Phoebe Kiely, recent Photoworks Presents: Cornered artist talks to us as part of our Ideas on Talent series. Sharing her working process behind her first publication ‘They were my landscape’ published by MACK.
PW: Firstly, congratulations on the book, it’s a beautiful rendition of your work and is also beautifully printed. For anyone who may not be familiar with your work, can you explain what interests you and drives your practice?
PK: Human experiences, interaction with the world which surrounds me. The work compiles everything I find compelling and which astounds. Whether it be the mundane or the personally significant. Within the work I hope to immortalise certain memories, to hold people close.
PW: Do you have a process for shooting? How do you come across some of the images we see in the book, for instance the man at the bus stop. What draws you to these spaces?
PK: During 2015, my partner lived close to Salford Shopping City. The photograph you’re talking about is just one of the significant moments I’ve had there, one which I felt I could photograph. There are others which were too invasive to turn my camera to.
I was meeting my partner after work, it was possibly around 11pm. I had brought my camera for the walk, and I was early. On the way up to the bus stop I saw someone on the floor, this wasn’t unusual. He was on the floor underneath the light of a cash machine, he had vomited and seemed to be unconscious. He was attracting attention from passers by but I kept walking as I couldn’t have taken any images without people wondering why.
Walking back with my partner, we walked back the same way I had come from. The man was still around, regaining consciousness and therefore attracting less attention. However, unsteady on his feet it was clear something wasn’t right.
We called for an ambulance. It was so cold. After explaining on the phone what had happened, we sat and waited for the ambulance while keeping an eye on him. We must have waited more than an hour for the ambulance to arrive. In that time we tried to converse with him, he didn’t appear to know any English at the time.
During the course of the hour we watched him try to lie down on a bus shelter bench but unable to stay balanced, he fell off and stayed on the floor for a number of moments. I have two images of him underneath a Christmas advert showing a child pinning a bauble on a tree, almost perfectly mirroring his arm reaching for the ground as he falls. I didn’t feel like I was exploiting him, I wanted to remember and record.
When the ambulance came we were sat on a bench together I think, I remember feeling close, I could see a glimmer of vomit still on his lip. He turned to me, looked at me and said ‘friends’. We left him with the ambulance, they knew we didn’t know him personally and I got the impression they didn’t want or need us there but leaving him somehow felt really wrong.
These interactions, when the world somehow rushes into focus and I’m able to find composure enough to photograph the environment and situation without being coloured by what is actually happening is the most beautiful thing. Maybe there is a psychology behind this, why I’m so drawn to vulnerable individuals. There is something poetic about them.
There is a single image of this man in the book, I don’t find it necessary to show every image I took of him. Some of the connotations are far too loud. But this is just one image from the book, not every image holds this kind of story.
PW: You clearly have a sensitivity to shooting in black and white, your tonal ranges are delicate and quiet, rendering busy environments into quiet, reflective spaces. How important is it for you to work in this way? Do you actively look for this ‘quiet space’ or does it form in the process?
PK: There is something intrinsic that happens when I feel the need to photograph. That urge surpasses hunger and tiredness to make these images. The world aligns in a moment and the photograph is made. I believe that by using medium format my process has become much slower. I used to work with 35mm and the images felt very different, possibly louder. If these moments come across as quiet spaces, it definitely isn’t my intention.
PW: They were my landscape was published by MACK through a nomination for MACK First Photo Book. Can you talk a little about how that came about and your experience of publishing your first book?
PK: On the 21st December 2016, Julian Germain, who I had met through university the previous year, emailed me and said he could nominate me for the award if I could get a book made before the deadline, which was 17th February 2017. I had never made a book before, I’d never even considered it. I managed to get an edit together, finishing the publication as the clock struck midnight on the last day of the year.
I received two emails in a day from MACK. The first telling me that Michael Mack would like to meet me and the second telling me I had failed in being shortlisted. I’m grateful the emails arrived in that order. One of the reasons I’d never made a book previously was that editing was something incomprehensible to me. New images always surfacing made it very difficult to stick to one single edit.
Having this past year to make as much as possible, knowing that it will be considered for my first book with MACK is something people dream about. Surrounded by the talented MACK team I felt like I was in the most capable hands. It was decided very early on to be a book of prints. Each print was scanned, rather than working from negatives. I’ve always found it very difficult translating the work digitally, when the darkroom prints hold so much more than digital prints ever could. The final edit for the book came to fruition in about six hours in MACK studio. After considering every print and filtering the images down. One of my favorite parts of the whole process, bar actually seeing the book for the first time, was being on press.
PW: What advice would you give other emerging photographers hoping to get their work published?
PK: Don’t be bruised by rejection, hold on to your mentors, be tenacious and believe in your own work.
PW:Finally, what’s next for you?
PK: Firstly a move out of Manchester. A new environment, a fresh start and most importantly new work. I have no idea where the work will be processed or printed but all I know is I want to accumulate new photographs.
For more of Phoebe’s work, click here.
For more from our Ideas on Talent series, click here.