By Bill Troop
Originally Published August 2007
Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low have been collaborating as the team “Anderson & Low” since 1990. Their work is exhibited widely, and several museums throughout the world have holdings; they have also published three monographs.
“We want to know rather than impose,” Jonathan Anderson said early in our conversation. He went on to say, “We always think of our photography as being subjective because it’s our response. We don’t have a preconceived agenda or dogma.”
Bill Troop: What you have just said echoes the famous quotation which Lytton Strachey devised to define his approach to biography: Je n’impose rien; Je ne propose rien; J’expose. (I impose nothing; I propose nothing; I expose). While you may think of yourselves as being entirely subjective, what you think of as your subjective approach actually results in an unusually objective viewpoint for photography.
Jonathan Anderson: We’ve never analyzed our view of how one should photograph, just as we’ve never analyzed our working relationship. We don’t pigeonhole and we don’t want to be pigeonholed.
The subjects in your “Athlete/Warrior” series were athlete cadets who were among the last group who enlisted thinking they would not have to go to war. This was in the spring of 2001, prior to 9/11. You photographed them in your own unique way at the invitation of the U.S. Armed Forces Academies. How were you able to maintain your creative license on this project?
JA: It seemed redundant to keep repeating the same old ground, so initially we said we weren’t sure we wanted to do the project. The problem for us was if we just went there and took more portraits of athletes with no other kind of agenda or concept of theme, it would be re-treading the same ground; we wouldn’t be progressing. It might very well be good, but we felt that it wasn’t exploring new areas. And in the same way that we don’t pigeonhole ourselves doing portraiture, architecture, landscape, still-lifes or nudes, we didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves as “the guys who photograph athletes.”
What was different about this series, compared to your other pictures of athletes?
JA: We went there and saw these people, and they would go in wearing one outfit, and come out in another, and we were stunned that they seemed to be such totally different people. They looked different, they behaved differently, and inside, they felt different. This was an extraordinary shock for us to observe. I think it is because of everything that is imposed by whichever uniform they are wearing—whether it’s an athletic or a military one—both from the outside and the inside, and it brings out different facets of their personalities, characters, personae.
That’s interesting, because you’re saying something profound about clothing.
JA: Absolutely, and it’s a reflection of how they view themselves, how we perceive them, all the external baggage we bring with us, when we view anyone.
So you’re always aware of your external baggage. And you try to eliminate it?
JA: Well—in a sense, in these shots, we almost tried to enhance it. It was the same person, but it wasn’t the same person. And that’s an extraordinary conundrum. That paradox was the key—to photograph the subjects in two portraits side by side, showing these differences. We went back to the Academies and said, “OK, if you really want us to do a project, this is the way we are going to do it.” They took what we said at face value and gave us absolute freedom.
The Danish Gymnast series is also fascinating. Both your approach and the results are quite different from the “Athlete/Warrior” project. How did that series come about?
Edwin Low: We were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1998, and we were introduced to the National Danish Gymnastic Team, NDGT, there. Initially we thought we’d take portraits of the team at work. But when they saw our portfolio of platinum-palladium prints of nudes based on western classicism, they asked if they could do something different. It was supposed to be a three-hour photography session, and it became a three-day session and then a three-month affair, and finally three years. The NDGT are not competing athletes. They are performers and act as envoys that travel around the world every two years. These boys and girls perform and hold workshops to raise awareness of the Danes’ unique gymnastic tradition. At first we photographed the “seven-handstand” image with them wearing their gymnastic gear. The attempts did not quite work. They spoke in Danish among themselves, and then they told us that they would like to try posing nude, similar to the nudes in our portfolio. Being Scandinavian, they were not shy. They took off their gear, and it was the first step of the creative collaboration. At some point they said, “Let’s do something more theatrical,” combining choreographic elements and gymnastic skills. The challenge was laid down, and we explored the human landscape—the forms, energies and lines.
The early shots started out with carefully lit pictures in the studio; and then in Denmark, we moved to photographing them against the sky, leaping, diving and jumping in the air. Later we came across a beautiful pool in their school and thought, let’s experiment with water. So unlike the air shots, we photographed them moving calmly and slowly underwater. And from there we thought, why don’t we try fire? So the goal of the project, “Gymnasts,” became an attempt to place them in different contexts of the themes of earth, air, water and fire.”
