Seeing the Self in Others: An Interview with Christopher Bucklow




9 minutes reading

British photographer Christopher Bucklow (b. 1957) introduces us to his Guests by proposing that while they are indeed portraits of other people, they could also be seen as a reflection of the photographer. The images are multi-aperture: They're silhouettes fixed on photographic paper by direct exposure to the sunlight, though because of Bucklow's process of piercing countless holes into an aluminium foil surface, each one of his images is comprised of thousands of photographs of the sun's disc, causing his subjects to appear as radiant, shimmering figures of light. The figures embody various forms of gender and emotional posture, with the result taking on the powerful symbolism of archetypes. In this interview, which is an extended version of the interview which appeared in GUP#52, the Mirror issue, Bucklow speaks about his process of creation, the unconscious state of dreaming and his realisations on the concept of self.

Your series of Guests consists of people whom you know, who have inspired or influenced you, yet you describe them as self-portraits. Tell us more about what that means.

Well, I think my friendship group is a kind of self portrait... in the way that they're all of people I feel comfortable with, or that I find inspirational. So the people we are comfortable around are often like us in many ways. And the people we admire suggest qualities that we might hope to attain. And even our enemies - and there are enemies depicted in this series - even our enemies reflect something about us… though a shrink would say that enemies often contain qualities that we ourselves contain, but that we don't like, or we can't accept.

Even your enemies are willing to pose for a portrait? How does that work?

I don't usually fall out with people, so perhaps 'enemies' is too strong a word, but they can be what you might call 'spiritual' enemies. People who behave in ways that are hurtful to others.

How is the sitting different when you photograph a friend versus an enemy?

Just the same. There's no difference.

So, we see ourselves reflected in the people to whom we have some strong reaction?

I think this situation is a bit like dreaming. What I mean is that there's an analogy with dreams. I'm sure you know that psychologists say that everyone in our dreams is a representation of an aspect out our own character… a symbolisation of the different facets of our character. They are not themselves. From my own experience I'm sure that it's true. I should also mention that all the people in the Guest series are people that I've dreamed of. That's the criterion I use in selecting the models for the series.

Everyone in our dreams is a representation of an aspect out our own character

Do you try to integrate the messaging or symbolism from the dreams, or at least your interpretation of your dreams, into your portrayal? Or, how do you decide the ‘right’ way to portray your guests?

Good question. Yes, that's the question which hung over the work in my mind for a long time… and I never fully resolved it until I started to paint the same figures on canvas. Then I was able to integrate their meanings into my work. So, the question led to a switch in medium.

It's like the Guest series is the cast of characters for a play… a kind of a dramatis personae before a play begins, they're waiting in the wings. But somehow for me, the wings must be a sort of celestial place -- I mean all those Guest figures are made out of images of the sun and sky -- but when they come on stage in the paintings, it's like they have incarnated back into their earthly bodies, and they meet each other, and they act out an improvised play.

The people do certainly get transformed into abstractions, or archetypes. What aspects of yourself do you recognise in the photographs?

That's really a question for the people who know me! But I hope they'd notice that the Guests are transparent, they're porous.

I like that you draw this direct parallel between porousness as a physical attribute of the photographs to allow more light in, and porousness as a personality trait or essential way of being. How do you personally see the symbolism of light and dark in your work?

Well, right at the beginning of the series, I think I understood some characters as 'darker' than others. Some of the people I was in contact with in my circle definitely had some aspects to them that were 'dark' in the conventional sense of that metaphor about human character. But part of it would be that there was an element of the unknown to them for me. These were areas of experience that I had no knowledge of. Certain cultish involvements, certain interests in the occult, certain chemical addictions. The involvement of these people in this may have influenced the use of darkness in the images.

But on the other hand, some of the scarier characters were intense, and I understood that psychologically difficult stuff can also shine brightly, so much that it hurts to be around it, or to try to look at it. And they hurt themselves and others. But these are the exceptions… most of the luminescence for most of the characters is as you might expect it to be, just suggesting a life energy. Anyway, I remember now that mostly the light had to do with the way I was feeling in myself. I had just got out of a kind of 'jail' and the experience of getting out of that was like some of the Guest figures look.

Even our enemies reflect something about us

Do you view any of the images as more ‘successful’ at capturing some aspect of yourself than others? How do you personally evaluate them?

No, it's a group portrait. And it's not a portrait of outward form -- though there are a few that use my own body. And as I said a moment ago, I discovered that Guest was just the beginning of a larger project, and that for this larger project, narrative would be needed to really give any detail. I thought about writing a novel, or a play, and I actually did shoot a short film, using the Guest models as actors ('fju;zan', New York 1998). But there was also a series of still photographs that bridge the gap between the cast of characters of the Guests and the full narrative drama of that film or the paintings that I make nowadays. I called these 'bridge' photographs Tetrarchs. They were made in a similar way to the Guests but on a much larger camera that could accommodate several figures. The Tetrarchs were the four rulers of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, right at the point where the empire was about to break apart. The metaphor of the divided whole seemed an appropriate one for the psyche. They seemed like a secular version of the four living forms of the Book of Revelation in the Bible -- the lion, ox, man and eagle -- which in turn suggested the four forms of the psyche as described by Jung. You mentioned the archetypes just now.

You can see in my Tetrarchs photographs, which were all made in 2001, that relationship and narrative is beginning to be implied.

It sounds like the evolution of a realisation that the self is not singular but multiple?

That's true enough. But I feel like I should try to specify how it is true for me. I'd been interested in what we might call Post-structural ideas for many years, so I knew, intellectually, the various theoretical positions on the nature of the self, all of which are influenced by Left politics and by linguistics and to a certain extent by Freudian or Lacanian psychology. But all of that went out of the window for me, or at least receded into the background, when I began to experience the reality of the psyche through working on my dream contents. The result of those investigations is that I don't insist on the self being multiple as a matter of doctrine influenced by the emotional and political or philosophical needs that underlie Post-structural thought, rather I use the multiple self idea as a useful tool, or a working metaphor… a metaphor that is just a tool to gather information from within the psyche. I'm meaning here in my paintings, where the investigation has moved. The jury is out, or my jury is out, as to whether the multiple self is real, or whether there is a core self that is more akin to the idea of 'essence' that's so unfashionable these days.

Can you tell us more about the images practically? How do you produce them?

They're pinhole photographs of the sun's disc. But the camera can have around 25,000 pinholes for each person. They begin from a life-size shadow drawing I make of the sitter's silhouette. This gets transferred to a large sheet of aluminium foil. Then I make all the pinhole apertures in the foil, in the shape of the silhouette. Once this foil is placed on top of my camera, as the 'lens', and once there is a 100 x 70cm sheet of what used to be called Cibachrome paper inside the camera (or a 100 x 150cm sheet) I wheel the camera out onto my roof or anywhere I can see the sun from. There's a shutter made of black cloth over the pinholes, and I use this to make the short exposure, by hand. I don't ever know what the exposure is, but it's less than a second.

How do you decide on the right colour to use per photo?

The colour is chosen without too much thought. It could be an aesthetic choice, but I believe the unconscious guides many such decisions.

How do you find the right balance between intuition and intellect when it comes to conceptualising or producing your images?

I just do stuff, and think about it later. When the studio door closes my brain turns to porridge anyway. I operate a sort of 'seance' technique with the figures, and I wait for one of them to 'knock' to be let in -- for one to want to enter the studio and the image. I have found that thinking in the studio is of no use to me at all. Which is lucky as I don't seem to be able to do it! But I do reflect later on about what it is I have done, and what my larger project would appear to be. An example would be the porosity thing. I didn't set out to give the pictures that quality way back when they started in 1993. But it happened nevertheless. And with the larger project, I used to think that the paintings show what the Guests do now, after the most intense period of their production is over. But I've noticed very recently that my paintings tell the story before the Guests - the story of where the Guests came from, and why they came and why they were necessary.

This is an extended version of the interview which appeared in GUP#52, the Mirror issue. Christopher Bucklow is represented in Europe by Gallery Vassie, Amsterdam and Riflemaker, London. A retrospective of the artist’s Photographs and Paintings is being organised by Southampton City Art Gallery for September 2017.