Tom Pope on Photography

Participation, research, play, performance, and ferns. We discuss the artist's photography practice

Please can you tell us about your 2022 work 'Terminating Martin Parr'?

Terminating Martin Parr is a series of photographs created during a live performance where I destroyed 17 photographic prints made by Martin Parr. The 7-hour 47-minute performance took place on 19th May 2022 at ArtHouse Jersey in front of an audience and streamed live.

In 2013 the Archisle Contemporary Photography Program hosted by the Société Jersiaise commissioned Martin Parr to create a new series on Jersey. With the Société Jersiaise purchasing 10 of the 27 images Parr exhibited, the remaining 17 needed to be destroyed. It was deemed uneconomical to ship and store the works. The prints that were mounted on aluminium needed to be destroyed with photographic documentation sent to Parr as proof of their destruction.

While I was on a residency on Jersey, I found out about the need to destroy Parr’s prints and while briefly meeting him at a photo festival I asked if I could destroy them as a performance. Parr agreed.

On the top level, the Parr works needed to be destroyed, me destroying them was a service to Parr and Société Jersiaise. On the next level is the notion of destruction as performance. As a live happening it could be compared to a game or sport. Then to peel another layer off the onion we get to the fact that Parr required documentation of the destroyed prints, to prove they had been destroyed. In the instance of this performance, the creative records of the performance I made will be the destroyed prints. The images of these prints I make have dual functions, they are my creative records of the performance and evidence proving to Parr his works no longer exist.

There is a strong and complex history of destruction in art. From the DaDaists, to Gustav Metzger to Niki de Saint Phalle to John Latham and Yves Klein to name a few. The notion of transformation through destruction is not new, but this does work to add to the conversation. The project comments on how quickly the value of an object can change. If Société Jersiaise were to purchase Parr prints, the prints would be valued at the price which they were purchased for. It's imperative that if the works are not purchased and not possessed by Parr (in his studio) they must be destroyed. This inhibits works by Parr entering the secondary market and subsequently devaluing his work, while also ensuring works are not being sold on illegally in a situation where Parr would not be receiving the money for such a sell. It’s not the print object that maintains the value here, value is assigned to the edition number of the print. The destruction of photographs is commonplace in the art world.

You often have a physical record of a performance; works with their own lives away from the performance. How do you think through these records/performances in terms of time and impermanence?

My introduction to photography was through performance. I spent many years researching and making work about how the two mediums are connected. I’m primarily interested in photography’s inability to document the entire duration of a performance in relation to artists/art world reliance on photography to disseminate and promote performance works. I identified very early on that when reading books on performance art or visiting exhibitions of historical performance, photography is used with seldom mention that the photographs are not the work. A photograph of a performance is not the performance, it’s a work in its own right. It’s a photographic work that used the performance as source material.

My photographic practice embraces the performative act in order to highlight the discourse between a potentially time-based photography and a privileged notion of event. The utilizing of performative strategies within my photography sees the photographic record of an event and the event itself form a creative dialogue. Subsequently the resulting performative photograph encourages the viewer to invent meaning resulting in a blurring of fact and fiction. Instead of an objective document, we create a vague and uncertain document. One that is best approached from a subjective perspective.

Last time we spoke, you were working with cyanotypes, what did you learn about this process?

I’m always learning when it comes to cyanotypes. I have been working with the process for over 15 years now and it still manages to surprise me. Through the nature of my practice, I often breakdown photographic processes and subvert and disrupt them. I’m interested in exploring the performative nature of the process; from transforming the act of sensitising paper stock with photographic chemicals into a game to washing prints by attaching them to a bike and riding through puddles.

I’ve learnt that although analogue photography is about chemical formulas, it is very flexible. Processes can be stretched and altered. On a personal level, I enjoy the accessibility and workflow when printing with historic photographic processes. It can be temperamental, but I have developed a relationship with the process and have learnt to embrace its unpredictability.

Is collaborating with the general public important to you?

I wouldn’t state that the public collaborate within my works, but rather participate in their creation or/and experiencing them.

Many of the works I create have a participatory aspect to them. I’m interested in creating artworks through playing where the participant has a direct effect on how the photograph is created. It’s like folding the act of creating the photo into a playful action, where we are unable to separate creating the photograph with the act of playing. In addition, I embed chance into the photographic performances, this opens a space for the unknown between the players and the resulting work.

Play, as performance, is at the core of my practice; it is both subject matter for my works but also embedded in how I utilise the photographic medium. The main subject matter of my practice is focused on play, in the widest possible understanding of it. My interest in play stems from the lived experience of my working-class roots, from attending a working men’s club where team sports such as snooker, skittles, and darts were played. The club was a community with warmth and passion, it’s this sense of bringing people together through play that I try to harness when making works.

Please can you tell me about your research into ferns?

My research into ferns stems from a desire to understand the historical context of cyanotype, the medium I work with. This research is a collaborative endeavour with artist Matthew Benington. Our work takes the form of a research led project called Almost Nothing but Blue Ground.

I met Matthew in 2009 while we were studying for our Masters. In 2018 Matthew and I reconnected and began discussing collaborating on a project that would champion Anna Atkins, the first person to publish a book of photographic images, Cyanotypes of British Algae 1843, and the most prolific creator of cyanotype prints. The research would inform a walk from the house Atkins lived to the house Sir John Herschel lived (the inventor of the cyanotype process) and then onto the coast where Atkins would have collected specimens for her prints.

The performative walk was postponed due to lockdown, which gave us time to dive deeper into Atkins' work and life. We moved from looking at her first publication and started to focus on her second publication Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, 1853. This was made in collaboration with Anne Dixon. In the book we were researching, a large portion of the foreign fern specimens were from Jamaica, this initiated further research that led to the discovery that Atkins' husband and father-in-law both owned at least 8 plantations in Jamaica. Our findings show Atkins, both directly and indirectly, benefited from the slave trade and colonial project. The discovery led the project to focus on areas of, decolonising the garden, the Victorian fern craze, land ownership, capitalism, the colonial project, in particular, its links with botany, plantation’s, plundering of foreign lands and plant hunters.

This discovery informed the project and pivoted the main focus points leading to a different route walked. On August 21st, 2021 we undertook a weeklong walk starting at the house where Atkins lived (paid for by colonial project money), then walking to the house where Sir John Herschel lived and then onto Ferring where Anne Dixon lived. The work we produced on the walk highlights the new research discovery we made, including Atkins’ links with the colonial project while still acknowledging the achievement of Atkins being the first person to publish a book of photographs. On the walk, we dragged a trolley that carried our photographic equipment and acted as a darkroom on wheels, it also acted as a table where we could eat and socialise with people we met along the way and discuss the impetus of the project.

The results of the walk and research have been compiled to form a performative lecture and exhibition. Both exhibition and lecture are a combination of storytelling, archival material, research and cyanotype prints. Roger Griffith MBE and Caroline Douglas have both made written contributions to the project. They are incorporated as audio readings in the performative lecture.

Almost Nothing but Blue Ground opens 15 February 2023 at East Gallery Norwich with a performance on Saturday 18 February