Through a glass darkly

Self Portrait in Black © Matthew Booth

Self Portrait in Black © Matthew Booth

Deep in the concrete labyrinth of Oslo House, I climb impersonal stairways and trace my way through bland corridors, past uniform white doors. All at once I am confronted by an open door and a monochromatic peep show – monumental noir expanses, compellingly smooth, linear, inviolate. These are Matthew Booth’s frustrated (and fruitful) foray into the world of the Black Mirror.

An enigmatic trope which has recurred throughout artistic practice, it was elevated from a minor tool of the Renaissance masters to a defining accessory of the eighteenth century Picturesque, but has since fallen into obscurity.

Variously aligned with religious practices and the Occult, the optical device has been adopted by as diverse a cast as the Aztecs, Wilkie Collins‘ favoured astrologer, a German science fiction writer, Matisse; even French Canadian band The Arcade Fire.

Also known as a fortune-telling ‘speculum,’ the highly polished black convex lens was used primarily to reflect and clarify images for composition, particularly landscapes. It has been called at turns deceptive, reductive, hypnotic; not to mention demonic and melancholic (see critic Arnaud Maillet).

Booth has inadvertently found himself inheriting this eccentric play on perception, reinventing it for our age of visual hyper-stimulus.

Untitled Black Photograph © Matthew Booth

Untitled Black Photograph © Matthew Booth

This piece is Untitled Black Photograph. I suppose the time when I began making this I was thinking an awful lot about the art object and the viewer and the interaction between the two, and the artist as well, so whenever I was taking photographs I’d be out with my camera, I’d be looking for things to photograph and I was always asking myself these questions:

What’s the viewer going to see? What’s their reading of the image going to be? Am I trying to get over a narrative or some sort of message or something like that and I got so frustrated with all these question floating round in my head and I got to such a point where I just put my lens cap on, took my pictures and I went through this whole process of taking photographs with my lens cap on and obviously all the negatives came back blank and I got quite obsessed with printing them bigger and bigger until I printed this one which is twice the size.

It’s quite monumental in scale.

Yes, it’s a conceptual object it’s about the surface, the material, the paper, the gloss sheen, a blackness, a photograph of nothing.

And do you remember where you were when you took this one?

I’ve no idea because all the negatives are exactly the same.

In one sense it could be seen as quite beak, but is that what you take from it?

It’s a free association, it’s a void, it’s a photograph of nothing but then in a way it’s rejected representational photography but it’s just about the process of photography, about the viewer’s interaction with the photographic object.

And how much of a difference does it make that you’ve chosen to use the gloss so that we see a reflection of ourselves in it?

It is almost like the Black Mirror, the Nineteenth Century tradition where they’re using the black mirror in landscape painting. In a few weeks I’m going to do a residency in Wales, I’m taking a smaller version of this black photograph with me and photographing it in the Welsh countryside, so my work has become about the surface, I suppose, the reflectiveness of it.

At the same time, this was exhibited for the first time when I graduated in last year’s show, 12 this is a self-portrait with the camera- the camera’s about here on the tripod, it’s a photograph of one of these- so it’s a photograph of the reflection.

It becomes almost infinitely receding, then.

Yes. In the exhibition it really sets up this interplay between… you look at it and you’re searching for an image- the image is there, this kind of ghostly figure and the tripod’s there and obviously it’s titled self-portrait in black and then when it’s shown alongside the black one, it allows a bit more access to the idea behind this one.

You can see people in the gallery space start looking at the one with the pristine quality to it and you see that they’re searching for an image and then in this one they get one.

So this one is more satisfying?

This one’s more accessible. They get what they’re looking for but there’s also their image. It gives that realisation. It’s really beautiful seeing that realisation when they go, ‘well, this one’s me’!

And is it deliberate that you’ve chosen to present this one unframed, using clips to secure it to the wall? It seems more temporary, because you haven’t chosen to frame it.

Well that’s just for this show; originally it was mounted and framed, just as this one here is. This is actually the last edition in a series of three, I sold the last two. So, this one’s yet to be mounted or framed.

This one came from another exhibition- it’s a photograph of the artist who was exhibiting opposite me at the show. So when you were looking at this piece, my piece, on the wall opposite was his art work.

It became about the space- the living, breathing, image, really, because it continually changes wherever it is. It takes on the space around it, so his work was exhibited opposite mine and I asked him if he would pose for a portrait with his work, so this is a portrait of Francisco Lobo, and his work.

