In art, it often seems that the most simple ideas are the least easily sold. Little exists in these for copy writing, little exists to spur additional interest in method, technique, narrative or politics. Simple ideas are, after all, rescued by personal investment and beautiful execution, with just those to hang on to.
Stephen Gill’s latest book ‘The Pillar’ is about as stripped of complexity as it’s possible to get and is compelling and worth discussing exactly for those reasons. His previous work – Night Procession – was an experiment with camera traps at night. Forgoing a lot of more common forms of authorship, Gill was able to create an expressionistic series of photographs of animals moving at night. Yet, I would argue that ‘The Pillar’ simplifies the process and the images even further.
In this new book what we get is 127 vertical images of field, a pillar and (usually) an animal. The camera is trained not on the pillar, but on the field behind it. The frame rarely shifts (and even then only barely), only what the camera trap captures shifts. And yet for all this similarity there is an absolute smorgasbord of variety. At times a single bird stands on the pillar, but at others a flock wheels away, a lone fox explores the ground, and in another a half of a bird obscures the camera. The seasons march, the grass grows, then dies. Life passes and is captured, in all its predictability, in all its banality, in all its glory and interest.
And even within this deliberately straightforward approach, there are definitely images that stand out as different. For example one shot of grass and hay flung up, or an image of just the landscape, or the one single gatefold, to name a few. And the authorship is present not just in the book making but also in the aesthetic treatment of colour (de-saturated, cold) and black and white. But these choices are subtle and restrained and support the honesty of the majority of the images.
Repetition is key here – the frame is so repetitive, as is the sizing and placement of images on the page. And this repetition makes each moment of slight variety something to treasure. There’s never really two images that are identical and very small differences in the pose of the bird, or the time of year make for extremely different images – as is always the case, but here it is more clear and more deliberate. While it’s always true that no two images are identical, Gill really enjoys creating in that space, demonstrating exactly how different trusting in chance and time can make a scene.
Interestingly, unlike other camera trap stills, often what triggers the trap is, itself, out of focus, moving too quickly or too hastily to be captured clearly. And this is exactly the embracing of simplicity that makes the work special – this book reminds viewers what seeing and experiencing these moments could be – we don’t always see what moves in front of our vision well, but it is still exciting, beautiful and surprising. Gill moves away from how traps are often made to capture and in doing so makes something that owns its honesty more completely.
In this vein often the images are not flattering at all – birds bent at weird angles, the backsides often showing, the lighting cloudy and soppy, the image grainy and barely exposed. And this is where another subtle form of the authorship in Gill’s work lies – in showing the more quirky, funny and bizarre side of the results.
I think that the most enduring aspect of Gill’s work is that it is imbued with elements of trust and hope. To put a camera in a field, and to wait, trusting that interesting and varied images would emerge, which could be turned into a really long book involving most of the bird species in the area, in a variety of moments, poses, positions, colours and times of day is an act of hope.
Gill has trusted the world, he has embraced what exists in the most open way possible, forgoing almost all direction in the taking of the images and trusting life itself to deliver compelling material to be turned into art. There’s a maturity that’s commendable, here, there’s an elegance and a bravery to just allowing what will be to be, and then using skill to move beyond that. I hope that this book endures, I hope that its simplicity and beauty are taken note of, I hope we remember what can move us in the world and I hope we remember that art need not be convoluted, Byzantine or ivory towered to present something worth seeing.
Stephen Gill (b. 1971, Bristol, UK) became interested in photography in his early childhood, thanks to his father and interest in insects and initial obsession with collecting bits of pond life to inspect under his microscope.
Stephen’s photographs are held in various private and public collections and have also been exhibited at many international galleries and museums including London’s National Portrait Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Museum of London, Agnes B, Victoria Miro Gallery, Christophe Guye Gallery, Sprengel Museum, Tate, Centre National de l’audiovisual, Galerie Zur Stockeregg, Archive of Modern Conflict, Gun Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Leighton House Museum, Haus Der Kunst and has had solo shows in festivals including – Recontres d’Arles, The Toronto photography festival, Festival Images – Vevey and PHotoEspaña. The Pillar was presented with the Les Rencontres de la Photographie author book award in Arles 2019.
Matthew Dunne is an Australian photographer, educator and writer. You can see more of his work at — mattdunnephoto.com / thisonthat.org