Photographer Interview: Eileen Perrier

By Qiana Mestrich at Dodge & Burn. 

Eileen Perrier’s latest work, Peckham Square Studio (2014) features black and white portraits of local people taken by Perrier on London’s Peckham Square on Friday, 11th and Saturday 12th July 2014. On view now through November 16, 2014 at Peckham Platform.

D&B: You are English by way of Ghana and Dominica. How did your parents meet? 
EP: They met in London, so I see myself as a Londoner, since I would not exist if my parents had not met here.

What drew you to photography?
While doing my A-levels at Weald College, in Harrow, Middlesex, I took up Photography through the City and Guilds modules taught at the 6th Form College. I instantly fell in love with the practical side of photography. I was doing AS-levels in Art, Human Biology, A-levels in Chemistry and Physics and for me, The photography program seemed to bring all these elements together in a way I could relate to and understand:

  • Human Biology – Photographing the subject, people and my surroundings.
  • Chemistry – Working with the chemicals in the darkroom to process film and develop the images.
  • Physics – The understanding of how images are produced with the camera.

The ISO, shutter speed and aperture… The magic on light exposing film in the camera and light exposing paper in the darkroom…. Slowly gaining an understanding of how a camera functions technically and also the development of ideas.

Photography seemed to fulfill all I was doing in these subjects, which I was struggling to get my head around, but somehow when I started working practically within the medium of photography these three elements being taught in my other lessons seemed to make total sense to me. I was working really hard, yet it was effortless, and it did not seem a struggle doing what I was doing. When I did become stuck, I was able to find a solution to the problems through physical problem solving and gaining advice from my tutor (Trevor Parslow-Williams) at the time.

Tell us about your photography training in England. Who were the protagonists in the photography history that you were taught?
I did my degree at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design (Farnham). Now called University of the Creative Arts (UCA). 1993-1996

After my degree, I worked in a photographic studio for a year called The Worxs in Kings Cross and thereafter did my MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art (RCA) 1998-2000. This is thanks to Peter Kennard, who had taught me at UCA and had then moved to the RCA to teach in the photographic department.

Before doing my degree program, a key photographic practitioner that really excited me at the time was a photographer called Armet Francis.

I was fortunate to meet him by chance in Camden Town and thereafter he became my mentor just before I entered my degree course. His work was truly amazing to me. Here was a photographer based in London who was Black (of Jamaican heritage) and had done a seminal project which he then published into a book called The Black Triangle: The People of the African Diaspora (London: Seed Publications, 1983.)

I found this book quite moving, since Francis had traveled across continents documenting the Black experience, from the perspective of a Black photographer. His work included portraits and everyday life in the UK, States, Caribbean and Africa. Wow…

While at University I also discovered writers such as Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer and Paul Gilroy. It was really exciting hearing a voice coming from a Black British perspective along with key text and photographic works, which were well documented from artists in the States. In the early 1990s, Ten8 magazine had produced three key journals, which included interesting artists and writers and this led me to discover Autograph ABP, (I was also advised to find out about them through my mentor Armet Francis and tutor Anna Fox).

Other influences at this time were fashion magazines such as ID and The Face. I could relate to the fashions and age group being portrayed on the pages of these magazines. I also remember one front cover, for ID magazine, having a Black woman with a shaved head. I recall thinking how powerful and beautiful she looked and could also relate to this image as a young Black woman.

I also enjoyed looking at Vogue, due to the high-end fashion and the way in which the images were taken technically. Lauren Hutton was one of my favorite models at the time. Maybe it was to due to her having a gap tooth as I would later do a project on this topic. In all of these (fashion) contexts I just loved looking at the photographs, never paying much attention to the text.

When I went to University to do my degree (UCA), we were shown a wide range of artists to look at. We were also encouraged to question and think about the medium of photography, not just on a technical level, but its power of persuasion in the world we live in. Some of the key texts would have been by Susan Sontag, Victor Bergin and John Berger and Roland Barthes. I was fortunate to be taught by Peter Hall, Anna Fox, Peter Kennard, Keith Arnatt, Martin Parr (was a visiting lecturer) and theory was taught by David Bate, along with other great tutors.

For the duration of my degree course, I went on to discover work produced by Black and Asian British based artists, such as Clement Cooper, Joy Gregory, Ingrid Pollard, Faisal Abdu’Allah, Sunil Gupta, Chila Kumari Burman, Dave Lewis and Roshini Kempadoo, all of whom were linked to Autograph ABP. Prior to this, many photography works I discovered came from the States. Such as Gordon Parks, Chester Higgins, Jr. and Andres Serrano.

As a student I gravitated to photography exhibitions in London and the ICA bookshop. One of my earliest memories were the works shown at The Photographers Gallery of Samuel Fosso’s early studio works, and there was also an amazing exhibition at the South Bank Center called Songs of My People. This was a wonderful exhibition, which showed “…a balanced view of the African American experience through the visual arts.” Also around this time, Dawoud Bey had produced work with the 20×24 inch Polaroid camera, which was really astounding, inspiring and influenced how I would develop my practice within portraiture.

The writings of Franz Fanon and bell hooks also became key texts for me to read. All the while I was being shown and appreciating the work of European and American artists such as Sally Man, Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Hannah Starkey and Cindy Sherman to name just a few contemporaries from this time period. These artists were showing different viewpoints, from a personal perspective. Although I have to admit that my interest lay more with artists of the African diaspora since this was so relevant in a period whereby the media continued to portray the Black figure in crisis.

Would you consider your portraits a collaboration between you and your subjects?
From the early stages of producing portraits, I always liked it best when I asked the permission from those I photographed. As my career has developed, this has tended to be more integral to what I do (most of the time).

