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Silver windows

Artist Andrew Beck interviewed by Athol McCredie

<P data-associrn="1565689"></p> <p>Andrew Beck graduated in 2010 with a Master of Fine Arts from Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University Wellington. His subject is the interplay between light, time, and space and his process involves making photograms, a form of cameraless photography. Beck has been included in solo and group exhibitions in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, Cologne, Paris, and Berlin. This year, Te Papa commissioned Andrew to make work for the light boxes in <em>Ng&#257; Toi | Arts Te Papa</em> to complement the highly popular exhibition <em>New Zealand Photography Collected</em>. The light boxes offer a chance for the public to see Andrew’s work, and experiment with creating their own patterns of light and shade in response. Te Papa’s Curator Photography, Athol McCredie, caught up with Andrew in his hometown, New Plymouth, where Andrew currently has a large installation as part of the exhibition <em>Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph</em>. </p> </p> <p><strong>Athol McCredie:</strong> Andrew, tell me about your training. </p> <p><strong>Andrew Beck: </strong> I started out doing a degree in photography, which at Massey University at the time was quite a technical degree, and it wasn’t necessarily art focused. So the beginnings of my practice were rooted in technical photography, especially based around darkroom and older photo technologies. All of my work now still has a connection or a rooting in black-and-white photography, and the techniques that I developed when I was at Massey still play quite a big role in my work now. Especially with the photogram &#8211; a photogram being an image that is essentially a capturing of a shadow of an object. The technique is to place an object onto photographic paper and shine a light onto it. The impression of the object left on the paper is what you get as an image. I’ve always been fascinated by that, just as a thing &#8211; as a way to make images &#8211; and also its conceptual application, as something to generate ideas surrounding art.</p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> [Hungarian-born painter, photographer, and Bauhaus teacher] Moholy-Nagy said that the photogram is the key to photography. What do you think he meant?</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I get what he means. In a way it’s hard to explain it, though, because I think of the photogram as photography’s version of cave painting. It’s the beginning. It’s the initial stage of capturing something directly, and then from that you can extrapolate a negative, and then you can extrapolate a representational image. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> Of course some of the very earliest photographs were photograms that [British photography pioneer] Fox Talbot made by putting lace on a piece of photographic paper. There was no camera involved.</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah.</p> <P data-associrn="1565690"></p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> So we could have remained with a very primitive form if the camera itself had never been invented, couldn’t we?</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I find it interesting how a photogram can collapse volume. It has this strange ability. Because when you think about a shadow existing in reality, it’s always connected to an object. But when you make a photogram, you essentially erase the object, and you’re left with the shadow. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> So in conventional photography, using a camera, you are making an image as though that’s what the eye sees. Whereas with the photogram, it’s somehow this other-worldly sort of transmission of reality, which is not what the eye sees. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I think one of the things that people find the most confusing about it is that a photogram is like a technological glitch, because it’s using photographic paper in a way that it’s not actually meant to be used. Photographic paper reverses, and photography &#8211; up until digital &#8211; is a process that is about the double negative creating a positive. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> So you make a negative first, and then you make a print off it. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah. And so what we’re getting is a negative of something that we don’t really consider in our everyday lives. When I look at a shadow on a floor, it isn’t something that I think about in depth. So then to see that in reverse … As someone who uses it all the time, it’s not alien to me. But I think when people haven’t necessarily understood the technology, it seems very strange and very alien. Immediately, it’s abstraction. I understand when people say that a photogram is a direct translation. I get it. But I don’t quite agree with it, because the technology does not allow for a direct translation. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> For one of your light boxes at Te Papa you’ve put, I think, a glass tumbler on a piece of photographic paper. You get some sense of the glass, like the rim or the base. But it takes a bit of figuring out. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah.</p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> I suppose this happens with shadows too, that shadows can take all sorts of quite distorted forms, depending on the direction of the light. So they don’t necessarily reflect the shape of the object as we think of it. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> No, and one of the things that I use in manipulating my work is diffusion. Diffusion is the softening of an edge as light wraps around an object. It’s essentially the splitting of the light spectrum that creates it. But when you have a very angular shadow, that means that the light source is at an acute angle, and therefore you get softening of the edges quite rapidly. So in my work I use that to depict distance, and I create synthetic shadows in the work. I try to make works that have a logic in and of themselves, so when you look at them, you understand the logic of the work in itself. But that logic doesn’t necessarily connect what we understand of light and how it works in reality. So they’re two very disparate things. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> You indicated before that people who are not thinking in the negative, so to speak, find some of the images quite hard to work out. How do you expect, then, people to figure all this out? Or do you not? Are there layers where no one’s ever going to work it out?