all images by Susan Derges
About a year ago I spoke to Susan Derges for an article for the RPS journal. It was fascinating to hear about experience, opportunity, chance and a singular appetite for experimentation led to a career path in which each project follows on from the other with common themes that are both personal and universal in nature, where water is a driving force both in Derges' life-history and the prints that she makes in very physical ways.
Susan Derges will be speaking at Beyond Beyond the Visual: Music, Word and Landscape at the SouthBank Club, Bristol
November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00
Buy Tickets here
This is what she said.
Susan Derges is best-known for her large scale photograms that combine simplicity with a reverence for the element in which they are made. An almost personal involvement with water has been a hallmark of her work, and the lush but minimal way in which she examines its actions on the world around us can be traced back both to her schooldays in rural Hampshire and the time she spent working in Japan in the early 1980s.
“I grew up in Fleet by the Basingstoke Canal and was very interested in what was going on in the waterway in all seasons,” she says. “It was a regular place of reference and it started in early childhood. I was mesmerised by it. You’d get barges go by and you’d get these wave patterns with interference or a duck would land and the droplets would ripple across each other. And in the seasons everything would change; shiny and still in summer, frozen in winter and moody and dripping in Autumn.”
The fascination with water was filtered through an organic minimalism that emerged from Derges’ experience of living in Japan in the early 1980s. “I went to live in Japan for a period of five years,” she says. “And Japan reflected that fascination as well because water is venerated there; in the temples, in the gardens, even in modern office buildings you’ll go in and there will be a quiet place with a small pond of water where you can sit and contemplate. Japan is completely watery,” says Derges with a laugh.
After returning from Japan, Derges continued researching new ways to portray the physical world. “I was reading a lot about physics and the observer and the observed and was really interested in finding ways to visually articulate that. I was exploring the invisible world and appropriating things from early science.”
This curiosity with how to make the sensory and emotional visible has been a hallmark of her career. She has experimented with process, symbolism and the environment to create one of the most distinctive bodies of work in photography today. It’s a curiosity that has continued to this day. From environmentally based photograms to digitally produced constructed environments, Susan Derges’ work bridges the past and the present.
1. Observer and Observed no 6.
“I had a marvellous book from the 1950s called Soap Bubbles and the Forces that Mould them. It was a beautiful gem of a book and it had an experiment called musical fountains. You charged the fountains with a tuning fork and then lit it with a strobe light so it seemed as though the water wasn’t moving. I set this experiment up in my darkroom with a transducer, a jet of water and a frequency generator for the sound and it was amazing. You had these water droplets hanging in space and they looked so still, as though you could reach out and touch them, but of course if you did that your hand got wet because they weren’t still at all.”
Derges says she “…took lots of boring Harold Egerton like images…” and then her camera jammed. She went in front of the lens to unjam it, the film apparently ruined. “When I developed the film I was about to throw it away, but then I looked more closely and I thought, ah, there’s something going on here. Then I saw the information in the water droplets. They were like little fish eye lenses reflecting multiple images of me. So there was that Man Ray teardrop element and it started having connections with surrealism. It was a fortuitous accident but one that I was looking for.”
2. Full Circle
“When I was making the previous work I was in a flat in Notting Hill Gate using the flat as a studio and doing very science based work. But I moved to Devon in 1991 and suddenly found the landscape of Devon enormously rich. I saw this pond on Dartmoor and the sun was hitting this frogspawn and the shadow from the sun looked just like a photogram. I thought I can do that in the studio. So I did.”
3. River Bovey
“After that I got more interested in what I was looking at rather than how to represent it. I got interested in life cycles, the cycles of frogs and bees, and the processes of what was going on in the landscape.”
“I thought I could go outside at night with big sheets of paper and go into the place and be led by the place and the situation. That was what I experienced with the River Taw and Bovey. I wanted to get as close as possible to a process that is also our process. Our bodies, our mental processes work in a way that is very similar to what happens in a river. There are streams and flows and blockages, so I was dabbling in reading complexity and chaos and considering myself a participant rather than an author.”
“I was processing my own prints by the time I made Shoreline. These prints were made on the South Devon Coast around Sidmouth and Dawlish. I’d go there and wait for high tide and then let the waters flow over them. They were 3 ½ feet x 8 feet long and I got quite adept at reading the patterns of the water and the moon and the effect it would have on the paper.”
“There was such an investment in taking these big prints and you could lose so many prints in one night and end up with nothing if the waves went the wrong way. But I started to get headaches and eye strain from spending hours and hours in the dark room . It was physically taxing.”
5. Full Moon
“I had got very tired of being dictated to by a process but I got really interested in the moons, the clouds and the star fields so I started to do a lot of night photography of moons and star fields. Then I used an enlarger head on a rail to make a tracking device and put in the transparency of the moon or stars and projected that onto the Cibachrome in the tank with the leaves and branches laid on top of it.”
6. Canal Bridge
“That’s made with constructed silhouettes. It’s a reference back to growing up. It’s an imaginary place with the branches brought in. It’s a digital print made with a digital camera.”
“In a way it’s about death. There’s this symbol of crossing the river and there’s the symbol of the fading moon but I wasn’t thinking about these things when I made it. I made it just after my mother’s death and I had a strong sense of the transience of life. It refers back to my childhood and the canal I used to play at, but I’ll probably never go to that place again because the person associated with it is gone.”
at the SouthBank Club, Bristol
November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00
Buy Tickets here