Helen Douglas in conversation with Alex Hamilton
Known for her artist’s books, Helen has created an extraordinary range of works over the past 50 years. From her early partnership with Telfer Stokes through to her independent projects, Helen has always sought to create a unique way of presenting photography in the book form.
AH. When did you first acquire a camera and get interested in photography?
HD. My first camera was a Brownie 44A which I got around 1965; by 1970 I was using my father’s Leica and finally in September 1973 I received a Pentax for my 21st birthday. I had no formal training in photography, however on a one year foundation course I did make a photographic half-tone silkscreen print. This initiated me into my fascination with the relationship between photograph and print which became relevant to my books. More generally my interest in photography came about in the early 1970s, at university, when I became aware of artists using photography as an integral part of their practice in performance, land art and books – documenting, but also making photographic works to be exhibited and/or published in book form, which interested me very much indeed. Examples of this are the Artist pages in studio International, May 1971, in particular David Dye’s action of turning pages and Richard Long’s book Along a River Bank (Art & Project 1972). Reliant on photography, these works marry the photograph to the page, the sequence of pages and the book form. The works only exist in printed published form.
AH. So your growing interest in photography was through contemporary art?
HD. Yes. I read art journals, visited exhibitions and galleries such as Nigel Greenwood’s where I saw Artist’s Books. On graduating from University where I studied Art History and took a course in Post-Modernism with Charles Harrison (who was assistant editor at Studio International and closely connected with artists and Art & Language), I took up a job at the Demarco Gallery in the summer of 1973. There I was able to experience first-hand the incredible performance and happenings that took place in that summer: Beuys, Marina Abramovic, Paul Neagu, Kantor… plus many more. Demarco was constantly making photographic documentation and I was roped in to develop and print out press copy in the darkroom at the gallery. I learnt on the job and even now look at some of this archival material with some trepidation.
AH. When did you start making your own work?
HD. The experience of working at the Demarco Gallery, meeting so many artists deepened my resolve to become an artist and begin making more public work. I began to consider the book as the place where I could make performative work. Soon after publishing Threads (1974) I began to collaborate with Telfer Stokes in London, publishing under the imprint Weproductions. Our first collaboration, Loophole (1975) drew on a performance I had made with a wheelbarrow as part of Demarco’s Edinburgh Arts, 1974. In Loophole the wheelbarrow is wheeled into the book: when the wheel meets the spine another action is triggered, which unfolds in film sequence. For this book we scripted every page-spread and planned each photograph, then created a life-size set to the proportions of the book for the action and narrative to be photographically constructed to the page, spread and book.
This tailoring of the photograph to the page and book form, using sets, is best illustrated by Chinese Whispers. Here the corner cupboard is constructed to the proportions of the open paperback book, its corner fitting to the spine. In the cupboards making the narrative and the photographic pages the book were constructed together. The proportions of each photograph were those of the page, and the open spread. The choreography of the camera itself moving into the cupboard and looping out from the bottom to middle to top shelf in the form of a spiral was part of the narrative thread.
The book narrative explores the spiral of nature: under, on and above ground. All is hinged on the spine: an earthcake is sliced, a pea pod sprung open and a butterfly takes flight. The photographic page spread is integral to the book and its performative reading. This book was exhibited at Garage Gallery in London in December 1975 and following on at the Demarco Gallery in January 1976. Other books were shown in the early exhibitions of Artist’s Books: Arists’ Bookworks: British Council Travelling Exhibition (1975) and Artists’ Books: The Arts Council of Great Britain (1976).
Much Later Real Fiction (1987), published in the US, returned to this use of sets. However, for this book the sets were small: the installation photograph from the retrospective of Weproductions books which I organised at Printed Matter, Inc., NY in 2018 shows the way a photographic backdrop of factories was combined with cut-out figures of workmen. These men then fictionally constructed the physical, building of an interior in miniature. In this way we again made photographs as pages as sequence, as book.
AH. How were your books of photographic imagery printed?
