Monday, June 21, 2010

Irish Eyes: Martin Cregg

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Martin Cregg’s photography has something quite unique in it’s approach, something that he has been honing and refining over his relatively short career as a photographic artist. His first book 'Midlands' charted the construction of the Irish midlands from the height of the Irish economic boom in the early part of the decade, to the economic insecurities and uncertainties of recession times. It was shown in Dublin's Gallery of Photography in 2008. His subsequent bodies of work, 'Home' and 'Course' have furthered and refined this approach.

Documenting what one might be tempted to label “autobiographical landscapes” if you care about the idea of photographic genres, Martin’s images, at first sparse and minimal, somehow stay with you and grow and develop in your mind, revealing a more personal experience of Martin's world and the environment around him.

His images seem to be concerned with his ‘present’ where he is at that particular time and how that relates to his life and his own personal narrative. In this vein he has created long term projects on both his rural upbringing entitled ‘Home’ and is now working on a project entitled ‘Course’ documenting the space and the minutiae of his environment as a lecturer of a photographic course in St. Kevin's College Dublin.

This approach is kind of curious to me, his images at first seeming quite detached, then somewhat self-reflexive but ultimately personally revealing.

I asked Martin to tell me a little about his series and his process and his work

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Your photography has obviously evolved over a long period of time. Can you give us a little bit of background to you and your work?

I am still relatively new to photography. I bought my first SLR (Pentax) just over 10 years ago. I studied photography as part of a Video Production course in Galway and, somehow, got accepted, along with my best friend, into IADT (Institute for Art, Technology & Design) in Dublin in 2000 (on a faux pas, we think!). It was, and still is, a fantastic environment to nurture and cultivate a love of photography.

I was lucky enough to be in a really energetic and close-knit group of diverse and interesting photographers who constantly talked about photography, helped each-other through projects and exhibited as a group when and where we could around Dublin.

Photography for me, in a way, became a riddle that needed to be solved. It’s a difficult one to explain. But, I really felt around my second or third year that though I was not the most promising or gifted or technically proficient photographer, I could use the medium to explore the world I knew and to articulate something about who I was and the time I lived in. Photography transformed the way I saw and understood the world. I feel that it awakened something inside me. I found it, and still find it, a liberating, therapeutic and energizing practice.

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

I feel that photography has given me a way of grasping the intangible meaning of the world, the ambiguities of life and the labors of society to organize and articulate a meaningful world. The act of photographing, in a way, attempts to make these sensations tangible. It encourages and permits a quiet comprehensive musing over even the most seemingly banal and ordinary of things and offers an invitation to scrutinize, to ponder, to connect with whatever piece of life it privileges. Photography, for me, became a way to assert and express the way I saw the world – a subjective comprehension and impression which I could never communicate or articulate with words. Once I started to feel a real impulse to use photography, I found that my entire behavior, my world view and everything about me changed. My first, lets say, ‘serious’ project started with my own roots – in rural Roscommon - looking with a more critical eye on what was happening in my own hometown. This was, kind of, the beginnings of my Midlands project. Though, looking back at it now, it was pretty messy. Thankfully I have improved a little since then.

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

You also work as an educator in the Photography field. Can you talk about how these two sides to your life inform each other?

I teach History and Theory of Photography, Critical Studies and Practical Studies in Dublin. One thing I have learned is that teachers can teach more by what they are than by what they say. I feel that my love and passion for photography translates through my teaching of it. I would feel like a fraud if I wasn’t a practicing photographer.

