'Kylemore 03' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
Simon Burch has long been established as one of Ireland's premier advertising photographers. When big clients require stunning imagery for their campaigns, Simon is usually the first name on the list in this fair isle of ours.
With a wealth of experience dating back to a classic commercial photographers apprenticeship in London, Simon brings a sense of consideration and measured execution to his photography, as well as a wealth of experience. There are no short cuts in Simon's work. He's really a true image maker, putting into the camera what he wants to see in the print, something that is becoming a rarity in our scatter gun approach to photography today.
It came as no surprise then that after four years in the making and arriving as something of a mid-career breath of fresh air, Simon's first long term body of work entitled 'Under a Grey Sky' arrived to acclaim. The series launched with a hugely successful show at Dublin's Gallery of Photography, a limited edition monograph and is now attracting some serious interest from the art market abroad.
I caught up with Simon to hear a little bit about the project...
Tell us a little about your project Under a Grey Sky…
Under a Grey Sky is a project about a landscape that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with Ireland which is the raised peat bogs in the center of the country. In the 1920's, the 'Turf Board' and later 'Bord na Mona', began extracting the peat from the bogs for commercial energy production, home fuel and gardening. Currently there’s only about fifteen years left of peat extraction before the area will be ‘exhausted’. This region is probably one of the most intensive landscapes in Ireland and I wanted to show people the reality of this region.
The work isn’t intended as a descriptive piece about that area though; it was much more about an emotional response to the land, specifically my emotional response.
'Area Thirteen 01' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
You spent a substantial period of time shooting 'Under a Grey Sky'. How did the project change and develop over that period of time?
For me the initial excitement was the actual landscape and the black, open Bord na Mona bogs: there was a really melancholic feeling to that. What I was trying to do was to photograph how I felt about it. It was a broad feeling, but it was a start and I went from there.
I photographed mostly during the winter, not entirely, but mostly. In the summer it was almost too green and didn’t quite have that melancholy feeling that I was after. The very flat light in the winter really worked well with the kind of composition I was working with. Both the sky and the land have almost equal standing in the images and I didn’t want the skies to overpower this black, flat, featureless land.
The title slowly just came; I went through many different titles in four years shooting this project. It seemed to work, maybe there’s a little reference to the future of the area because it will be depleted so soon. There’s a sense of uncertainty there.
The landscapes are certainly ethereal, almost otherworldly...
When you’re walking around these areas you come to this realization that there’s the ground, there’s the sky and there’s you and that’s kind of it. It’s a very bleak area, so open and vast.
My father was a landscape painter and I grew up with that background. The lifestyle of being a painter and that kind of loneliness that came with it all felt familiar to me. Shooting with a large format camera and walking around these bogs that could take a whole day to walk around, I found myself looking at maybe not so much the landscape itself as what’s happened to the landscape, which is, after all, manmade.
That’s what is really interesting about this region. You’re almost looking at other people’s past actions or past decisions. Of course the photograph is a visual description of the landscape but it’s also trying to see beyond that a little bit.
'Kilmacshane 01' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
'Falsk' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
There’s rich history of projects in contemporary photography from people like Ed Burtynsky or Andreas Gursky, that deal with man altered landscapes but you veered away from that and chose to include portraiture, details and more observational images in this work as well. Tell us about those decisions?
It’s true, I could have done a complete series of these black landscapes, but I thought that was a bit abstract because people do actually live there. Although it’s a industrial landscape I wanted to give the feeling that it wasn’t just this really bleak, hostile, inhospitable place: that people live in and on that land still.
There’s something that Martin Parr described as the ‘Dusseldorf tendency’ which is a very flat and disciplined way of presenting work, that is all very similar. It becomes a very concise, complete body of work but I love the idea of looking at a book and not knowing what the next page will hold.
'Cormac' & 'Sorcha' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
If it were solely landscapes, I would look at one page and see a landscape and then the next page…another landscape and then the next page and guess what…another one! For me it might get a little boring and it wasn’t really what the project was about.
With the portraits I deliberately photographed my subjects indoors, mostly in sort of domestic interiors because if you took somebody out into the landscape and took their picture then they would both be lost. The sense of scale and the contrast is so great, that the person looks totally out of place there ,or equally the landscape recedes and it’s just about the person. The project was about trying to represent the two without necessarily mixing them physically.
What about your choice of the subjects?
Initially I went to Bord na Mona for permission to photograph on their lands and they said yes and they introduced me to a guy called Pat Dooley who showed me around. They have workshops there for the guys who repair the machines and so on so that was my starting point and I photographed some of the people in the workshops and I met others through them. And then I just spoke to people and talked to people and met people and it became kind of organic really, you know people saying ‘oh you should go and see my brother, he lives over there’. This is how I met the people in the portraits. They’re people who were all born in the area or have moved to the area, in deliberate fashion: they’ve chosen to live there and to me they had this great connection with the land.
'Joachim'' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
Are the portraits in some way intended to represent the future of the area?
I think you can become very intelligent analyzing your work after the event! But sure, maybe the portraits are about the future and the landscape is about the past and certainly being involved in the area and seeing some of the planned projects for the region you get a sense that there is a future in there. I think it’s 30000 years it took to create that landscape with all the moss building up slowly creating the peat and it’s going to be gone in fifteen years, so the region can only be changed through the people that live there now.
Justin Carville who did the text for the book titled his piece “Future Landscapes” so perhaps there is a sense of progression running through the book.
'Area Twelve' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010
Your work has been in the advertising realm for many years, does ‘Under a Grey Sky’ mark a kind of defining point in the development of your career so far?
Yes, in a way it does. Under A Grey Sky is my first singular project and I finally found that I could do it!
There are thirty-four pictures in the series and maybe there could be more, but that’s fine. The idea of completing the project and saying ‘ok, it’s done, let’s move on’, I’ve never done before and it’s tremendous because you say to yourself ‘I’ve given something a really good go here, I’ve looked at it and thought about it long and hard and it’s not perfect by any means… but it’s not bad.’
You certainly learn an awful lot shooting advertising but you’re not really going to develop as an artist doing it, it’s do demanding from the client’s point of view that it’s more about production these days. That’s why you have to do your own projects. I’m always grateful if I can earn a few quid to take some time off to do projects and that’s really my aim. It’s not about making money at all, it’s really about buying time.
Truth be told, I probably would still like to be a painter but it probably won’t happen at this stage…and that’s fine. I’m happy to be a photographer. Photography is incredibly difficult as I’m sure you know. The complexities within a single picture can be enormous at times. The composition, the content, the lighting, there’s so many elements that have to be brought in to one picture. From that point of view, I’m still learning a lot about photography. It’s a very narrow discipline in that way and even to think about doing something else would be a distraction.
'Coolfin' by Simon Burch. Copyright 2010