I interviewed Anna Fox for the Liverpool Festival of Photography a few years ago …
Anna Fox is an acclaimed British photographers of the last thirty years and is Professor of Photography at the University of Creative Arts, Farnham. Known for her use of flash and colour, she emerged in the 1980s as part of what might be called a new wave of British colour photographers that also included Paul Graham and Martin Parr. Tony Cearns caught up with Anna ahead of her show at the Liverpool International Festival of Photography. All images are courtesy of Anna Fox, James Hyman Photography, London and Tasveer Arts, Bangalore.
Tony Cearns: Looking through your work I am reminded of something Tony Ray-Jones once said: “Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk like Alice, through the looking-glass, and find another kind of world with the camera”.
In your photographs I see another world, always there but hitherto unseen, a place of anxiety, discomfort and tension. Following a rich English tradition of using irony and dark humour to challenge preconceptions, your work has been likened, aptly I think, to that of the Canadian gothic short-story writer, Alice Munro for whom the point is to look at the strangeness of things in the everyday and near-place.
Do you see your own work in this way?
Anna Fox: Well that was a very nice introductory context, the idea of Alice Through the Looking Glass is perfect and I love the theatricality in Tony Ray Jones’ work – it is so different to other documentary work of the time; absurd and darkly humorous. I am very interested in the strangeness brought about when fact and fiction collide and how photography can so effectively play with this. And then I also find it interesting to build narratives out of these mini fables and turn them into bigger stories – though some of the stories are very slight (in that they deal with very small slivers of life).
Tony Cearns: Your work spans a wide range of themes and is difficult to sum up, but two adjectives come to mind: private and performative.
The private (autobiographical) themes of My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words, 41 Hewitt Road, and Cockroach Diary, hint at an Anna Fox preoccupied with personal struggle in which the act of photography is part of a wider process of self-understanding. The effect on the viewers (at least me) is a liberating one in that in these private meditations we recognise that we too have our own mother’s cupboards and we too feel restricted and stifled by our pasts, unable to shrug them off completely.
Your performative works reveal social concerns through performance: acts are played out by virtue of them being photographed. In Country Girls, the memory of Sweet Fanny Adams is re-invoked through the staging of a countryside murder. In Zwarte Piet, an Easter Dutch tradition is portrayed in a way that shows up its cultural awkwardness. In the Hampshire Village series, costumes and masks hint at pretence and subterfuge.
Your work reminds me that I don’t have to sail to Summerisle to experience the mystery horror of the Wicker Man. It’s much closer to hand in my local village.
Looking back, which work has come the closest to what you most want to say about English society and why?
Anna Fox: Well Cockroach Diary exposed how, as a nation, we suffer from embarrassment and an inability to be straight about things. Nobody wants to talk about having cockroaches in their house, we think of them as a problem that people who live in New York and Asia get – yet London is infested with them.
Untitled from Cockroach Diary © Anna Fox
Country Girls shows women damaged and distressed in rural locations but in a glamorous manner – the effect is disconcerting – we wanted to talk about how women and girls in growing up in the countryside are vulnerable and subject to prejudiced and sometimes, violent actions. We were thinking about the 1970s when Alison and I were both young and living in Hampshire.
Country Girls © Anna Fox and Alison Goldfrapp
Most of my work has some level of eccentricity in it and a kind of gothic nastiness – I think if I were to think of an overall comment that I want to make about English society it would largely be about how we are always hiding something, covering things up, not wanting to talk about things and quite often not wanting to help each other (despite our ability to be charitable in emergencies). Because of this we can be both funny and unpleasant.
Tony Cearns: There perhaps comes a time when you have said everything that you wanted to say about a particular situation. I wondered whether, by recently working in France and India, you thought that you had exhausted what has been a rich seam for you (i.e. pointing out the absurd and incongruous in British society)?
Anna Fox: No – I will always make work in the UK – it is so valuable to make work in a place you know well; you have an insider’s point of view that also has an autobiographical aspect to it. But I have discovered that I also like the perspective of being an outsider and there are fascinating things about India and France that also have a connection to the UK.
For example, in both places I am interested in looking at women’s lives and the inequalities, which are there, albeit in different ways. We have such a shared history with India, a terrible one. As for France, there is such an obsession with her, here in the UK.
Tony Cearns: How has your approach developed in recent years and how do you see it developing in the future?
Anna Fox: My approach develops all the time and changes with each body of work. Once I have the subject then I think about the approach and experiment with a few different methods. What I am most excited about at the moment is working with my new 10x8inch camera and more lights – I am fascinated by the way I have been able to create large scale images of people and puppets (Spitting) that have a hyper real quality and I would like to apply these techniques in places that you would least expect them.
I am also interested in building a bigger team of people to work with. Collaborating is brilliant and with the right people, you can achieve so much more and can have an on going discussion that really affects how the work evolves. While working on Resort 1 (Butlin’s family breaks) we sometimes had a team of 8 people, we were all excited about the work and I really enjoyed the buzz and camaraderie of this. I do not enjoy being the lone (suffering) photographer!
Ocean Hotel Restaurant 2010 from Resort 1, Butlins Bognor Regis © Anna Fox
Tony Cearns: Whose work do you currently admire and why? Aside from the influences in your formative years, which photographers most influence you now? What is it about their work that you find so powerful?
