Updated: Sep 16, 2019
May 2019 Interviewed by Alex Merola
Matthew Finn’s work is a reminder that photography, in its purest form, bears a documentary function, and with it the capacity to communicate the everyday – in all its banality and beauty, elation and uncertainty. While his previous photobook saw him document his mother through a series of intimate and collaborative photographs shot over a period of several decades, in what ultimately served as a portrait of her gradual physical and mental decline, Finn shifts his focus to the youth in his latest work. On the occasion of School of Art, published by STANLEY/BARKER, he speaks with Alex Merola about his encounters with its subjects, the year of 1997, and what it means to look back on a time passed.
Alex Merola: Matthew, could you explain how you came to meet the subjects which comprise your recently published photobook, School of Art?
Matthew Finn: All of the subjects in my photographic projects, this one included, have emerged unintentionally through the decisions I have made in my life. Before I met these students, I had been cocooned in the safety of university life. Here, I spent most days on the streets shooting. I was obsessed with the streets, and the idols who had documented the streets before me; Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus. It came as a massive shock when I graduated and my focus was lost. My fellow photographers dispersed back to where they came from, and I to Leeds. I wanted to continue with my street work, and I did for a while, but very soon reality hit me. The sheer amount of materials I was consuming was madness and became far too expensive. I was so skint, it often was the case of choosing between a new pair of jeans which had no holes or ten rolls of film… unsurprisingly, I continued to patch up my jeans and make photographs. It also hit me that whilst I felt I was a competent street photographer with a decent formal eye, I was making copies of my heroes’ work, but it was not as good and had been done many times before. I needed a goal. I needed to re-think my practice.
In the mid-’90s, I had applied to work at an Art School, and was very fortunate to be given a teaching position there. I was only twenty-four years of age then. Working there five days a week, the space and its inhabitants consequently became the focus for my camera. Most of the images were taken informally around the students in their learning spaces, in painting studios, hallways, or outside darkrooms. I had no thoughts about making a book back then. In the ’90s, it was unimaginable that I might have been able to produce a monograph. That was for “proper photographers”. I have always made bodies of work for myself and not for any other reason, though, having sat on these images for over twenty years, as well as finding a lot of the students again through social media, it seemed now would be the best time. Most of the students were on the cusp of adulthood then, and now most are close to forty. Both are landmark moments in a person’s life, and the time just felt right.
AM: Introducing the book, student Sonya Bhaji gives a beautiful and frank account of her time at the Art School: ‘It wasn’t a formal learning institution, it was a gathering of highly sensed minds. No more rules. We were able to expand our creativity in any direction we wanted’. As a teacher, did you share in this creative spirit?
MF: The students were fantastic, yet could also be pains in the arse as well. Sonya, whom you’ve quoted, was one of the fantastic ones but it took a while for me to realise it. For months she did not speak and I would go outside with my mug of tea and sit next to her on the floor and chat to myself out loud. One day, I went to my office and on the floor there was a handwritten note which had been slipped through the door. It was signed off by Sonya. She thanked me for listening to her and Sprokles outside the office. Sprokles was a two-foot papier-mâché alien that she had made. In the letter, Sonya explained that if I looked after Sprokles, he would introduce me to the boggles who were invisible fairies that protected you whilst you slept. I was very proud of my new friend and it had to be true. How could you make it up? It was that kind of place. Students made deeply personal work. This was a time before social media, so their art became their means to discuss the various issues in their lives and share them with their peers and the world.
AM: Have you continued to work in an academic environment since? If so, could you elaborate on the changes you have witnessed in the behaviours, attitudes and outlooks of students, and elaborate on the impact of social media you alluded to?
MF: Yes, I have continued to work within academia since the ’90s, moving from place to place, and also giving talks at universities across the country. The changes have been incredible to witness first-hand. With astronomical course fees, most students today need to work part-time to keep afloat, and are therefore often occupied or not totally committed with their time. They are less confident in their work and tend to make less, and certainly less personal, work. As an alternative, they express their emotions through social media platforms, such as Instagram, which serve as open diaries to the whole world. A form of confession and penance all in one. Social media has brought the world to us and that is amazing, but at the same time we have lost our ability to speak, to care and to really belong. I fear for this individualism. At the Art School, the students were less interested in how they looked, and didn’t care as much for fitting into a generic world sold to them. This is partly because there wasn’t this immense pressure for validation through these small portable devices.