HD. Originally we used commercial offset printers. That was the thinking: distinctly not fine press. Then when we moved to Scotland for economic reasons we established our own workshop, and acquired a small second hand Multilith Offset Press, as well as a Process Repromaster camera for doing all the repro pre-press work in film – halftone and line. This meant with everything in-house we were able to work with photographic images and the book in a new way: both in the preparation of photographic artwork for printing and in the printing itself. A different print aesthetic came into the books.
For instance with our own press and smaller sheet size we were able to work with many more papers, and to explore the textural relationship between photographic image, print and surface. With the book Mim, an exploration of mimicry in surface pattern and texture of clothing and architecture, we used different textured papers including wallpapers, throughout as an integral part of the visual and tactile reading of the book. We spliced photographic images together at the film stage to build the pages of the book. Flip-flopping images between positive and negative, we were able to drop tone, gain contrast and create negative backing for positive text. This was also possible with Water on the Border (1994), a book made in Scotland and China where line drawings by children were butted up next to photographic images of water and reflections. The latter were screened with a mezzotint half-tone screen which gave a beautiful velvety touch to the image and stroked the paper. The scaffolding armature of horizontals and verticals was made from offcuts of exposed film. Our artwork for the book was no longer layouts of continuous tone bromides but layouts of half-tone film.
In one book Spin Off (1985) each page spread was built up with photographic print overlay: some spreads passing through the press five times. With the advent of the digital this way of working with photographs, process film and the press ended.
AH. When did you start working digitally?
HD. Gradually. I saw the potential of the computer and photoshop for working with colour photography and the book by 1998. At that point I scanned analogue photographs and then used photoshop to work them to the page. It was a sea change as to what was possible creatively. Cut and paste, overlay, stripping in/out etc. could be done on screen. Of course something physical was lost but other things were gained. I could work and manipulate photographs to make narrative in full colour, and relying on four-colour separation for printing I returned to working with commercial printers. It was exciting and challenging. My books Wild Wood (1999) Unravelling the Ripple (2001) and Illiers Combray (2004) were all digitally made and had to be worked economically in format and signature to the printers’ B1 sheet.
Illiers Combray was the first book made using a small digital camera, an Olympus Camedia. I was struck by its versatility in taking images, its focus and small detailed pixilation 4M pixels. I used the latter as photographic pointillism to make an almost miniaturist book, which suited my subject of exploring the Combray of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. The concertina format was suggested by Zöe Irvine the sound artist, who initiated the collaboration, with her making the soundscape and myself the visual book. Digitally it was possible to seamlessly stitch photographic images together to create one long visual sentence, front and back, into which I could splice vignettes.
AH. Was this the first concertina book you made?
HD. No, in 1978 Telfer and I made Clinkscale a visual play on the accordion. I had always been interested in the concertina format, the way it opens the image out in pages of two, four, six and so on: its strong links with the Eastern tradition of book and the flow of imagery across the extended page. The visual phrasing that the concertina enables is different from the codex, and engages not only the hands, but arm-breadths in the reading. This phrasing underpins the way I was originating the photographic sequences of narrative across the floor in my studio in many of my codex books too.
Between the Two (1997) and Unravelling the Ripple are both examples of this. By the early 2000s I began to realise the potential for printing in scroll format with my own Epson printer, as a means of honouring this visual phrasing. The exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery entitled Flow Across the Page (Feb 2019) explored this particular aspect of my books.
With the Epson Photo Stylus I also saw the potential for being able to bring some of my production back in-house, to produce small limited editions with archival inks. In this way I was able to continue developing the exploration of the photographic image with paper, page and book, that had previously been possible in our workshop on the offer press. I began using very fine 30gsm Chinese Xuan paper: the inkjet saturated the paper, image and paper became one. The bleed into the paper gave a painterly quality to the rendered image which can be seen in the scroll The Pond at Deuchar (2011). Using this fine semi-transparent paper I have also been able to build the photographic image from one page to the next as a physical layering in Meadow (2017).
