In the studio with Richard Mosse

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Photography by Scott Rossi.

Renowned for his large-scale political pieces using non-traditional processes and technology, this week the Irish artist unveils Broken Spectre – his first openly activist project. We visit his airy workspace in Queens, New York, to find out more

The New York-based Irish artist Richard Mosse has spent most of his career outside of the studio, travelling to perilous and remote locations to create works that poetically document societal and environmental destruction. His current studio in Ridgewood, Queens – a warehouse-sized space conspicuously located on a tree-lined residential street – is teeming with complex photographic equipment, including a custom-made aerial video camera that he devised specifically to film his remarkable new film and photobook, Broken Spectre

The photographer has been based in New York for around seven years. He greets us cheerfully, wearing black Birkenstocks and a plain T-shirt, which he later styles with a smart blazer for his portrait shot. The front of the studio features what he once envisioned would become a cafe and bookshop – a plan that took a back seat to the Covid-19 pandemic and more urgent projects. Its walls are lined with bespoke plywood bookshelves, filled with his own catalogues as well as publications by other artists and authors. This would-be communal area leads into the main cave of Mosse’s studio: black walls and colossal retractable skylights. It is here that he and a team of assistants contextualise hundreds of hours of material that they gather during their on-site shoots. 

Mosse leads a busy working life; when he is not in the studio, he is either preparing to travel, en route to another site, or fulfilling press commitments. Soon after speaking to British Journal of Photography, the photographer set off on what became a busy, stressful shoot in Spain – made more complicated by the airline losing his camera and tripod. 

Negatives in Richard's studio, Ridgewood, Queens, 2022.
Details of Richard's Allen M30 microfilm processor for black and white s35mm motion picture film, which he used in his studio to develop the negatives for his latest body of work, Broken Spectre, Ridgewood, Queens, 2022.
Richard's Micasense Rededge Dual Multispectral Camera for drone use, Ridgewood, Queens, 2022.

The idea for Broken Spectre began during a much-needed break. It followed the frenetic filming and release of his works The Enclave (2013) – an examination of wartorn Democratic Republic of the Congo that premiered at the Irish Pavilion in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 – and Incoming (2014–2017), which investigated the refugee crisis in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. It was an “intense and long period of making demanding works that required travel and witnessing disturbing or distressing things,” he says. 

While travelling through the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and Peru, Mosse began conceptualising a personal photographic series of nocturnal flowers, an “eccentric” but serene subject. When he eventually released the work, Ultra, “people were confused about it,” he says. “Fair enough, because it’s so off-kilter with the rest of my practice… But during that time in the rainforest I couldn’t help but absorb the fact that there was this exponential burning of the Amazon.” 

In the new film – which premiers at 180 The Strand in London next week, with an accompanying photobook published by Loose Joints – Mosse explores the impact of resource extraction and deforestation in the Amazon. He captures the ravaged landscape and those on the “frontlines” of the ecocide – from ranchers and politicians perpetuating the issue to Indigenous tribes suffering from the encroachment on their lands. “Extractive violence against the non-human, climate change and human displacement are all interlocking conflicts,” he says. “Climate change is one of the hardest topics to represent because it’s so vast and beyond human perception. The project could have focused on the melting polar caps in Greenland, or the shifting of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, but the Amazon rainforest is distinct in that the destruction is being very wilfully carried out in the present moment.”

Still from Broken Spectre, 2022 © Richard Mosse.

Mosse closes two skylights, and screens the 72-minute multi-channel film on the walls of the studio. The work envelopes the space and all the specialised tools used to create it. Like his previous projects, the film employs infrared technology to infuse its landscapes and subjects with psychedelic purple and pink hues, although some of the starker scenes are presented uncharacteristically in black-and-white. The custom camera he designed for the project brightly captures the scar tissue of the ecological war in the Amazon. It was attached to a helicopter and uses nuanced multispectrum technology, which has the ability to capture light from frequencies beyond the light ranges visible to the human eye. Scientists use it to gather data in space, but usually with 10 or 18 bands of sensors.

“They’re each capturing a narrow bandwidth of spectral reflective data, of reflected light,” Mosse explains. His team wanted to shoot at 20 times dilution to capture more detail, which meant they needed to process it 20 times slower. “It is quite hard to find a black-and-white motion picture film processor professionally, since there are very few labs offering the service and none of them would do it at 20 times slower,” he says, “so we decided to develop our own device.”

One of many work tables in the studio, Ridgewood, Queens, 2022.
Richard's R.H. Phillips Explorer 8x10" Camera with Schneider Super Symmar XL 210 lens, Ridgewood, Queens, 2022.

“The only way to change the world is through activism, but I was cagey about this categorisation of my work in the past”

Richard Mosse in his studio with his Allen M30 microfilm processor for black and white s35mm motion picture film, which he used in his studio to develop the negatives for his latest body of work, Broken Spectre, Ridgewood, Queens, 2022.

Mosse considers this new work his first outwardly “activist” project, having previously rejected the categorisation. He envisions Broken Spectre as a trilogy examining war zones and the violence of resource extraction. The film includes an unscripted monologue from a Yanomami woman named Adnea calling for the reinforcement of protection of demarcated lands. The team gained access to her after extensive searching that often seemed to lead nowhere. “It’s evident from the platform that we give Adnea in the film; she’s very much the author and confronts us, the photographers and the viewers, in a very direct way, giving us the feeling of complicity in the situation, and asking who will help solve the problem,” he says.

“The only way to change the world is through activism, but I was cagey about this categorisation of my work in the past because I thought about Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on art and autonomy – the autonomous artwork versus the work of agitprop or propaganda – and how an autonomous artwork can be instrumentalised,” he says. “I was coming from that school of thinking and I don’t see artwork in the same instrumentalised way. Ultimately it’s not about conscience, it’s about consciousness. It’s about shifting perception rather than telling people what to think. And I think a lot of people would agree with me there.” 

The work draws its inspiration from a 1955 memoir by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Based on travels that took place beginning in the mid 1930s, the travelogue primarily focuses on his reflections on the rapid destruction of the Brazilian Amazon and the impact of deforestation on its Indigenous inhabitants, and poignantly forewarns of the state of the rainforest today. “His travels around Brazil at that time were very specific and it just so happened that those were exactly the routes that I took – bizarrely, unwittingly, from Cuiabá to the route of General Rondon’s telegraph line, which was a slightly absurd or surreal symbol of modernity

leading into the heart of the rainforest when Lévi-Strauss was there,” Mosse says. “I suppose the reason I wanted to allude to this work is not only because it’s such an extraordinary book but because I had this fantasy in my mind: what if Lévi-Strauss were able to follow me and essentially retrace his path from years before? He would be even sadder if he was able to see the march of development today.”

Broken Spectre by Richard Mosse will be on show at 180 the Strand from 12 October until 04 December 2022.

The accompanying photobook is published by Loose Joints.

Gabriella Angeleti

Gabriella Angeleti is an arts and culture writer born in Rio de Janeiro and based in Brooklyn. She is an assistant editor at The Art Newspaper in New York, primarily focused on stories related to museums and heritage sites in the Americas, as well as stories dealing with Indigeneity. She earned her MA from City University of London and grew up mostly in the Southwest US.