There’s a very fine line between style and repetition. Photographers would oftentimes find something which works for a particular project, be it a camera, a type of paper, or a book form, and stick with it throughout for a long period of time. It’s a double-edged sword because as much of a buzzword “style” has become, even something that all artists are supposed to aspire to, i.e. have their pictures instantly recognised, or so they say at least, one also runs the risk of simply repeating oneself. Stephen Gill’s new book Please Notify The Sun boasts a design that is, at first glance, simple and strangely familiar. It follows the pattern of his previous two books - three part clothbound hardback with a saddle stitched text booklet by Karl Ove Knausgård inside. The layout is either a double page spread with two images, one on the left and one on the right, or one picture on the right and a blank page on the left (there is never the opposite and I wonder why). A type of uncomplicated design, far from being pompous or overpowering, it works silently in the background - the perfect vessel for this visually rich body of work.
It’s a hefty book comprised of over 100 images and at one point I wondered whether it would have been better if it was smaller and more tightly edited. The viewer might get a visual overload towards the middle but the pictures are so powerful in their own right, so inviting to look at and full of potential associations that one simply can’t help but keep going until the end. The last couple of photographs resemble coming out for air, which is perhaps a pun on one of Gill’s other books, but it’s also a nice bookend to finish a body of work which has delved deep inside the sea and examined on a microscopic level one of the creatures which inhabit it. The book’s endpapers show Gill’s daughters on one of their fishing trips together, which is refreshingly candid as the content relates to the creation of the work, but without knowing the backstory it would not be blindingly obvious. The photographs themselves were taken in two months, which is astonishing, although the project has been brewing for over 3 years at the back of the photographer’s mind. An interesting detail is that to him it was important to catch the fish himself, even though it wouldn’t ultimately make a tangible difference, but he believes in a genuine approach.
The text is mightily important for providing context. An interesting point the writer makes is dismantling the popular belief that children are full of wonder while adults are rational and boring. On the contrary, age brought curiosity to him while before, when he was a small child, “everything was just there”. Understandably he did not feel terribly excited when he heard that Stephen Gill wants to photograph a fish, but this took an abrupt turn when he saw the pictures. “Rock formations and oil slicks, sandbags, clouds of blood, ice-locked mountains, stalactites and stalagmites, red suns, underground rivers. I see prehistoric birds, frozen pools, a speedboat crossing a lake… starry firmaments” are only some of the associations spurred by Knausgård’s imagination.
Camera, microscope, fridge, Petri dishes, pincers, lamps, lenses. Gill is not one to care about equipment as most of his work is shot on a cheap plastic camera that he found at the local flea market in Hackney - for him the tools of photography are a means to an end, not the end itself or something worthy of fetishisation. Having said that, if he decided that all of the aforementioned gadgets are needed, one would be wise to believe him - sometimes photographers need a lot of preparation and knick-knacks to make a good picture which resembles closely what’s in the mind’s eye, which goes against a currently common idea that bulky cameras are unnecessary as anything and everything can be captured with a phone.
On the visual level the work resembles Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment (1965 / 2005) and to an extent Thomas Ruff’s ma.r.s. (2010) - coloured pictures of the surface of the red planet - but of course they couldn’t be further apart conceptually. Why fish? I can’t help but wonder, and this almost certainly is a complete coincidence, whether Gill’s surname had anything to do with his fascination with marine species - the saying that your surname could define your profession, like Blacksmith or Shepherd, may have a grain of truth to it after all. Unlike Mars, which up until very recently seemed impossibly far for humans to reach, fish is abundantly omnipresent and cheap - there is just so much of it everywhere. Humans tend to look at the universe, the sky at night and awe in marvel while feeling incomparably minuscule, and rightly so, but it’s important not to forget that little things - a blade of grass, a drop of blood, or a fish - can be equally breathtaking and worthy of our attention. Grand concept or appearance equals value and fish is far from it in society’s perception, but does this mean it is not valuable? Is it neglectable? Those two ideas collide - how something so commonplace, cheap and easily accessible can also appear so magnificent and outer-worldly? The author of the text compares looking at the images to witnessing an open brain surgery, at least visually, but the brain is the most complicated structure known to man, unlike a fish. Even the saying “memory of a goldfish” epitomises, perhaps quite unfairly, our ideas of what a fish is.
Gill founded Nobody Books, his own imprint, back in 2005 with the vision to publish his own work unrestrained by a publisher who might demand to cut corners for the sake of saving a pretty penny. A word that comes to mind over and over when thinking about Gill’s oeuvre and his way of producing work is “curiosity”. He does not claim to be making grand philosophical or artistic statements; on the contrary, his way of working and his ideas are very much fitting with his modest, kind personality. He wonders how something would look when photographed and, of course, there is only one way to find out. For what is photography if not an art form to satisfy one’s curiosity? Widely available and cheap, with a camera attached to a phone in almost everyone’s pocket in the Western world, it’s never been easier to create, look at, discuss and in general experience images. The camera is seen as an extension to our eyes but it’s so much more - it shows us worlds invisible to us. What would the forest look like at night when there are no humans around? Gill wouldn’t spend months ruminating - he’d go out and photograph it. What does a fish really contain inside, deep, deep inside? He’d buy a microscope, a fridge, specialist lighting equipment and lenses and just photograph it, accumulate the images, sequence them, design the book, print it, job done. Please Notify The Sun is the ground of two types of knowledge colliding - rational and poetic, imaginative and scientific.
There’s a common denominator to Gill’s photographs, which coincided with his move to rural Sweden, and that is the presence of animals. Not just their presence, but their supreme, almost exclusive role in his recent projects, which are completely devoid of humans. The viewers gain a peek at the animal kingdom and the anatomy of one of its inhabitants which otherwise they wouldn’t be privy to. Please Notify The Sun presents the intersection of science and art. With an eye full of wonder Gill goes on to explore lead by his curiosity, without trying to prove a theorem or contribute to knowledge - his pursuit is more modest, but equally important, i.e. to show us how something looks, which we wouldn’t normally see, and put our primal imagination in overdrive. Stephen Gill’s work is refreshingly honest and I propose contemporary photography at its best. This is sublime abstraction at its absolute finest, something the Americans from the Abstract Expressionism generation would have killed to be alive to witness and experience right now.
Please Notify The Sun by Stephen Gill can be purchased here.
Zak Dimitrov is a photographic artist, lecturer and writer. He received an MA from the University of Westminster and BA (Hons) from The Arts University Bournemouth. Zak’s work deals with memory, the passage of time, mortality and the physicality of photographic materials. He is the Associate Editor at American Suburb X.