Anna Fox: Karen Knorr, Helen Sear, Clare Strand, Andrew Bruce, Natasha Caruana, Donovan Wylie, Alessandra Sanguinetti – each of these photographers/artists has a very different approach and I admire them for different reasons.
All of them have fascinating subjects and all of them make stunning images – I think most of all, these photographers reveal something intriguing about the world or society we live in, and something about our inner selves in a way that is quite radical and refreshing as well. And in their photographs the attention to detail and cleverness with technique is mind blowing.
Tony Cearns: You are leading a production at Tate Modern on 6-7 November 2015 entitled “Fast Forward: Women in Photography”.
Tell us more about the background to this and the underlying research that came from the panel discussion at the Tate in April 2014.
Anna Fox: The time was right to bring up the discussion about women in photography again – I mean we are more than 25 years on from the last women in photography festival – Signals – and still there are not enough women behind the camera. Why it hasn’t happened for women is a bit of a mystery – we know there is a very male network in photography and we know there are a lot of women curators and editors, so we want to promote the stories about women photographers. Interestingly there are numerous histories about women that have been neglected; these need revisiting and re investigating and the new women emerging need support. Literature has done it, comedy is slowly doing it, film is slower than photography, all these fields need to modernise and take notice of the great women photographers, past and present.
Tony Cearns: As you know, the role of photography in reinforcing cultural and social stereotypes about the representation of women in mass media has been described extensively (perhaps most notably by John Berger back in 1972).
It seems to me that whereas in the past women have principally been defined through their connection with men, today in the West, this seems less obviously so. Do you think that female photographers are saying things that are not being said by male ones? If so, what are these things?
Anna Fox: Sometimes I do, Natasha Caruana for example made a piece of work called Married Man which was about married men dating other women; she could not have done it as a man. But more generally I am not sure that women are saying anything different, I think that there are some subjects women get privileged access to and some subjects that they might have a different relationship to (like domestic space), but overall they are photographers wanting to tell stories, make comment or simply make amazing images just like the guys.
Tony Cearns: Your production, as part of the Liverpool Festival of Photography, features works from several contemporary female artists. I understand that you have had many entries, so you have had a difficult task selecting the work to be showcased. Tell us a little about how you went about deciding the entries that you have showcased?
Anna Fox: At the “Fast Forward” conference we had over 230 abstracts submitted and that really confirmed our opinion that the time is right. At Tate Liverpool I am curating a slide show in collaboration with DJ Yousef and it is all women photographers in the show. It is an experiment, I create the storyboard for the show, the AV director makes the film and Yousef responds to the images with his music – pretty radical for me, but a challenge is great! At the moment it looks like it will have a dark (as in disarming gothic) feel to it with a few surprises thrown in.
Tony Cearns: Just about everyone these days has a camera and a costless outlet for sharing images. With the rapid changes in how people make and view photographs, how do you view the world of art and photography?
Anna Fox: “Photography is easy, Photography is difficult”, the title of a Paul Graham article sums it all up. It does make photography a strange medium, and some photographers insist on calling themselves artists, which means they can’t be mistaken. I prefer to call myself a photographer and when someone asks me to shoot his or her wedding I think about it.
Tony Cearns: What advice do you give to your students who are serious about making a mark as photographer-artists?
Anna Fox: First of all they have to make interesting work and this really starts from the heart; they need to discover what they are passionate about and how they can speak about it using photography. After that difficult task they need to be open minded (to new ways of working), work and practice hard, be serious about what they are doing and above all, be generous to the rest of the group.
Tony Cearns: What do you think you have gained by straddling two occupations: that of artist-photographer and that of research programme director and teacher?
Anna Fox: A wonderful network and the thrilling experience of always being surrounded by the cutting edge people!
Anna Fox’s Biography:
Born in Alton, Hampshire in 1961 Fox completed her degree in Photography at The West Surrey College of Art and Design in 1986. Influenced by British documentary tradition and US ‘New Colourists’ her first work Workstations (published by and exhibited first at Camerawork, London 1988) observed with a critical eye London office culture in the mid Thatcher years. Later work documenting weekend war games, Friendly Fire, was exhibited in the exhibition Warworks at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Fox’s solo shows have been seen at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago amongst others and her work has been included in numerous international group shows including – From Tarzan to Rambo at Tate Modern; Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant Garde at Tate Liverpool and How We Are: Photographing Britain at Tate Britain. Numerous monographs of her work pare in print and Anna Fox Photographs 1983 – 2007 was published by Photoworks in 2007 edited by Val Williams. The first retrospective show of her work, Cockroach Diary and other Stories, opened at Impressions Gallery in summer 2008 and toured Europe. Anna Fox was shortlisted for the 2010 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize and the 2012 Pilar Citoler Prize.
The Resort projects (1 and 2), commissioned by Pallant House Gallery opened June 2011 and are published as Resort 1 and Resort 2 by Schilt in 2013/15. Fox’s new work in France, Loisirs, explores the leisure industry in Beauvais and was commissioned by Photoaumnales, and is published by Diaphane Editions. Anna Fox is Professor of Photography at The University College for the Creative Arts in Farnham.
All images are courtesy of Anna Fox, James Hyman Photography, London and Tasveer Arts, Bangalore.