For me the only drawback of this studio approach to making editions was that the books and scrolls I was producing were not reaching out to a wide public in the way that the offset books printed in editions of 1000 or 600 had done. I was uneasy about this, having always adhered to the published book as a democratic art form. Therefore when I gave a presentation entitled Transforming the Medium, as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – funded project Transforming Artist Books directed by Tate, V&A and University of the Arts London (UAL), I asked as part of the project that my hand-scroll The Pond at Deuchar be put onto an iPad. Indeed, when I had originally conceived this work I had measured an iPad with this idea in mind. I worked with Tate and Armadillo Systems to achieve this: the same photographic files that I had used for the printing of the hand-scroll were fed into the iPad with code made by Armadillo Systems, and the prototype escroll App was made (2013). It had an introductory title page with Tate as publisher and included a postscript by Clive Phillpot. Unfortunately the App Store rejected this escroll which was a shock, but it was eventually published in a slightly different form on onlineculture.com. As a prototype it was exhibited at Yale Centre for British Art however within the year Apple whisked the prototype from my iPad. This experience was salutary and reconfirmed my commitment to independent publishing and the physical book as the place for my art. Of course since the early 2000s with the advent of digital so much has changed for me.
HD. Well for a number of years there was a real threat to the printed book. Many printers and binders went under, including those I used. I found this very unsettling. Now things have stabilised, some offset litho has survived, although press size has reduced. It is now also possible to work with commercial digital printers to realise economic editions of 250 or less.
The digital ebook also shifted public perception of the physical book in general and the artist book in particular, emphasising the physical, tactile and visual qualities. This has led to a blossoming in the field of Artist’s Books and also of Photobooks. The two genres, while distinct, have many crossovers, and my books which were totally reliant on the camera are now also collected and reviewed within the latter.
Whatever genre, my interest is to be out with the camera looking and finding and bringing this to the book form as sequence. It might be a sustained lengthy narrative or something more pared-down, capturing an essence. Leaves Passing (2015), captures that moment of leaves floating down the dark river in beautiful constellations. This is not just about photographs: the landscape format of the book gives breadth and ease to this flow. The white borders enhance the movement and the black cover edge reinforces the sombre title announcing something passing. Insects and Grasses (2018) on the other hand highlights the verticality of the grasses. The grasses zip the white of the page and play with its fore edge: the slim green margin of the cover emphasising and playing with the vertical stalks. In the central spread the thread of the stitched book mimics the antennae of the may fly). To achieve this clarity of expression, I went out into the eld with camera and this book concept to see what I would find. I placed an A4 sheet of white paper behind each stalk and insect: the sheet in effect a set backdrop. I work with camera and think book. This book was produced by Indigo printers in New York to coincide with my exhibition of Weproductions in 2018 at Printed Matter, Inc.
AH. You have had two major exhibitions recently?
HD. Yes. The exhibition at Printed Matter was an in depth survey of Weproductions Books from 1972 – 2018. It included a lot of archival material to show process as well as the books made over the four decades, and was devised like a large layout. Printed Matter was established in 1976 and I have had a relationship with this bookshop and organisation since that time. In the second exhibition, Flow Across the Page at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, one aspect of the New York show was taken up by Elizabeth McLean and Iain Morrison, following a proposal by Beth Williamson. The display spanned, in four tiers, the full length of the top gallery end wall, in order to emphasise the musical phrasing and metering of these books. I was happy with both exhibitions and very pleased to be able to exhibit my work to the public in this way.
Of course the book is its own exhibition space and from the 1970s onwards, that has been part of its appeal. However an actual exhibition gives another focus to the book and my work as an artist. There is a lack of parity for an artist book with other artworks within museums and galleries. That is what is so wonderful about the Roland Penrose and Gabrielle Keiller collections with their prominent display of books as part of collections within the National Gallery of Scotland’s SGMA 2. However this is rare. My books are in many museum library collections but they are not usually accessioned as artworks, which I have always conceived them to be. When however they were exhibited in MOMA’s Eye on Europe: Prints, Books and Multiples 1960 to Now (2006), and acquired by their print department they were given this status. As a result I was made a life member of the museum, giving affirmation of my work in book. I’m sure photographers have in the past had something of this same experience. With the printed book and photography such an integral part of 20th and 21st century artistic movements and visual thinking, things will change and indeed, are changing.