</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah, there are, and I think the works that I’m most happy with are incredibly complex for me to make. But when people look at them, they have a simplicity that doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of complexity that went into making them. </p> <P data-associrn="1464815"></p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> Let’s look at this work [<em>Silver window (Breaking the frame)</em>, 2014] in particular, because I think that happens here. I spent some time trying to figure out how it was made, and I really can’t quite unravel it. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> One of the things that I remember in our first paper that we did at photography school was dodging and burning [a printing technique used to lighten or darken selected parts of an image]. I just found that technique really fascinating, because it seemed like it allowed for a manipulation of reality that was completely disconnected from the original photograph. Like a lot of early landscape photographers would completely engineer the background of the sky … So what this work really represents is my technical understanding of what dodging and burning is, and how you can manipulate that to create a form that becomes three-dimensional in and of itself, outside of any sort of connection to the technique. This work is made using multiple blocks placed in a square shape with light coming across it, but it’s also me hovering over. All my work is made horizontally, so I’m always looking at works from above. I’m really surprised at how things look once I do finally get to the point where I’m able to put them on the wall. So this work represents a horizontal shift. But what essentially you’re looking at is a box that has a shadow within it.</p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> We often think of a photogram as being made with a light shining directly above, with objects in front of it. But you can also be working with a light coming in obliquely, and that’s the case here, or at least part of how it is constructed. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> When I think about shadows, I think about long, elongated shadows &#8211; the sort of thing that you would experience early in the morning or late in the afternoon. That stretching of the shadows I’ve always found really interesting. I do think about a lot of my works as windows. Even the title, <em>Silver window (Breaking the frame)</em>, which is a reference to the Brazilian concrete artists [a group of Brazilian artists working in geometric abstraction in the 1950s]. My hope is that when people look at these works, it connects with something maybe in their subconscious or maybe a reductive version of something that they have experienced or caught a glimpse of. So what I try to do is elongate that and allow for a more analytical and protracted observation of that. I’m really interested in the nature of reality, and I think what my work tries to do is look at that question of what is reality in and of itself, outside of my own experience of it. I think photography has the ability to look at that in a way that a lot of other mediums don’t, because of its representational ability &#8211; that seems to be the most accurate representation that we can grasp at. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> Another sort of reality is something that Garry Winogrand pointed to when he said, ‘I take photographs to see what a photograph looks like.’ The way the camera sees the world is different from the way the eye sees the world … </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah. And I’m interested in the connection that has to measurement. Practically, I have to measure things a lot, and I have to understand how light will react in terms of distance and time, because I’m dealing with exposure, just on a very fundamental level. So that’s an equation I come up against a lot. The photograph, once it’s finished, allows all of that to come together and for me to refer back to my notes or my workings and check them against the work. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> So it’s quite a technical exploration of this other world, in a way that perhaps not many people have really done. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> No. I guess the work that I’m making … I always think of it as building pieces of something and then assembling them. That brings the notion that there’s a whole, but actually it’s just piling things on top of what you’ve already got. The work also is reductive in its aesthetic. The reasons it’s reductive is because it’s trying to strip away as many layers as possible and just examine the fundamentals of things. So that’s one of the reasons why I use the language of what people might think of as hard-edge abstraction, but really I don’t think of it like that. Cos the work isn’t meant to be this non-objective thing; it’s something that actually has a reality to it. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> Why don’t you use digital processes?</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> That’s a question I get asked from time to time, and I always find it interesting. Because I have mucked around on Photoshop, and I can engineer images that look aesthetically beautiful, but they lack something outside of that beauty. So for me, I need to have something that I can connect to in order for me to access that beauty on a greater level. So in making a digital image, it strips away the materiality of the work. But not even that &#8211; more a connection to physical reality. Because if I was to just go into the virtual, then I wouldn’t have access to physical means to manipulate and make new images. All of a sudden I would be connected to a logic inside a computer, so the logic wouldn’t be of my own creation. That logic that I make in my work is what drives the entire thing, and that’s what allows me to make these images in the first place. So quite rapidly I’d run out of content. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> So it’s the logic of how light works on photographic paper, which is not what digital is about at all. You could make work which looks similar, but it would be ‘faking it’ in a way. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> OK. So then one thing that strikes me about this photograph here in particular, and I think pretty much all of your work, is that a reproduction of it isn’t really that adequate, because you actually have to experience the work; you have to move around it. Often you’re working in several planes, and the way they shift as you move about them is quite crucial.