Interview Chain: Harry Flook x Matthew Broadhead
Interview Chain is a new series from Loupe. The concept is simple; a photographer interviews another photographer of their choice, who in turn does the same, creating a string of conversations around contemporary photography.
Matthew Broadhead is a photographer based in the Southwest whose graduate project A Space for Humans: The Moon on Earth (formally Heimr), earned him the Magnum Graduate Photographers Award, amongst other features and awards.
I first met Matthew down in Exeter during Unveil’d Photo Festival. I recall thinking that his poetic approach to photography perfectly followed from his quiet and thoughtful character, and his latest project is further evidence of that.
In this interview we discuss Matthews plans for the new project, which will be the subject of his Masters study at Bristol UWE’s promising new course, as well as his second trip to Iceland for A Space for Humans.
Harry Flook: Give us a background about your project A Space for Humans. What’s the story?
Matthew Broadhead: A Space For Humans: The Moon on Earth started in 2016, between the fiftieth anniversaries of scientific fieldtrips organized by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Groups of U.S. astronauts and personnel from both government agencies arrived in Iceland in 1965 and 1967.
NASA considered Iceland to be “Probably the most moon-like of the field areas” in a document that functioned as a field-training schedule, and the two countries were allies in human exploration.
Professor Sigurður Þórarinsson and professor Guðmundur Sigvaldason were experts in Icelandic geology who provided guidance during both field explorations in key locations including Askja caldera, Lake Myvatn and Reykjanes Peninsula. To prepare for the prospect of landing on the moon, analogue terrestrial sites were identified and the ‘Moon Game’ was practiced as an assessment to determine if each astronaut could successfully deploy experiments in desolate settings and collect samples the way they expected to on the moon. ‘Space analogue’ is a technical term used by NASA to describe places on Earth with assumed past or present geological, environmental or biological conditions of celestial bodies including the moon and Mars.
HF: What led you to the idea?
MB: Just after New Year that brought in 2016, I was looking for a new project and I decided on certain criterion beforehand. It was established in previous projects that I was interested in the scientific subjects astronomy and geology, in particular how observation in those fields shaped the way I interacted with subjects I would mediate in photography. Something made me want to do a project in the north, but there wasn’t a particular reason. I originally wanted to go to the Inner and Outer Hebrides in Scotland, but then when I came across the website for ‘The Exploration Museum’ in Iceland I decided to be more ambitious. It was a coincidence that a fifty-year anniversary had already happened in 2015 and that there might possibly be one in 2017. I gave Örlygur, director of the museum a phone-call and he picked up first time. We spoke for over an hour and he invited me to come to the museum and stay in Husavík at The Cape Hotel for free. I made my itinerary based on a few months of research from Jan-Mar 2016 and I hired a car to traverse the route plotted across the country.
HF: What were you hoping to add visually in your second trip that you didn’t manage to include in the initial series?
MB: The first trip was much more generalist and I had less time, whereas the second trip was three-weeks long and framed around the fiftieth anniversary. Everything was improved, notably my equipment in particular. This meant I could have more confidence when I was creating new photographs, but also embody a professional appearance. I think in terms of variety the second trip added imagery that spanned portraiture, landscape, still life, reproductions, appropriated material, architecture, and interiors. Many of these were included before, but the content is much more balanced now.
Particular photographs I wanted but didn’t collect when I was first in Iceland included portraits of Örlygur, and other individuals around him such as his father and relevant locals. A photograph in the original series was of fishhooks at The Exploration Museum, which were lent to Örlygur by Ingóltur, a farmer who met Neil Armstong when he was a teenager. The astronaut was fishing for salmon in the River Laxa on the locality of the farm, and gave the hooks to him. I only heard about this through Örlygur, and naturally I was curious so he arranged for us to meet. So, the number one visual addition is portraiture, since they literally did not exist in any of my work before.
HF: You’re now studying the MA Photography course at UWE Bristol, will you be continuing ASFH or is there another project in the works?
MB: ASFH is still my main project and recently I had my first meeting with Christina de Middel, to work on it as part of mentorship that came with the Magnum Graduate Award. I am doing the course part time, so that I could work on ASFH outside of the MA and my new project inside the MA. This approach was to avoid confusion, as the subject matter is quite different and they both require differing approaches.
To give a background of the new project, the seeds were planted in 2015, during my second year at the University of Brighton studying BA (Hons) Photography. My sister was building a family tree on Ancestry.com. It was a patriline, beginning with our father and tracing additional ancestors through the males. She had found out about this lineage of fine art painters, photographers, draughtsman and similar occupations throughout the paternal Broadhead line.
