Outtakes: Simon Roberts

Outtakes is a series of interviews with contemporary photographers who have been asked to share alternate versions of some of their most meaningful, successful and celebrated images. By looking at these outtakes along with the final image and by hearing from the artist directly, we hope to examine the different working methods and criteria that photographers regularly employ in an effort to push past the romanticism of the singular, iconic image and learn more about the way photographs are really made.

Outtakes comes from photographer Joshua Dudley Greer and continues today with images from Simon Roberts.

Simon Roberts (b.1974) is a British photographer whose work deals primarily with our relationship to landscape and notions of identity and belonging. His large format photographs have been exhibited widely and are held in collections including the George Eastman House, Deutsche Borse Art Collection and Wilson Centre for Photography. He has published three monographs to critical acclaim - Motherland (Chris Boot, 2007), We English (Chris Boot, 2009) and Pierdom (Dewi Lewis, 2013). He is a European member of the photographic collective POC and was recently made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

South Downs Way, West Sussex, 8th October 2007 © Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

South Downs Way, West Sussex, 8th October 2007

Joshua Dudley Greer: This was one of the earliest photographs made for We English and is one of the few that happens to be made with a medium format camera rather than the 4x5. Was this simply a reaction to this particular scene or did you start out using a smaller camera?

Simon Roberts: When I started out with the project I was experimenting with different formats to find the right compositional style for the work. I began with a Mamiya 7, the camera I'd used for my Motherland book, my series made in Russia between 2004-2005, but quickly moved on to using an Ebony 4x5 field camera. I'd actually originally planned to use a 4x5 in Russia but due to logistical reasons I decided on the Mamiya, which is much more versatile and can be used handheld, useful when temperatures get down to -40 degrees!

What appeals to me with the larger format is the additional effort and time it takes to compose an image. It's a natural camera for photographing landscape enabling a greater clarity and sharpness across the frame, which would be particularly useful with my decision to photograph peopled scenes where individuals are rendered relatively small in the frame. The theatricality of the camera is also appealing; people around me are momentarily intrigued by the camera, but get bored quickly, which is perfect because it affords me the surprising luxury of solitude in usually very populated areas.

Saying this, on the day I took this particular photograph shot near Devil's Dyke, I was close to my home in Brighton. I'd taken my daughter for a walk after school and when we got there I saw a large group of paragliders preparing to launch off the escarpment. Fortunately I had the Mamiya in the car and shot a few frames as the light dropped.

JDG: From frame to frame we can see that you're tweaking your composition as you're shooting these, specifically the proportion of sky to foreground. Is that typical of the way you photograph a scene as active as this, or are you usually fairly set on a singular composition?

SR: I'm normally much more rigid in my compositions and having decided upon a scene, and fixed my framing, I wait for something to unfold in the landscape. In this instance I didn't have a tripod with me and only had a few minutes whilst the paragliders were all in the air together. I was shooting instinctively, moving as I tried to refine the framing, whilst also responding to how the paragliders were moving in the sky.

JDG: In your final image, all of the gliders are contained entirely above the horizon line, which seems to emphasize that separation between the land and the sky. There is a sense of stillness and calm that may not exist in the other frames, despite the presence of some serious weather throughout.

SR: The fact that the paragliders are all above the horizon line certainly helps, but what I find particularly compelling about this final frame is their formation in relation to one another. It's as if they have created a synchronized pattern, with the group circling around the one glider seen in the centre of the frame; almost as if they are dancing in the sky. The cloud formation is much more dramatic here and there is a geometry created by the strata, which leads the viewer into the frame; with the paragliders it creates a feeling of a vortex. Finally, there is less of a distraction with the foreground of the hill, which cuts through the other two frames at quite a harsh angle. Having walked forward to take this frame, the foreground has fallen away and the landscape of the Weald of Sussex has opened up, providing more detail of the cricket pitch, village green and the patchwork pattern of farmland.

JDG: Even though it is one of the few We English photographs where the participants are physically separated from the land, it feels indicative of one of the core themes of the project - that of the landscape and its associations with home and memory. To me, it's an idea echoed at the very end of the book with a picture that shows the release of 20,000 homing pigeons. No matter where we go, we have to return to the land at some point.

