Showcase by Corin Ashleigh Brown
It’s been a lovely hot summer and I meet Bill Jackson on a day where the first downpour of August has drenched the London streets. We settle down in a cafe to discuss his project Biographica. Bill has been a LIP member for four years now and in the past year Biographica has been well received, with prints selected last year for the LIP Annual Exhibition (2009) as well as being awarded various other accolades within the photography arena. I find him engaging and as so often happens when photographers meet, many common thoughts and feelings on photography are shared and dissected.
Biographica is part of a bigger project; it is a social, or rather a human document. Its focus is multi-faceted, portraying the relationship of people with people; people with the environment and the spaces they occupy. It also explores the land people live in, and the objects that belong to them. Bill Jackson’s passion for narrative is clearly shown with his combination of photographic images and text. This marriage of photographs with words has always been an important part of Bill’s work and his enthusiasm for storytelling traces back to his first memories, when at the age of 5 he saw his first projector film.
‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’, becomes a real and tangible idea, driving Bill to frame the life stories around him. He frames up his subjects and the places they inhabit, to become a stage filled with props from the subject’s lives.
Bill describes himself as a classical photographer with a strong purist identity and his 30 years of analogue experience has given him the discipline to work to high standards. He believes in working meticulously, planning his shoots to take up as little time as possible with the sitter. He’s of the mind that photographers hold a lot of power and with this, comes a huge amount of responsibility.
“Photography is heavily psychological, highly emotional and can have huge implications”, he says. “It’s a loaded gun, you’ve got to be sure of where you’re pointing it before you pull the trigger.”
Biographica is a lifelong project, and marks Bill’s return to black and white photography for the first time since 1986. Back then he was shooting film and his work was heavily influenced by Diane Arbus who, it is speculated, documented her own suicide with her camera. Bill refers to August Sander and Matthew Brady as influences with the concept of documentation en masse. The works of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Alexander Rodchenko and Mari Mahr are also a great inspiration, but Biographica has drawn from many sources including painting, especially works from the Dutch schools.
For many years Bill explored ideas in video and electronic media and so moved into using digital equipment. Now for the Biographica pictures he uses available light, shooting a 5×4 Silvestri camera with a stitching digital back to create 180° panoramic images by stitching two exposures together. Each exposure generates an image with a very large file size of 2.5 gigabytes. This magnitude of capture supersedes anything a DSLR can produce, allowing for high quality reproductions to an incredibly grand scale. Of course creating such large files demands sophisticated storage solutions so Bill not only backs up on to external hard drives but also uses blue ray discs with their greater storage capacity over DVD’s. As a purist he keeps retouching to a minimum and does not employ any digital manipulation.
His exposures are fairly long and can vary from 1 – 4 seconds, the sitters need to remain perfectly still for optimum sharpness, so for this reason he shoots a handful of exposures. To ensure they can hold their positions, subjects are usually seated and encouraged to relax into position. Bill feels that when you ask people not to move and to hold their position over a period of time, something happens to them in their bodies both physically and psychologically. He has employed long exposures in many of his projects over the years, with the idea that securing a lapse in time in a single frame challenges the concept of time itself. As a young photographer he got caught up in the idea of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment but as he has matured as an image maker, his mantra is more, grab whatever moment there is, secure it and pin it down.
Bill would like to see photography returned to the photographer and taken out of the hands of the ‘Fine Artist’. He doesn’t see himself as a mainstream photographer, but rather as someone who is honest to himself and believes in pursuing his passion. We discuss how this is important to hold onto, especially when entering exhibitions and competition:
“When you enter your work into the public domain you have no idea how it will be received and there is no point second guessing either. It is fantastic when your work is selected and hugely encouraging, but it is important to remember that judges may not have a personal connection with your work, and if this connection doesn’t happen it is not a judgement on your work. The selection process can be as random as you or I deciding we want fish & chips for dinner instead of steak. Life is about selection, there are no guarantees or easy predictions. It’s not about winners or losers. Do what is true to you and be honest with yourself,” he says.
Bill admits that exhibitions like the LIP Annual Exhibition are good motivators as they provide you with a deadline to work towards. Selecting and preparing your prints for display and hanging them all together often helps you see the holes in a project, or areas that are particularly strong and deserve to be investigated further. It is also a good way to get feedback on new work, and for this year’s LIP Annual Exhibition Bill will be entering work from his latest project Bill and Gigiola.
This new project holds many challenges for Bill personally as it looks back posthumously on the memories and events of his mother’s life and her marriage to his father ‘Bill’, who Bill Jackson never met. His father and mother came together during the German occupation of Italy during WWII. As a project it is highly personal in terms of subject matter and a challenge to Bill as he looks for a way to present it on an aesthetic level.
A few pointers from Bill for those embarking on personal projects:
• Shooting a personal project can teach you huge amounts in technique, from how to shoot the project to the final printing of the work. Research your ideas and look at how others may have approached similar projects.
• Plan out a methodology but allow for fluidity and adaptability.
• As an individual, every person you meet adds to your journey and, as a naturally shy and private person, a project like Biographica forces me out to engage with the real world. It is so easy and comforting to stay in your own private world which is not a healthy place to be in all of the time. In my early days as a street photographer, it was so much easier to be a voyeur that a conversationalist. A project like Biographica forces you to go out there and confront life and this makes you more human.
• Never be afraid to do a personal project, but be honest about it. Don’t worry about where it takes you and never never be afraid to fail. It’s through failure that we succeed. Remember for every so called successful picture there are 10 which you don’t ever see.
• Seek out a friend or mentor who can give you honest feedback on the work.
• Sometimes we need the distance of time from what we do. What you reject one day may be the image you select the next.
• Doing long term projects can be a daunting task and it can really stretch you. To avoid boredom, work on several projects at a time.
• Originality is a rare thing, so don’t get hung up on it but at the same time don’t just do a pastiche on something you have found. Challenge your motives for doing it. I like to see, in any art work an intelligence behind it.
• Try not to be pretentious about the work as others will see through it. Honesty is the best policy and more forgiving than articulated mumbo jumbo.
You can see more of Bill’s work at his website: www.billjackson.biz
And keep a look out on the LIP Website for the dates for his exhibition at the Viewfinder Photography Gallery in Greenwich where he is part of a group show called Home later this year.