This interview is published on Photomonitor (published October 2014).
Eileen Perrier is a photographer based in London. At Peckham Platform, she re-visits her on-going project of the mobile studio which draws on histories of portraiture; and Victorian photographic styles and techniques. Referencing Victorian photographic practices, Perrier positions her sitters in place, using a headrest. Her work explores histories of photographic materials, technologies, formal conventions, and visual strategies. One of the photographs exhibited at Peckham Platform is of a young girl: an adult’s hand reaches in, unexpectedly, from the left-hand side of the portrait, as if to steady her. Perrier narrates how this kind of image is part of the documented visual archive of nineteenth century photographs of children. The reaching hand reveals, inadvertently, the artifice that was at play in Victorian portraiture, and the necessity (informed by technologies of the day) of keeping absolutely still.
Perrier’s mobile studios are set up with particular places in mind, and the passers-by and communities, whether permanent or ephemeral, that are part of these. Sitters are not pre-determined or pre-arranged by Perrier. Rather they consist of anyone who approaches her and expresses interest in having their portrait taken. There is no charge, and sitters are presented with a copy of their portrait. Perrier also talks about what she learns about local communities and individuals in conversation with the people she photographs. So far the sites of her mobile studios have been urban streets or squares; the first having come about as a result of working with the Whitechapel Gallery in 2008. Called Wentworth Street Studios, Perrier put up a mobile studio on a market stall in Petticoat Lane Market and in the nearby Denning Point tower block. In 2011, she was invited to contribute to a project in Frankfurt’s inner city called ‘Playing the City – take three’ (the work of invited artists included actions, performances and installations). Perrier called this incarnation ‘Schillermarkt Studio’.
The current exhibition at Peckham Platform is composed of black and white portraits of people who happened to be passing through Peckham Square, on the day that Perrier set up her studio there. An important aspect of the exhibition is Peckham Platform’s ongoing education project with Year 10 pupils at Harris Academy (Peckham) who participated in photography workshops with Perrier. The pupil’s photographic work, produced during the course of workshops with Perrier, is also on display (on a digital monitor). Autograph ABP will produce a limited edition newspaper documenting the project and the work of the Harris Academy students. This will be published and made available during Frieze Art Fair.
Perrier is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, and her work has been widely exhibited since 1999, including at The Photographers Gallery and Tate Britain. Her work was also included on the international travelling exhibition ‘Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of A Continent’ (directed by Simon Njami) which appeared in London at the Hayward Gallery in 2005.
Yvette Greslé: How did you come to reference Victorian photography in your mobile studio projects? You use a headrest to hold sitters in place.
Eileen Perrier: Before I did the commission at the Whitechapel Gallery I had been looking through a lot of photography books. I found a catalogue from a 1972 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum called‘From today painting is dead’ – the beginnings of photography. I noticed the stiffness of the sitters and images showing a device holding them in place. I then discovered that this device was called a retort stand. I started to research it and explore its function. For the mobile studio project I am interested in how using a headrest makes people sit still and makes them sit upright. They are positioned in a certain way, not how they might normally pose.
YG: An important aspect of your mobile studio project is your interaction with the people who approach you to have their photograph taken. Your work does come across as though you are very interested in people. Your photographs communicate empathy for others, and you seem to be genuinely interested in every person you photograph. Visually, the photographs are not about a detached, distant relationship to human subjects: you allow for chance occurrences, and what might be viewed as human imperfections, even as you use devices such as the headrest.
EP: I like the fact that I get to interact with people. People are drawn to the camera. I do not ask them to come and be photographed. They are drawn to my mobile studio tent. They are half-interested already in participating and they don’t have to pay for the photographs. For the show at Peckham Platform, I took the pictures by the library in Peckham Square. It was a bit rainy that day and people were drawn to the studio, and wanted to know what I was doing. We would have conversations about the area, and people would mention things to do with the history of the area. One guy mentioned the demolition of flats nearby. Even though the project was about the community as it is now, it becomes about more than that because you get these dialogues with people, about the history of the area, although only for a short time. If I were to continue doing this work I might consider developing a process of recording people’s stories.
YG: What did you focus on with the Harris Academy pupils?
EP: They had never worked on photography as part of their school education. A couple of them were familiar with photography but not as art or as a school subject. I showed them my work and talked about it as a journey which sounds a bit poetic or romantic but that is how I see it. We can produce art about ourselves; document ourselves and our families. It’s really important this process of working on ourselves, whoever we are.
YG: You have also made work using your iPhone. You write on your website about how it allows for spontaneity, and how it has become your notebook, picture diary and recording device.
