Gradwatch: Alan Knox

After touring this year’s degree shows, we’ve selected visual communications graduates from across the UK who we feel have produced outstanding creative portfolios. Here, we speak to photographer Alan Knox, who has just graduated with a first class degree in communication design from Glasgow School of Art and been selected as one of Daniel Blau Gallery’s 5 Under 30.

Schengland (2014) by Alan Knox

After touring this year’s degree shows, we’ve selected visual communications graduates from across the UK who we feel have produced outstanding creative portfolios. Here, we speak to photographer Alan Knox, who has just graduated with a first class degree in communication design from Glasgow School of Art and been selected as one of Daniel Blau Gallery’s 5 Under 30.

We were particularly impressed by Knox’s poignant project Universal Sympathy, a series of celestial images made by scattering his grandfather’s ashes onto photographic paper, and Schengland, which features screenshots from Google’s Street View project placed upon images of the Anglo-Scots border. The project was inspired by last year’s Scottish referendum, and debates around whether the country would be forced to erect border controls with England and join the Schengen zone if it became independent.

Knox has taken part in several group photography exhibitions (his work is currently on show at Daniel Blau Gallery in London) and this year, received the School of Design Chairman’s Medal and Dissertation Prize from Glasgow School of Art. He has also undertaken work experience as a visual intern at the Financial Times.

 

Universal Sympathy (2015) by Alan Knox, courtesy of Daniel Blau Gallery

CR: When did you first become interested in photography?

AN: Although I’d always enjoyed taking photographs, my first memory of wanting to become a professional photographer came after viewing the 1990’s BBC TV series Shooting the Past directed by Steven Poliakoff. I remember watching it and being captivated by a film where the story unfolded through still photographs, it was then that I first realised the narrative potential of photography. Later, whilst studying for an HND in Professional Photography at City of Glasgow College, I attended a class trip to an exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, where I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of both the physicality of the prints and the ideas on display. It was this exposure to conceptual photography during college which confirmed to me that this was where my passion lay.

Universal Sympathy (2015) by Alan Knox, courtesy of Daniel Blau Gallery

 

And why did you decide to study communication design after doing a photography HND? What were the most important things you learned from the course at Glasgow School of Art?

Studying communication design at Glasgow School of Art has allowed me to specialise in photography whilst working in a studio environment where students working in photography, graphic design and illustration are encouraged to adopt a cross-disciplinary approach and collaborate across specialisms.

Being part of this environment has encouraged me to constantly question the nature of photography from different perspectives and as a student, you are always encouraged to draw outside interests and theory into your practice. The design oriented nature of the course has also pushed me to develop new skills such as book-making, allowing me to produce a book of my Universal Sympathy project. Whilst working on my final year project, Universal Sympathy, the encouragement I received from my tutor Andy Stark was invaluable, who always reassured me my project was as much universal as it was personal to me.

 

Universal Sympathy (2015) by Alan Knox, courtesy of Daniel Blau Gallery


Universal Sympathy is a beautiful project. How did the idea for it come about, and how did you create the images?

In this project, I sought to explore the relationship between photography, death and the sublime. Several years ago I began documenting the process of scattering my grandfather’s remains in places which were personal to him during his life. Over time however, it seemed that for such a sensitive subject matter, a more compelling way to document this process would be to convey only the trace of the ash. The most natural way of doing this appeared to be the photogram which, since photography’s inception, has been used as a way of conveying universal truths not immediately perceptible to the naked eye. This involved scattering my grandfather’s remains directly onto a roll of photographic paper one metre wide and exposing them to light in the darkroom. Once exposed, the shadows cast by my Grandfather’s remains appear as stars against an inky black sky. From the remains of the body, I attempt to reassemble a primordial unity with the cosmos in which each speck of dust comes to symbolise the Moons of Saturn, supernovae, asteroids, galaxies and planets of which we are all derived.

Here my interest lay in using photography to elevate a finite subject matter such as ash to the level of the infinite expanse of space, and hopefully convey Immanuel Kant’s belief that all human life is by its very nature sublime, for no infinity in nature or space could ever match the infinite scope of the human mind. Condensing this project into a photobook, Made of Stars, I hope that the viewer may perceive a narrative which traces events from my grandfather’s life on a cosmic scale: from the earliest birth pangs of a newborn star to its final collapse into a black hole.

Universal Sympathy (2015) by Alan Knox, courtesy of Daniel Blau Gallery


Are there any photographers or other creatives who have been a particular influence on your work?

My recent practice has been greatly inspired by artists and photographers whose work has explored the theory of the sublime as it relates to the boundary between the finite and infinite. The belief held by Hiroshi Sugimoto that through photography one can raise primordial memories to consciousness has been an immense inspiration whilst working on Universal Sympathy, as I sought to provoke a memory of mankind having originated in the Big Bang.

