Shining a light on Cornwall’s pioneers, Seasalt has always celebrated flourishing local talent. Each month in support of their creativity, we share their inspiring stories.
This month, we visited photographic artist Oliver Raymond-Barker at his studio in Penryn.
Photography is a blend of art and science. How do you balance the two – and which comes first?
I’ve always been fascinated by the history of photography and people like Sir John Herschel and Henry Fox Talbot, the pioneers of photography in the 1800s. They were polymaths and studied science and astronomy as well as literature and the arts.
For me, it’s a constant game of back and forth between the artistic side of photography and the scientific side when I’m testing things out. I’m often building new cameras or trying new processes. Testing them is fairly rigorous, but after that I can start to work in a more intuitive way and use the processes as a tool.
What drew you to start experimenting with different processes, and what do you think they offer that you don’t get from digital photography?
I’ve always been drawn to push the boundaries of photography. When I was at college I was fascinated by some of the abstract expressionist painters such as Rothko and Motherwell and the range of emotion and texture they could get into their work, and I was drawn to try to do that with photography. I found that they only way I could do that in an authentic way was to make work through tactile processes. Although I use digital photography sometimes if needed, I feel you can lose something in the process. Making the prints yourself – working on them inside the camera, printing them yourself – for me it just gives a different feel to the final work.
Towards the end of my degree I did a lot of large format photography and that really inspired the work I’m making now, because it engenders a slowing down of process and technique. Because you’re working with a bulky, heavy camera and the film is very expensive you have to shoot slower, and that’s something that’s been an inspiration right through to now.
You use a variety of photographic techniques in your work, including the camera obscura. How does this work, and what effect does it produce?
The camera obscura is essentially the oldest form of photography – all modern-day photography stems from this. The concept is pretty simple. Camera means chamber and obscura means dark. If you make a dark chamber and make a tiny hole in one wall of that chamber, the light will project through that pinhole and project an image onto the opposite wall. It’s basic science – light travels in straight lines. The same technique is used in modern SLRs and smartphones – there’s more technology embedded in those machines, but essentially that’s how it works.
I’ve been working with this technique for the last couple of years. I built a camera obscura that was three metres tall with a four-metre circumference for a project in South Korea. I’ve also worked with a mobile camera obscura in a backpack that I can set up on location. I can get inside the camera, create images while I’m inside it and make all those adjustments that you’d normally do outside the camera. For me that’s key – to be able to work inside the camera directly with the light.
It’s really exciting to go out and shoot work and then come back to the darkroom and to begin to process, because there’s another whole phase of experimentation, play and development that happens then. I can choose to abstract certain elements of the image or change the colour.
I also work with camera-less techniques – for one project I’ve been working on recently, I’ve been wrapping stones in exposed photographic paper and then processing them with developer and fixing chemicals to make very abstract prints. But what I find often is that these separate projects will come back together later on, so something that seems like a distinct body of work ends up fusing with another project.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. One is a body of work called Promised Land, which I’ve been making in Scotland for the last year or so. It’s based around a specific site, the Rosneath Peninsula, which is about an hour north-west of Glasgow. It is a beautiful wild site, with a rich geological and cultural history. It’s also the site of Faslane, the UK’s nuclear weapons system, so there’s a strange dichotomy there, which makes it a really interesting site to work with. I’m going back up there in August to make new work and run workshops for the arts organisation that’s supporting me as well.
I’m also currently preparing for the Unseen Photo Festival, which takes place in Amsterdam in September. I’ll be running workshops and showing work and publications, so I’m framing up work and preparing everything I need for the festival.
There’s one other project I’m working on with Plymouth University – I’m collaborating with one of their academics who does research into sustainability. My role is to make his research visible and tangible through photographic means.
Tell us about the Making Time Collective
It’s a loose collective of photographers, started in 2014 by myself and two other artists, Andy Hughes and William Arnold. The focus of the collective is to provide a platform for photography in Cornwall through exhibitions, workshops and publications, and to try and demystify photographic art and processes, making them accessible for everyone from kids right through to the older generations.
Who or what inspires you?
Spending time in the landscape and nature: climbing, surfing, exploring and playing. Since I was young, that’s been a constant source of vitality for me and I really try and embody that in my work.
What drew you to Cornwall, and how has the landscape here influenced your practice?
I moved to Cornwall in 2007, more for my love of climbing, surfing and being outdoors than photography and art. But what I’ve found, having spent all those years in the water, on the cliffs and in remote spots in Cornwall, is that this really plays out through the work, not necessarily in the direct visual aesthetic, but in the way that I think, how I act, and how important that physicality is to the work that I make day-to-day.
Where’s your favourite off-the-beaten-track spot in Cornwall?
Some of my favourite spots are up in north Cornwall. I used to live in the Bude area, and I love places like Crackington, Millock, Northcott and all those beaches. There’s a lot more space up there – the cliffs and the geology are amazing and there are some interesting sites that not many people go to.
Oliver wears: Men’s Tall Ship Shirt £62.50