'Untitled' Image by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

I try, rightly or wrongly, to suggest to my students that I too am still a student of photography: I struggle with trying to understand the complexities of the medium, I too try to overcome my inadequacies and my insecurities to continuously better myself as an artist and, well, as a person. I love the craft of teaching and dealing with people day after day. In my area of education where there are so many limitations placed on us, so little space and so little money that there is a lot more to my job than simply imparting knowledge about photography. Its an all encompassing experience, which is as enriching as it is destroying. I sincerely care about teaching standards and about my students, so I put everything I have into my job. But the flip side of that coin is the fact that I tend to put so much energy into other people that it certainly has its effects – I find myself at certain points of each term just emotionally, physically and mentally drained. And it absolutely takes that energy away from the development of my own work. But, to answer your question in a positive way – yes, they undoubtedly inform each other. I talk about photography and art and ideas day after day, and this ongoing interchange always keeps me alert to possible projects and possible ways of solving that ‘riddle’ that is photography.

Image from the series 'Course' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Image from the series 'Course' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Your work seems to be very much about process, both in the kind of analytical way you approach your subjects and in the images themselves. Can you tell us about how you come about your subject matter?

I have no real methods of finding work. I just go out and photograph, with a clear head and something will fall from this. I have learned to trust my impulses and my instincts. Usually, there is a little surprise in a contact sheet that I wouldn’t have seen or understood while photographing. The ‘optical unconscious’, as Walter Benjamin termed it, at work.

Project-wise, I like to take subjects which will be challenging and maybe force me to renegotiate the way in know and use photography. I have no real style, I think. I adapt styles and approaches to suit a subject matter. Though I like to feel that I am forcing my vision through any subject I take onboard. I like to be confronted with complexities of photography and tend to spend a lot of time thinking my way through projects. Lately, true, I have added elements of the ‘during the process’ stage of my work into my work. Some artists I have spoken to suggest that it makes me ‘vulnerable’. I understand this, but to me vulnerabilities are part of the creative process, so why hide them. I feel it can make my work more wholesome. I write a blog, which is my visual diary, containing my thoughts, my ideas, my notes and scribbles, my test shots. I decided to use them in the finished piece. It works for some subjects and not for others. For the ongoing ‘Course’ work, it is necessary, because that work is ‘about’ making work, about teaching and churning out photographic discourse and, maybe, an awareness that I am physically changing an educational environment through doing this (talking photography, and being a photography teacher). Ok, that is confusing. I still am grappling with it! Get back to me about that one some other time.

Image from the series 'Course' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

In your most recent body of work ‘Course’ you describe it as a self-reflexive project. I personally think it’s a great body of work that must have taken a huge amount of discipline to put together. Can you talk about this series a little?

With ‘Course’, the discipline comes from making sure that there is time to do something for myself in the context of a working day. I usually find time between classes, at lunch time, or before and after my working day. I remember reading a little of Neil Youngs biography ‘Shakey’ in an airport once, where he described his father's working methodology – he was a writer.

He suggests that he used to force himself to write ‘something’ each night. Some nights, he remembers, it seemed like sado-masochism – working through the pain of frustration until suddenly finding ‘that place’ where there is clarity and freedom of expression. Sometimes you need to force yourself to find expression, its not a given. And even when you find expression and inspiration, its not enough! You have to force further aspects through by spending time with your work, conceptualizing it, editing it, finding a rhythm or re-enforcing a context. There are so many things to consider when doing a project - it needs to consume you.

Image from the series 'Course' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Image from the series 'Course' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Maybe the self reflexive notion comes from not necessarily wanting to hide the fact that I am photographing something. Maybe its that simple. Sontag once said that
photography ‘hides more than it reveals’. I am at the stage where I want to reveal more about the processes of being a photographer – to show the construction of the work in the finished piece. Maybe I am realizing that my photography is always about the relationship between myself and the surface world anyway. Though, this approach doesn’t suit every project. For 'Course' and especially for my ‘Sketches From Home’ it is totally necessary. 'Course' is a complex series to digest right now. I am still working through it.

Your work is documentary but photographically eschews the narrative and portraiture elements that traditionally spring to mind when we think of documentary photography. You still maintain a sense of personal image making. How did you develop this approach?

I think that I generally add a bit of a conceptual element to my documentary approach. It always throws the question at me: well, what is documentary photography? I like the fact that there is no answer, there are just boundaries which need to be confronted and re-imagined. Photography is constantly evolving. I don’t think traditional labels are relevant anymore. While there is a narrative of sorts in ‘Midlands’ – it charted the development of areas of the region at the beginning of the housing boom to the uncertainty of abandonment – it just took on a more conceptual and minimalist approach which suited my ever-changing relationship to an ever-changing landscape. Recently one French curator I met commented that he liked the idea that my work was documentary which went in abstract directions as far as it could go and still remained documentary. This is something I try to work towards. In regards to personal image-making, every documentary is to a degree personal and subjective. No matter how objective it pretends to be. There are always levels of determination behind documentary images.

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

I always find Ireland a difficult place to photograph but you seem to be able to find a way to make projects here. Is it an inspiring place for you?

I think Ireland is really visually interesting. Ireland is full of potential projects. I feel that my work needs to be, at some level, culturally specific or it is not an honest vision. I want to reflect something about the place I know and the times I live in. I am challenged by, for instance, the Irish landscapes that I photograph. I feel I have an attachment to landscape, probably due to my own cultural background in rural Ireland. In midlands for instance, I really felt that sense of change happening in the early 21st century – especially in rural areas. Most of the places I photographed I had known well since I was a child. And there was something undeniably poignant for me to explore within these landscapes which were changing so rapidly at the time.

Image from the series 'Midlands' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Photographers seem to be really delving into the History of Photography just now for inspiration into how to approach creating bodies of work. Is that something you're aware of as a lecturer?

Through teaching history of photography I always find interesting figures and bodies of work. For instance Lewis Hine is someone who I feel is a fascinating figure, he's maybe not spoken of in the same canonical breath as Walker Evans, but none-the less his work is more complex than he is given credit for. August Sander, of course, is someone who I just love teaching classes on seems to understand a definite sense of purpose for photography. Paul Strand and Evans, of course, I love. For me I find that I am informed by the work of the American ‘New Topographics’ in the 1970s, maybe what we know as the ‘Dusseldorf’ tradition – The Bechers, Ruff, Struth, etc. I love the work of what you might call American Social Landscape photographers such as Lee Freidlander, Bill Eaggleston, Stephan Shore, etc. Contemporary photographers I admire include Paul Graham, Edgar Martins, Alex Soth; artists Sophie Calle and Laurel Nakadate. I love projects that just have a visceral edge - Kohei Yoshiyukis ‘The Park’ comes to mind as something that just really stimulated my mind. As did Jason Lazarus’ recent works - the ‘Nirvana’ project (simple but so poignant for me). I really like Jitka Hanslova, Naoya Hatakeyama; Todd Hidos recent work is really poetic. Yao Lu’s recent images, which were part of the Prix Pictet, were pretty amazing. I know it may be a bit fashionable but I like the energy in the work of Ryan McGinlay, Wolfgang Tillmanns and Phil Collins. Angela Strassheim’s recent work ‘evidence’ is interesting, as is the work of Beate Gutschow. Japanese street photographer Osamu Nemura is great. Alexander Gronsky’s work ‘The Edge of Moscow’ I really like. I could go on - there is so much out there!

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010

Recently I was inducted into the International Reflexions Masterclass – a forum for debate and practice held in various cities throughout the course of two years. Each year 10 photographers from all over the world are chosen to join the Forum along with established guests (curators, publishers, philosophers, practitioners, etc). This year there are photographers from Egypt, Korea, Italy, Russia, Canada, Peru, etc each with unique perspectives and uses of photography; each trying, like I am, to force their own vision through. Working with photographers from diverse cultures has been so stimulating and energizing and has helped to open even more perspectives and possibilities within the practice of photography and offered new ways of thinking about the medium which I have never considered before.

Image from the series 'Home' by Martin Cregg Copyright 2010