In late 2019, Cristopher Young opened his latest photographic series Eight in Perth, Western Australia. We caught up with Christopher at his home and studio in Margaret River, where he and his wife Elisa Markes-Young, a textile artist, live and work.
Born in New Zealand, studied and worked in Germany to later relocate to Western Australia. Christopher Young finds now in the South West the perfect place to continue his photographic work and embrace the local artistic community. Eight explores through images and interviews, one of the most delicate and intimate experiences in life, death.
In the book The Shift, which accompanies Eight, you are very clear explaining your reference in life and work to isolation, and seclusion: ideological and geographical.
Ideologically speaking, Australia is so far away from what we considered a good political culture. In 2002 you had all the hangovers from the “boat people” scenarios and it was very difficult to deal with. You move to a place and then you discover that maybe it is not so pleasant as you thought it was. The romance of moving to an exotic new culture felt pressed down by the political situation.
Literally, we are so far away from everything: 22 hours trip to get to New Zealand, and the same for Elisa to get to Germany. To travel is so expensive as we work for ourselves, so when we travel we are not earning any income, no annual leave. We see Elisa’s parents every few years, and mine even less.
You also mention in your writings that the base for your artistic practice are the context and coding in images, and the lack of personal cultural library.
How people read images is really important. This whole idea behind Eight, the subject that I am photographing now, it is more about the context of the images, how they sit with other images, and the ideas that I’m presenting. The lack of caption is very much about this, the capital H for Hospital, rather than a particular hospital.
Growing up being a white New Zealander, I never had much connection with heritage. Only recently I found out that I came from a particular part of Scotland. And I always felt a bit disconnected to the sense of nationalism, this whole idea that we are “the best” is so foreign to me.
So you can’t go back and say: ” – This is me!”
I really tried to connect when I did Small Town. I really pushed it to see if I would connect, and that was more a visceral response. The photographs became a document of the town itself, when you see the community coming together with the band players and the lawn bowlers, you see that sense of intimacy. This sense of intimacy has been missing for me.
Did you find that connection when you made that series of Small Town?
I found a familiarity. Reminded me of what I thought was quite an intimate thing.
Reading about the American Photographer Walker Evans and his documentary style with the Depression Era series, and his writings…
I am a huge fan of Walker Evans!
… and then looking at your work, when you go through these people’s houses and the intimacy of their lives in Six and Eight series, made things a lot clearer. On how people will read your images, if you know the context you don’t need the caption on which one.
I think the lack of context also opens a connective tissue to a person’s personal experience. The example fo the Hospital with capital H means that people can relate to their own hospital experience, and not to a particular hospital or person. So it becomes this documentary style without being editorial in nature. Open access gives people that space to feel less estranged with the ideas presented, taking a personal approach rather than an intellectual approach.
Are you very conscious of your audience?
I need to be able to connect with people. With Eight, where I talk about my father’s death, I got that connection when I interviewed someone else who told me about their own experience with death. There we had a shared experience, and that was very comforting. It has been an interesting dynamic, where people told me their stories, some very confronting, but very familiar and that for me was quite rewarding.
Was this the first time you incorporated oral history to your work?
No, I have been doing it for years. In 2011 at the Fremantle Prison, I discovered this massive archive of oral history, with lots of interviews that have been recorded, and I just fell in love with it.
In 2013, I did a residency in Subiaco, and I started to integrate my own interviews with people. This was for Six, where I photographed in older people’s houses, and I started to ask people about those photographs. That was fascinating.
Aesthetically Six and Eight series are very similar, specially the images composition and their subjects.
Six fits really well into Eight, as the houses that I was photographing belonged to elderly people. In some of the cases they were in their 90’s and death was pretty much in the room. It was a very intimate project so an awareness of their mortality and the shrine-like nature of that work comes into play thinking through ideas for Eight.
The flowers are a common thread. In Eight, we contrasted these two different images: one with a dark background and petals falling, and the other where these detailed dried flowers in a white clean background.
I’m a big fan of flowers. They are pretty much through out the healthcare system. People give flowers when someone is ill, when someone dies, put them on their graves. It is a symbol of death, they are temporary as they’ll go to decay. In the show of Eight in Perth, the petals dropping was the symbol of the actual death, I didn’t know how to express that someone was dying, so showing something in decay was the closest.
Coming back to Six and Eight series, there is a bed as a common subject and feature. Walker Evans has also an iconic bed.
Yes, and there is a very interesting story behind that bed. There is a huge argument that Walker Evans turned the bed to get the photo he wanted. The idea of the scene being manipulated is very interesting as Walker Evans is all about veracity and not changing anything. I don’t change anything.
Do you repeat your subjects?
I’m quite open to the fact that I’ll connect series together when they make sense. I could do a new image that sits in the same conceptual framework as something I did many years ago, and don’t see previous series as “closed off”. I add to them as I move through the world. Equally, some images that I made a few years ago might obtain more significance or weight through fresh context.
Connection that is lost between these two series, in Small Town?
Small Town connects with the Polish Series. These two series are about myself and Elisa. Has been 27 and 30 years since we had left New Zealand and Poland, and it is about identifying what our memories are of those places versus the experiences of those same places.
When we think of your creation of a photographic series as a search for meaning, it seems that you’re replacing ritual of religion with photographs.
