Glass and photography have had long association.
Glass lenses enable the camera to ’see’. Even the daguerreotype on metal relied on a layer of glass in a frame to protect its delicate, erasable surface, and it became redundant in face of efforts to use glass as a desirable substrate for photo-sensitive materials which occupied much investigation during the early history of the medium, when albumen and collodion (and later a latex-based varnish, for the autochrome) were found to satisfactorily adhere emulsion to its surface. Positive prints on glass—ambrotypes and opalotypes, for example—though successful, have been largely abandoned since the nineteenth century. The glassy metaphors of John Szarkowski‘s Mirrors and Windows, frame central ideas of transparency and reflection in photography.
I was intrigued to discover Andy Brooke making intelligent use of this connection by harking back to the memorial stained glass window which may be found in churches everywhere; the expense of the commission and materials usually covered by someone depicted in the window, or by their descendants.
In this case, the lost, beloved landscape is what we see through, and in, the artwork of the window in a political memorial. Perhaps the didactic purpose of the work, though subtle, is a natural impulse after a lifetime in teaching, but it is embedded in and born out of the eclectic practicalities of that profession that requires exploration of a wide range of media on behalf of one’s students, but which also excites personal exploration. I asked him about his gravitation towards this medium…
James: Some art teachers retire with relief and never produce another artwork. It’s quite different in your case. Does a long career in art teaching inspire your work?
Andy: When teaching I was always aware that a rapport between student and teacher makes learning happen. I used to say “you can’t teach anyone anything,” tongue in cheek… but only slightly; there needs to be as equal and trusting a relationship as possible in order to pass on knowledge and inspiration.
So the students gave me as much as I gave them (usually) and they inspired me to love the subjects of art and photography in a deeper way than perhaps was possible without them. So they helped prepare me for my own art and photography, for which I gradually gained space by going part-time and ultimately, retiring.
Teaching makes you think in empirical yet meaningful ways; you have to understand concepts more fully in order to convey them to teenagers without losing the essence of the meaning. It gives you respect for what comes back from the young person as they develop skills in something you already love, sometimes showing potential to take your subject further than you, which is a challenge to do better yourself. I was always waiting for such moments!
I retired primed to push myself, already inspired to see what I could do without the time constraints of work. Without the short-sighted demands of assessment criteria and having to share my energy with students, I was free to explore, to experiment in ideas and materials!
James: You ask, in a blog post in relation to a show called Design by Accident; “What do pottery, print and photography have in common?” Can you answer that please in relation to your own willingness to cross the often barbed barrier between photography and other media…again, have the demands of teaching across a range of media assisted you in broadening your practice?
How do you exploit the accidental in your work?
Andy: The demands of teaching across media encourages and motivates exploring new combinations and a realisation that art disciplines are connected in infinite ways; it’s much more fun to embrace this than to deny it. Students benefit from a teacher contextualising their work, thus validating their contributions.
So what do pottery, print and photography have in common? Their ability to respond very directly to the physical world without too much human mediation. Some shy away from printmaking because of its technicality, but this is the very thing that draws me in; working towards that moment when you can do no more and a print is produced/revealed by the press. The mechanical takes over but is humanised by it, as happens in photography with a camera, and in the pottery kiln – irreversible reactions occur.
This is the virtue of the accidental; it occurs only if you leave space for the mechanical process which leaves you behind, you have set something in train which will happen without you. But you still have to recognise the result! This brings us back to teaching – often you have to tell a student they have made something great, they might not know it. This has helped me to value the unexpected more highly perhaps.
James: You write very empathetically on photography and art and have Masters in Critical Theory —I enjoy particularly your expression ‘visual ballet’ in relation to Cartier-Bresson—do you find potential in connections between photography and other media through your reading and writing? Who are your favourite (and/or most loathed!) theorists?
Andy: Roland Barthes was the starting point for me (and countless others). I first encountered him in my Bachelors degree at Goldsmiths’ College, London in the early 1980s. His ability to write beautifully about cultural signs was my initiation into the world of images and text and the interdependence of both.
I wrote my dissertation on the concept of myth in his book Mythologies, that led me to further study in critical theory at Sheffield University. At this time I also encountered the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and realised that a great image could also be poetic with diverse elements held in perfect balance (Children Playing in Ruins, Spain, 1934 or Abruzzi, Italy, 1953).
Walter Benjamin was an inspiration back then; I’m impressed by Ori Gersht‘s 2009 interpretation of his life story; an epic landscape work which mythologises Benjamin’s briefcase of manuscripts lost on his doomed flight over the mountains from the Nazis. Far Off Mountains and Rivers conveys that man’s legendary struggle; since those student days I seek aura, a life force, in artworks.
