John Mathews talks to Annabel Elgar
JM: Could you tell me about your process and how you go about creating the scenes in your photographs?
AE: The starting point of my work is the imagined fantasies of someone outside of society. Someone who appears to live a, so called, normal life but who, within the confines of their home, finds it hard to keep a lid on their desires. I might begin with a news story for the preparation of a work, or something else that I have read or seen, and build it up from there. An example would be the story of the American creationist teacher John Freshwater who insisted on having the bible on his desk at school and who branded crosses on the arms of several students. The starting point of Trophy was the story of the American Pentecostal sect ‘The Church of God with Signs Following’. As part of this religion they drank strychnine poison and handled serpents. If the serpents bit you then it was seen as a sign of lack of faith. I am fascinated by the details of these stories: the Russian cult who retreated into a cave because they thought Armageddon was going to happen and who also believed that supermarket barcodes were Satanic, which seems like a really strange fear to have.
I start with a completely empty space and gradually introduce elements into the image. I make very homespun props, add them, document the work and gradually revisit it. I only take the final image when I am happy with the scene. So the actual process of taking the work is maybe a day but the build up can take several months.
JM: Your images often feature remote locations which have a very isolated, frontier feel to them. Could you talk about the importance of location in your work?
AE: I grew up in a small village in the south of England, which was like a little village out of a Miss Marple story, so I tend to shy away from places that have that look and feel. I search out spaces that are completely anonymous and which can then be transformed into something other. Most of the spaces are internal spaces and when you do see outside it’s often camouflaged.
JM: Framing is an important aspect to your work and many images feature doorways, people staring through windows and reflections in mirrors. Are you using a frame within a frame to bridge real and imagined spaces?
AE: The window is central to the idea of going from one world to another. Within Pegasus for example, the character is very closed off and is maybe longing to be outside. Obviously, something has happened, like a child’s party or a meeting, but the space is completely abandoned. You don’t know if he was excluded from an event but the window is definitely a boundary between two shifting worlds.
JM: The objects within your photographs are almost like clues in a mystery. Could you talk about how you create open-ended narratives within your work?
AE: Companion (2) was one of the first images where I started introducing key objects into the work. The image is about a man catching this mouse but who is fixated on it, in an almost erotic and masturbatory way. He has no fear of the mouse and returns to it all the time, whilst it’s decaying and glued to this horrible tape. It’s one of my favourite images and it was the first time an object was central to the narrative. It became a starting point for many other works and I went on to make the bread castle image called Prototype and Companion (3), which features the unicorn carved out of soap.
These works also stemmed from my interest in prison art. The props I make are often fantasy-based objects that allow the characters within the images to go from their humdrum everyday lives into some kind of other worldly sphere. The spaces are quite claustrophobic and I imagine the characters beavering away, making these little trophy-like props and tools, as a way to escape their lives.
JM: Is what you leave out of your scenes as important as what you put in. If you provide too much information does it break the illusion?
AE: I think that less is definitely more. Sometimes I want to go a little bit further and I have to pull myself back and realise that I don’t want to give the story away. I think that the indication of something is more powerful than if it is completely spelt out. I like stories that are multi-layered and have lots of different references. Lots of people look at my work and say it’s incredibly dark but I think there are small elements of humour within it.