Penguin authors redefined

Charlotte Bracegirdle appropriates artworks by other artists or photographers, often in postcard form, and paints on them in oil to turn them into entirely different images. In a striking new body of work, she has reinvented a series of photographs of Penguin authors. CR talks to Bracegirdle about the new series, which is currently on show at the Louisville Photo Biennial…

Charlotte Bracegirdle appropriates artworks by other artists or photographers, often in postcard form, and paints on them in oil to turn them into entirely different images. In a striking new body of work, she has reinvented a series of photographs of Penguin authors. CR talks to Bracegirdle about the new series, which is currently on show at the Louisville Photo Biennial…

The postcards that Bracegirdle is working with here come from a set released by Penguin in 2011 that features 100 images of Penguin authors (CR wrote about the set here). As she explains below, she first came upon the postcards by chance, but by working on them in oil she has transformed them into a set of artworks that are dramatic and surprising and just a little bit ghostly. The authors are almost unidentifiable in Bracegirdle’s works (though I bet some of you can still name them – go on, give it a go in the comments box below), despite being some of the most famous names in literary history.

CR: Where did you first come across the Penguin photos? What stood out about them for you?

CB: In a bookshop in Oxford. I frequently pop into bookshops in the hunt for pictures. I can’t tell you exactly what made them stand out. I just knew I had to buy them, and have now gone on to buy another five packs. I buy books or postcards if I like them, something in an image sets a spark off in my head but I never know what may happen to any of the images. Some lay dormant for years, others get worked on the very next day. I loved the amount of portraits in this box, all those clever yet slightly stern faces sat on top of each other. It was the history and the talent in one little box that initially attracted me.

CR: Do you always work with appropriated imagery?

CB: Yes. I can’t remember the last time I invented my own entire picture. I have always used other people’s images, when I made sculptures I collaged objects together that already existed.

CR: Has this ever created any difficulties?

CB: Oh yes, but I don’t let this bother me anymore. When I worked on Old Masters there was never an issue with copyright, then as I started to work on photographs I realised that I may be heading into troubled waters. However, I decided to carry on as I relish what I do, it challenges me constantly and I believe that what I do is transformative. When people realise that I hand paint the works and that they are not Photoshopped this seems to make a difference. I did get a phone call from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s family enquiring about my work and questioning it. I then met with Eric Franck, Bresson’s brother-in-law, who was incredibly lovely and ended up buying three of the Bresson pieces I had made. Franck took the work to AIPAD New York and enjoyed the confusion that my pieces caused for many Bresson fans. He understood my work, and knew I was working on Bresson’s works because I love them, not to undermine or dismiss them. I want people to rediscover the originals, to remind them of what has been. When my work is exhibited I always give the details of the original piece.

CR: What interests you about working with other people’s work?

CB: It is a challenge. Looking at an already existing, well-known image and altering it and still coming up with an interesting, arresting picture. I imagine it’s a bit like making a decent remix. Also I never know what may happen, I never know where my work is going, and this not knowing excites me. I get bored very easily, which is a little bit of a paradox as the process of my work is incredibly time consuming and repetitive.

CR: Most people who manipulate existing imagery, do it digitally, but you work with oil, why is that? What difference do you think that makes to the finished work?

CB: It makes a huge difference to the finished work. (I work in acrylic mostly). When you see the pieces in the flesh there is a shadow where the paint has been placed which forms the shape of the part of the picture that is missing. In this age of technology we must not forget what the hand and eye can achieve. People assume my work is Photoshopped, and are pleasantly surprised when they realise they are painted.

CR: With the Penguin images, does the actual author affect how you paint them or is it just how they look in the photo?

CB: No, they are all very automatically and instantly worked on. I may spend ages looking through the postcards deciding what to do but I don’t research the image until afterwards as I find this just makes me think too much, and adds confusion. I enjoy finding out more once I have finished a piece; the postcard of Kafka, for example, turned out to be rather fitting.

Bracegirdle’s work forms part of the Louisville Photo Biennial, currently taking place in Louisville, USA until November 10. More info on the Biennial is at louisvillephotobiennial.com. More of Bracegirdle’s work can be viewed online at charlottebracegirdle.co.uk.

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