Berlin-based, New Zealand photographer Conor Clarke is adept at capturing mundane subject matter in a way that renders it truly sublime. Known to use scale for illusive purposes, her latest assemblage of work Ground Water Mirror, sees her turn her lens to water as both a physical substance and point of urban contention. Currently showing at Two Rooms Gallery in Grey Lynn, as part of the Festival of Photography, we spoke to the promising photographer about her practice, the power of photography, and the difference between shooting on a camera and a phone.
How much does being based in Berlin influence your style, and how? I can’t help but be influenced by Berlin, but also the times we live in, the environmental state of the world, a feeling of alienation from this idea of nature. I respond to these things and also the challenges that come with living in a big city. Berlin’s water infrastructure network and its super-high water table became the source of my new project Ground Water Mirror — a literal and slightly incorrect translation of Grundwasserspiegel, the German word for ‘water table’. I use the multi-layered meaning of spiegel (surface/level/mirror) to consider the self-reflective qualities of water; not only the obvious mirror-like qualities but the expectation that follows contemplation of water — to provide a solution to the questions or anxieties we project onto it (anxieties that arise from urban living for example).
Do you have a consistent message with your work, or does it change according to what you are inspired by? I’m interested in how we perceive the natural world. How we categorise it, anthropomorphise it, represent it in words and images. I’ve always been interested in picture-making formulas or ways of seeing from throughout art history, particularly the picturesque, sublime or romantic genres. Using one of these ‘formulas’ I can transform a construction site into an epic landscape, one that has the potential to remind us of other places, or pictures of places, or pictures of pictures. My subjects are usually the kind of thing we think we are already familiar with; spaces not usually categorised as part of nature, but that remind us nature is in fact all around us, all the time.
What are you inspired by right now? Urban nature, fresh water.
What, to you, is the true power of photography? Photography’s power lies in its subtlety and ubiquity. It’s difficult to know how to read photographs. Even when they seem objective like in journalism, they are only ever partial truths selected from a wider context. Photography has the power to lie, to make us second guess, to teach us how to see things through another lens or to notice something for the first time.
Which photographers do you look up to, and why? I have a lot of respect for New Zealand photographers Mark Adams and Haru Sameshima, I’m always learning a lot from these guys.
What, to you, is artistic success? Is it critical, commercial, or a balance of both? Making something I’m proud of and getting positive feedback from people I respect. Obviously, it would be great to give up my day job and make a living from my own work, but somehow, I like not having to depend on sales. I’m scared of that dependence having an influence on what I create.
What would be a tip you would give keen budding photographers? Do you! Don’t feel like you have to make a certain kind of work in order to be accepted by the art world. Create work within your means, allow those limitations to influence your work. Good content is more important than a fancy camera or big expensive prints. Oh, and be prepared that it won’t be an easy journey
What camera do you work with and why? Since university, I’ve used a Mamiya RZ67, it’s an analogue medium format camera about the same age as me (35). I’ve used other cameras too but I always return to the Mamiya. It fits the way I work; 10 shots per roll slows me down enough to really focus on what I want to achieve, yet still allows me to be semi-spontaneous and shoot a few shots of the same thing until I get it right. It’s a solid unit but I can still carry my kit with me on my bike, which keeps things flexible. I prefer the analogue process too. The results still surprise me and sometimes take the project somewhere new. There’s still magic in it for me.
What’s your approach to taking photos on a phone? No problems with that. I use the phone a lot for note-taking — it’s a really useful tool. I feel like the phone is a different medium to shooting with my medium format camera though, the process of making photos on the phone is so different to looking through a viewfinder. I’m not saying one is better than the other, they are just different and I prefer the latter.
Ground Water Mirror will be showing upstairs at Two Rooms Gallery from 1st June – 7th July.
To view more of Clarke’s work, click here.
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