Stephen Gill on memory, nature and home

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As his landmark retrospective at Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery closes this weekend, Gill reflects on his prolific career

“I wonder if photographers have weak memories,” Stephen Gill muses. “They’re constantly downloading [images in their minds]. Perhaps your memory gets lazy, like using a calculator to do simple maths. I have so many projects and films that I’ve made that just lie dormant and detached from my memory.” Wrapped in a plush puffer jacket with a fur-lined hood, Gill is speaking to me from inside his car. He has just dropped his kids off at school, and parked in the middle of an open, grassy field surrounded by evergreens. It is early November, and the grey sheen of winter is beginning to set in over Malmo, Sweden, where the artist is based.

Gill’s career has been prolific. In the last 30 years he has published 27 books, including The Pillar, which received the Rencontres d’Arles author photobook award in 2019. These are mostly published under his own imprint, Nobody Books, which he launched in 2005. Gill has exhibited all over the world, including at the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Christophe Guye Gallerie, Sprengel Museum, Tate, The Photographers’ Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, and Haus der Kunst, to name a few. Now, a vast retrospective of Gill’s work, made between 1996 and 2021, is on show at the Arnolfini in Bristol, “where it all began”. The exhibition was two years in the making, and closes this Sunday. 

He created a number of series around East London, where he lived – including Hackney Wick (2003-2005), Buried (2005-2006), and A Series of Disappointments (2007) – photographing found ephemera, local people and the bustle of the weekly market. He also experimented with process. For Hackney Flowers (2004-2007), for example, he stuck smatterings of flowers and seeds collected from the meadows and canal on top of images of daily life.

In other series, he buried images in the ground to encourage decay, while submerging others in pond water or energy drinks, enhancing the sense of place that is so prevalent in his work. “I felt so inspired there, I just couldn’t stop,” says Gill, who also made work out of littered betting slips, ants, pigeons and other urban animals. “In a way, I got addicted to the visual chaos of the city.”

From The Pillar 2015 - 2019 © Stephen Gill.
From The Pillar 2015 - 2019 © Stephen Gill.

Born in Bristol in 1971, Gill has been making, and communicating with, images from a young age. He was drawn to the outdoors, using lenses and microscopes to inspect the organisms he found in the undergrowth. Gill struggled academically, but easily grasped the technicalities of the camera. One of his early photographic collages displayed at the Arnolfini is a self-portrait. Gill’s 12-year-old head is cut-and-pasted on top of a cauliflower body, a camera slung over his shoulder.

Further into the show, a ghostly self-portrait, made aged 14, shows an understanding of double exposure. “I learned to articulate myself visually quite early,” he recalls. “I found it hard to read and grasp words even when they were spoken. Then, different things collided – a love of music, love of nature, having excess energy, being hyper-sensitive and having a curious mind.” He adds: “I think I found some kind of refuge in those ‘worlds’ – it was amazing. Being a kid is limitless. I still make and respond to the world in the same way, or react on an instinct.”

Following a foundation course in Bristol, Gill moved to London and secured an internship at Magnum Photos. He planned to stay just one year, but was so captivated by the city that he remained for the next two decades. Making money from shooting editorial portraits allowed him to focus on personal work, and this he did with vigour.

From Hackney Flowers 2004 - 2007 © Stephen Gill.

“As I grew older I got more confident to step back and back, and encourage the subject to keep making steps forward – to the point where I eventually just stepped out completely and let the subject guide me, and inform and shape the work. That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had with photography”

Stephen Gill

From Hackney Wick 2001 - 2005 © Stephen Gill.

Throughout his oeuvre, Gill has consistently found inspiration close to home. In his early 20s, he spent many years travelling to unfamiliar places to make visual diaries. The exhibition includes a selection of more classic, black-and-white documentary photographs he took in Poland, Russia and Japan, among other places. But by the late 90s, “I realised that it’s all here. It’s all outside my house, and it’s also the biggest challenge,” he says. “To go somewhere unfamiliar, it’s exotic, and easy to make images. That was a language I never really tapped into. If you can latch onto your home environment, it’s unbelievable, you just have to look and absorb.”

In 2014, Gill moved to Sweden. London became overwhelming and it was time to make a change. “I had to leave the city in the end because I felt like it was going to finish me off. I just didn’t stop. It was great for my work, but not great for my health.” But it was also for love. His partner at the time was Swedish, and the country seemed like the right place to start a new chapter together. 

Gill’s home studio in Malmo is surrounded by flat, rural farmland – a “blank canvas”. Nature is in abundance. This change in environment marked a point of evolution in Gill’s practice too, where the photographer started to step away from the camera and beckoned a collaboration with nature.

For Night Procession (2014-2017), he concealed his motion-sensing camera in a nearby forest, securing it to trees or simply laying it on the ground. As darkness fell, the wilderness came alive. Deer, wild boar, owls, insects and birds stepped into the frame one by one. Gill orchestrated the conditions for the shoot, but ultimately relinquished control to his subjects.

A few years later, Gill set up a wooden pillar a few kilometres from his house, and fixed a motion-sensing camera to point directly at it. To his amazement, he found images of birds of all breeds, serendipitously perched on the post, preening, or in flight. By the end of the four years, he managed to capture some 24 species of birds native to the area, which he later found out was home to 192 of the 250 species of birds that are native to Sweden. This culminated in his award-winning body of work, The Pillar (2015-2019). 

From Night Procession 2014 - 2017 © Stephen Gill.
From Night Procession 2014 - 2017 © Stephen Gill.

In the exhibition, these lo-fi images are printed with vegetable ink onto handmade paper. “I always think about when your intentions meet chance,” he says. “I love that middle collision point. I suppose that as I grew older I got more confident to step back and back, and encourage the subject to keep making steps forward – to the point where I eventually just stepped out completely and let the subject guide me, and inform and shape the work. That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had with photography.”

In the two years he spent producing the show, Gill reflected on his life and career – decades spent playfully dismantling, unlearning and stripping back the conventions of photography to walk his own path. When the show was finally installed, he remembers considering what each body of work represented in hindsight. “There is so much embedded in the pictures that you don’t see,” he says. Following the challenging period of production, never mind the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, the separation from his partner, and the persistent cycle of work commitments, Gill is considering a break from his practice. “I’m so grateful to photography, but I just need to rest,” he explains. But while Gill decides whether he will step away from image-making completely, his work continues to reinvent and resonate with those experiencing it for the first time, years after it was made.

‘Coming Up For Air: Stephen Gill – A Retrospective’ is on show at the Arnolfini, closing this Sunday 16 January 2022.

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.