Peter Watkins’ photographic exploration of his late mother

“I had no revelatory introduction to photography,” says Peter Watkins. “I used to walk around the streets photographing people and detritus just like anyone else with a camera, until eventually I got bored making photographs in this way. The revelation really came for me when I realised that photography was essentially about everything: philosophy, sociology, history, language, religion and politics.”

The London-based photographer completed an MA at the Royal College of Art, following a degree at university of Westminster, which he says, “knocked him into shape”, with its emphasis on writing and theory.

“I suppose what attracts me most to Peter’s recent work is the way it engages with some elemental questions about photography and the relationship between part and whole, form and expression,” says one of his lecturers at Westminster, Eugénie Shinkle.

“As single images – formal studies – his photographs have a kind of monumental clarity about them. Bound together in a series, they’re transformed into something lyrical and occult. This tension is compelling.”

In 2013, Watkins finished working on the series The Unforgetting, a project relating to his mother who died when he was a child, in which he seeks to readdress a missing narrative,  “exploring the notion of time and history through the photograph’s capacity for storytelling and its elastic connection with memory and metaphor.”

The work involves an absence, he says, which is then made present through the photograph.

Many of his images have a sculptural quality and, as Watkins explains, he is interested in moving away from photography’s medium specificity.

“I think art has an obligation to constantly renew and refine – to stay clear of stagnation,” he says. “My ideas about photography have moved on in the past few years. I see a shifting plane, away from some kind of false notion of photographic purity to a much more elastic understanding and dissemination of the medium. Yet I’ve got a real fear of the work slipping into cliché, and I find myself constantly fighting against this.”

Some of Watkins’ recent work was made during a two-week residency in Deauville, France – part of the Planche(s) Contact Festival of Photography in July 2013. The resulting body of work, Surface Tension, grew from an encounter at an official dinner party involving a photographer who choked on a piece of bread, says Watkins (the photographer survived).

Intrigued by the awkwardness and unexpectedness of the encounter, Watkins restaged the scene the following day, which led to subsequent associations and photographs.

Literature and narrative structures play an important role in his work, says Watkins. “I’m looking for poetic connections between photographs – be it in the edit of a book, or in the way the work is installed – to create a flow between images, analogous to how a novel or a short story might read. I’m trying to move away from the purely photographic and have been writing a lot. It’s a period of experimentation,” he adds, “but I feel ready to lock down this work and look forward to sharing it when it’s exhibited.”

Find more of Peter’s work here.

First published in the Ones to Watch issue, January 2014. Buy it here.