The students I knew made personal work that dealt with their own brewing angsts about family, friends, lovers… This was their way of figuring things out. One student made work embroidering slang terms for female genitalia using silks woven into bland ’90s living room wallpaper to express her dissatisfaction at life at home. Another made a giant penis with a hypodermic needle injected into the urethra. It was banned by the Head of School from the final exhibition. Instead, a sheet of A4 paper was exhibited explaining why. So pissed off was the student that she took up her argument with the local press and made the papers. Another student made a copy of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) using the Spice Girls instead of the prostitutes in the original painting. Somehow, we managed to get it onto the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. Gareth, the student, was meant to make an appearance but freaked out so he never got his fifteen minutes… but thankfully the painting did.
AM: Though you continued to document your students into the millennium, in School of Art you have limited the temporal frame of the book to a single year. Why 1997?
MF: I started documenting the students in 1995, and continued until 2003. And throughout this period, I produced images which ranged stylistically. Whilst I often adopted a candid approach to my documentation, shooting the students hanging out in bars and making work in studios with my hand-held Leica, I would also take a more measured approach to my photography through medium and large-format cameras. By this slower process, the portraiture itself came to the fore as opposed to the student activity, and I felt this was more successful. When editing the book, I wanted to keep things really tight, stylistically and in terms of the time-frame too. I wanted to introduce a moment in time. Why 1997? It was a year that I remember well. I recall vividly the wild emotions and celebrations of staff and students when Tony Blair came to power. No more Tory government. It was a massive moment, ushering in a newfound optimism at the time. The music, the fashion, the hairstyles… who could forget? Most importantly, we had Sensation that year at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. For the first time in generations, we had our very own Young British Artists (YBAs) to look up to (very literally in the case of the high-hung photographs of Richard Billingham). We would see them in galleries and in bars. PJ Harvey hanging out in the East End’s Whitechapel Gallery, Jarvis Cocker at a house party down the road. It was a time when anything and everything seemed possible. We were all young together. We shared in each others’ energies and passions.
AM: What did this time mean to you on a more personal level?
MF: On one level, it was a time where, as a young man, I was involved directly with an amazing group of creative individuals. Outside that however, on the weekends I would return to Leeds to make images of my family who knew nothing about art. For them, the significant events of 1997 were the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. For me, it was a schizophrenic existence, moving between the chaos of the Art School and the domestic world of home. At this point, the street photography dream which I mentioned earlier was a distant memory, and the idea of finding subjects out in the wider world was lost. In many ways, I had to make a choice: break free and immerse myself in a creative journey and try to become an artist, or live this kind of domestic “normality”. I guess I chose the environment I knew, and my photography therefore became a hobby. I was still passionate for making images daily, but my main subject became my family and the students became an extension of my family. Most of the time I would listen to my mother share her thoughts about cameras and her need to buy a house… Looking back, they were the wrong life choices for me and I regret the opportunities that I didn’t take. Maybe what has held me back is this working class ideal of never being quite confident to stride out. There is also the idea that you only get one chance because you can’t afford to make mistakes due to the costs involved. The big issue is, do you recognise that one chance and are you able to take it? I think now is my chance. Hopefully I can take it. I have no more voices in my ear. My family is all gone.
AM: Is there a reason you refer to the Art School anonymously?
MF: For me, this project was never about the particularities of the place itself, but more about what it was to experience this unique time, something more intangible. Perhaps memory does play a big role. How can it not, when people look back at their younger selves? That being said, I don’t see this work as being nostalgic, nor do I necessarily feel nostalgic looking back at the images. I find it interesting when people look at old images, and are overcome by a yearning for their youth. I never feel that way. Perhaps the obsession with recording everything around you means you never properly get to look back. I think this has been the case with me. The fact that the Art School doesn’t exist anymore (now replaced by a complex of flats), I felt it was important to present this fragment of the past in some way. The Art School, as we remember it, is always fading, and therefore it becomes more and more abstract in a way… a kind of symbol for that moment in time, and everything that came with it.
AM: That being said, through the interspersed photographs depicting vacant hallways and cluttered classrooms, it becomes clear that the school building is itself very much a subject here. Of what importance was this backdrop?
