Douglas Nicolson’s portfolio was chosen as an Outstanding Work in the
2020 Denis Roussel Award.
“Manifestations of Spirit, A range of work exploring the symbolic representation of self, creating psychological spaces between dreams and reality.
I would recommend translating these beautifully crafted and graphic images into a printmaking medium such as intaglio where you could control textures and colors with acids and inks. Your work is very powerful and I think it can be even stronger if the photographic evidence in play is married to an additional medium. I think the concept deserves that complexity.”
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I’m an artist/photographer with a background in participatory, community based projects alongside my personal practice. Raised in a small farming village in Highland Perthshire, Scotland, I have ended up in London after various wanderings. I share a studio (Project Unit) with Tina Simon-Rowe (https://tinarowe.co.uk/), who won The Denis Roussel award last year! The studio is part of an arts hub that includes E5 Process Photography Darkroom (http://e5process.co.uk/). The darkroom is an artist run non-profit organisation with a remit to promote community access to analogue photographic facilities and I am part of the collective of artists that manage the space.
My personal practice explores historic photographic processes and photosensitive materials in the darkroom to convey emotional and psychological states. Alongside working on personal projects and exhibiting in the UK and overseas I have collaborated with a range of partners on socially engaged art projects. I have made artwork with inmates in a prison in the UK, children in a Romanian homeless shelter, residents in a psychiatric hospital and communities living with HIV/AIDS in the UK and Kenya.
Where did you get your photographic training?
Formal education was a Foundation at Grays School of Art Aberdeen and a Degree in Fine Art/Lens Media at Camberwell University of the Arts London, I then completed a Masters in Community Art Practice at Goldsmiths University, London.
A lot of my “training” has been ad hoc explorations and sharing of knowledge as part of E5 Process darkroom, where a lot of analogue photography skulduggery happens!
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
I’d have to mention my art teacher at school as I didn’t get on that well with the formal structure of school and Mr. Rhind allowed me to stay in the art room and do my thing. I think if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have considered art school as a viable option.
My art school professor Catherine Lewis introduced me to early video art exploring identity politics and social critique, opening up what an artwork could be and include. After art school I started working with FreeForm Arts Trust working on community art projects and eventually a Masters in socially engaged arts practice with Chrissie Tiller at Goldsmiths, London, where having a reflective practice was developed.
I have to mention E5 Process darkroom again, as working as part of a collective of artists/photographers/printmakers is a great way to discover and share techniques, processes and get feedback on work in progress.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
I love the work of Minor White and especially his “Sound of One Hand” series which “72 N. Union Street” is part of. I am drawn to the way reality dissolves into abstraction and expresses or has an emotional atmosphere. This print is included in a book of Minor White’s work called “Manifestations of the Spirit” by Paul Martineau and in homage to this work I named the series that I presented for the Denis Roussel Award after it.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson.
For my final degree show I presented one photograph. It taught me to focus on and follow my gut and heart rather than producing quantity. Its what draws me to the analogue process.
Please tell us about the work you submitted to The Denis Roussel Award
I’ve recently turned 50 and at present enjoying coming to terms with the aging process. But 5 years ago at 45 I felt that change into middle age looming. I had a dream that I was sick and out came an amorphous shape covered in mucus. From this birth sac a figure emerged. I have been exploring the symbolic nature of this figure over the last 5 years, aiming to create psychological spaces between dreams and reality. They act as a tool to process my life history and emotional landscape, giving physical representation to what I often don’t have the words to express.
The images are quite layered with processes as they start from a medium format negative of a long exposure of a wire wool maquette figure slowly burning. Wire wool will slowly burn and glow once you add a flame. From this negative I will make prints to use as the base for the chemigram experiments.
The chemigram stage of the process gives each image a uniqueness relating to the ideas/thoughts/emotion I was processing at the time of hand applying with brushes, stencils, stamps and sprays a cycle of dev/bleach/lith redevelopment/bleach/lith redevelopment, with the odd addition of differing chemicals within the mix depending what is at hand at that time.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
Over the last while I have taken less and less images with a camera and focus on what is possible with light and chemicals in the darkroom.
I enjoy the emergence of a project or idea for a piece of work. In my personal practice I work very slowly and don’t produce much work, but it mulls around in my mind for ages, developing and forming. I also find the physical process of creating work rewarding as I like to explore the edges of what a process can do, and this involves mastering each stage of a process and nudging each part in the direction you are drawn to until all the differing elements come together and if you are lucky it forms into some sort of representation of those initial ideas.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
Often things wont “work” or do what you are hoping for. I treat a lot of my explorations in the darkroom as experiments, just seeing what happens. I take a lot of notes and documentation so when something doesn’t work I’m usually learning something that may come in useful in the future.
If its one of those days when everything just goes wrong, I may admit defeat and come back to it later and focus on something that is more enjoyable.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
Space and time to create work is essential, well maybe not essential but having a studio space has been vital in developing work. Not exactly a tool but having creative interaction with other practitioners is also a vital component.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I am drawn to the feel and look of gumoil prints at the moment and would like to incorporate that in my work
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
If I am making art with other people, it gives me new perspectives and understanding of parts of the community I may not have come into contact with. My personal practice allows me to be more self-indulgent and reflect on my own sense of self and relationship with the broader world.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?
I have been in the studio but mainly doing some maintenance on kit, having a clear up etc. I consciously didn’t put any pressure on myself to make work under lockdown. We are just entering lockdown winter here in London and I’m feeling a return to creating work in the darkroom while winter and the virus pass by outside.
What’s on the horizon?
To learn more about the work of Douglas Nicolson please visit his site at Douglas Nicolson.
Thank you to the photographers that share their work with us.