Photo Monitor Interview with Claire Holland, May 2019
I first became aware of your work when I encountered the Stars series, which are full of light and quite magical. The fires series are no less powerful but, for me, have a somewhat darker tone. What was your thinking about them when you were creating them?
I’ve come back to this question after answering all the others because its difficult to put it down in a way that explains the journey this series took and why it has a darker tone. I started the series in the autumn of 2017 and not long after this my father became very ill. He spent the next 5 months in hospital and I made much of the Fires series on days off between visiting him or on the way back from the hospital.
This series changed a lot over the course of its making. It began as a brightly burning fire but somewhere in the middle the fires started to become lower, some just smoldered and eventually the flames became completely extinguished.
There were times when I thought about this series as a way to look at a whole life. The fires started to signify the circle of life, they became signal fires, totems, hearths, sources of comfort. Sometimes they took on a sort of spiritual significance.
At the end of that long, long time my dad did not win his battle, but I came to realize that the energy of a life remains somehow. I didn’t want this work to be about sadness and loss, I wanted the fires to continue to burn. I decided to take out the extinguished fires from the series. Looking back I can see that though I want this work to be optimistic something of my mood during this time has remained.
My artist’s statement does not touch on any of these issues because central to all my work is an exploration of the relationship I have with the woods, it casts back to a connection with the earliest inhabitants of forests and it explores the effect that the mere trace of someone can have on the whole space. The fires imply a presence within the woodland and invite the viewer into the image, to sit down with me in the forest space.
Making this work was a huge comfort during a very difficult period of my life and I am grateful to have my artistic practice to immerse myself in. It takes me outside of everyday life in a way that helps me process life’s challenges.
Why are the forests significant for you? Could you tell me a little about the forests you work in and why you have chosen to focus on them?
I grew up in the New Forest so I spent my childhood exploring the woods with my parents and my twin sister. We loved camping and cooking outdoors, my dad was very interested in foraging and the old techniques of preserving foods such as smoking and curing. My mum taught us about plants, trees and birds. This all came together to give me a great love of the outdoors and especially British forests with their characteristic mix of ancient woodlands, plantations and heathland.
How long do you spend visiting these places?
I moved to London in my early 20s so I spent a great deal less time in the woods and I think this played a significant role in my emphasis on woodland in my work; it was a way to get back to the woods and to reconnect with the places I loved in my youth. I am now lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in the woods one way or another, through my work, with my family and out on my bike.
How much do the works reflect your own experience of growing up and how much would you like them to reveal of yourself?
My work probably reflects both things in equal measure, those early experiences had a strong influence on the direction of the work in the early days but I have brought a great deal of myself into the work too.
To what extent are the works about your own personal relationship to the landscape around you?
This is an intrinsic part of the work. I hope it comes through as an atmosphere in the image or a feeling engendered by viewing the work, rather than the image actually illustrating a particular idea. There needs to be latitude for the viewer to bring their own experience to the viewing process and this is only possible if there is a certain space within which to do this. If the image is too explicit in portraying its intention it often ascribes too much meaning so I try to keep a light hand.
What prompted your move from London to Dorset?
I was travelling back and forth to the New Forest for my work and my husband John who runs foraging walks (his company is called Forage London and Beyond) was also travelling to the New Forest and Dorset regularly. We had lived in London for 20 years and we wanted to move before our son started school and a move to Dorset meant we could have the sea cliffs and the forest on our doorstep.
Could you describe your creative/working process?
Everything begins with an idea. I start by making notes and drawing sketches and diagrams in my notebook, reading around the subject or the themes involved.
I love the twists and turns that an idea can take in its journey to becoming a fully developed series of images so it’s interesting to look back at my note book and see how many things I have noted down which have become incorporated into new bodies of work.
The next stage is to gather any materials I need and set off into the forest. I have a camper van and I park as close as I can get to the forest area I have in mind. Sometimes I just take a small kit and cycle or walk into the woods, finding a place to work as I go. Other times I will have an exact location in mind based on the trees, the composition or the background. I also use Google Earth to identify areas with a predominance of conifer or hard wood trees, rivers and other features.