EP: For ages I didn’t carry a camera with me because it’s so heavy. My son told me to get an iPhone a few years ago and since I’ve owned one I do what I do, but on this phone. I didn’t think it would become a project but it has become one. I like the fact that I can be sitting on the train and going to work, or going somewhere, on a journey, and I see something or someone I want to photograph. I ask their permission. I ask everyone if I can take their picture but I tell them to just carry on doing what they’re doing. It’s like snapping a moment where I’ve thought: ‘Oh that person looks really interesting’. Or I might see a background and then I see a person and I might say: ‘Do you mind standing there so I can take your photograph’. I like that spontaneity. I can have that with the iPhone.
YG: Colour is important to the iPhone pictures. The work at Peckham Platform is all executed in black and white film. Did you adjust the colour in the iPhone photographs at all?
EP: No it’s just how it is, I didn’t change the colour in any way. I do love colour. When I did photography at college it was mainly black and white. After my degree and my trip to Ghana in 1996 my work became colour, more or less. The Whitechapel project was shot using black and white Polaroid because colour Polaroid was all sold out. A similar thing happened in Germany too, with the Schillermarkt Studio, there was not much black and white Polaroid left. The photographs here at Peckham were done on film.
YG: You are interested in working with photographic film that is now no longer being produced?
EP: For the Whitechapel project the only way to keep the work within budget was to shoot on Polaroid. Around this time, the production of Polaroid came to an end and it became quite special in a way. It became part of the journey. For the Schillermarkt Studio in Frankfurt I used Fuji instant film which was also coming to an end.
YG: You explore portraits where the sitter is photographed both facing the camera and in profile. This photographic language of the side-view is so much a part of visual histories which stereotype and type-cast. I am thinking about criminology, eugenics and ethnographic photographs.
EP: I am referencing Victorian histories of photography associated with criminology. For the work at Peckham I originally photographed the first ten people frontal view and then side-ways; and picked which pose worked most strongly. I like the idea that there are people who write theory, who would see the histories I reference in the work, and who might be interested in discussing these.
YG: On your website you tell us something about your biography. You mention that you were born in London and that you are of Ghanaian and Dominican descent. You mention displacement.
EP: Up until I went to Ghana in 1995 I felt a bit lost as to where I came from. I was born in London and I grew up in London. It means something in one way, for ticking boxes. But it doesn’t mean anything in another way. I travelled to Ghana with my mum who hadn’t been back for over thirty years. It was my first journey there and her first journey going back home so to speak. We always used to talk about going home. Before I went to Ghana there was this question: ‘Where are you from?’ I couldn’t say I was Ghanaian. I couldn’t say I was Dominican. I was both. I am both of these things and I am a Londoner, really I am a Londoner, this is my home.
YG: Has Ghanaian studio photography trickled into your practice at all?
EP:It has trickled in subconsciously. My mum was really interested in photography. It was important to have our pictures taken when we were little. From looking at my family albums, we always went to a studio. Then this stopped and we would always have our pictures taken at home. We would have to sit or stand really still. It would be for things like your birthday. Certain occasions had to be documented. In the photographs taken in the studio my mum is really dressed up and everything is staged. Photography was always important. But when she took photographs of my sister and me she would always cut our heads or our legs off, or pictures would be a bit blurry. In contrast, the images of my mum when she was very young, and when she lived in Ghana, were clearly very important. She is posed. Other family members in Ghana would have used a studio, and these types of images I have found in my mum’s family albums.
In the ‘Red, Gold and Green’ series, this series was produced in London (commissioned by Autograph ABP in 1997); people would get dressed up and wear their European outfits and then wear their Ghanaian or African attire. There would be this change of clothing. I didn’t ask people to change their clothes. They decided to do this themselves. Again it’s that dual identity, you are both of these things.
YG: You talk on your website about some of your strategies: your emphasis for a series of photographs might be on a person’s occupation; a location; or a physical trait.
EP: I did a series based on people who have a gap in their teeth which I named after my mum (it is a genetic trait in my family). This series is called ‘Grace’ (I made it in 2000). I named it after my mum because that was the last photograph that I took of her. I was at the Royal College at the time. I took the picture of her in February but she passed away in April. This is why I named it after her.
YG: This makes me think about Victorian photography to do with Memento Mori; and how death, loss and memory are so much a part of family portraiture and photographic histories.
EP: I am interested in that. I am interested in death, in re-visiting scenes where people have passed, or my family have passed. When I visit Ghana, I am aware of a sense of spirituality, a sense of rituals.
YG: You have also started to explore the moving image. I saw a film you made available on Vimeo. I also read that in 2009, you were part of a mentoring programme called ‘Free to Air’ with the Film and Video Umbrella.
EP: The film you saw was made on my iPhone and it is called ‘Send and Receive’. It records a bus journey and a conversation with a man from the Jamaican diaspora (living in London). We talk about what he sends to his children in America and Jamaica. I have an idea about going to Ghana and talking to someone about what they want family living overseas to send them. And then talking to someone here in London about what they want to send to their family back home. I am hoping to develop these ideas into a project.
For further viewing: