Cercle Magazine Photo Essay

March 2013

Cercle Magazine’s first issue will feature a photo essay of Ellie Davies’ recent work.

La Foret is the theme for the first issue of Paris-based photo magazine Cercle.

The magazine features extensive ‘conversations’ with Ellie Davies and five other artists working in the forest.

The Magazine Website http://www.cerclemagazine.com/Magazine

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Interview with Francis Ramel, Cercle Magazine, France, 2013.

My first question will be about what brought you to photography. Have you done an art school and, if yes, which one ? Tell me more about what led you to photography in particular. I’d really love to have a kind of global overview of the path that led you to what you’re making now. What do you love about this medium ? do you carry on a particular relationship with photography ?

About 10 years ago I began taking my photographic career, I did a Darkroom course and began printing my own work.  I assisted other photographers for about 4 years, learning about lighting and taking some commissioned work but I hated working from a brief, and wanted more creative independence in my working life as well as in my personal work.   In 2006-8 I  did an MA at London College of Communication but it wasn’t until the very end of this two years that I began working in the woods, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

We’ll talk about the forest later, but first, I’d love to know why do you want to create pictures and to show them to the world.

I make my images because I love the creative process.   I’ve always had a need in my life to make things and have a project in progress.  When I’m in a gap between bodies of work I feel in limbo, its a necessity to keep creating.  I did a lot of sculpture when I was younger, and I’m so happy that this has found its way back into my work.  There is a feeling of being totally absorbed, oblivious of everything else whilst I am making work, its very addictive.

its also very personal, and it can be an peculiar process to move from a very person experience making the work, through the production process working with a printer and framer, to seeing the framed pieces on a white wall at a private view.  The images take on a life of their own and they are now longer mine in some sense.  I am left with the experience and this is what means the most to me.

Your pictures have a certain sculptural touch, that’s obvious, and it’s nice to understand that it’s directly linked to your experience. I was wondering if you’re always alone when you do your pictures ? Some of them are quite complicated, and very close to installations, sometimes (like in the Dwellings series, for example). You must stay hours in those woods in order to accomplish them…would you say that your work is both a photographic work, and also a work which deals closely with installation ? And if not, why ?

I am usually alone when I make my work. Being solitary allows me to concentrate, to think clearly, and to experience the woodland in a more personal way.  I need to settle into the space and be quiet in order to find how I’m going to work within it

Over the last few years my work has become more and more sculptural.  In my 20’s I made a lot of sculpture, mostly in metal,  my arc welder was one of my most precious possessions!  Gradually that making-process has found its way back into my photography.  Each piece of work is made in a day, and excluding the Dwellings series which I left in the woods to return to at a later date, I remove all traces of this work at the end of the day.

I see these pieces as woodland installations for the short time that they exist.   The resulting image is an extension of this process, not simply a recording mechanism or a way to bring the work to a gallery audience, but the culmination.  My work is both installation and photographic image.

I was also wondering if you leave the traces of your intervention when the picture is done ? Most of the time, it’s a very tiny trace, like wool or even light. But sometimes it’s painting, which is modifying quite a lot the landscape. Do you think that the trace that you’re leaving is part of your work? or maybe you erase it when the picture is made? In both case, why ?

I remove everything after I am finished with photographing each piece, except in the case of the Dwelling series where the intention was to return to the structure after a period of time and see how it had changed and how my relationship to it had changed.   Leaving the Dwellings was an important part of the work and I was happy to do this because I had not used any foreign materials, just fallen branches and bracken gathered from the surrounding area.  I remove everything because I would see leaving a trace of my work as littering or vandalism of the woodland.

The question of the way you feel with your intervention in the wood is also very interesting. there’s a lot of artists who have that kind of relationship with the landscape, and your work is clearly linked with the Arte Povera and The Land Art, in different ways. What do you think about that ? Would you say that you’re working with their legacy, or do you think that you’re totally different from artists of those movements ?

Any artist working with the landscape works with the legacy of these movements but I don’t feel directly linked to particular modes of working.  My work is very personal, I use a very small kit and take a ‘low-fi’ approach.  Some American land art became very big and made a physical impact on the landscape, I can’t see myself ever working in this way.

I noticed that both of your series, “Come with me” and “Knit one, pearl one” are, in someway, linked to the idea of path. Is that something particularly important in your way of approaching the forest ? Is the forest a landscape that is made to walk through it ? the “Knit one Pearl one” series make me think to the story of the Minotaur. Do you think that the forest is a kind of labyrinth ? I ask you that because I was thinking of the hours you spend in the forest, looking for the right place, the right atmosphere, maybe sometime without even being sure that you will find something. I guess that this time is also important in your work. It’s about you and the landscape… You told me that this feeling is totally absorbing, and very addictive. Would you say that the meditative part of your work is as much important that the result of your work ? And if not, how much this time is important in the process ?

The path is of course a way of moving through a space, and these bodies of work were about how we occupy a space and move through it, following a trajectory with the eye or by walking. I walk a great deal in order to find places to work, and as you say, I’m often not sure what I will find or even what I’m looking for.   The path is a way to draw the viewer into the work and into the space, to invite them in.

The meditative making process is as important a part of my work as the result, but it is also necessary for me to separate the two things in order to evaluate whether the final image is working.  When I look at the image it is imbued with the experience of making it, and this can skew my reading.  In order to gain the distance necessary to be objective I often leave my new images for a couple of months before editing them so that the experience has faded somewhat and does not colour my objectivity.

I really feel that you’re a photographer, a sculptor and a performer. Yet, there’s no body on your pictures, which is leaving a strange feeling of emptiness and an uncanny atmosphere…Could you tell me a bit more about that ?