Whilst studying how the feeling of the sublime has been historically evoked in both art and science, I was fascinated to learn that astronomers at the Hubble Heritage Project were inspired by landscape painters working in the sublime tradition such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt when composing astronomical images such as the Pillars of Creation. Learning to structure the compositions as you would a landscape helped me to guide the chaotic pattern of ash which formed each time I scattered them on paper.

Made of Stars, Knox’s final degree show project, featuring images from Man in the Moon & Universal Sympathy

How would you describe your work, and where do you look for inspiration?

I would describe much of my recent photography practice as conceptual and in this respect, I’m always trying to explore the boundary of the personal and universal. I’ve always been fascinated by both astronomy and astrology, especially the knowledge that all life originates in the stars, as the astronomer Carl Sagan said, “We are made of starstuff.” For photographers such as the 19th century Swedish playwright August Strindberg, the photogram was a space where nature and the heavens collide. Creating so-called celestographs by placing photographic plates face up on the ground where once exposed, Strindberg perceived the grains of dust as a photographic imprint of the skies above.

During my studies I was greatly inspired by conceptual photographers including Sugimoto, Thomas Demand, Joan Fontcuberta, Paul Graham and Thomas Ruff. This past year I’ve also really enjoyed the work of Peter Watkins, Barry Hughes, Peter Puklus and Aleix Plademunt. Whenever I’m frustrated creatively, I’m always reminded of a quote by the photographer Alex Webb: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not reading enough.” With this in mind, I try to draw as broad an influence from literature and theory as possible, from T.S Eliot and W.G. Sebald, to Derrida, Adorno, Zizek and Lacan.

Man in the Moon (2014) by Alan Knox. Knox re-photographed large format black-and-white negatives from his family archive, holding images to the sky to be backlit by the reflection of a full moon

And could you tell us a little more about Schengland?

As an art student studying in Scotland during the referendum debate, I felt compelled to document the sea-change in political engagement which was happening during this time. This eventually lead to a landscape project which documented the Anglo-Scots border and the dirt paths which had been established to open access across the border counties. One fear raised by those arguing against independence was that an independent Scotland would lead to the erection of border controls with England should Scotland be forced to join the Schengen zone as a condition of EU membership. Trailing Google Street View’s imagery of the eastern European Schengen border with non EU nations, I was fascinated to see border checkpoints still operating in a similar geography to the one I had been photographing in the Borders region

Designing mock road signs pasted with blown up screen grabs of Street View imagery from the eastern European Schengen border and installed on the pathways between Scotland and England, I hoped to illustrate the consequences of European integration on calls for greater regional sovereignty which the independence referendum debate exposed, whilst further highlighting internet imagery’s often contentious role in documenting border relations.

Schengland

You’ve been selected as one of Daniel Blau’s 5 under 30. What impact has being selected, and having your work in the gallery, had so far?

Exhibiting at the Daniel Blau Gallery alongside Julia Parks, Melissa Arras and Michael Radford and has been both an honour and an invaluable experience in learning how commercial galleries work with photographers. The most humbling response I’ve received so far is when people have told me that viewing the images has had a healing effect following their own experience with bereavement. I was relieved to discover during the exhibition that others found solace in a project which was originally so personal to me. Whilst I had considered the work resolved, exhibiting the images publicly has inspired me to find new ways to continue the project.

You’ve also taken part in a number of group shows. How useful has this been for you, in terms of making contacts, or getting exposure for your work?

Taking part in group shows has been very important in forming contacts with exhibitors and other photographers. Entering Schengland as part of the open call for the European Prospects: Celebrating Europe group exhibition at Kaunas Photo Gallery in Lithuania allowed me to attend portfolio reviews with industry specialists and professional photographers from across Europe, and after seeing Schengland exhibited in Lithuania, Malcolm Dickson, the director of StreetLevel Photoworks in Glasgow, invited me to exhibit as part of Carlisle Photo Festival and give talks on the project. These are experiences I’m very grateful for. Photography can often be quite a lonely pursuit so taking part in group shows has been great way to make contacts with other photographers who inspire you to continue working on personal projects.

Schengland

What are you plans and hopes for the future now you’ve finished university?

In August I will exhibit in Futureproof alongside other recent photography graduates from Scottish art schools and colleges at the Peacock Visual Arts gallery in Aberdeen. I recently completed an internship at the Financial Times which gave me the opportunity to shoot editorial photography for special reports. This was an experience I really enjoyed and an area where I hope to gain more experience in the future. I also really enjoyed the process of making a photobook and I’m hoping to be able to publish Made of Stars in a larger print run.

And are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m currently working on a conceptual documentary project called Uncanny Valley, exploring the village of New Lanark in the Clyde Valley. During the 19th century the village became world famous as one of the earliest examples of a fully functioning, socialist utopian community. Today it survives as a thriving tourist site and my interest lies in documenting how the village’s world heritage site status affects the residents for whom this symbol of a bygone utopian ideal is simply called home.


Alan Knox is also featured in CR’s Talent Spotting project, in association with Creative Translation, that will put work by 20 graduates on over 1,000 JCDecaux digital screens across the UK throughout August.

See more of his work here.

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