Fransisco Lobo © Matthew Booth

Francisco Lobo © Matthew Booth

He’s a print-maker, you can see it there, it’s very ghostly- a figure here, his art work on the wall, which he’s looking at and then obviously our reflections begin to obscure those images.

It becomes marbled here, doesn’t it- is that where his work ends?

His work ends here and then there’s another piece here, it’s quite abstract print-making.

Has the colour changed slightly? It’s no longer a uniform black, is it?

No, well there’s a reflection of the white wall and the floor and the ceiling- it’s all in there, but the image is broken apart by the reflective surface, the materiality of the paper, but then you’ve also got the surface of this paper’s reflectiveness, and that breaks it apart again, with your own reflection.

So it’s been refracted about three or four times- it’s almost like looking into a pool or water somehow, as well as a mirror.

Have you considered putting yourself in any of them?

The more recent ones I’ve been doing have been a series taking a smaller version of the entirely black one around artist’s studios in Hackney Wick, using it as a device and photographing it in these different artists’ environments.

Some of them have got the camera in; I’ve not put myself in any of them, yet. I’ll just keep going I suppose and I’ll be photographing all kinds of things.

So the work itself can become a document of the exhibition, the life it’s taken on, people who’ve had an input into the work?

It becomes about my contemporaries as well as people I live very close to…

These are the most recent photographs I’ve been doing of the black scheme of work. They’re a sub-series that I’ve just begun, photographs of the reflections seen in the portable black photo that I’ve been taking into artists and designers studios in Hackney Wick.

These two are in Mother Studios, that’s Tina Gibbard the painter- she’s on the left here, this figure, she’s working on one of her paintings, and then there are a few more of her paintings on the wall there and the camera in the centre.

It’s quite fascinating that although you can see from the edge that it’s a photograph, just here these shapes appear to be made up of brush strokes. Was that intentional?

What you’re interpreting as brush work is actually the texture of the paper; it’s the ever so slightly dimpled surface of that gives it that appearance. That shape is actually the window of her studio, not her painting.

Did you anticipate that it would have that effect? Did you experiment with different qualities of paper?

Yes – when you look at your reflection in the plain black one your image is diffused- if you look at your shoulder line, you can see how your reflection is translated into the appearance of brush strokes. It gives it an Impressionist feel, so in a way they are really quite painterly. I’ve tried Fuji papers, Kodak papers, glossy, matt, pearlescent papers.

All the papers are fibre-based, even the resin-coated papers have fibre inside, although it’s covered on both sides with a plastic sheet. You’d only get a sharper line by putting a sheet of glass in front of it, buy that wasn’t what I wanted. It would ruin the effect!

How will you go about crediting and entitling these photographs of works within works?

I’ve only just begun this series within the last month, so it’s Black or Hossack and Grey for now- whoever’s in it.

How much further can you go with this, do you think?

I have no idea, I mean, it could be completely endless. When I first started working with the idea of the black photograph, I started researching artists who made black paintings – Malovich and Reinhardt. I’ve had this kind of obsession with black and they’d done it previously but with painting.

Malovich spent half his life trying to paint the perfect black surface, you know, hundreds upon hundreds of versions, he called it the Ultimate Black Painting- Ultimate Black Painting No. 578.

So it was completely paradoxical? Even futile?

Yes – he could never reach perfection and yet he could never stop painting black paintings. And I think well, is that it for me? Is that it? Have I done with photography, am I finished? Or am I going to keep taking pictures with my lens cap on?

So it’s not an ending?

It’s a beginning! I’ve no idea where it could go.

Do you foresee that you might return to anything more traditional or conventional, or that you can’t go back? Do you feel that you’ve reached the point of no return?

Well I do, I can- do both- I work commercially as well so every week I’m working with the lens cap off. I keep thinking about other projects and trying to shift away from it, I’ve got plans to do some photographs about the City and the life of this area, you know, different ideas come and go and I wonder where else I can take the black one…

I’ve been doing these Untitled Interiors recently- in the old EMI building over in Hammersmith. I was actually on a commercial shoot, I was there being paid to record the process of stripping out the old EMI offices.

As the building becomes empty is then going to be fitted with a new office development but I went back, because the space was so beautiful, with my 5×4 camera, and made some of my own photographs- rather than just working with digital images.

Untitled Interior EMI © Matthew Booth

Untitled Interior EMI © Matthew Booth

How did your own shots differ from the commercial ones?

Well all the commercial ones are digital images, they’re done really quite quickly- 20/ 30 shots in a day- working with my 5×4 camera the process is much slower, working in black and white, I have to decide exactly where I want my highlights, think about how dark I want my shadows. I’ve always had an interest in architecture.

A lot of my previous work involved architecture, before I started putting the lens cap on! A lot to do with the way people psychologically occupy a space.

Would you align your work with psycho-geography then? Or do you try to resist those labels?

(Laughs) Well, that’s a term associated with Iain Sinclair. He interprets psycho-geography as being bound up with the memory of place, a feeling left over from past occupation, which I suppose, in a way, this is something to do with psychogeography…. I’m not sure about the term!

Yeah, I was making models of spaces quite some time ago, and photographing the models, dealing with the removal of information but then this space is still evolving.

Do you still have access to the building?

Yes. I’ll be going back a few more times throughout the life of it, for the architects.

Are they changing it quite radically?

When I first went there it was full of cubicles and low ceilings, these holes in the floor show where there were walls. The whole space was partitioned into loads and loads of small offices. Photographing it as a whole, while the builders were stripping out the walls, the ventilation systems. In some of these there were builders in the space at the time, tearing it apart- clouds of dust everywhere.

When I first arrived and started composing this shot, the scaffolding was on the other side. So within the 15 minutes of me being there they’d torn it all out and moved it across.

This was in particular looks quite violent- or at least like the aftermath of violence, destruction. There’s something very menacing about the crosses. What do they signify?

I’ve tried to capture the moment in between- the transition between one state and another. There were red crosses and green crosses painted on the walls- the red crosses stayed and the green crosses went.

So like you see here – it could be interpreted as ‘that one’s the next to go.’ The holes show where wires were laid under the floor.

How did it feel in the space? What atmosphere was there?

It was different in every room. In this one it was very bright, with the light pouring in through the windows. It was the beauty of the space that I was enthralled with. This was on the ground floor, up to the seventh floor.

Did you feel that you’d formed an emotional attachment to it, or that you might do by the end of the process?

Yes, definitely. When I start I look at a room in two dimensions, technically, I compose the image. But walking around it, I think ‘wow, this is beautiful!’ I really feel the emotional pull of the space afterwards, when I’m alone, developing the photographs- that’s when I see it in three dimensions.

Obviously with some commercial jobs you do you feel quite disgusted with what you have to do, but you have to suspend that! I will develop an emotional attachment to the time and the space but I know it’s going to evolve. It’ll be important for people who move into that space to see these photographs.

It’s quite a privilege- you don’t often get an insight into the history of the space you work in.

It’s something I’ve been in discussion with architects about, it’s  a record- I’ve been talking to another photographer in the area, Tim Sall, he’s a heavyweight in the world of architectural photography.

He’s been doing architectural photography for forty years. He’s got me access to these spaces, he’s seen my work and he’s aware of my interest in the psychology of space. My brief was really just to do whatever I wanted.

Do you think your work might have an influence on the future of the building?

I hope so. Some architects really have a feel for the perception of space by the people who will inhabit the building and by those who come after, but others only think about design not really how it’s going to be occupied, how it’s going to be used.

It’s something I’m really keen on pushing, to get architects to reflect on what they’re doing, through a collaboration. So I’ve started talking to architects about these things.

You mentioned Iain Sinclair earlier, well we’re hoping to organise a talk between Iain, some photographers and some architects- getting them together in a studio in Hackney Wick and just having an informal chat, a bit under the radar I suppose.

It that might become a debate dealing specifically with this vicinity- Hackney Wick, the Olympic site- it should be great fun. We’ve got the editor from RIBA, the architect’s magazine, involved too.

Might that open up a dialogue about the instability of this whole area- as so much of it still has a question mark hanging over it?

Oh totally. No one knows what’s going to happen after the Olympics. And I’m in the process of moving anyway- this is only my space up until next week, then I’m moving to Schwartz Studios, a bit closer to the Olympic site.

I’ll be able to hear the construction! But this space isn’t exactly ideal for me. I share the studio with Jo, my partner- she’s a ceramicist so we need something bigger.

It’s too long and narrow- I need a much squarer space, partly because of the scale of the work, and also for setting up shoots- there just isn’t enough room for the lights!

You can view more of Matthew Booth’s photographs here.

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