Conversation with Philip Bell
© Judie Cross and FigureGround.org
Professor Philip Bell was interviewed by Judie Cross, October 8 2017
Philip Bell retired from a distinguished academic career as Professor of Media and Communications at UNSW ten years ago. He now owns and runs a small gallery, The Corner Gallery Stanmore, http://thecornergallerystanmore.com/ where he exhibits his own fine art photographs http://bellphotosaustralia.com/. Philip has exhibited photographs of Australian landscapes in Sydney and Copenhagen, and has published several articles of photojournalism on Australian geographical regions. His photography relates to Australian landscape art and environmental issues, as evidenced by his series on the Murray-Darling that was a finalist in the Walkeleys “storyology” awards in 2015. Philip also rents out The Corner Gallery exhibition space to other artists to exhibit their ‘original works on paper’.
What factors influenced your decision to pursue fine art photography after your retirement from academia?
I’ve owned cameras and made photographs since I was about ten, and had hundreds of negatives and slide transparencies stored, from the seventies and eighties especially. As an academic I’d written about photography, cinema and visual semiotics. When I found myself with time on my hands after ‘retirement’ I learnt how to operate digital SLR cameras and found, unsurprisingly, that photography is photography – the technical and aesthetic aspects of still photography are as they were when one went into the dark-room to dodge, crop and burn images into existence forty or fifty years ago.
I decided to increase my engagement with photography after making large prints of some aerial shots over Central Queensland which I really liked. So I hired a gallery and exhibited, and entered a few competitions. Lake George I, 2013 was a finalist in the NSW Parliamentary landscape prize, so I was further encouraged.
Would you like to talk about some of your mentors, or the people who have influenced you, in your career change?
My interest in Australian landscape painting dates back to childhood. Everyone from the colonial painters like Glover to post-war artists like Lloyd Rees and John Olsen, William Robinson. Most importantly, Fred Williams, whom I regard as Australia’s greatest painter. But abstract non-landscape painters also work their way through how you compose and restrain your images.
The great photographers, Adams, and many European and Australian cinematographers, of course, also show you what you can do with a camera if you concentrate on, and respect the landscape and its subtleties of scale and reflected light. What is a landscape photograph except a record of your engagement with natural forms and colours that are made strange and interesting by being rendered silent and still as images? All photos are about time and reflect contingency.
In your recent works, I am especially drawn to your series on Light Lines. Would you talk us through the process in their creation?
Light Lines is a selection of images where light itself, so to speak, is the subject. The process is not too magical, once you’ve looked closely at how light is reflected off water, sand, rock in subtly changing ways, as the day unfolds. I don’t take a lot of photographs of the situations that I’m exploring, being content to make only a few or several RAW files, each shot with manual control over the shutter speed and focus. Then it’s a matter of doing minimal post-production, including some cropping. Digital programs on standard computers are all I use (I don’t use Photoshop). The most important choices made when you have several images that ‘work’ on the screen are: first to understand how they should look when printed on paper (and here selecting the appropriate paper is very important); and, second, what size, including what border-sizes, will best guide how the image is looked at.
© Light Lines II – 450×675, 2016
I don’t like spectacle, so most of my images in Light Lines especially, are quite small. I don’t like my photos to look at the viewer; I like the isolated viewer to spend time involved in the image – itself also isolated by its framing and border space. So semioticians might note that I usually shoot from in front of the image plane, not obliquely. This increases involvement in the subject shown, even with micro or large natural forms. (For example, Inverell Water mono is an example which I hope illustrates these aspects of my practice.)
© Inverell Water mono 675×675, 2017
The colours in another of your series, that of Uluru Dark Pool, 2014 seem extraordinary, but I imagine they are the colours our naked eye can also see. To what extent is this range of colours dependent on the time of day?
All images are dependent on the time of day at which they are shot, if only because the parts of the spectrum that we see (and that digital cameras can mimic in complex ways) are ever-changing. Even allowing for white-balancing techniques, evening light is very different from noon and from early morning. And Australian light can be very ‘hard’ and bright. So, although I don’t make ‘hyper-real, super-saturated’ images, which I associate with advertising and some ‘postcards’, I do hope to print to bring out colour differences and contrasts (where these were registered when the photo was ‘taken’). I tend to stress formal elements, so monochrome images often result. We don’t see in monochrome, but subtle light effects can be rendered in ‘Black and White’.
© Uluru Light Pool III – 450×675, 2014
Water also features prominently in your landscapes. Would you elaborate on how you manage to render water’s ripples, reflections and movement so tangibly even when rendering End of the Murray as a monochrome?
In The End of The Murray (which is a pun drawing attention to the environmental problems of Australia’s greatest river) I have shot against the afternoon light to render the dying trees skeletal, and to contrast them with the silver water brought ‘alive’ by the rippling that ‘back-lighting’ makes salient.
© The End of the Murray – 450×338, 2014
So the whole image works through a series of contrasts – these were what attracted me to make the image, but the success of the shot is partly luck. Still, water is moody and active; it is a screen or a surface, transparent or opaque, depending on the angle of the light, your vantage point and choice of shutter speed, among other variables. So the photographer selects from the sets of options that different subject matter offers.
All the images on your website are available for sale as fine art in limited edition prints, signed and authenticated by yourself, printed on 100% cotton photorag,. Environmental considerations no doubt prompted your choice of this material. How satisfied are you with its quality and texture?
The choice of paper is determined by many factors. Photorag should be acid free and its colour temperature appropriate for the image in question. I sometimes use textured soft paper that makes my photos look ‘painterly’, I’m told.
What are you currently working on?
I am embarking on a course where I will learn to transfer some of my photos to plates suitable for etching and print-making in the non-photographic sense of that term. Old dog trying to learn new tricks. And I’m making another series of square, relatively small, images around the elements – water, earth, fire and air. But all my images might be said to be about the elements, it’s just a matter of how I abstract them in each photographic example.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Philip Bell, Judie Cross and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Cross, Judie (2017). “Conversation with Philip Bell,” FigureGround.org, October 2017.
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