Yes, and it is a way to decoding an experience, as I try to break everything down into a certain degree. I always talk about art being a therapeutic scenario. I have a sense of endorphins being release when I work.
Do you shoot in camera?
Yes, everything is pretty much out of the camera. I also work with slide film, so it is a very unforgiven process. I shoot with a huge camera, so everything is very static and I shoot very slow. Two or three hours of work gives up 30 to 40 images, and out of these I might get 20 photos. I don’t shoot with polaroids, so I have no idea until the film is developed.
Do you use light meters and light?
Light meters yes, but no lightning. Everything is natural light. Although there are a couple of images in Eight that I had to use flash, that was the first flash light I used, because it was completely dark with no windows. Sometimes I use really long exposures, but they are sometimes difficult and problematic.
What is it that makes you want to take a picture? In your series, for example, do you have a particular subject or an idea in your mind or it is more intuitive?
It is mainly intuitive. I try not to plan too much, and just respond to what is happening. With a few scenarios like funeral homes and the hospitals, I have to plan because quite often I have a very short time available when I can shoot.
Do you use social media at all?
I have phases and a mixed relationship with social media. I have ups and downs with my creative process. Especially after a show, I’ll feel very down.
All that energy and effort that you put into the project.
Yes, and I don’t like the idea of self-promotion. I see social media as a tool to promote the exhibition, I can’t avoid that. It is so expensive to promote your shows otherwise with printing and postage. But if I’m not feeling particularly great after I finish an exhibition, although the show went well, if it didn’t meet my expectations, and I see the success of others, it will just reinforce those negative feelings and it will turn into a loop.
How do you see the impact of social media in the fine art world?
It is hard to gauge. There is room for everyone but then just how do you get above the noise, or do you really want to get above the noise? I’ve had this argument over the years with funding bodies about audience. The audience you get from social media is vapid and has no substance. They’re not necessarily always a genuine audience.
“Risk taking capability is critically important.“
You have an extended career. Is Eight a breakthrough in your mid career?
I think Eight has been acknowledged for the first time in a long time. The Fremantle Prison work I did back in 2012 was also acknowledged with a huge audience and got a State Heritage Award. Eight has been in many ways very rewarding. Not only emotionally, more than anything else, but financially rewarding as well. I’ve had particular financial opportunities that meant that I was able to produce my work with confidence, and being able to take risks. Risk taking capability is critically important.
Do you feel that you have to justify your work ?
I will make the work regardless, and historically I have made work regardless of the outcomes and opportunities. Sometimes the work is quite overt, like Eight its overt, and other times I feel the need to give the context for people to connect.
Even when you are writing a grant application to support your practice you have to justify all the time. In arts, especially when you’re talking about funding, is so much about risk management. How do you declare the risks that are in your project, how are you going to manage and overcome those risks, rather than what the art should be about: risk taking and facilitating to take those risks.
When did you move to Margaret River?
Took us seven years to get here. We’ve been down here for nearly three years.
You seem quite active in the arts community in the South West. Is this something that you’ve been wanting to do?
I’m 45 years old now and feeling ready, not so much to be a mentor, but to help other people. I missed that help when I moved to Perth. So giving people a little space to get out of their shells, specially if you are isolated. I’m an introvert, and introverts attract other introverts.
We’ve been setting up an “Artists Anonymous” for a couple of editions. It is a way of artists coming together and presenting an idea, and testing that same idea. I’ve been also involved with Spark which came out of the idea of the Fringe Festival.
Do you think it is an exciting time to be here in Margaret River?
It is a great time, and I’m genuinely excited about Margaret River. When we first came down here, our first experience was as part of Margaret River Region Open Studios (MRROS) where we met forty-nine artists in two weeks. The whole idea of connecting a creative community is really exciting. There are a lot of people that are very well accomplished hidden in this community. They are also international artists in their own right who moved here recently, and are living a passive rural life. There is great energy here that can be leveraged to do things.
Looking now into the future. Your Art Mentoring Project with artist residencies at your place, when will it start?
Now in February. We will have a mature artist coming from over East, and we will try to integrate her into our creative experience.
There is a considerable number of Margaret River artists participating in the South West Times 2020 in the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery. You are one of them.
Yes, I am. There are at least ten out of sixty eight artists there are from here. It is a great show and has a bit more connective tissue.
Can you reveal what kind of work will you be presenting?
It will be more installation work which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but I haven’t had the resources or the venue.
You have done some more experimental work before with Six and Small Town, where you had a bike and a pile of newspapers, old style biscuits.
Yes, I call it the synthetic museum: some are real and some are a sort of replica of the object I want to present. I quite like the process. In that particular series, I worked a lot with food which I would like to get into again sometime.
For my November show at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery, I will be setting up a medical surgery’s waiting room, with magazines and posters on the wall that I’ve been reproducing. These have been printed out of focus and a blurred. A muffled news broadcast will also be on display on a TV. The waiting room will have hand sanitisers and flowers to put the audience into a certain state of mind or a particular space.
Is Eight touring this year?
Yes, it will go to Albany in June, and later will be in Bunbury at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery in November. We might have an opportunity to show it here in town at Heart Margaret River in August. We’re still working on it.
Do you still have any art connection with Europe?
No, I haven’t shown there since 2001. I would like to connect artistically more with the Asian world. I have a great affinity with Japanese aesthetics. I have tried before but it is hard to break through.
Thank you Chris.