I loved making the Half Light series because each image included a river. This meant that I was able to explore the New Forest in a new way and with fresh eyes. Instead of looking for particular trees or clearings I searched for rivers and streams. They needed a particular kind of river bank, not too high and not too overgrown and the water needed to be shallow enough to cross in my waders. I often put the tripod in the river and shot looking back toward the banks. I really enjoy the different creative challenges that arise with each new series.
Once I’ve finished shooting I try not to edit the images straight away, I prefer to have a bit of distance from the experience of making the images so that I can be more objective. The retouching is minimal and then I work with Bayeux Imaging in London to produce the final prints.
Perhaps I’m romanticizing a little here, but I see your work to be, at least in part, a celebration of process. When you’re creating your scenes and interventions in the forest, how does it feel to be in that moment?
This is absolutely true, I’m so pleased you see this in the work. My first love was sculpture and I think this has carried through into my practice. I wanted to be a sculptor throughout my early life but I felt that it would be a lonely existence and so I looked for a form of creativity that would be more social. It is ironic that I now love being alone and I have molded my practice to allow me to spend all my time working alone in the woods!
For me being fully engrossed in making, to lose sight and awareness of everything around me and to become completely focused is a truly wonderful feeling. Photography alone doesn’t really do this but composing some form of making, installation or interaction within the woodland does bring this complete engagement with the process and with the place in which I am working, it is truly absorbing.
I also love the different stages within the photographic process; the making, the editing, the retouching and finalizing the printed output with my lab. I do miss the darkroom and the hands-on tactility of developing and printing, maybe one day I will re-visit this.
How much are you thinking about the finished works, and your audience, when you’re in those moments?
I try to make images that I really like rather than thinking about the audience. The idea of an audience is so abstract it doesn’t really seem real to me but if I did dwell on the idea I think it would probably paralyze me.
Your works are very immediate and have an aesthetic quality that, I believe, negate the need for explanation. But there are many themes at play that could spark the imagination of the viewer and inspire them to attach their own meaning to the scenes on a very personal level. Is that how you might like the viewer to appreciate your work?
This is absolutely how I’d like the work to be viewed. As I mentioned earlier I want to leave space for the viewer to respond to the image from a personal perspective. I love the range of responses that a single image can invoke, one person finding it uplifting while someone else sees it as dark and sinister; it’s all about what the viewer brings.
How political is your work?
Intrinsic to my work is my passionate view that we must preserve our natural habitats. The forest in my images are all within national parks, private woodlands and Forestry Commission lands that make up just 10% of the UK. The more we interact with nature and get out into the woods and wild places in the UK the more we feel a desire to preserve and protect them. I hope my work leads people into the woods in their imaginations and in turn encourages them to get out there and to get involved with charities such as The Woodland Trust https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/
How do you know when a series is finished and you’re ready to move on to something new?
My bodies of work usually consist of between 7 and 15 images. The end usually comes with a feeling of having explored the idea in all the ways I want to and there is a sense that the series has taken on a life of its own, a certain completeness. Sometimes there is a new idea clamoring to be started.
Are there any other photographers or artists who have been an influence on you?
In my early career I worked for a renowned Still Life, Interior and People photographer called Simon Brown (https://simonbrownphotography.com) whose no-lighting, lightweight-kit approach to his own work was very influential on my technique.
Simon had a fantastic collection of photo books and I was really interested in the work of artists such as Franchesca Woodman, Sarah Moon and Boomoon. I later went on to do my MA in Photography in London College of Communication and visited an exhibition at the V & A called ‘Twilight: Photography in the Magic Hour (2006)’. It was here I discovered artists working with landscape and with low light such as Crystal Labas, Ori Gersht and Bill Henson. This was a huge turning point in my approach, it got me thinking about a whole new way of making my work, about creating feelings and atmosphere rather than figurative compositions and I moved away from working with people and began to concentrate solely on landscape.
What are you looking to explore next?
My new series is very dark, it is about that time of day beyond twilight but before deep night. Going into summer is not the best time to be embarking on this subject so I will be working very late or very early in the morning, looking for mist and fog and rainy days when I am at my happiest in the woods.