Tina Rowe was chosen by juror Jesseca Ferguson as the recipient of the2019 Denis Roussel Award We are pleased to present her interview and work.
“Using liquid emulsion, this artist prints found negatives anonymous snapshots from a previous era, onto oyster shells she gathers at the edge of London’s Thames River – a very unexpected conjunction of materials. She has fused two castoff elements into small handheld portraits which are oddly reminiscent in size and weight of original 19th century daguerreotypes in cases. The artist wrote that she displays these photo-objects alongside other found artifacts from her river walks. Viewers immediately handle the shells, engaging with these photographs in ways they would not, had the images been printed, framed and hung on the wall in a more conventional presentation.” Jesseca Ferguson.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I guess the most obvious thing about me is the fact I’m not white. It’s all the more obvious because I am trans-racailly adopted and grew up tagged on to a family that already had three boys who were the birth children of my adoptive parents. See how lumpen that is to explain? That information comes up quickly when I meet people and all I have to deal with it is a clunky explanation that will soon involve the question: your real mother/father/parents or your adopted ones? Seems innocuous, but it isn’t because if you are adopted, you have the exact same legal status as any other family member and all of the terms that apply and are used by them about their relationships also apply to you. Except the world never really cops on to this and I still spend time qualifying it on a regular basis. Questions about appearance are a constant in my life and as a result something that I consider a lot when making work. I am interested in the ways we look at and catalogue the world around us.
Where did you get your photographic training?
Nowhere in particular, but this is probably because I never intended to be a photographer. I see the work I make as coming from a drawing practice, so the artwork I produce is constructed rather than the result of an attempt to capture slices of the world. The training has more in common with learning to use a pencil to make marks. I understand about exposure, films, framing, printing etc, but each one of those skills I have learned has been in order to realise a specific outcome.
That said, my father bought a Praktika super TL at some point in the 1970s and he was very careful with it as it would have been expensive in real terms then. We used to go on a family holiday to Wales for two weeks at the start of the school summer holidays when I was a child. We would stay in a six berth caravan on a caravan site in Llangenneth and for roughly 30% of the holiday it would be too cold or rainy for us to be eating picnics on the beach so we would go on day trips.
One time we were walking on a prominentary called the Worms’ Head which is a narrow strip of land that goes out into the bay. It is a bit like walking across a bridge with the land in the middle and the sea either side. I pestered my father to let me have a go on the camera and he said no, but then he said, close one eye and look through this rectangle on the top of the camera and I did and all I could see was a grey mush. Then he rotated the focus and all of a sudden the sky and the grass and the sea all separated and they were surrounded by this beautiful black frame. That was me sold.
Why do you create?
I see the work I make as construction, a collaboration between stuff that exists and the stuff that rattles around in my head. I have a thought and it gnaws away at me until I do something with it. Otherwise it dies like an untended tamagotchi and that can be quite sad.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
That’s a difficult one. It depends on the way you look at it. I took a 30+ year break from serious art making and was winding my way back through courses and reducing my hours in my real world job when I had a place as an associate student in a college but the college decided to withdraw the program and I was moaning about that on facebook. One of my virtual friends ran a darkroom that offered courses and he started to pester me to take a course he was running. The price kept coming down and in the end it was cheap enough for me to show up. The course was lith printing. Lith printing is the antithesis of most darkroom behaviour. It’s all about the eye, you can park any ideas you might have about reproducing a set of indisguishable prints and experiment yourself stupid. I liked it so much I joined the darkroom and a year later I joined forces with the remarkable Douglas Nicolson and we built our studio over the darkroom.
These days I spend as much of my time as possible at the studio and in the darkroom. I feel very fortunate to be part of the community and to be able to spend time talking with Douglas and Guy Paterson in particular, both of whom encourage my more off piste ideas. Guy runs Mesh Print which is a fine art print studio and recently helped me make some four colour silk-screen prints for the first time. I am a very fortunate person indeed.
The darkroom is called e5process. It started life as Double Negative Darkroom, but now we are a community run space with black and white, colour and alternative processes. It is a darkroom for artists rather than perfectionists.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
I don’t know how old I was but once when I was snooping about in my family home, I remember finding a pair of photographs that would have been taken in the 1920s. They show a woman in a silky dress. I think in one she is sort of reclining on a chaise. She looked very happy and extremely glamorous. I can’t say if my memory of these images are completely accurate but I carry them anyway. When I asked about them, I was told the woman was my father’s mother. The pictures were not on display like photographs of my mother’s parents, but I didn’t really question it. My father never talked about her and it never crossed my mind to ask, I just knew she was dead and had died around the time my father was 16.
When I was 16 my father became ill, though I didn’t realise to what extent, I don’t think any of us really did. In early October 1979 he took his own life. A week later I was told that Hetty, the woman in the photographs, had taken her own life too. I also discovered that my father had never been able to talk about his mother because of the pain and also I think the shame of losing someone in a manner that is so stigmatised. A lot of stuff happened after that, funeral. Explaining to people, being on the receiving end of well meaning but incredibly clunky comments, so called friends who never call despite promising to be there if they are ever needed. All that stuff that happens yada yada yada. But the thing that grew in importance was the image of Hetty looking glamorous and happy on a chaise.
I spent a fair amount of time being angry for not being told about her because in my binary way, I felt that if I had known, then I could have better helped my father.
