I’m seeking precision, simplicity, focus.
An enquiring mind requires a sharp eye. The way we see things will shape how we think about them. It is the aim of the scientist and the documentarist to look with depth and precision. In the view of the British photographer Elaine Duigenan, this is also very much the task of the artist.
Each of her photographic series makes an almost forensic examination of her subject, be it the zoological specimens in a natural history museum, the structure of plants, the trails left by snails or the delicate textures of a pair of nylon stockings. In a number of cases, in her pursuit of clarity and detail, she has chosen to make her photographs not with a camera but with a flat-bed scanner. The resulting image is flat and crystal clear, holding the object so recorded open to thorough inspection. Viewed with this level of precision, seemingly mundane subjects come to life and reveal subtle and sometimes eccentric qualities one might easily miss without this detailed way of seeing.
As an artist, Elaine Duigenan has a longstanding connection with Wellcome Collection in London, a free museum and library that aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health. Those projects have covered subjects as diverse as forensics, miracles and charms, and outsider art (work produced by untrained artists, usually outside the established art-world institutions).
Alasdair: How would you describe your ‘way of seeing’?
Elaine: Constant, quirky at times, thoroughly intuitive. I am always searching for things that spark my urge to make work. I’ve always looked hard at things and been keen to see beyond surface. A key moment at university was when a visiting tutor made us look at the studio floor. We all smoked around our easels, the floor was splattered with paint, dusty, and strewn with cigarette ends; to most eyes it would have looked pretty disgusting. Our tutor encouraged us to look beyond what we knew and see potential in all places, to appreciate the details. Something of this idea has always stayed with me.
Let’s begin by talking about your latest body of work: ‘Blossfeldt’s Apprentice’. How did this project begin?
I was doing some work with Wellcome Collection that related an exhibition of Japanese ‘outsider art’ called ‘Souzou’. I became thoroughly inspired by the work of amazing artists such as Shota Katsube. He had made an entire army of warriors out of multi-coloured twist ties. Each one was individually crafted. I found it inspiring that one could make something so beautiful out of such ordinary materials. I decided to try making things in this way. My results were quite organic and reminded me of the photographs made by the German artist Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932). I wondered if I could recreate some of his images using twist ties.
Can you tell me a little about how you went about crafting these objects? They are very persuasive at first glance.
It was a rather long process with all sorts of difficulty and self-doubt. I am not an especially patient person and the objects were very fiddly to make. I was trying to make a perfect recreation of Blossfeldt’s images in a material that was flexible but also extremely limited. It was only when I came to consciously acknowledge the tension between aiming for perfection and failing to achieve it that I realised that this was the point: being able to see how they were constructed – the joins, the ties, the fixings – made clear the difference between nature and human endeavour. When compared to Nature’s, my creations were always destined to be less than perfect.
What is it that you seek to explore or communicate through the recreation of images famous from the history of photography and botany?
Blossfeldt did something extraordinary with his work; something that he had not necessarily set out to do. He taught sculpture and it was for this reason that he photographed the plant specimens; as reference points to show the archetypal forms in nature. It was not till he was in his sixties that he published these photographs, and those who saw them realised the work was seminal. It showed how the patterns and forms in nature underpin so much of what we make, whether it’s in design or architecture. I wanted to connect with these images that were so familiar and so important. It made me think deeply about the struggle between nature’s perfection and human imperfection.
© Elaine Duigenan from the series ‘Mysteries of Generation’
[Left] ‘Sciuropterus Volucella’ 2000; [Right] ‘Equus Caballus’ 2000
Going back to your earliest works, there is a similar interest in the crossover between scientific enquiry and aesthetic appreciation. How did ‘Mysteries of Generation’ come about?
I was making my first visit to the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England in London. I was completely fascinated by the 200-year-old animal specimens in the collection. I felt I was seeing things that I’d never seen before. I found them beautiful; contained so still in a watery world. I thought a lot about the nature of preservation and photography; dead things that almost looked as though they were alive.
Your next series, ‘Nylon’, seems quite a leap from the zoological subject matter of the earlier work. How did this series begin?
It happened quite accidently. I was sitting in my workroom one day and wondered what would happen if I put an object on the flatbed scanner as opposed to a piece of paper. I have always collected objects and happened to have a pair of vintage Dior stockings in a box (the kind of thing that was, for a previous owner, too precious to open and was thus preserved in the bottom drawer). The resulting scan was a revelation! The amount of detail caught combined with the narrow focal plane made for a stunning image.
What is it that made a scanner so interesting for you?
I love detail. A scanner gives me detail right down to a single hair. It also has a rigour born of constraint – one is limited to a fixed focal plane and scale. It gives a sharp and close view suited to small work, which suits my interest in single objects. I love the immediacy of scanning and always have one set up so that I can play endlessly with the possibilities. These last couple of years, I have had a garden. So, I’ve made a lot of scans of plant bits that will in due course become a new series.
Aside from their formal qualities, nylon stockings have various social, historical and sexual associations. Were you seeking to tap into these in this work?
Initially, I was thinking about sculptural landscapes, as there was a strong sense of terrain photographed from above. I also revelled in the sense of a distinct form made from one single thread; when new they looked perfect, but these stockings were prone to unravel if damaged even slightly. I researched the history of Nylon and was fascinated to learn that the word is derived from the connection between New York (NY) and London (LON). As it progressed, the work became more playful and, later, when I showed the work to other people, they soon pointed out the more erotic associations. But, ultimately, the dialogue they prompt has to do with perfection and imperfection, located somewhere between the smoothness and the wrinkles, and in the tension of close-knit and loosening threads…
The next body of work, ‘Net’, takes hairnets as its subject. There seem to be strong links with ‘Nylon’ in both the form and the mode of image capture. Was that a natural transition?
Yes, both series share the same quality of precarious filaments and a propensity for unravelling. When I showed ‘Net’ and ‘Nylon’ together in New York, I called the show ‘Intimate Archaeology’. That title seemed to underpin their personal qualities and the intimate nature of their use; the proximity to the female body and the mysteries of heritage.
I found out that many early hairnets were made from real human hair. For me, it brought these quirky objects to life and I wondered from whose head the hair had come. The hairnets I photographed were all made from real human hair and date from the 1920s up to the 1950s. They are delicate and often hand woven.
I understand that there is still a substantial trade in human hair. The majority of it comes from Asia and places where long hair is valued, but some women are so poor that they must consider selling it.
‘Micro Mundi’ takes you in a somewhat different direction and back to using a conventional camera. How did this work begin and what is it we are actually looking at?
This work began outdoors. The meandering lines have been made by snails grazing on algae. The claw-like patterns are caused by the rasping action of the snail’s spiky tongue. Year upon year they etch these chaotic trails.
The round format and title suggest to me a kind of ‘world-within-a-world’ approach – a microcosm that offers a point of reflection on the larger world and indeed the wider cosmos…
The patterns in Nature seem to be replicated on a range of scales from the very small to the cosmically large. These small etchings made by snails on the side of a derelict building can look like entire landmasses seen from space. Like the fingers of a river estuary, these markings attest to the presence of a vigorous life form. The round format simply encourage the viewer to consider the implications of our existence.
How did the titles come about?
They are taken from mediaeval times, when the cartographic metaphor situated the world – our Earth – in a philosophical and religious context.
I have heard that one of these photographs found its way onto the International Space Station? How did that come about?
Leland Melvin is an astronaut. I met him in Houston and we became friends. When he saw the ‘Micro Mundi’ images he immediately made the connection and asked if he could take one of the images with him to the space station to photograph it while looking down on the earth from space. He flew on Shuttle Atlantis and was kept very busy during his time on the space station. Nonetheless, just before he was due to return, I received an email from him saying that it was done and that I would have the proof soon after landing. When I saw the image, it was as if my concept had travelled full circle – the tiny snail trails were now set beside an aerial view of the Amazon River seen through the space station window. It is a view that reinforces the sense that, in nature, everything is connected.
There is a very graphic quality to all of your work, whether it is made on a scanner or with a camera: high contrast, sharp lines, subject isolated on a dark background… What is it draws you to that way of rendering your images?
Yes, you are right. It’s a pared down approach. I may begin by working in colour, but I always end up stripping it away. I am frequently drawn to the line, the web and connecting strands. I’m seeking precision, simplicity, focus. I want to isolate (even dissect) in order to scrutinise. I have a powerful need for clarity. That said, I am also fascinated by precarious states where there is an implied tension between unity and the propensity to unravel.
[Left] © Elaine Duigenan ‘Bradypus Tridactylus’ [detail] 2000 from the series ‘Mysteries of Generation’
[Centre] © Elaine Duigenan ‘Orbis Atlantis’ 2009 from the series ‘Micro Mundi’
[Right] © Elaine Duigenan ‘Pumpkin Tendrils’ 2016 from the series ‘Blossfeldt’s Apprentice’
What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?
I like the fact that it shouldn’t be too easy – the viewer has to make a little effort to reap some reward. My images are not always about what people think if they only take a quick glance. I found with the Blossfeldt work that many people did not realise that these objects were human-made, even less that they were made from twist ties. I have to say, I really enjoy the look of surprise on their faces when they realise. And they seem to enjoy that discovery. Blossfeldt used to say to his students “pay attention”. I agree. If you follow that advice then you have the possibility of seeing (and perhaps understanding) just that little bit more.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these images?
So many things: how difficult it is to make really good work; how much one doubts and struggles in the process; understanding that there’s a compulsion to make it no matter what.
I’ve learned that I have perfectionist tendencies and I can be rather serious, but I also find pleasure in things that are odd and quirky. I have a strong need to uncover, to delve, to be a kind of archaeologist. It makes me sad that too often people do not take the time to really look. I’ve learned that it is through looking, playing and experimenting – asking ‘what if?’ – that my work becomes possible.
As I have got older I have become more self-confident. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has made it essential to endeavour to make images that continue to surprise and stand out from the crowd. It has taken me many years to appreciate what it means to be an artist: to have an independent and vital voice; to be brave and to be different.
Elaine Duigenan was born in Hampshire in 1964. She received a Bachelor of Arts with Honours from Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has exhibited in galleries and festivals in Europe and USA, with regular shows in New York at Klompching. In September 2018, she presented her series entitled ‘Blossfeldt’s Apprentice’ at the Pingyao International Photography Festival, winning one of the prestigious international artist awards. In 2016, the series won the Gold Award for Fine Art and Still Life at Le Prix de la Photographie, Paris. Her work is held in a number of public and private collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas; and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. She lives and works in London.
Photo © R Bishop
This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Ways of Seeing.
An image by Elaine Duigenan featured on the cover of this issue.