JA: As soon as they said they wanted to do nudes, we realized this would be a great opportunity to do a formal series based on—if you like—the classic ideal.
So you didn’t go into this with a preconceived idea. Yet it’s a highly stylized series.
JA: We knew how we wanted to light them, even when they were originally going to be clothed, but then as soon as it was decided it was going to be a nude series . . .” Which you didn’t know until you started shooting—that’s a very big change in the agenda.
JA: It is, but we adapt. And it actually seemed to us an extremely good idea. We were shooting “Athletes,” which is all about the process of sport, the individual, about what sport does to them and about what kind of person would do it. The challenge to create the “Gymnasts” project simultaneously, cheek by jowl with “Athletes,” taking the same basic concept (sport), and from such a diametrically opposite view to “Athletes,” was very challenging and exciting.”
EL: The “Athletes” project is all about the athletes’ struggle. It’s not about the winning. None of the pictures are taken during competition—you don’t see the finish line. They’re all taken during training sessions; we observed and gained insight and understanding about the lives of these athletes as they strove to achieve their sporting dreams. Where “Gymnasts” is more about the classical ideal of the sporting body, “Athlete/Warrior” is about the concept of hero as a whole, in both the warrior and athlete.
JA: It’s about these two representations of the concept of the hero, in two guises, at once classical and at the same time modern.
EL: It’s meant to be a study of the idealized hero—the hero as the warrior, or in this case, the cadets preparing and training for the battlefields and the other being the same person training as an athlete for the sports field. The studies of these heroes are presented as diptychs and triptychs.
At the time of the project had any of these subjects had actual combat experience?
JA: “None of them. They were cadets. They were still in college. They hadn’t had any war experience.”
So you’ve caught them in complete innocence?
JA: This was before September 11. This was the last intake of athletes who never thought they would go to war.
One of the most interesting elements of your work is the variety of themes. At any given time you may be working on a series of images in one or more areas—portrait, architecture or abstraction—and continue with them throughout many years. At the same time, similar and different things are going on; there are connections between each series, both important and unimportant. How difficult is it to move back and forth between such disparate subjects?
EL: We have always been photographing architecture as portraiture. In many ways a building is similar to a person in that it has a character that can be portrayed in a host of different ways. A particular viewpoint or the weather can change the emphasis of the image completely. When you look at the image of Battersea Power Station, you become aware of the finished process. Like the “Athlete” series, when we were printing the portraits, we used different processes to define and to enhance the quality of the images. We want to make sure each image speaks by itself.
JA: We’ve never really been interested in what a building looks like, but what it feels like. What we were trying to do with the Battersea Power Station image was convey what it feels like to be there at that time of night—at dawn. And that’s been the driving force, to convey a sense of wonder.
So you didn’t see the image in advance as a kind of neo-pictorialist riff?
JA: We used to do very, very long printing sessions late at night and often would have to drive past this building. We would look at it, and it’s really a very, very beautiful and wonderful structure—in a very sad state obviously, but it’s really a building that we love above many others in London—we really adore the structure, and it was a question of how to convey that extraordinary sense. Unless you’ve been there at 4 a.m. on a summer’s morning, you don’t know just how amazing it can be. What we were trying to do was find an expression for our subjective reaction to the building.
And I think it’s objective . . .
JA: That’s fascinating and for us a little strange to hear. A lot of the time we don’t show the whole structure, only parts of the structure. And it’s really that structure, in that weather, from that angle . . . what does it make you feel? This is why very often in our work there isn’t an entire elevation of the building—we concentrate on the part or parts that will best encapsulate our feelings. All of these are efforts to convey that extraordinary sense of not just the way the building looks at a particular time, but what it makes you feel as you look at it.
I’m particularly interested in your picture of the Empire State building. It almost looks like London—no American could have taken it—it’s a unique viewpoint, and it’s very beautiful. In fact, I really must say I think it is the most evocative picture of that building I have yet seen. But I do think it’s informed by your experience of having lived in and loved London for a long time.