I see myself as a photographer and a sculptor but not a performer.  Being in the woods is a peculiar experience, every time is different.  Sometimes I am relaxed and comfortable, but at other times I feel extra aware and on edge, too conspicuous.  The  woods can feel unnerving, threatening, occupied or spooky, and it is this potentiality that I aim to capture in my work

Your pictures are full of unspoken words linked to the world of tales, even sometimes in the frightening part of the tales. How much does that matter to you and why are you so “in love” with this atmosphere

Our experience of any space is coloured by what we bring to it.  Our notion of the Forest is a cultural construct, and the role of myth, fairytales and folk law play a part of this.  The Forest is a place to get lost, it reflects the subconscious, it is full of dark and hidden places.  This intrigues me, but its up to the viewer to read my images any way they wish and I’m always surprised by the varied interpretations.

And finally, I read that you’re considering the forest as a kind of cultural landscape. Could you tell me more about that? Don’t you think that each landscape is a cultural landscape ? This term is quite linked to a pictural approach and I read somewhere that our way of thinking the landscape is connected with the painters from the Renaissance. Do you feel like a painter, choosing the right point of view, when you’re making pictures ? To me, a landscape is always controlled by human, but maybe you don’t agree with that and I’d love to know your opinion !

I agree that all landscape is a cultural landscape, this is central to my work.  Landscape is an idea and is there inseparable from culture.

I was wondering something about your previous works, the sculpted ones. Why did you stopped to create those kind of work ? I was wondering if it was your very own decision or it was something else ? Maybe a “forest call” or something like that ? I was also wondering if you’d love to send us a picture of one of those work. Your favorite one, maybe ? the relationship between metal sculptures and your way of approaching photography is very interesting to me. If you don’t want to, no problem, I’m just curious.

The metal and clay sculptures feel like really old work so I’d prefer not to include an image.  I loved sculpture, but I was making this work when I was in my late teens and at the time I couldn’t work out a way to make this into a way of life for myself.  In my early twenties I moved to London and worked for some magazines and started getting really interested in photography.  I realized that photography was a medium that I could use as a creative outlet.

You talked about the dwellings series, and about the fact that you made them with the idea of coming back later to see what happened to them. This kind of protocol is always very interesting. Did you came back ? And if yes,  How long after your first intervention ? What did you saw, was it interesting ? Did you made other pictures of the place or was it only a personal moment ? The dwellings was inhabitated? How did they evolve ? was this experience a surprising one ? How did you feel, meeting them for the second time ?

I did come back, usually a month or so after the making, and each piece was photographed after this period of time had elapse.  I tried to build them strongly so that they would be in good condition when I returned to them.  I was particularly interested in experiencing how my relationship to them had changed: when I first made the Dwellings they were mine, they were very personal.  A period of absence allowed them to become themselves, structures that were separate from me, and therefore alien.  They took on a more sinister and daunting personality because they had been out there in the woods, night and day, and had become part of the woods.  They had become unknown to me so I could experience them anew, as a stranger.

the fact that you always try to remove your traces of your intervention in the woods, and also that leaving a trace is for you vandalism of the woodland make me wondering about the ecological part of your work. The beauty of nature is something that seems to be  important in your work. am I wrong ? What do you think about how our society is considering nature and woods ? Is your work connected to a kind of societal message, or is it only a personnal way of seeing it ?

I think its impossible to work in the landscape and not be collaborating in some way with ‘the beauty of nature’ but I want to expose the idealized notion of ‘beauty’ for what it is, a façade, a construction.   Our perception of landscape is packaged and comodified through the filters of ecology, science, art, leisure, agriculture, folk law and so on, and in this way we try to make sense of the natural world by arranging and managing it.  All landscape has become cultural landscape.

We haven’t talk about the technical part of your work, yet, and you told that you have a kind of “Low-fi” approach. I guess that it’s both something linked with the fact that you have to walk in the woods for hours, but also something that is very important in your way of seeing photography. Could you tell me a bit more about this approach ? And also, could you tell me what kind of camera, lights and other things you’re bringing with you into the woodlands ?

When I say ‘low-fi’ it is because I am not a big person and I like to be independent and work alone so I need to be able to carry my kit.  I use a tripod and Nikon digital 35mm.  For The Gloaming and Islands series’ I used small lights and a generator,  but the majority of my work is made using only natural light.  I like to work in bad weather, very overcast dark days give a gloomy, flat light and deep shadow.

I have an old VW camper van in which I transport all my materials, so I can park near where I am working and make tea and get warm if I’m spending long winter days in the woods.

I was also wondering if you have a  favorite kind of forest ? Are those pictures taken not too far from your house? Or are you always looking for the best potential places to take your pictures, all over the country ? Your pictures are showing some familiar  forest. Would you like to take pictures of more exotic woods?

My work is about how the woods make you feel to be inside them, and this is most strongly experienced as you step into a dense pine forest.  The sound is muffled and everything seems very still but I wouldn’t want to spend long periods of time in such a barren monoculture. Every wood feels different, in some I feel very comfortable while others feel distinctly creepy.  The Ancient forests of the south of England are probably my favourite kind of forest because I know them so well and there is such diversity of flora and fauna, but I also love Fontainebleau forest in France where I go to climb on the boulders, and the deep, dark plantations near the Llanberis Pass in North Wales.

And finally, I was wondering about what is going on for you now, are you working on a new serie of pictures ? And if yes, is your work still linked to the woods ? Could you tell us more about the way your work is evolving, what do you want to create in the future and also, if you want, a few words  about your next exhibitions !I have just started a new series of images, again making in the woods.  Its very new and still in the process of being formulated.  It is about the strangeness of coming across something unrecognisable in the woods.


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