With such a project like Peckham Square Studio, I do feel like there is an exchange-taking place between the subject and myself. When I speak of collaboration between the subject and me what I mean is that there is a cooperation which takes place for the work to be created. The main reason being that I am present in a public space, I don’t know who will turn up and will agree to be photographed. Those who I take pictures of have chosen to be part of the project. I am not selling them a service.

I explain to my subjects what I am doing and why it is taking place. In this case it is a commission for Peckham Platform, who do outreach projects within the community of Peckham and exhibit the artist’s work within their gallery. I try to explain the contract which they as sitters are entering into. They have the choice to be photographed or not; if they agree to sit, they have their portrait taken. There is no charge for this and in this case, they will receive a 6×4 print. The work is then displayed in the gallery. I also advise them that it could be used to promote my work in the future and they also sign a model release form giving me permission to use the image created for future endeavors.

Over the duration of doing this mobile studio project, which started in 2008 with the Whitechapel Gallery, I do believe that some people are drawn to the idea of having their portrait taken. Over this period it has also become interesting seeing how these various groups (who have agreed to be a sort of) collective in a given moment in time) are now preserved, in my makeshift archive.

I plan in the future to produce a publication from all the series produced with the mobile studio.

Is your use of Victorian portrait photography techniques a “political” act? What’s the connection with this analog method of photography and your interest in “identity, diversity and placement”?

I don’t know if I could describe it as a political act since the origins of my ideas do not come from this place consciously; but rather from looking at images taken from this period.

My early research started with looking at the work of Mathew Brady, an early 19th century portrait photographer. Looking more closely at his images I started to see a device behind the male subject (standing), something that seemed a bit odd. I then started to wonder why this stand base was there and later found out that this was called a retort stand and there was also a headrest to keep the subject still. I then questioned the use of the curtain, the subject either sitting or always propped against a plinth, seat or table. Although these devices were used in paintings, the people seemed rather rigid and clearly had to stay still for a long period of time.

Many images I saw from this period were of Europeans and Americans and it was very rare to find a Black subject who was not being portrayed for the purposes of anthropology. However, over the years photographs of the Black subject are being unearthed and show a different type of image of the Black presence. Take for example the current show with Autograph ABP at Rivington Place called Black Chronicles II.

Early images picturing Black subjects which I found to be of great importance and had been aware of prior to doing this project in 2008, were by James Van De Zee. In recent times I have come across images of famous pioneers such as Harriet Tubman, who in her later years was photographed in a chair with a headrest device disguised with material. I produced a body of work which paid homage to that period during my 2009 Light Work residency in Syracuse. I made portraits using the headrest and also photographed some key locations which had been part of the freedom trail in Syracuse.

Returning to the mobile studio project, I think part of the fascination with the general public is having the experience of something different; of being photographed with a large format camera and the headrest. These apparatus makes the experience not so straightforward somehow. This way of working is not just about documentation but a performance, which takes place in a public space. I believe the sitter will remember such an experience, since anyone of us can be photographed with a digital camera in a high-street studio.

For me the Victorian portrait photograph was the starting point. I am not trying to completely re-create what took place back then but using techniques I imagine would’ve taken place during these sessions and allowing myself and the subject to go through a process. With the disappearance of Polaroid / instant Fuji film the image cannot be viewed straightaway. Now its reverted back to how it was in the past; taking the image on film, getting it processed and waiting to see the results. Using a large format camera also means that I shoot less. For the Peckham Square Studio project, I took one or two shots of the sitter. The whole process is much slower.

You’ve recently been shooting mobile (iPhone) photography. How has your approach to portraiture changed with this new format?
Using the mobile phone is just another way / device for me to take images on a daily basis. I tend to shoot in a similar way when photographing people. What I mean by this is I will get permission from the subject. I do not take so many images because I can see what it is I wish to document before taking it. What’s nice about this way of shooting is that you can show the person their image. If they like it I will text / email it to them. Taking images on my mobile phone was never meant to lead anywhere, but I have started to see how these images have a place and there has been interest in the work I have produced.

You teach photography at the University of Westminster. How does teaching inform your own artistic practice? 
The experience I have gained from my teaching in terms of my own art practice reminds me of the passage we all take, either as a student or artist, when producing a new body of work. We have to be inspired by something, research, take images / produce work and develop this project over a period of time before we are able to reach our destination and share our work to a wider audience.

What’s it like to be an (art) photographer in England at this moment in time?
For me, being an art photographer is a journey. I just happen to be in London. Wherever I am, if I have my camera, I will try to document that experience. I do feel very fortunate that my work over the years has been considered as part of the cannon within photography.

I do believe that my identity allows me to tell a different story to that being portrayed in the media.
I do not feel limited in what I can do, so being in England at this present moment seems to give me this freedom and being able to document my own view of the world is an honor. I hope that my projects will encourage others to produce work of their own and to share their stories.

Are there any photographers whose work you can’t live without?
At home I have a cyanotype by Joy Gregory called “Baby’s Breath”. This is part of a series called the Language of Flowers. I recently went to The Photographers’ Gallery. On show is Lorenzo Vitturi and the project is called Dalston Anatomy. The work is so vibrant and an interesting response to an area of London which is going through re-generation. I was in that location this week and could really appreciate how this photographer captured the essence of Ridley Road Market. The work is so original and dynamic. I had to buy his book of posters, so I can frame and change the images on occasion.

What are three things that sustain your art practice?
Ideas – being able to follow through with concepts… Enthusiasm – I still feel enthused by what I do… The Unknown – I never know where the next project will take me…

Published on October 6, 2014.

See more of photographer Eileen Perrier‘s work.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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