Reduction, Reduction: Robin Broadbent

Celebrated still life photographer Robin Broadbent speaks to Port about his latest exhibition in London

Grids, 2012

Still life photography is a frequently overlooked discipline. It’s practitioners – patient, meticulous, technically skilled – may be direct descendants from their masterful 17th and 18th forebears in paint, but today, in an age of quick pack shots and a preference for lifestyle imagery, their skills are woefully underused commercially, and relatively critically unconsidered.

Robin Broadbent, the New York-based British photographer, is one of the most prominent exponents of the discipline and, having complimented his product-led work with a personal exploration of form, proves that still life can be one of the most exciting and creative areas of photography. Alongside campaigns for Prada, Balenciaga and Rolex, as well as work for Numéro, Vogue, the New York Times Magazine, and this publication, he has produced several books and mounted many well-received exhibitions of his work. The latest, Reduction, Reduction, runs at the newly opened Wren Gallery in east London until the end of June.

A labyrinth of large-scale abstracted studies, the show refers directly to Broadbent’s commercial work – which plays with a sense of scale and abstraction – further reducing the modern material world to a seductively simple form. Static yet lively, the compositions are precisely constructed – a process Broadbent considers to be almost surgical, “it’s all about the hands and the little details”. It’s fitting for an artist who first pursued a career in medicine, and there is likewise something clinical to many of his works, not least because the viewer can often make out actual pills or syringes. One contains the recognisable silhouette of a fine-toothed comb, an oddly eloquent allusion to the photographer’s characteristically exacting standards.

Here, Broadbent spoke to Port about the exhibition, his unique, abstract, painterly approach, and his artistic influences.

Black, 2016

How did the exhibition come about?

Last year I published a book – The Photographic Work of Robin Broadbent – which was seen by Jennifer Turner, who runs the gallery. Wren has two floors and I was excited that this could reflect the two sections of my book – one of lighter photographs on white/gray backgrounds and one of darker photographs printed on black. The main floor is filled with daylight but downstairs is a dark, windowless environment in which the images have been be spotlit.

The gallery liked that I am an ‘old school’ photographer who works on 10×8 large format and wanted the prints on show to be traditional silver gelatin and c-type for the color. I find producing large prints more interesting given that the images are mainly abstractions, so the size adds a certain ambiguity over whether it is photography or not.

Five, 2005

Could you explain a little your approach to the work? What is the unifying themes with the exhibition?

My work has very much had the same approach since I began. It is a study and exploration of objects, often turning into a series. I keep things very simple and reduce down to the minimum, with a balance of interest and tension with the negative and positive spaces. Nothing has really changed through my thirty years of taking pictures. I get excited by shape and form and how they interact or repeat – either in a random or organised way. The backgrounds have always been clean and simple with different neutral tonalities. So it is always about the object form that is being photographed with no distracting backgrounds. Although the backgrounds play a large role as negative spaces.

When I produced the book, I edited it with the designer Doug Lloyd, so a lot of the images had already been picked and had relationships to each other when we started working on the show. Like turning a page in a book, there had to be a relationship between the images as they hung. I worked very closely with Jennifer and we chose images that were pure abstractions with very little to distract or reveal other than line or color.

Cyan, 2001

The works are drawn from over two decades. How did you curate the selection?

Most of the book was more recent than twenty years ago, but I felt some of the earlier work helped add balance to the show and my vision has stayed similar so that work remains relevant. Jennifer was keen to make the show as abstract and linear as possible so that looking around the room you experience an interaction of darks and shapes and line. A lot of monochromatic black and white images, and then a sudden burst of colour and then back to the black and white.

Factor, 2012

How do you understand the nature of abstract photography generally at the moment? What influences do you specifically draw from?

As soon as something is recognisable within a photograph, it tends to be a photograph of something, which in itself limits the way it is seen. I want to take photographs that can be hung on the wall and enjoyed for their forms and shapes, without questioning where they come from. Each time you see something different in the image.

