brought in the edges of the image so it was all clearly visible. On a few I may have tilted them slightly so you could see more of the undulations and spikes. Once rendered i just treated it as I would with a normal photograph. I think they all got low-frequency sharpening and their settings were all made the same.

DP: Can you tell me a little more about how Photogrammetry works?

CS: In its simplest form I think it’s nearly as old as photography. It’s just mapping two distances on a plane and working that out, but as it’s gone along its gotten more and more complicated. Say you process two hundred images, you can end up with like eighty-thousand different points. I did two things with Beyond Words that I didn’t do with Romanticism. So I created the dense point cloud and textural model rather than stop the process at the 3D model. The dense point cloud takes about three days, because it takes all the GPS points of movement that occur for about two hundred images. You end up creating these lovely point clouds which are abstract works in themselves.

DP: Romanticism is an earlier, similarly conceived series, in which you also represent sound visually, in this instance classical music. What do you think is unique or interesting about using ‘photogrammetry’ as a method of photographic representation?

CS: On the practical side of things, scenes of crimes such as a car crash that has been extensively photographed can be looked at, say, three years later and processed through photogrammetry. They can then work out the speed the car was driving at, and the impact, just using this software. So practically it’s an amazing bit of kit. But for myself, I experimented with lots of different programs. I tried to figure out how to fit a phrase of music into one image, and tried playing my piano with fibre-based paper to capture the vibration, but that didn’t work. I also went to see a photographer called Dan Holdsworth, who had an exhibition in Sheffield called Mapping the Limits of Space. He used photogrammetry, but his works look completely differently to my two projects. But I thought, this might work for my purposes. So I suppose photogrammetry is a technique that I’ve been able to use to capture linear time in one still image.

DP: Abstraction seems to be a consistent link throughout your projects, with the exception of ‘Billboards’. What is it about this style of photography that you find helps express your themes and feelings?

CS: I think it’s due to the fact they’re process-driven, because a lot of things when I’m experimenting become quite abstract. I think a lot of the ideas behind them can be quite hard to grasp, and because of the nature of that the images become abstract in themselves. And I just love that kind of stuff as well, I love experimenting. The how is just as important to me as the why.

DP: A number of your series seem to investigate the notion of an ‘essence’ beneath what we see, making visible usually invisible processes. ‘Lucent’, for example, shows the impression left by decaying plants on photographic paper, while ‘The Residue of the Cave’ abstracts cultural artefacts to try to find in them something quintessentially human. What do you think it is about photography that helps to explore these hidden qualities or processes?

CS: You could say that there’s not much truth in photography, but at the same time you’re looking for traces of what might have been. So the paradox is, can we find the essence of something by looking deeply at it, and by looking at something that, by its very nature, lies. So I think that’s where the paradox comes in, where you’re using the method to look for traces, but within those traces you’re trying to find a human element, trying to answer big questions that probably can never be answered as well.

DP: Your series ‘Three Minutes to Save a Life’ is a rather poignant collection of images; hazy, dream-like photographs that appear like the partially submerged viewpoint of the photographer. How did you create these particular shots? And what impression were you trying to convey?

CS: Back in 2004 I was in Patong Beach in Phuket and I was caught in the Boxing Day Tsunami. I don’t usually do that personal a project and I wanted to do something in relation to this. I think that’s why I decided to use a pinhole camera, which I actually made out of a 50mm Nikon lens box and taped this all up so I could put a 5×4 dark slide in. And I took it down to the beach. The first shot was exposed for one and a half minutes, then I put the tape back on and flipped the camera upside-down, so that in the final image the rocks, the sea and the sky were all intermingled. And that’s how I felt when the tsunami happened. I was very confused and didn’t know what was happening. I just thought it was a freak wave. The three minute development time was significant because I was having breakfast and told my friend I was going back to my hotel room to get my sunglasses and he carried on walking to the beach. So I stopped him and it took us three minutes to get back to the hotel. Within those three minutes the wave had gone through where we’d been having breakfast. So those three minutes saved my life. But obviously, all the guilt that came with that, as so many people died and I survived…there was a lot of guilt for years. So the next image kind of represents that. The third one – they’re all seascapes – I decided to do while holding the camera, so it’s got my breath in it, as it’s a kind of letting go. Then the last one I shot directly into the sunlight. Not to say I’d seen the light, like in a clichéd way, but that I’d come to an acceptance of what happened. And I think this project really helped in letting go.

DP: Given that you’ve now completed your MA in Photography, culminating in this exhibition at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, what are your upcoming projects or next steps?

CS: I’m looking at perhaps a residency in which you get nine months studio for free and then do participatory artwork, so I’m going to apply for that. At the same time I’m looking to get represented by a gallery. Hopefully, I’d like to get Romanticism and Beyond Words exhibited in a few more places as well. I think I’d also like to extend those series. The colours that I used in Romanticism represented the keys that the pieces were in, and at the moment there’s only seven pieces but there are twelve notes, including the sharps and flats. So it would be nice to have all twelve. So yes, I think I’d like to explore those a bit further.


Interviewed for Photomonitor by Daniel Pateman 

Chris Sykes’ website: