Interview by Aaron Schuman
[Published in 1000 Words Photography Magazine issue #09, October 2010]
Aaron Schuman: Why did you initially choose to pursue photography?
Andrew Bruce: Taking photographs just feels natural to me; it suits my character. I love learning and seeing new things, and the camera can be a great tool to scrutinize and learn. Also, it can sometimes be a kind of protective barrier. For me these two opposing elements are crucial.
Aaron Schuman: Who were some of your earliest photographic influences?
Andrew Bruce: The person who really stands out as my first big influence is Trent Parke. I vividly remember a flash of excitement when I watched a video interview with Parke on the Magnum website, in which he discusses his series, Minutes to Midnight. I still think that’s an incredible body of work – one of the best made in recent years.
Aaron Schuman: Roadkill is usually something that people avert their eyes from. What inspired you to look more closely at it, and what did it represent to you both literally and metaphorically?
Andrew Bruce: For me, there’s a very important quote by J.L.Borges, from The Immortal (1949): “To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is mortal.” As a species, humanity seems to be incapable of living harmoniously with nature. We seem to have convinced ourselves that we are not a part of nature; that we are ‘above’ it. (Apparently, we have ‘souls’ while other animals do not, and we can imagine and invent, while they cannot.) We suppress anything remotely natural when it dares to interfere with our lives – animals are commodified and domesticated, or caged, or used for their meat or milk. We divide the landscape, and exclude nature from our day-to-day existence. We barely notice the ‘thud’ when we literally come into contact with animals. My work takes that ‘thud’ as it’s starting point.
I started to see roadkill as a potent symbol of humanity’s clash with nature, both literally and figuratively. Of course people are going to avert their eyes from roadkill; it’s horrendous. Seeing a dead body, be that of a man or a beast, is understandably a traumatic experience. One minute we are a person, with relationships and a personality, and the next minute we could just be an object; our bodies are so delicate. So when it comes to that point of contact – metal against flesh and bone – whether you’re man or beast, you’re powerless. It doesn’t take much to turn a body into something unrecognisable, something repulsive even. I find this the most horrendous thought; it pierces through me, and it’s my worst nightmare.
In pushing through this fear, I have at times felt truly privileged to have seen and touched such animals – to have looked really closely at the claws of a bird, or the shades of fur on a foxes back, or to have felt the weight of a badger. These are some of the most incredible, beautiful animals, and I am saddened when I find them left to rot on the roadside. Going back to an earlier point, the animals that I find are those that just don’t fit into humans’ modern way of life – they are animals that we feel we have no use for, and there is little respect given to them or their habitats. Looking at my photographs, I hope that people can begin to appreciate the beauty of these animals.
Aaron Schuman: Nature Morte explores the dead animals in situ, whereas the following bodies of work - Vanitas and Tender – are more constructed, staged and performative. Why did your approach to this subject matter evolve in this manner?
Andrew Bruce: A lot had changed for me between the time when finished Nature Morte and when I began Vanitas and Tender. I came back to the subject after a significant break, and in this time I made several other bodies of work – The Photographers Room and The Meditations – and I started to assist the photographer, Anna Linderstam. Also, I began to use a 10x8” view camera, which is much larger and slower than the cameras I had used before, and this certainly effected the way that I worked.
But I think that the major difference between the earlier series and the more recent works was how I conceived the images. With Vanitas and Tender, I found the images more intuitively – the ideas came to me like dreams, and therefore the images began to look more dreamlike. Also, I became less interested in referencing reality, and more interested in making work that was poetic in its nature, and therefore more universal in it’s message. And finally, I was more confident in just the sheer visual potency of the dead animal. Nature Morte deals with the real world and the harsh truths of reality, whereas Vanitas and Tender are meant to feel mythical and ethereal.
Aaron Schuman: In your work there are quite a few references to traditions within painting, both in their titles and in the aesthetic approach. What does photography bring to such themes, and why apply this medium to such subject matter?
Andrew Bruce: Firstly, the photographic medium is really intrinsic to the images. On the one hand they are very dreamlike, but on the other they are documentations of things that really happened. Also, I felt that the work had to be similar in scale and mood to painting, but without compromising the details. It felt important to me that the viewer could see every individual hair or feather on the animal, and I felt that such detail combined with this aesthetic would be fittingly dignified for the subject. The particular use of chiaroscuro came very naturally to me, so it’s not something I question. The light has a character of it’s own; it is light that feels unashamedly beautiful and dreamlike. That aesthetic is just what my dreams (and nightmares) are made of, and I just wanted to revel in all that is wonderful about loosing yourself in a world of dreams.
Aaron Schuman: Would you consider the series Tender to be self-portraiture, or is the figure meant to be more anonymous or ambiguous than that?
Andrew Bruce: The figure is meant to be ambiguous, and the cropping of my face from the images was a very important decision; I wanted the figure in the frame to signify ‘Man’. But I also wanted to play off the fact that I have a relatively delicate frame. If I was heavily built then the photographs would have a completely different feel, and a large part of the ‘delicacy’ and ‘tenderness’ in the images would be lost. The tension in my arms is also important – the animals weigh me down literally and figuratively – and the visible strain of my muscles could be seen as both loving and protective. My longish hair and slightly unshaven face, as well as my bared teeth coupled with the sight of the vixen’s and my own nipples, adds a carnal, raw, uncultured element. Using myself as the subject – as the vessel – enables me to maintain full authorship and control over every aspect of the work.
Aaron Schuman: So do you consider this work to be a performance that has been photographically documented, or is the content specifically intended for the photographic image?
Andrew Bruce: If I look at the work in terms of my artistic practice as a whole, then it is in fact very important that I am the figure in the frame. Each photograph is almost a ritualistic act on my part. Vanitas had a very performative element as well, although it’s not as self-evident. I found the making of both Tender and Vanitas exhausting. When I was preparing to shoot Vanitas, I dreaded the moment when I would have to photograph the animals, and slowly worked myself into a panic. A photograph is said to be a tiny piece of time that brutally and forever escapes its ordinary fate; some may even go as far to say that a photograph immortalises a moment. I began to think that maybe my motivation for taking on such a project was to gain some control over time passing, over life and death. However, when I finally stood in front of the dead animals, the moment that I clicked the shutter I felt that I had not immortalised the moment. Instead, within that moment, death was more present than ever. So I now look at Vanitas as an embodiment of one’s fear of mortality, which we all face.
Tender is intended as the second chapter of Vanitas. It’s not so much about a fear of death, but about trying to embrace the inevitability of death. By embracing the animal, I had to face up to death, and it was traumatising. The narrative is meant to read as follows: There was a boy; he found a fox vixen killed on the road; he held it close; he held it to his heart and felt its fur against his skin; he felt its broken bones crunch within it; he then took it to peaceful woodland that he had visited all his life; he found a secluded spot and buried the fox. It’s a prolonged act of respect, and more importantly, it’s an act of compassion.
Also, within the title – Tender – there’s a duality. On the one hand it’s about a loving act, on the other hand it’s about something being sore to touch. In Vanitas I wanted to capture the animal in a kind of void – to literally suspend the animal in order to heighten the feeling of a suspended moment, and also to elevate the animal as an act of reverence.
DETAIL - tender (3), 29x40" C-type Handprint, 2010