Initially I didn’t have much interest in the subject of my family history, but I was curious about a particular ancestor named F. W. Broadhead. He was a studio photographer based in the East-Midlands during the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. At a second-year crit, I brought in a small collection of original photographs that were produced in his studio to get some feedback. From this point onwards, I decided to continue my research and gather more data. I already collected a few examples of works from his studio, but now I have many specimens that communicate with one another.
HF: How long have you been working on the project so far?
MB: I only started referring to it as a project in the months coming up to the start of term this past September. All of the research I have done over the last two years has helped to get the ball rolling. There is certainly a snowball effect happening, and I am looking forward to continuing the project for the next two years.
HF: Can you describe your approach?
MB: Until a month ago there were two separate activities going on, one was the collecting and conservation of original photographs from the Broadhead studios. The other was my research into the subject, which was very broad in reach but mainly specific about the life and practice of F. W. Broadhead and secondary characters. For my research dossier I started to do critical reading of the archive, and it was then that I realised the project was not going to be the archive itself but rather, an intervention or response to it. With this in mind, I combined both lines of engagement into a very thorough archive. This led me to create new documents including an index and a dating system for the photographs based on the studio they were produced in. This turned multiple binders of documents into a comprehensive compilation for quick reference.
The archive would operate as a launching pad, and the resultant project would be based on work I shot myself presented with relevant objects that sparked the response. I have already planned a whole series of shoots documenting the former locations of Broadhead’s studios in Leicester, Loughborough and Market Harborough, along with Bradgate Park, St. Mary’s de Castro church, and the former Portland Shoe Factory. I have commissioned a fine art painter who works with oils to create a reproduction of a backdrop from one of F. W. Broadhead’s earliest studio photographs and I have acquired a rare and valuable 19th century lens, the Dallmeyer 2B patent portrait lens that was the exact model my ancestor used to take his portaits. I am currently using the fabrication facilities to create a custom lens board that will let me attach this heavy, brass implement to my modern 4×5 plate camera.
HF: With that in mind, do you see yourself as predominantly artist/creator or researcher/curator in this project?
The balance varies dependant on the stage I am in with the project. At present it is necessary to facilitate the role of a researcher and curator, because I am at the research and planning stage. Once I move into shooting for the body of work, I will continue to utilise the insight gained before but mostly focus on being an artist and seeing how things unfold in the field.
In the end, my aim is to be a visual artist in conversation with history, rather than a historian per se.
HF: There is a lot of conversation at the moment around the impact of digital technologies on photography, Eric Kessels recently commented that ‘we see more images before lunch than somebody in the 18th Century saw in his whole life’. How has this discourse affected your thoughts on the subject?
MB: Recently I borrowed The Many Lives of Erik Kessels from the university library. It is his first retrospective and his work does highlight how people consume photographs without really looking at them, so by bringing images into the realm of tangibility he is being quite confrontational. Kessels incites reflection either by contextualising vernacular imagery or simply intervening with formats that went by the wayside with the advent of digital technologies.
Archival Meaning: Materiality, Digitization, and the Nineteenth-Century Photograph, written by Andrea L. Volpe is a text I read recently. I found it interesting how the nineteenth-century photographic object was described to aid the process of forgetting, unreadable due to their materiality and the storage function of the archive where they are literally removed from sight. Understanding how digitization restores the reproducibility of the photograph and redefines the plate as an original makes me realize how digitization can help me get the most of the photographic objects in my archive.
In answer to your question, I suppose I am most interested in what is hidden and able to resurface than all of the imagery that is just ‘out there’ on a casual basis.
HF: What have you learned from working on A Space for Humans that will affect you approach to this body of work?
MB: ASFH is a project that has deep roots in the documentary tradition that I have always followed since I started as a photographer, in addition to a conceptual art element that facilitated storytelling based on perspective and experience. The close tie that this series has with the new MA project is that they both explore heritage of some kind, one that is more on a national scale and the other which is much more personal but has the potential for wider interest.
HF: How have you found the balance between making money and making photography? This is a question I don’t often see asked, but it’s one I feel is important for new photographers daunted by the prospect of graduation.
MB: I haven’t found the balance between making money and making photography, because I chose to subsidise my artistic practice by working at a supermarket. My ideal scenario would be to use my skills as a photographer to generate an income separate to my main practice, but I haven’t arrived at that point yet. I have funded all of my personal projects so far, but I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to securing funding from elsewhere to lessen the burden on my finances. I see this expenditure as an investment on my future, and there are many other things I could spend my money on that wouldn’t help me as much in the scheme of things. After I graduated I built a studio, so most of my finances went into buying equipment to be able to maintain a photographic practice remotely.
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