I wonder sometimes whether I’m really a photographer who paints or a painter who photographs. No one would question a painter doing abstract imagery but as it’s a photograph, people start questioning. It shouldn’t be relevant but the questions still come.

I started studying science with the intention of going to medical school and I wonder if this is my way of being an artist without paint. Fortunately I was lucky enough to work with an American photographer, Robert Golden, who opened my eyes to the true complexity, and to a love of art.

The first artists I liked and related to were Kandinsky, Malevich and other Russian constructivist artists. And I soon moved on to the New York abstract expressionists such as Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. As far as photographers, I always found the Bauhaus group very exciting, particularly Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy. Also Albert Renger-Patzsch, an early German photographer and even Edward Weston and his pepper photographs. They seem to look at objects and buildings from different perspectives and viewpoints. There’s no traditional respect, it was more about how you can make the best image within the frame, even if it meant twisting or turning the camera and even pointing it in a completely different direction.

Reduction, Reduction runs at the Wren Gallery, 39 Featherstone Street, London until 30th June

robinbroadbent.com

 

Photo Essay: Fish

Port and still life photographer Giles Revell go under to reveal the beauty beneath the waves

John Dory fish on blotting paper, shot by Giles Revell

John Dory

This extraordinary looking fish, with its quiff-like spiny dorsal fin and miserable face, has the rather grand Latin name Zeus Faber, as it was sacred to the god Zeus. It also carries the Christian name St Peter’s fish, the gold ringed dark spots on either side of its body are supposedly the fingerprints of St Peter, the apostle who pulled the fish out of the Sea of Galilee and plucked a gold coin from his mouth to pay his overdue taxes.

The John Dory is a sophisticated predator, creeping up behind its prey then using its extending mouth to hoover up cuttlefish, small-fin fish and squid. To eat, John Dory could be described as elegant and is considered by many to be the best tasting fish in the sea.

Haddock on blotting paper

Haddock

Haddock is a close relative of cod, they have a bluish-brown back, silvery flanks, a black curved lateral line and a sensitive chin barbell used for feeling around for food in the dark ocean depths.

They enjoy the cool waters of the North Oceans only coming inshore in summer to feed before going back offshore to breed. To eat, haddock has an ozone-like aroma that encapsulates the salt water from which it is fished; the texture is very lean, spearmint white and soft and it is best cooked with its skin on to enjoy its delicate flavour.

Freshly caught mackerel on blotting paper

Mackerel

A ritzy looking fish with its metallic green-blue sheen scattered with a mass of black scribbles or bars on its back, pale green and purple flanks that sparkle with a myriad of hues. It’s designed for speed, is a highly effective hunter and can live for up to 20 years if it avoids nets and lines.

It’s a fish that repays being eaten very fresh before its rich oil content starts to spoil. The aroma of the fish is reminiscent of fine green seaweed and its predominately pink flesh is succulent with discreet flakes that are almost chicken-like in texture.

Herring on blotting paper

Herring

The “silver darling” herring has a rich history in the world of fishing. So important are they that from Britain to Scandinavia, there have been an enormous number of cures created to preserve them. From their head to the deeply forked tail they are predominately silver with a blue-green back, allowing them to melt away into the watery environment when viewed from above.

Herrings are rich in oil content and are perfect for smoking after a spring and summer of feeding, which makes them lusciously plump. These wonderful oils add to the saltiness of their flavour and the skin adds a light seawater character and the flesh, a slight white peppery spiciness.

Salmon Heads on blotting paper

Salmon

Atlantic salmon is one of the most popular eating species, probably because it farms so well. These fish are extraordinary as they are able to return to the river where they were born with pinpoint accuracy years after they went to sea, and it’s believed that a number of navigation aids, including the stars, differences in the Earths magnetic fields and ocean currents, guide them.

Once they get close off the coast, salmon literally smell their way home, guided by a chemical memory of what their river smelled and tasted like. There is no mistaking its rich savoury flavour with its high and satisfying oil content.

Photography Giles Revell
Photography assistant Tristan Thomson