by Dieter Debruyne


© Allan Grainger, Selfridges

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

Allan Grainger (AG): It started when I came across a couple of photographic books in my village library. They had a profound impact on me, they gave me an insight into worlds unknown, they fed my imagination in a more direct way than a novel or essay did at that time. I started photographing everything that presented itself before me that I thought would make an interesting picture. Perhaps this is how everyone starts finding some engagement with photography. Of those early results I don’t have any clear memory; I think the subjects I was attracted to all those years ago are still the subjects that interest me today. I think an artist never really departs far from those early defining moments.

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

AG: I have always been interested in photographing in the urban environment, the street, trying to find some meaning within the numerous narratives that are constantly emerging and dissolving before my gaze.  When I consider my early pictures there is within them a strong sense of compositional order that was directly influenced from history and mythological paintings, such as the Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, and Music in the Tuileries by Édouard Manet. As a consequence, I was trying to find in the street the multi-narratives that were being expressed in these types of paintings; I wanted to also produce narratives that had meaning, that weren’t esoteric, that might reach a wide spectatorship, that were not elitist but democratic in their understanding, yet had sufficient mystery to allow an imaginative engagement with the picture.  I was looking for ways in which to add numerous narratives to a single picture. However, I was finding the success rate limited with an analogue process. It was only with the arrival of Photoshop that I was able to apply a creative approach that echoed some of the ideas I was interested in, and that I first discovered in history painting.

© Allan Grainger, Southbank

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social?

AG: The stock reply would be, there are lots of pictures, as a consequence of the digital process being easy and capable of proliferating images to an unimaginable, and perhaps an unsustainable volume. However, artists such as Joachim Schmid have appropriated some of this huge social networking resource to make visual commentaries on modernity; photographic artists will always use the technology of the time, in a sense its part of the message. I’m inclined to agree with the historian Eric Hobsbawn’s notion, expressed in his book ‘Fractured Times’, that ‘the medium was revolutionized for the sake of the message’; and I would add, as no doubt Hobsbawn might, revolutionized primarily for the sake of the market. Art and photography have always been in an unholy alliance with capital from which it seemingly can’t escape.

The era of digital and social networking and the role of photography within this period has I think, to some extent, empowered people by creating a new form of communication; as long as the older forms are not subsumed, then I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Many of the images uploaded are just visual notes showing who we are, where we are, and what we are doing, now - all qualified by a like and a comment. What seems to be missing with this form of photographic communication is a degree of contemplation necessary when looking at a Jacques-Louis David or a Édouard Manet painting or a Jeff Wall photograph. However, the Facebook image serves a function and has meaning for someone, somewhere.

© Allan Grainger, Tivoli Corner

About your work now. How would you describe your personal research in general?

AG: I try to keep an open mind to all aspects of the medium, even those aspects that I don’t particularly like. I inform my practice through other media; literature is important inasmuch as it feeds back into my practice. When I start a project I send time researching information that connects with the concept of the project. With all my work the aim is to try to add something to the archive of a particular genre of the medium.

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

AG: Throughout my photographic life I have used 8x10, 4x5, medium format and 35mm cameras. The project ‘London Tableaux’ was produced on a Nikon D3 using a tripod. Analogue, digital, large or small is only important in terms of what you are trying to achieve with the finished work; they are merely tools. Also, the notion that a larger camera will somehow produce a more contemplative response to the subject being photographed is a myth. Every individual reacts differently to a subject, it has very little to do with the size of the camera.

© Allan Grainger, Parliment Sq.

Tell us about your latest project ‘London Tableaux’

AG: ‘London Tableaux’ is an ongoing project that considers events that take place within significant cultural areas of the city. By presenting a transitory community within these tableaux, which momentarily exist in various cultural and social boundaries of the city, I aim to create a visual commentary on London today that considers ideas of place.

By the introduction of temporal shifts, the tableau focuses on narrative layers, which are realised over several hours; the pictures therefore disrupt the paradigm of documentation and add a different interpretation of place.
In a sense these pictures exist somewhere between the single still image and the moving picture. They show corporeal rhythms, metaphor, and allegory, depicting a city open to subjective interpretations, yet restricted by its historic archive.

The tableau form in this work uses current technologies that enable my pictures to become a kind of ‘electronic montage reenactment of a public performance’, which is never far away from a documentary form of depiction. Yet, the objective translation of that depicted is subsumed by the author’s hand, by a subjective interpretation, by an emotional response.

A place is formed by discourses that exist within and outside of its specific geographical space; a space, it might be said, when it is delineated by myths, marks of time, physical interventions and so on, becomes a place. It is these precepts, which form the collective idea of place that interest me.

© Allan Grainger, Whitehall

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and
emerging, who influenced you in some way?

AG: My influences come from many sources, not just art and photography. If I have to pick only one, it would be Jeff Wall.

Three books of photography that you recommend?

1. ‘Camera Lucida’ by Roland Barthes
2. ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ by Michael Fried
3. ‘Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews’ by The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

AG: Not any in their entirety - there are always some parts of a show that trigger inspiration. I always enjoy going to festivals just for the fact that you are exposed to so much variety.

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

AG: I have two projects I am working on at the moment; London Tableaux, In This Place and I have also just started a landscape project; this will be my first departure away from the urban environment, however, my concerns will no doubt be present within the rural setting.

© Allan Grainger, Southwark Cathedral

How do you see the future of photography in general evolve?

AG: Since 2013, there has been a resurgence of interest in alternative photography processes in the UK and Europe. My current feeling is that it cannot be sustained; this in part is due to the cost of materials that will become forevermore out of the reach of the majority, who use photography in a way other than making a ‘keep-sake’ record. I also think, that the current interest in the haptic aspect of the medium is probably a response to this passing of this old technology. There is a kind of alchemy associated with the analogue process - the search for the unique object/print, - lead into gold. No two prints are the same; in a sense they are products by error, or at less an inability to control the process, which is always in flux. This may be also the attraction of analogue - a process free, to some extent, from a controlling agency. By contrast the digital process is sometimes viewed as an overly controlled process, with no creative capabilities; as a consequence there are some antagonistic feelings towards it.
Photography is at a pivotal moment in its history; it is difficult to predict its future.


Allan Grainger  
United Kingdom