JA: You surprise us both with that comment, as U.S. skyscrapers can look like Gotham City when the weather is really bad! This image is almost like a sideways glance and then you suddenly realize, that’s how the building really is. And that’s the kind of thing, that moment, that reaction to that moment, which we’re trying to convey. And this is very much from where our architectural work springs.
EL: It’s a little like film directors creating trilogies. We have Architecture, Form and Abstraction. The first is about portraiture of buildings. The second stage, we then go into photographing interior spaces of contemporary and modern architecture, and we use the quality of light to describe the form, feel and texture.
How did your work with interior spaces evolve?
EL: We realized that as we were photographing interior spaces, the “Abstraction” images were unfolding. When we looked at our contact sheets, we saw the honing-in on details of contemporary buildings. We’re photographing them in a very sensuous way, the details and abstract forms just pop out, not dissimilar to the project “New Process” of the body form.
JA: We were photographing these buildings, and in amongst the other images there were details we’d photographed without particularly thinking about photographing them. When you’re looking through loads of contact sheets, these details begin to pop out at you. And then suddenly you lay out 20 contact sheets together and you think, hang on, these sporadic images in amongst everything else—this is actually the beginning of a series.
EL: And when we saw these images on the contact sheets, we were so excited; and then these images began dancing in our heads. We talked about the exploration of abstracted forms in architecture. This idea, Abstraction, became the third part of our architectural studies.
Some of these abstractions are very sensuous and organic, and that works like nature; and then that becomes a natural evolution as we begin to explore and deliberately go out to photograph abstractions. What we’re beginning to do is use modern technology, that is, retouching on the computer, using our shot images, and we’re using modern high tech to create large, repeated, juxtaposed images in two dimensions derived from real photographs. And from there we’re also going to make a sculpture . . .
“And then these images began dancing in our heads.” I was particularly struck by Edwin’s words as he was describing the process by which the pair began to move from architecture to abstraction, or rather, instead of move from, extend to. More than anything else this remark conveys the sensuous approach Anderson & Low bring to all of their subjects. Nietzsche often spoke of the necessity for the artist to dance rather than to plod and posture.
JA: . . . and put the photographs back into it. Having taken abstract shapes out of buildings, we’re going to make buildings out of the abstract images. Prior to this is the intermediate stage, where we take these abstract forms even further, using technology, as Edwin said, for a series of 2-D images using repetition.
Basically what you’re doing is moving towards creating sculpture?
JA: There are the two different stages, one in two dimensions and one in three dimensions. And part of this will be to create sculpture.
EL: For the two dimensional images, there will be a kind of interplay that will be a little like ciphers: is it a photograph, is it a painting? And then the next pieces after that are going to be sculpture returning back to architecture, i.e., almost like an architectural model with photographic images in them. In the future, we may actually do an interior of a contemporary space using photography. It’s an idea that feels increasingly urgent.
This reminds me of what Peter Jaques is doing now, photographs that are never even exposed to light—he uses a quill pen and writes on them with fixer in total darkness, then develops and fixes the paper, and the image is the grey left over from the quill pen.
EL: It’s funny you should say that, because one part of the abstraction is the exploration of process and technique using brushes, objects, plastering tools and creating by dripping chemistry and movements.
So a huge number of very interesting processes are going on here, embracing photography, painting, sculpture, and technology. Is it a bit Warholian?
JA: The start of the journey for all of these has been architectural photography slowly developing into abstractions. Then there came a point when we realized they were a springboard to a whole myriad of further possibilities. We’re right in the middle of the creative stage of it now.
During the interview, the manner in which Jonathan and Edwin described the number and diversity and continuity of their projects had great personal meaning for me. As artists they do not allow themselves to be hemmed in by the superficial boundaries between photography, painting and sculpture. Yet Anderson & Low are not “breaking boundaries” so much as saying that a boundary can be viewed not as an obstacle, but as a bridge. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that there is anything unintentional in what they are doing. They are imposing their view as much as any artist. But there is a kind of gentle honesty about the way in which they do it that I find especially appealing.
The next evolution of the “Abstraction” series by Anderson & Low can be seen at Light and Sie Gallery in Dallas, October 2007 to January 2008; www.lightandc.com. To find out more about the work of Anderson & Low you may visit their web site, www.andersonandlow.com.
Bill Troop is a London-based freelance journalist and photography critic for Focus magazine.