SR: Yes I'd agree, but not only a return to the land, but a return home. The final photograph in the book was taken as I was heading back to Brighton, after nearly a year on the road traveling around England. The pigeons are starting their own journey home, flying back to their owners' lofts dotted along the Northumberland coastline 300 miles north.

Blackpool Beach #1, Lancashire, 25th July 2008 © Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

Blackpool Beach #1, Lancashire, 25th July 2008

JDG: These pictures were made in Blackpool, a seaside resort town a little more than an hour north of New Brighton, where Martin Parr made the pictures for his classic book, The Last Resort. Even though your photographs were made nearly 25 years later and there are obvious differences, I feel like they share things in common - the combination of concrete and sand, the detritus on the beach, the density of what Gerry Badger called, “…the hungry hordes looking to feed and amuse their kids,” even the obelisk in the background. You were obviously taken by this place, four different photographs from this vicinity found their way into your book. What do you think it was about Blackpool that led to such a productive few days for you?

SR: There is a long and rich history of documentary surveys by British photographers that have captured the social, political and cultural landscape of England and Britain such as Sir Benjamin Stone, Bill Brandt, Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr and John Davies. Work by all these photographers, and many others, was brought together in the 2007 Tate Britain exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain. The comparative lack of contemporary studies over the past decade was encouraging, suggesting as it did that my project might be timely. I was also aware that I was following in the footsteps of this rich lineage of British photography and was something I couldn't ignore. In fact, several of the photographs in my book are a nod to this tradition. With this Blackpool image there is definitely a subtle reference to Martin Parr's work in New Brighton.

My time in Blackpool was rewarding, in part because it is so closely linked to ideas of leisure given it has experienced nearly a century and a half of predominantly working-class holidaymaking. It was the first mass leisure resort in the UK, attracting the mill workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The region has also seen a great deal of immigration over the past two decades so it reflects a wider change in the demographic of England. Saying that, the number of images in my book is as much based on rhythm as it is on where I garnered a strong set of photographs. The series of four Blackpool images halfway through the We English monograph slow the pace down and give a little geographical pause before we move on the road again.

JDG: For this particular photograph, you made two versions from the same general perspective and then two others just up the stairs a bit. Which of these views came first?

SR: I started photographing on the stairs (which actually function as sea defenses, and had recently been completed), but I found them too distracting. It was hard to find a composition that could encompass the stairs but without having a large blank slab of concrete. So I moved onto the beach. Here I was particularly drawn to the cast of interesting characters like the women in a sari taking a photograph and the guy in the middle of the frame with his hoodie on.

JDG: The vast majority of pictures in We English were made from elevated points-of-view, often working from atop your camper van. In this resulting image it does appear that you're slightly elevated, but I'm guessing not on top of the RV.

SR: Wherever possible with this project I tried to photograph from elevated positions, as you note, often from the roof of my camper van. The height would enable me to get a greater sense of people's interaction with the landscape and with one another; it opens up a rich seam in the middle of a frame, which is often hidden from view when photographing from the ground. Practically speaking I wasn't able to pull the motorhome onto beaches and parks! In these instances I had a stepladder to give me some elevation.

In addition to using elevation in this series, I would also concentrate on photographing the collective - groups of people populating the landscape. Additionally, I decided that the figures would be relatively small in the frame, although not always so small that you couldn't make out some facial expressions, what they were wearing and their activities. This way of seeing was influenced by looking at the work of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish landscape painters – particularly Hendrick Avercamp, Pieter Bruegel and Lucas van Valckenborch, who depicted winter scenes teeming with life. I liked the idea of what appeared to be predominantly pastoral landscapes becoming, on closer inspection, multi-layered canvases, rich in detail and meaning.

Ladies’ Day, Aintree Racecourse, Merseyside, 4th April 2008 © Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

Ladies’ Day, Aintree Racecourse, Merseyside, 4th April 2008

JDG: To the uninitiated, could you explain a bit of the cultural context of Ladies' Day? To me it looks like a cross between the Kentucky Derby, with its pomp and pageantry, and the Preakness, which is a bit more tawdry and perhaps better known for its alcohol consumption than its horseracing.

SR: The Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool is famous for the Grand National, which is an annual steeplechase, and one of the toughest horse races in the world. And because the races take place over the course of a few days they've created a ladies' day, ostensibly a marketing ploy to try to get more people to come to the races. Its become a kind of fashion show where women wear glamorous hats and are normally quite scantily clad. Due to the demographic of Liverpool and the surrounding regions, it is more of a working class edge to this race than say, Ascot, another famous racecourse near Windsor and one of the Queen's favourite haunts. It's held midweek in April, so actually it's extremely cold. For me what was interesting is that women still wear these tiny little dresses despite the fact that in some cases it's just above zero. By the time I started photographing, a lot of alcohol had been consumed and I wanted to frame the scene with the detritus in the foreground.

JDG: Was this an event that you knew you wanted to photograph beforehand?

SR: I had a number of anchor points throughout the year of places and events that I wanted to visit. I knew I wanted to photograph this race and in some instances I was more interested in it than Derby Day in Ascot, which is so well documented and representative of the normal upper-class race goer in their top hat and tails. I wanted to create a counterpoint to that view of racing, and show some "real" punters.

JDG: You made about eight exposures of various scenes at the track that day and half of those focused on this trio of young ladies. Was there something in particular that initially drew you to them?

SR: Yeah, I started with those three girls – it was the colors, the way they were playing off each other. And I love their shoes! I think shoes say a lot about a person. The women had these quite extraordinary shoes, which play nicely against the debris of plastic cups and beer cans that they're stood within. I started photographing them during a break between races so you've got the three girls in the center but all the other characters are talking to one another, discussing the next race or how much they lost on the last race, and to some extent I found this less interesting as several of the bodies are facing inwards.

As for the frame with the woman smoking, I feel that it's quite difficult to get a sense of perspective and scale here. Because I'm slightly higher up, the crowd almost merges into one, you don't get the same sense of distance. Also, the guy in the green jacket is just far too distracting, he kind of closes off that corner of the photograph. For me it was just a bit messy.

The photograph that I chose for the book was taken during a race, this meant that everybody's looking over my shoulder, nobody's actually looking at the camera, they're concentrating on seeing who wins. As a result you can see their faces in this eclectic cast of characters and I've captured a sense of anticipation and drama. And of course what I particularly like is the fact that there's this one woman slumped on the ground in her expensive dress. Her legs are following the pattern of the spilled beer, which is draining down the concrete incline.

JDG: Right, the girl makes the photograph. To me, she's what Barthes might have called the punctum, that accident or element that shoots out from a scene and pricks the viewer.

SR: The thing with a lot of the pictures in We English is that there's a lot going on in them, so it's almost impossible to have one so-called decisive moment. I suppose the idea of the punctum is almost a slightly watered-down version of the decisive moment. In all of my frames I'm waiting for something key to take place, so there's always a little element that I'm concentrating on which determines the moment I take the photograph. Everything else, to some extent, has to take its own place and sometimes you just have to allow things to be where they are when you wouldn't necessarily want them to be there. So the "punctum" moment has to be strong enough to draw you into the photograph and over compensate for any other elements that might be somewhat distracting. I'm always looking for rhythms in the landscape, how movements of people and objects come together to make an arresting pattern.

Gordon Brown, Labour, Rochdale, 28th April 2010 (Rochdale constituency) © Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

Gordon Brown, Labour, Rochdale, 28th April 2010 (Rochdale constituency)

JDG: Following the success of We English, you were selected as the 2010 British "Election Artist" to create a record of that year's General Election. Trailing a number of different candidates across a variety of places throughout Britain, you continued with your use of the 4x5 camera, shooting from an elevated perspective with a removed sense of scale. Despite the unorthodox approach to what could be considered journalism, you were in some ways still operating like a member of the press. In general, how did this process usually work for you?

SR: This was an interesting project because I had to try to find a way of differentiating what I was doing from the scores of press photographers who were covering the same event. As we know, political parties are very good at orchestrating news events to try and create a particular image that they want then distributed. I decided I wanted my photographs to encompass entire scenes peopled by politicians, their campaign teams and the press. The landscape therefore becomes a theatre set for the myriad of nuanced interactions and dramas being played out in them, while the elevated perspective would allow me a wider field of view far removed from the up-close shots favoured by news media.

JDG: I love that idea of political theatre being played out in real spaces because there are always elements that can't be controlled. Can you talk about this particular image in that regard?

SR: The Gordon Brown image worked particularly well because up until this point he had not met any real people. He'd been doing these Tea with Gordon events where the Labour Party press office would control access to him through these meetings with Labour Party supporters in their homes. So that of course would immediately restrict the number of photographers that could cover that event. Finally the press office relented and created this setup event outside Rochdale in Northern England, where Brown would come and see ex-offenders clearing this tow path. They've set up a kind of sheep pen to herd the press into. As Gordon is interviewed on BBC News, a woman has walked down the street, she's called Gillian Duffy, she's wearing the blue jacket with the pink rim, and she has started heckling Brown on his policy of immigration. This is the moment I've taken the picture. We know that she is becoming the focus of the event because two other camera crews are filming her. What happened next was that Brown has a chat with Mrs. Duffy, he then gets into his car accidently leaving his microphone on and gets caught calling her a bigot to his press aide. The recording is played live on TV and causes a major news story. Brown ends up having to drive to Mrs. Duffy's house to personally apologise for his outburst. The event became know as Duffygate, which really killed his election campaign.

My photograph represents the kernel of the moment when the scandal began. What I've tried to do here is set this tableaux scene where you can see the cast of characters, from the secret service to the ex-offenders off in the distance, you've got the press, you've got Gillian Duffy, you've got the public filming on their mobile phones, all set within the context of a particular post-war architecture in this cul-de-sac in the orth of England. There are all these myriad elements that fill this scene of this news event, but we’re given a very different perspective from the news photographers – more of a birds-eye view.

JDG: So in looking at the outtakes here, it's really the presence of the woman that dictated your choice of which photograph to use?

SR: Yeah, with the three pictures that you selected it's really the fact that I needed Gillian Duffy in the frame. Her presence has made the photograph.

JDG: And when you show this work in England, people recognize the narrative that is taking place?

SR: In most instances people would know. It's interesting when I give talks abroad and talk about this photograph, it doesn't really mean a great deal because nobody knows who Gillian Duffy is. At home, the photograph takes on much more significance because it was such a big news event, which played out for days during the 2010 election.

JDG: There are some differences between this project and We English in terms of the visual sensibility, but also the technical apparatus behind the making of the photographs - a wider lens, faster film, etc. Was there a reason for those changes?

SR: I was using a 150mm and a 90mm. A number of the photographs, like the Gordon Brown image, were taken with the 90mm because I was so close to the action and I needed to have that wider perspective. In some instances I had to push the film a stop, due to lack of light and the fact that I needed to be able to freeze the action whilst also maintaining the use of a small aperture (f22 or f16). I was lucky in the three weeks of the election because there was no rain, which for England in April is quite extraordinary, and the light was mostly in my favor. However, it was still a right pain in the ass using the 4x5 camera in such fast-moving events.

JDG: Were you aware of where these events were going to take place ahead of time?

SR: With this event of course not, here I was just lucky because the only day I spent with Gordon Brown was the day where the biggest news event of the election happened. However, a lot of this work was about logistics because I had to spend time negotiating with the secret service to let me park my motorhome near the politicians. In some instances I'd use Google Street View to pre-plan particular streets around the country where I wanted to photograph a candidate on. I had also already chosen which candidates I thought were going to be interesting in the election, so there had been a lot of setup beforehand to make this project work. Because it was happening in such a short period of time, I couldn't just leave it to total chance.

Equestrian Jumping Individual, Greenwich Park, London, 8 August 2012 © Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

© Simon Roberts

Equestrian Jumping Individual, Greenwich Park, London, 8 August 2012

JDG: In 2012, you were granted access to photograph the XXX Olympic Games, which took place in and around London. Your previous work seems (at least in terms of its process) to be completely incongruous with the fast-paced frenzy of athletic competitions. You had been working largely under your own guise with a large format, film camera on a tripod, shooting from a distance, etc. I imagine some things had to change with how you approached making pictures.

SR: I suppose the context for making this work is that I began in late 2010 making work about the economic crisis. The first thing that the new government implemented after the election was this series of harsh economic cuts. I wanted to carry on making landscape work about Britain but this time through the prism of the economy. And in some ways the Olympics played directly into this because ostensibly the Olympics is a mass marketing event for the host city. So here we were in the middle of a period of enforced austerity when we were also spending vast sums of money on a public sporting event.

Through a friend of a friend, I managed to get a link into the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland and I wrote to them saying I thought it was very important that they give access to a non-sports photographer to create a different perspective on the gamers. After some debate they agreed, with one stipulation: that I wasn't to use a tripod on any Olympic site. This meant I could no longer use the 4x5 field camera, so at that point I decided to try a Phase One digital camera system. That way I could still have a large file size, which I could use to make large exhibition prints and I could also use it in a relatively similar way to the 4x5 (I basically used a monopod and strapped it to my body to create a makeshift tripod). I went to every Olympic stadium and attempted to photograph from as high a vantage point as possible, thereby giving a sense of context of the sporting event within the landscape of London.

JDG: Yet, as we see here, you were still able to work within those restrictions to make pictures that had connections to your previous work in terms of the sense of scale, the relationship between the individual and the collective, the history of place, etc.

SR: I really wanted to look at how London was being branded - the iconography of London and its historic representation that were being appropriated. So this particular image it's one that works really well, I suppose it's one of the strongest in the set. It's playing on the visual history of Greenwich in London; a scene that has been replicated in art and photography for the last 300 or 400 years from J.W. Turner's watercolors up until the present day. It has this rich visual and cultural history that has been borrowed by the London Olympics. What I like about this scene is that it's very different from how most of us normally view the Olympics (through a 400mm lens) but we also have these small icons of Britishness recreated as horse jumps - mock-ups of Stonehenge, Nelson’s Column made out of plywood. The reason I kept the small black camera in the top of my photographic frame (its a tv camera which could hover over the top of the equestrian arena) is because I wanted to give the viewer the sense that this is one big stage set; a piece of theatre.

JDG: You made a number of pictures of this particular event, all from the same vantage point although there are variations in their cropping, composition and overall field of view. Obviously there are also other elements that are changing, but these are not under your control - the weather, the athletes, the fans, that camera in the sky. Can you articulate the difference(s) between those elements in the picture you use and the pictures you don't use?

SR: The second image is taken with a longer lens so everything is slightly flattened, in some ways it feels too compressed. And also it feels a bit more like a conventional sports photograph - the moment of action as the horse jumps, it's almost too good if you like. With the other image, the cloud formation was quite oppressive. It also felt like the photograph was too weighted on the left-hand side and with the horse running into the left of the frame it means that the eye-line of the viewer is being taken out of the frame rather than encouraged to study the photograph closer.

This first frame worked for me the best for several reasons: the colors, the clouds taking you into the center of the frame, there's a slight calmness about the rider that works, but also the two judges that are stood on the sand. They're like little plastic figures who've almost become part of the scenery. And the fact that Canary Wharf (the gleaming glass towers in the background) is in shadow is important; this is part of London's banking district, and here we are in the middle of a financial crisis created due to the banks. So I like the sense of these slightly threatening clouds overhead in the distance.

Joshua Dudley Greer (b.1980 Hazleton, PA) received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002 and his MFA, with distinction, from the University of Georgia in 2009. His photographs have been exhibited throughout the United States in venues such as the Knoxville Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Catherine Edelman Gallery. His photographs have been published in The Collector's Guide to New Art Photography Volume 2, Flash Forward 2010, Smithsonian Magazine and Le Monde. He has received grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, Tennessee Arts Commission and in 2012 was named one of the New Superstars of Southern Art by Oxford American. He is currently living in Johnson City, Tennessee where he is a visiting assistant professor of photography at East Tennessee State University.