How Gareth Phillips has reimagined the photobook

All images © Gareth Phillips
This article appears in the forthcoming Spatial Awareness issue of British Journal of Photography. The magazine will be available to buy at from 19 September

Photography’s rules are made to be broken. Having become frustrated with the medium’s conventions, five artists discuss how sculpture, activism and X-rays keep photography alive in their work. Next up is Gareth Phillips

Gareth Phillips’ artistic practice focuses on disrupting conventions around photographic display and dissemination – especially the photobook format. His maquettes confront topics ranging from family trauma to mass media’s relationship with violence. He was a finalist for the 2023 Aesthetica Art Prize with Caligo, which was shown at York Art Gallery this summer

For me, there are two authorships within photography which need to exist. One is survival, which is where my editorial and commercial work comes from, and the other is my personal practice. Both have been accepted by the public and industry, but my personal practice has always been secondary with regards to how well I could carry it out. The two have had to live side-by-side.

Documentary photography is what I studied at university, but there was dissatisfaction about being part of it. It wasn’t stimulating me in the way I wanted or expected it to. The platforms in which the work was being seen and used were not conducive to how I wanted to show my work.

I’ve had a deep interest in photobooks since 2006, when I made my first one at university. I was very aware that this was a big part of how I could disseminate my work. I couldn’t – and still can’t – afford to make a traditional commercial photobook. That monetary side of things has influenced my path to evolve the format. I started to question why there is this limited definition of what the photobook can be. Things have to evolve; all art evolves. I had to find some way to make them mine – to imbue them with unique authorship.

I started making my ‘book installations’ in 2013. They were very limited, primitive and unrefined. Since then I’ve been trying to use a more sculptural form. I come from a construction background, and I physicalise the work at a very early stage. Even after the first shoot I might make an initial dummy to bring the images off the screen. My book installations are, in effect, maquettes. As I complete each one, I view them in the same way I would dummies. These dummies – that from traditional interpretation would be deemed the ‘back end’ of a photo project – are the heart and soul of it.

The Abysm is a book of pictures of my father connected to his cancer diagnosis. It depicts a complete mental collapse and breakdown. Those are honourable and truthful depictions. I felt that the single-form photobook couldn’t adequately represent that. I needed to add other dimensions. The idea with the project is to show the images in a complete snowscape – to show the book installation in a cold, algid environment. That is how the experience felt and how it was. I hope that feeding that exterior environment into the narrative of the book will add an element of connection for the viewer. I’m trying to bring the imagery off the page while still keeping the page.

Caligo started as a vertical installation – playing with the dummies and thinking, ‘How could this work?’ It first came from a cardboard form, then there was the idea of a concertina book. I thought, ‘What if the concertina book somehow came off a wall?’ I tested it in Paris – the first proper maquette – and when I submitted it to the Aesthetica Art Prize, they asked whether it could be made horizontal. I didn’t know how to take being asked to change the artwork to fit the space, but I thought it was a good challenge so I made the horizontal version. Another form of Caligo is the fourmetre installation, which challenges the very definition of what a photobook can be.

“I couldn’t – and still can’t – afford to make a traditional commercial photobook. I started to question why there is this limited definition of what the photobook can be.”

For Interstates of Becoming, I spent four years working in the Indian Himalayas. I travelled along NH5, a road along the border with Tibet, which is one of the most dangerous roads in India. It was terrifying. It was originally a trunk road built by the British to syphon trade away from Kashmir. Today it’s a very important route for the hydroelectric industry and for the Indian military, because it services the border region with China. The mountain is continually eroding, with landslides every other day. There is also the creation of man-made concrete structures to try to counter this. It’s a continuing cycle of construction and destruction. I am currently creating a photobook installation that depicts the direct and indirect effects humans and mountains have on each other. When the series was shown as NH5, I included a wall that was leaning against the viewer like a landslide – a billboard you would walk under. I wanted to bring across all the elements I experienced on this road to the installation.

As global temperatures rise, glaciers melt and water flows increase. Excess water creates more precipitation that, in turn, falls heavily within the Himalayas. Concrete, metal and tarmac act as the facade of human preservation. The peril is amplified by the ‘developed world’’s ignorance to the effects of imperial and capitalist industrialisation, but human endeavour doesn’t stop. It’s an ongoing contest for survival that binds humans with the mountains. I like to think there’s a harmony within this tussle for dominance; that’s what I’m trying to depict in these photographs.

It’s liberating to remove the ‘documentary photography’ title. I always felt that was too limiting. The fallacy of truth that is connected to it restricted me. Being so immersed in documentary photography as my starting form, I later considered whether I could use different materials to show the truth I’m trying to convey. To show the strength of what I’m trying to convey. The narrative is honest.

Ravi Ghosh

Ravi Ghosh is the deputy editor at British Journal of Photography. Previously, he was an editor at Elephant magazine and worked on the Life & Arts supplement at the Financial Times. He writes on arts and culture for The Guardian, Prospect, Tribune, i-D, Bandcamp, RA Magazine and more. He has also written photobook introductions for Tony Mak and Portrait of Humanity.