Another who interests me (sometimes baffling me completely) is Vilem Flusser (1920–1991) who seems to think the world is using people to endlessly photograph itself and therefore there’s probably no such thing as an original photograph (or technical image) by definition. This idea has challenged me to disprove it in my own quiet experiments and quest for abstraction and the unexpected.
I recently came across Robert Adams‘ book Beauty in Photography, 1981. He says;
“We rely, I think, on landscape photography to make intelligible to us what we already know. It is the fitness of a landscape to one’s experience of life’s condition and possibilities that finally makes a scene important or not.”
He calls this fitness to human experience “Form”, which I pursue in my work, whether landscape or not.
James: Glass and photography have had long association. Did you see metaphoric possibilities in that connection of the photograph with stained glass? You, with a printmaking background, have opted for a screen print procedure and others, like Amy McCarthy use a transfer process. Can you take me though the advantages and opportunities that your approach offers by comparison?
Andy: The connection between photography and stained glass was a natural one. I discovered the working methods of tiffany style copper foil and traditional leaded lights in a Summer School in 2004, attracted to an art form which relied on the qualities of light transmission through various types of glass from fully transparent, through translucent, to fully opaque, and the diversity of colours and textures that manipulate light. Its lines and juxtapositions add endless possibilities.
It took some years to discover I could also harness my love of the printed photographic image; screen-printing it onto the glass surface, then firing at 600ºC, fuses the iron oxides or powdered glass enamel pigments with the very surface of the glass, creating an ‘image object.’ This could then be cut and incorporated into an overall design to become more than simply a photographic image. But it could still retain the documentary veracity and associations of a photo, even in a fragment. People look at a trace of photo image on a sliver of glass and still feel an authentic connection to the physical world. Amazing to me, but natural to them.
I am connecting with the viewer through the everyday realism of photography but in an extraordinary context – stained glass. Of course others have printed onto glass but my ideas are conveyed through juxtaposition of visual clues — not collage, which I see as a problematic in encouraging self-indulgence — but through transformation! More on this later.
John Szarkowski (MOMA 1978) distinguished between ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’, suggesting “…a fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those those who think of it as a method of exploration.” I fall into both camps because my photography tends to be fairly straight and documentary when working towards a glass outcome – it needs to be for clear communication. But the contextual design and manipulation involves a lot of self-expression – and hard work!
Why not image transfer onto glass? Because for me the fired photo-screen image has more material integrity; the image becomes permanently part of the glass. For this reason, neither have I made much use of liquid emulsion on glass – though it might work as ephemeral or dream-like with a more directly photographic outcome.
My training in print-making at London College of Printing instilled a love of process and the handling of diverse materials combined to do a specific job, discipline of method which teaches you respect for processes which deliver expected results; this is something I bring to my visual experiments in the darkroom or with glass, but unexpected results are always welcome!
James: Photomontage has for long dealt with fractured, juxtaposed and reconnected imagery for a range of expressive and intellectual effects. Are there ‘photomontagistes’ whom you admire and do they influence your approach to the creation of stained glass panels?
But the point of photo-montage for me is as the innovative editing of an Eisenstein movie – to take two ideas and make three or four more by simple or complex juxtaposition, but to do this for the ordinary viewer as well as the experienced art critic.
Communication is key to success rather than self-expressive whimsy. I inherit the cultural obsessions of Barthes and great photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Bill Brandt; also Robert Frank and William Klein who both make powerful use of text within and around their imagery. Barbara Kruger also skilfully melds image and text.
I have made ironic use of text in my latest work – The Wivenhoe park Memorial Window, 2019 – in a way which tries to add the bite of realism into the aesthetic experience.
James: Can you take us through the Wivenhoe Park Memorial Window…what was the environmental destruction that prompted your memorial and how does stained glass in particular, and in combination with screen printed photographs, convey your emotional and ideological response?
Andy: I was keen to meld the media of photography and glass, and more specifically traditional stained glass with its spiritual and craft associations. This is a personal response to how Essex University, less than two miles from my house, has been systematically building over the very land — referenced in the window — of which it is supposedly custodian, and inexplicably winning a Green Flag Award for its destruction!
The photographic analogue of this physical world is amalgamated with a hand-made and hand-finished art form, which while using traditional processes might transcend them.
The resulting hybrid expressed sentiments about the loss of landscape to the forces of material greed; significantly there has been no interest in the work from the university itself!
Reference to John Constable‘s representation of this very landscape is at the heart of the work, which I reproduce in the more conventional black iron oxide paint on coloured stained glass (rather than printing photo images onto clear glass and then hand-colouring the reverse side).
Constable had yearnings for a pastoral golden age disappearing after the First Industrial Revolution, and set defiant nature against urban incursion, to which I also refer but with a sense of the loss felt in the human world, especially among local people who knew this vanishing landscape.