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.
Chinese Whispers, Helen Douglas/Telfer Stokes. Weproductions, 1976, 176pp, 11 x 18cms.
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?
The corner cupboard is constructed in the spine of the book as the narrative and pages. (selected spreads).
The corner cupboard
Selected spreads: the corner cupboard is constructed in the spine and the shelves gradually fill.
Earthcake, sliced. Bottom shelf.
Pea pod is sprung open: middle shelf.
Butterfly: Scissors cut the pages to create a butterfly.
13 x 19 cms
Constructing the interior: the backdrop of factories and the workmen are photographic models.
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.
Figure & building were spliced together in half tone film: the book was printed on different textured papers including wallpaper.
The mezzo tint half tone for the photographs gave a sensuous quality to the print.
AH. When did you start working digitally?
Wild Wood, Helen Douglas. Weproductions, 1999, 144 pp, 11.6 x 16 cms
Frames were created establishing on and into the page/book/wood.
AH. Was this the first concertina book you made?
Clinkscale, Helen Douglas, Weproductions, 1977, unpaginated, 18 x 28 cms.
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: drafting the narrative sequence across the studio floor. The final book was in codex form. 1997.
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.
Installation shot of exhibition: Flow Across the Page at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. Feb 2019.
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).
Meadow, Helen Douglas, Weproductions, 2017, 24cm x 34 cm, 18pp.
The Pond at Deuchar, Helen Douglas, 2011, 27 cms x 16 metres hand scroll. Printed inkjet on Chinese Xuan paper.
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.
The Pond at Deuchar e-scroll App prototype. Tate, 2013.
The e-scroll can be viewed:http://helendouglas.onlineculture.co.uk/ttp/ttp.html and information about it and the research project accessed from www.tate.org.uk
AH. In what way?
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.
Leaves Passing, Helen Douglas, Weproductions, 2015. 23cm x 13.5cm, 24 pages. Printed digital dryprint.
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.
Insects & Grasses, Helen Douglas, Printed Matter Inc, 2018, 9.5cm x 18cm, 20pp. Printed HP Indigo.
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.
Top: Helen Douglas giving a talk is at Printed Matter Inc. Weproductions 1972 -2018
Bottom: Helen Douglas: Flow Across the Page, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Feb 2019.
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.
4th Oct 2019.