</p> <P data-associrn="1464810"></p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I do think of myself as a studio artist, and I do think, for me, object making is important &#8211; for whatever reason, I don’t really know why. The materiality of the work does come into it quite heavily for me, and I’m interested in the real-time viewing of work. This edge here [left top edge], that’s actually the light hitting the paper, just the curl of the paper. I’ve left that in, intentionally, to make it evident that the ripples in the paper aren’t just some sort of artefact of it not being pressed down properly or something. It’s a physical thing that is indelible to the work. This work is big, as well. It’s a large undertaking to make a photographic work like that, and it’s very labour intensive, and it’s almost sculptural, really, in a way. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> Let’s talk about the other one [<em>Untitled</em>, 2014], because that has a physical aspect to it too. Although it’s a more conventional optical photograph &#8211; it’s taken with a camera &#8211; but nevertheless, it has quite a torn edge down on the right-hand side … on both sides, actually. So why did you do that?</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I’ve got a big archive of negatives that I took all within about the space of three years, when I was at art school in Wellington. I refer back to them on a regular basis, because I think of them as studies, really. This is a building at the end of Lambton Quay. People might be familiar with it, if you’re from Wellington. It’s quite a strange building with fins sticking out of the concrete that create an optical illusion in the photograph. And this was at quite a dramatic time in the day, where the light was quite intense. But anyway, this is a study of the mechanics of light, texture, and one of my first endeavours to make investigations into sculpture. I’m very interested in three-dimensionality, but I struggle with it, because I’ve got training as a photographer. I think in two dimensions in terms of my work. So it’s a constant tension that I think I still have not quite come to terms with. Even in my more sculptural works, generally, they’re still sheets of glass leaning against the wall. Arguably you could still say, ‘Well, that’s just two-dimensional.’ So this is one of the early studies that are looking at all those things and trying to make sense of them. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> In the photograph, the boards that have been used to cast that concrete have left their impression of the timber there, and that’s somehow photographic too, in the sense of an object casting its shadow, or its residue. </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I was really interested in the impressions in the concrete. I think about light, quite often, as a liquid that runs across surfaces. If you think about it in those terms, you can see where the light is pooling in the creases of the concrete and how it runs across the shapes that it encounters and moves around it and over it. So when I’m making work, I always refer back to that idea, and that informs my image making. </p> <P data-associrn="1565825"></p> <P data-associrn="1565824"></p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> Now, we should actually talk about the light boxes in Ng&#257; Toi. What was your thinking about the creation of those? </p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I was interested initially in the light boxes as something that was going to be transparent, with light passing through it. So I wanted to make a work that would solely refer to the idea of transparency. There’s two images that are made with glass. One is just a circular cup, like we were talking about before, and then the second one is two sheets of glass sitting on top of each other and then resting on their points. The image shows you the indentations in the glass and the imperfect edge of the glass that gets represented when the light hits it and scatters across the paper. And then the third image is a more solid, oblique work that is made with a solid box on the paper. I really like the early photographic works by Bill Culbert, of glasses sitting in various situations with light passing through them. You could think about water being photographed as an image of transparency as well. But on paper, it doesn’t really make sense, as a thing, to make a photograph of a transparent object. Theoretically, you shouldn’t be able to do that. </p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> No, it’s theoretically impossible.</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> I have two branches of my work. One is looking at physical light sources that are real, and then the other one is postulating synthetically created light sources. So the light boxes connect to that side of my practice. It’s something new for me, and I think about light boxes as a more old-school, photographic convention. That idea that a light box is the optimal way of viewing an image is something that you get taught in photography school &#8211; it was quite prevalent in the 80s and 90s.</p> <p><strong>Athol:</strong> It must have been quite difficult to make something which you actually generated on something which is opaque &#8211; the photographic paper &#8211; and then to think of that, to be viewed as transparent …</p> <p><strong>Andrew:</strong> Yeah. I guess the works were intentionally made with that in mind, because I was using transparent objects &#8211; which I don’t normally do. So there was a strange sort of circular logic to it, where they come from transparency, and then they’re exhibited in transparency. </p>

Andrew Beck, Silver window (Breaking the frame), 2014, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2015.
Full object info is available on


Andrew Beck, Untitled, 2014, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2015.
Full object info is available on

Andrew Beck, &lt;em&gt;Double Screen&lt;/em&gt;, installation view from &lt;em&gt;Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph&lt;/em&gt;,  29 Apr – 14 Aug 2016. Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Andrew Beck, Double Screen, installation view from Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph, 29 Apr – 14 Aug 2016. Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Andrew Beck, &lt;em&gt;Double Screen&lt;/em&gt;, installation detail from &lt;em&gt;Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph&lt;/em&gt;,  29 Apr – 14 Aug 2016. Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Andrew Beck, Double Screen, installation detail from Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph, 29 Apr – 14 Aug 2016. Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Light boxes, view 1. Photograph by Mike O&#39;Neill, Te Papa, May 2016

Light boxes, view 1. Photograph by Mike O'Neill, Te Papa, May 2016

Light boxes, view 2. Photograph by Mike O&#39;Neill, Te Papa, May 2016

Light boxes, view 2. Photograph by Mike O'Neill, Te Papa, May 2016