MF: The backdrop was very significant. It was a kind of studio where stories were told. Back in 1906, the place was a traditional Victorian school. There were different entrances for boys and girls, and the teaching was known for its strict rules and discipline. It’s kind of ironic that it became an Art School later on, a place inhabited by students who would have completely rejected such a regimented education. We made the place our own. We painted the beautiful original parquet flooring Saatchi Grey, the same colour he had in his gallery in St. John’s Wood. The building was a maze of spiralling staircases, secret passageways and hidden rooms, and the ceilings were impressively high, and resulted in a wonderful light. The old gym was a life-drawing room and the piggery (yes, they had pigs at the original school) was the darkroom where I spent a great deal of time. As a space, you felt that you were passing through. That it had a life before my time and that it was important to mark, and in my case photograph, one’s time and experiences there. This has been a common thread in my work… linking the people in my life with the space they, and indeed we, inhabit. My long-term project Mother (2017) worked in the same way. My interest in the ritual of daily life… At the time I was looking at the work of Emmet Gowin, Nan Goldin and Sally Mann with admiration, yet what I saw was a world away from my own existence. I was interested in the banal, the boring stuff. This for me is life. Maybe this initial project brought me to School of Art in my continued curiosity in daily routine. Instead of observing my mother watching TV, cooking or washing up, at the Art School I saw my students paint, smoke, and hang out together. I really just transferred the project to a different place with a different group of people.
AM: With this comparison in mind, it seems that Mother and School of Art are also at the same time very different, structurally. While School of Art is bound within a very defined period of a single year, your documentation of your mother spans years and decades. Considering their varying temporal scopes, do you feel the two books invite distinct reading experiences?
MF: With any body of work, one hopes it gains a reaction. That can be positive or negative. This is something that doesn’t concern me so long as I get something. The two books I have now published are very different indeed, both structurally and in terms of their subjects. One shows the demise of a woman from middle-age to old-age, acting as a looking-back on a life lived. The other gives us an insight into lives yet to be lived, young people filled with hope and dreams for the future. We have yet to see what happens with these students, whilst turning the pages of Mother can be difficult as we know what ultimately happens. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at The Leica Society discussing both projects, and, given the older age of most of the members, it was rather challenging. In many ways, here they see themselves and their mortality in the pictures projected in front of them. You can’t help but think… what next?
It was my intention to publish School of Art, rather than say Uncle which is another duration piece, after Mother. I didn’t want to be known only as the photographer who photographed his mother. I wanted to show that I have a life beyond that world. I also needed a break from the ever-present face that was my mother. Seeing her grow old through dementia, burying her, making prints of her, talking about her, was and is not very healthy for my mental state. School of Art offers me a release. In many ways, it gives me the space to mourn the passing of my mother… to enable me to let go and say goodbye. I had not been able to do that before the book. I am also hoping to revisit these students I have photographed, and produce a new body of work twenty years on. It will be interesting to talk with my ex-students, to hear about their experiences of leaving home, going to university and how they have grown as artists and as people. Through this process, I hope to discover something about myself as well, and particularly why I am drawn to making duration works. And maybe through these conversations, I will learn more about my own choices and why I became the person I am today. Let’s see. I was always drawn to the documentation of children as they enter adulthood. We have seen this more recently in film and it is something that interests me. Why? I can’t say.
AM: As someone who has compulsively documented the world before them, how do you find inspiration for new subject matter? How linked in your experience is photography, and perhaps more so photographing, to the process of ageing?
MF: I’ll never run out of subjects, unless I become a hermit that is. Time perhaps is the biggest issue. I have read about photographers who claim they only have a few years left. It is a race to complete things. Why? Before this, I have only ever completed two projects, Mother and Uncle, and that was not out of choice. The subjects just happened to die. Maybe that’s why nobody commissions me? Either I’m bad luck or no one has thirty years to wait for a story. The subjects that appear in my life are my ongoing projects. Family, friends, colleagues, the places I inhabit… these wonderful personal histories that are fading from our world. Maybe this issue of time is one of the reasons driving my desire to revisit these students. Not only will it show how we have all aged, but also the different journeys we have taken through the choices we have made in life. If anything, I am interested in showing something about other people, however small or fragile – or in some cases difficult – it may be.
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