At the age of 9, Stephen Gill was already experimenting with double exposures and, by the point he was 12, he had created a number of photographic collages. In a single surrealist-style self-portrait, his torso is a cauliflower over which is draped a digital camera. Intriguingly, his different hand holds a brush, an early metaphor maybe for the best way this photographer’s thoughts works – scooping up seemingly random concepts and turning them into pictures that shock and disorient.
These precociously realised pictures – alongside a sequence made by his father in 1978, which reveals his grandfather practising yoga – are an intriguing prelude to Coming Up for Air, an intensive retrospective of Gill’s work on the Arnolfini Gallery in his residence city of Bristol. Comprising 25 sequence made between 1996 and 2021, the present attests to his artistic restlessness.
Over two flooring of the gallery, the prints are accompanied by a wealth of attendant materials, from audio recordings to vitrines stuffed with ephemera, maquettes, fantastically produced photobooks (Gill self-publishes below the No person imprint) and infrequently unique uncooked supplies. One show features a digital camera that was “dismantled by ravens’’, having been positioned in a wooden to document their presence through movement sensors. One other comprises an association of small bones from his sequence Journey Inside a Fish, during which microscopic pictures of the pores and skin, guts and flesh of a sea trout have been magnified to resemble fantastical landscapes.
In his schooldays, Gill’s creativeness was so energetic and his inattention so acute that he was not allowed to sit down subsequent to a window lest his thoughts wander outdoors the classroom. Again then, he attended “particular classes” and it was solely in 2017 that he was recognized with ADHD (consideration deficit hyperactivity dysfunction). It got here, he says, as an enormous aid given how burnt out he felt by then due to his relentless compulsion to make extra work.
As an adolescent in Bristol, Gill was drawn to the nascent homegrown hip-hop scene that produced Large Assault, Tough et al – “I used to breakdance in legwarmers outdoors Snappy Snaps” – however was additionally “obsessive about microscopes and the mysteries of pond life”. In a manner, the exhibition possesses the vitality of the breakdancer and the nerdy inventiveness of the scientist. Additionally it is a journey into the thoughts of somebody for whom pictures was a type of immersive, even therapeutic, self-expression.
“Although I really feel I’ve exhausted pictures, I’m additionally so grateful to it,” he says, intimating that this survey present, which was 4 years within the making, could also be his final. “Pictures is how I articulated myself, responded to the world round me, and removed my extra vitality.”
The earliest sequence right here can be probably the most uncharacteristic: a choice of black and white pictures he took in Poland between 1996 and 1998. With their monochrome tones and quiet observational model, which nod to masters of the shape together with Robert Frank and Sergio Larrain, they’re the closest the present will get to straight documentary. “The photographs say extra about me desperately eager to be a photographer than they do about Poland,” says Gill. Although positioned in the beginning of this exhibition, they mark the top of his temporary embrace of conventional pictures. “After that,” he provides, “I needed to dismantle all the pieces I had realized and start yet again.”
His breakthrough sequence, Hackney Wick (2003-2005), units the tone for what’s going to observe: determinedly lo-fi however intensely evocative pictures of the messy sprawl of a Sunday morning flea market in east London. Since swept away within the frantic redevelopment of the realm within the lead-up to the London Olympics of 2012, the market’s hustle and bustle drew Gill there each week for 2 years. The pale color tones are the results of taking pictures on an inexpensive plastic digital camera purchased from a stallholder, however they completely swimsuit the subject material. “I used to be stepping again and letting the topic take priority,” says Gill of his unorthodox strategy. He wished, above all, “to discover a manner of evoking the spirit and really feel of a spot”.
That impulse underpins the next sequence, Hackney Flowers (2004-2007), for which he collected wild crops, seeds and berries from the realm and positioned them over pictures he had taken of the streets and other people. He then re-photographed these unusual, layered creations, a few of which featured prints that had been buried for a time within the floor to evince a way of natural decay. If Gill’s strategy can appear excessive, the outcomes are at all times unusually compelling. His pictures typically appear low-key even of their subversion however they repay shut consideration and, in grids on the wall, purchase a cumulative energy.
In Speaking to Ants (2009-2013), he positioned objects, bugs and filth from the native space contained in the precise mechanism of his digital camera earlier than taking pictures on the streets of east London. The outcomes, printed comparatively giant, are disorienting: stranded woodlice floating in a pale blue sky; leaves and soil seeming to float previous as if on the wind. The title, by the way, got here from an opportunity encounter with an previous major faculty buddy, who launched himself to Gill and mentioned: “I bear in mind you within the playground – are you continue to speaking to ants?”
There are traces of that childhood otherness all through the exhibition, in addition to the sense of an artist completely immersed in an inside world of the creativeness. His strategy undergoes a radical shift after his relocation to rural Sweden in 2013. There, amid an elemental panorama and in shut proximity to uncooked nature, he retreated even farther from what in literary phrases could be known as the creator’s intention. “I believed, ‘Who am I to impose my imaginative and prescient on nature?’ As an alternative, I wished nature to form and information the work.”
For his sequence Evening Procession, which took three years to finish, the photographs of nocturnal woodland creatures have been created manually and by motion-sensitive cameras Gill positioned within the undergrowth. “I might exit into the woods as darkness fell and suppose, ‘If I used to be a deer, the place would I drink from?’” The outcomes are spectral glimpses of a secret, nocturnal world of exercise that exists unseen alongside our human realm: a fox sipping from a stream, an opaque silhouette of a poised deer, the feral, bristling presence of a looming wild boar which, he says, despatched him fleeing into the woods in panic.
In one other current sequence, The Pillar, the snatched portraits of birds of prey – perching, preening, touchdown on and taking off from an upright wood stake – are of a special order of wildness. Captured on a motion-sensitive digital digital camera, the information have been became negatives and printed on silver bromide paper. A range, organized in a line round a room within the gallery, are a testomony to the ability of a single impressed thought. However they’re additionally far more than that, as evinced in a video loop of the complete sequence that unfolds to a sombre soundtrack of repeated cello notes performed by Gill’s five-year-old daughter. By stepping again even additional and permitting the digital camera to interact instantly and viscerally with the topic with out his energetic involvement, Gill permits us to see these creatures in all their feral and unsettling otherness.
Coming Up for Air is a present so brimming with invention and subversion that I’ve barely scratched the floor right here. And, regardless of his compulsive work charge over the past 25 years or extra, it’s a calm, quietly playful and but at all times partaking expertise. “Mockingly, the one place I discovered any calm was once I was working,” he says. If this does in spite of everything become Gill’s exhausted farewell to the medium, pictures will likely be a poorer, much less mischievous place.