Ky Lewis’s portfolio Ness was a 2021 Denis Roussel Award Outstanding Work Selection.
“I like the organic and graphic quality of this work, all of which feels like illustrations for a Cormac McCarthy novel (that’s a compliment). Although your statement is rich in technical adaptations and detail, it is the drama of your tonalities, artifacts and markings within the landscape that captures my imagination. If I came across your work in a museum I would sit down on a bench and savor it”.Christopher James
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I am an artist, educator and mother living in South London U.K. I work predominantly with photography; my love of process stems from my printmaking background and I enjoy employing a wide variety of techniques to create work. I grew up on an Island in the Thames Estuary in the South East of England, this exposure to the freedom of the coast and its landscape left its mark on me. College was varied with a number of beloved places with good memories. I moved to London in my early 20’s to go to college and never left, becoming an illustrator and working in graphics after I left my last college – Camberwell School of Arts and Craft as it was known then.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I didn’t get specific intensive photographic training as such, any photography I did at college was part of a general course. However, I did have some great tutors most notable of which was Maureen ‘O’ Paley (she has since dropped the ‘O’) whilst at my first college, Medway School of Art and Design in Kent. We were taught to be experimental, thoughtful, to make photos not take them. The work then became part of something much greater, book covers, album covers, pack shots etc. My next college had a fabulous darkroom and I practically lived in there. The course was graphics with specialisations and though I was heavily into printmaking I still managed to spend a lot of time in the dark. I was very lucky to enjoy all three of the art colleges I attended and I think each brought its own influence to my future practice.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
It is quite hard to be specific or to narrow down the range of influences I’ve had, I draw from such a wide variety of disciplines. Painters, such as Turner, Goya and Rembrandt, for their use of light. Piranesi and Ackroyd for atmosphere; my tutor John Lawrence at Camberwell School of Art was wonderful and so inspiring. My influences are too broad, loving modernism and abstraction as well as pictorialism and the likes of Gustav Le Grey.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
When it comes to photographic images my head is bursting with them, this isn’t easy. I was given some of the Time Life Series of books in my early teens and there was this one image which I was always drawn back to, Wynn Bullock’s ‘Child in the Forest’ 1951. I was always fascinated by the incredible detail, the light and the purity of the figure amongst all of this, wondering how on earth the child got there, how long the photo had taken to set up and numerous other questions mostly still unanswered – that image sticks with me.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
I’m open to being taught lots of lessons as my practice continues, but I think there was turning point when I made Sharing The Moment as a pinhole – casually made whilst on the beach. The photo made on film inside, basically a small tin can of a camera, shows my oldest child holding the hand of my youngest while they paddle at the shoreline. The framing crops the older figure bringing focus to the vulnerability of the younger child and the tenderness of the grasp. It is black and white but the tone warm and nostalgic. It was so very in the moment. I did also use a toy camera and snapped a similar image moments later in colour both have a similar framing but it is the pinhole which got to me and has become my ‘go to’ method. It established the importance of the emotional connection when making a photo.
Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Denis Roussel Award.
Ness was started in response to a yearning to revisit and understand aspects of my childhood. It is not just a series about a particular type of landscape or a number of topographically similar places, but it is about my connection, the stories, emotions, remembrance and history. My father was slowly dying from the affects of Alzheimers, and my childhood moments spent with him sparked a desire to retell and revisit. The enthusiasm and the small details he would share about the places reminded me how fleeting everything can be. The subjects in this series are connected by myself and the suffix, Ness a body of land jutting into the water. An analogy for a constant in a sea of change but of course even that constant changes with erosion, time, age, an ever changing environment. Each place holds memories that will in themselves fade with time.
The slowness of the making and its process allows me the opportunity to be in the landscape, to feel the elements, to listen and to remember. I used 4×5 pinhole for this, I like the large format and the deliberation that it takes to set up. Using X-ray film makes me feel more relaxed with the material not so precious about it and able to focus on the images I want. I love its quality and the layering that it can give with it being double sided. While making the exposure I also collect a small amount of the ground, earth, sand, shingle and this is then used in the process of mark making when the prints are created in the darkroom. The marks made are a response to the landscape, in a similar way to the painting with light and chemicals that is part of the final image. The addition of colour to the black and white instills the image with my emotional response, reliving impending storms dramatic skies and sunsets, using the chemistry like a limited palette trying to recreate what I had felt as well as seen. The final unique prints are on fibre based paper and the natural curl gives them a look of having been recently found.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
This is quite hard to answer. I honestly find all of it enjoyable. I love being out on location making the photos is often enough – I do have a ridiculous backlog of undeveloped work. I’m patient they will get developed one day! As for the darkroom, a good day is a wall full of prints even if they are multiple iterations of the same print.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
I’m fortunate enough to be able to work in a wide range of disciplines- I bounce between them, they feed off each other. If I find I’m stuck with one process then I’ll take up another more manual technique and do something totally different. It often allows me to think about the other project whilst my hands are busy maybe doing a woodcut or drypoint or some life drawing. I tend to be thinking about the next thing a lot. I usually have a number of projects on the go at once.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
Well, time and a bit of space to think and work without interruption which is rare but I sort of grab brief moments of intense work. So I know what I couldn’t ever do without is a sketchbook and pen or pencil, making notes drawing out ideas. Other than that I need the pinhole but I could make that.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
There are numerous techniques that I want to try. There aren’t enough hours in the day to fit it all in, but if was going to choose something I think I would love to try the Bromoil process. I think that would satiate my need to have ‘dirty’ printmaking hands.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I think I see it in black and white, certainly at the moment whilst engrossed in this project I am seeing the potential of the open spaces, the broad skies, low horizons ready for filling with painterly effects in the darkroom. I see the landscape and history, peoples memories and the passage of time.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?
I didn’t think the pandemic would have an affect but it did. I found it hard to work under lockdown in the beginning despite having my darkroom accessible. It was a bit of a dead period for a while but I did a lot of thinking instead. I also couldn’t get to the locations for my project which is still causing a big delay but I am philosophical and it will take as long as it takes to finish my Ness project. I have now got used to the lack of freedom and I work on other projects while waiting for the big escape!
To learn more about the work of Ky Lewis please visit her site by clicking on her name.