But I was 16, like he’d been 16. I have no idea what I thought I could have done. What I can do though, is talk about him now. Photographs of him remind me that he lived over 20,000 other days. None of the images of him sit in isolation because of my relationship with him. The image of Hetty is almost entirely without narrative. My father never spoke about her. I wish he had. She inhabits a curious place like the found images I have been printing on the oyster shells. Almost a complete stranger but with the most personal of ties to my own life.
The problem with suicide is it throws a deep dank shade over the person you have lost in this miserable way and if you aren’t careful the only way you can see that person is under a heavy wet blanket of an awful tragedy. This is where photographs come in. I think we are encouraged to think of personal photographs as captured moments, little slices of time chopped up by a shutter click. But they are not all like that to me. When we know that person, that static image in your hand or on your screen is infused with the essence of the subject.
What I know of Hetty is she had her photo taken wearing a glamorous dress one day. She didn’t know what would happen to her or for that matter, to her middle son as she posed. I regret the fact those lovely images did not have a place on the wall and my father did not have the chance to tell us about her in the same way my mother talked about her own father who died at a similar age to Hetty. It makes me interested in found photographs, printing them is a way of breathing life into all of the participants because most of us have similar images of our families with people who we cannot place, when we look at images of unknown people, we should always keep in mind that they had lives and families too.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
I visited Brazil a few years ago and took my Hasselblad and a Holga wide angle pinhole. It was only once I got there that I realised that I had not taken my tripod and pinholing was going to be a challenge. During my stay I found myself sitting on a narrow gage railway in a beautiful wooden carriage being rocked from side to side and I thought, this is very regular movement and that movement is in itself interesting, I wonder what a 4 minute exposure of this would look like…? Well, it looks like this:
I think the image illustrates so much about the train, the wooden construction, the idea of going somewhere, the fundamental trainyness of the journey. I probably take long hand held exposures as much as any other kind of image these days all because I am an inattentive packer of rucksacks.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
Most days are good at the moment because I am taking a year off work to make art. I usually work in IT which is an industry where it frequently feels that you can be sitting next to the smartest idea in the history of the world while having to listen to a certifiable idiot dismissing it. Having to do that stuff five days out of seven meant that the time I had in the studio was limited and this curtailed experimentation. Having this time means nothing disappoints at the moment. I could coat a meter of expensive gampi in liquid emulsion and accidentally turn on the white light and I would probably start thinking lumen print, which is miles away from this time last year when a well printed image on a shell washed off because I tried to cut corners and hadn’t subbed it because I thought I would have more time to make more prints on shells. I turned the air a whole new shade of blue and constructed a sulk that would win an award if there was an award for the most petulant display of petulance.
So in a nutshell, having the time to work through an idea properly, to stop and chat with Guy Paterson and Douglas Nicolson or anybody else who is passing through the darkroom is what makes a good day.
Please tell us about the work you submitted for the Denis Roussel Award.
I’m working on a long form project about being transracially adopted and had originally intended to print portraits of the sitters on oyster shells that I had picked up on the foreshore of the Thames near St Paul’s Cathedral. The oysters do not grow in this part of the river, but they had been sold and eaten there and the shells thrown into the river. I liked the idea of printing an out of place human on a discarded out of place item. I started printing the found negatives when I didn’t have any portraits as a means to learn how to get the emulsion to stay on the shells. It kind of grew and has become the main thing i have worked on this year.
I don’t think the images would resonate in the same way if I tried to print them on to conventional photo papers. Some of the negatives were really badly developed and I am as impressed as the next person by the images that emerge. I have also been surprised at how nice it is to touch them. We rarely roll a photograph about in our hands, we mostly rest our eyes on them. I think when we take a photograph as a photograph per se, we diminish the subject. It is important to remember they are images of human beings, just like ourselves, with their ideas, their thoughts and dreams and tragedies and triumphs when they stood in all their 3d glory, in living colour in front of the person holding the camera.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
I am lucky. I get to spend my days with some great artists who I share ideas with and also just talk rubbish to. I am part of a wonderful fractious and challenging communities through the darkroom and also from my time at open school east, a free experimental art school that I attended in 2015.
So I can’t think of an artist I would choose to spend a day with. But if I could spend the day with just anybody, it would be my father and he would get to talk about his mother with the same kind of love and fondness that I use when I talk about him.
How important is the photographic community to you?
My community is so important to me. I would not be where I am without people like Guy Patteson and Douglas Nicolson. I appreciate the interest shown in the work I make from the likes of sunny16 and lensless podcasts.
Without the community I would not have developed the work I made that I submitted. The award really blew me away and I am hugely grateful to have work shown in such good company. I feel like I am not just noodling about in a darkened room in East London for the hell of it, I feel validated, I feel more confident. Confidence has been a slippery infrequent houseguest in my life, but you need confidence to be able to leave things behind and develop further. Without the community, I would have a head full of sad silent motionless art tamagotchis.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
Pencils. Most of the work I make starts off with a line somewhere.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
More performative based work. I would like to collaborate with anybody who has movement as part of their practice.
Whats on the horizon?
I am trying to work out how I can avoid going back into IT so I am trying to get funding for projects. In the short term, I’m off to Paris in a week or so to see the Sally Mann exhibition. I like her willingness to examine her personal life and to show it. My work is often seen as deeply personal, but I don’t see it as such, it’s more that I am prepared to talk about things that many other people share that we don’t notice or address until the only place we can find them is in photographs.
Thank you for sharing your time with us.
To learn more about the work of Tina Rowe please visit her site at Tina Rowe.