Unusually for a photography book, Robin Broadbent’s new collection of images opens with a short story. The writer Frederic Tuten introduces the work of the renowned still life photographer with a mythic tale that references several of the images in the book. It’s a good way of setting out the idea that within each of Broadbent’s meticulously set-up pictures there is a story to tell.
Broadbent creates abstract images that reduce objects down to lines, shapes and forms – where you’re never quite sure of the scale of the thing you’re looking at. In The Photographic Work of Robin Broadbent (Damiani) most of the photographs are from editorial projects for magazines where he has more creative freedom to make the kinds of images that he wants.
Broadbent is British and moved from London to New York in 1999. In his commercial work, he has collaborated with fashion and luxury brands and shot for a range of magazines such as Port, Frieze, Numéro and Harper’s Bazaar, whilst contributing to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times’ Magazines.
The objects in his new book, however, are celebrated simply for their form, with lighting, composition and framing bringing out their inherent structural and textural qualities. Devoid of the brand names and logos that appear in his advertising work, the images in the book offer a glimpse of still life in perhaps its purest sense, but it is a version that at times transforms a once familiar object into a series of lines, graphic elements or patterns.
We spoke to Broadbent about how he creates his photographs, how his magazine work has influenced how he put the new book together, and why people find looking at abstract images so appealing.
CR: In the book, it’s not immediately obvious where the images are from, or what they’re of. Do you like that idea of ambiguity, of people not being sure of what they’re looking at?
RB: With abstraction and abstract imagery, I think it’s important not to get stuck in ‘What is it?’…. In a sense, if you make them as ambiguous as possible, then you can let the person viewing the imagery enjoy [it] or make of it what it is. The choice of imagery [here] was to have nothing with any branding, any names, anything that was really recognisable – and it’s really about texture and graphic shapes: What I like best in life, really. So there are no backgrounds, other than white, grey or black, which is how I shoot a lot of my work anyway.
I like to not confuse people with anything other than a line or a graphic shape, or a texture – it’s then how that fits in the frame. Then within that, keeping it as simple as possible and as graphic and ambiguous. Someone did say to me that it was weird there were no credits anywhere [in the book]. And that was deliberately about enjoying the pictures for what they are, rather than having … to research, or think, or worry about where it came from.
CR: In a talk you gave at the School of Visual Arts, you mentioned the idea of ‘turning pages’ (when making work for Port magazine); of putting pictures together and with the consideration of what comes next. How did that inform this project?
RB: I love any visual stimulation, basically. And I think turning pages in books is one of the great joys in life…. It’s really about what comes before and how that then leads into something that follows from it. It’s like if you went to an exhibition and the pictures are on the walls, it’s really how you move from one picture to the next. In a book, it’s more of a surprise if you’ve had no preview.
Turning pages is very important and that’s a large part of making a great book – you turn the pages and what comes next … excites you, you get a sort of surprise.
CR: It depends on what you’re shooting, but how do you ‘approach’ an object as a photographer – what are you trying to get from it? You mention the idea of capturing its ‘thingness’ in the text – what is it you’re trying to get from each ‘thing’?
RB: I think each object, each subject, has its own personality, its own ‘something-about-it’…. I’ve spent many years lighting things ‘beautifully’, you want [the object] to look beautiful. Shiny surfaces, textures you want to reach in and touch to see what it’s made from.
And so I start with that: what the material is, whether it’s heavy or whether it’s light or dark, the physical weight and substance of it. Then within that I try to ‘minimise’ as much of it as I can; take the thing that gives it the most beauty or the most striking composition. There’s a way to do that where you can create a great image – and get a sense of what it is – but it’s really about reduction and reduction.
One thing I take with me is a set of croppers. I still have the old ones from the labs in London. Cropping in real life with a set of croppers is nothing like cropping in Photoshop. There’s something about [it that] you can twist and turn, it goes back to shooting 8×10 Polaroids. Croppers in the hand allow you to wander through the image much better that if you’re doing it on a computer screen.
CR: Does this link back to the way you first found an interest in still life, through an interest in studying medicine and using your hands in that way?
In my fantasies I would have been a surgeon by now, because I wanted to work with my hands. And in detail. And this kind of still life is very much in that world, it’s the same kind of subject, really, an evolution of how you see and how you can play with shapes within the boundaries of what you have.
CR: There’s minimal text in the book – and you’ve included a short story by Frederic Tuten at the beginning. Can you tell me about how that came about?
RB: ‘Abstract’ is a funny way to describe it – but it’s basically shapes and forms within a frame. Very linear, very solid, or whatever. And I feel people react differently and see different things – from my perspective, there’s a certain amount of depth and storytelling within each image.
I hate the whole thing where people see abstract images and try and guess what it is. I try hard with how far I abstract the shapes – and try not to do that.
You’re literally given an image to look at, there’s no second guessing or confusion, you’re just there to enjoy the composition, the shape and the form. If you create that, you have a chance for your mind to wander – and create your own thoughts and how it relates to you. So, within that, I felt there was a story to tell – a short story made sense to me. I didn’t want to do something academic or a critique of the work.
Funnily enough, when you read the story … I find it does exactly what I wanted; where you do see the imagery as storytelling. It’s a little bit more fairytale than I’d thought [it would be] … but [Tuten] does make you look at the world in a different way and that then opens our eyes to how you see the pictures.
CR: At the end of the book, you’ve written something quite sparse about the tools you use in photography and what you think about before shooting even starts. What was the idea here?
RB: A lot of the images look really simple, that’s what I do. But to get to that simplicity there’s a lot of work getting there. I think most still life photographers who shoot in a studio … you’re really coming in with nothing.
There’s a certain amount of work in getting to where you get to. Like everything in life, the simpler it looks, the harder it is, or the more thought process has gone into making it look like that. I was trying to tell the process of how my mind works – a lot of thinking and thought goes into each picture, even though it looks incredibly simple. I think that’s what I was trying to say.
Taking pictures, being a photographer or an artist of any kind, it’s like a continual evolution, it goes through your whole life. Even though I’ve been doing it for many years, and have moved slowly through my [own] language, it’s a continual process of trying to refine and make things better and stronger. It doesn’t stop really. I’m really just playing with a simple background and an object, and how it fits in the frame, but for some reason, the quest to try and make it better and better each time is kind of a process.
CR: In the SVA talk you mentioned the commercial direction of your study at art college. But then there came the influence of photographers like Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and László Moholy-Nagy. How did you come to those photographers?
RB: I was very lucky with that. I went to art school in Salisbury – I did it without much knowledge because I didn’t get into medical school. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, but had got hold of a camera the year before. The art school was about making you into a commercial photographer. I was naive, I’d never done any painting or drawing, my parents had never taken me to an art gallery, but the course was very much about turning you into a photographer who could make a living.
Then I got a job working for this guy, Robert Golden, who was an American still life photographer working in London. He grew up on photography being much more of an art. He was an amazing mentor to me – through him I learned about Kandinsky – [which] led into the Bauhaus, Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy – people who would take pictures from funny angles without any respect for how you’re meant to see something in real life.
And Weston who was doing pre-Irving Penn with his beautiful still lives of shells and things like that. So a combination of him and Moholy-Nagy and even Man Ray to some degree, you had the best of making objects look like beautiful objects, but also how you could then disrespect the angle of view and play with just the shapes. If I hadn’t have gone to work for this guy, and got a secondary education while assisting, then I don’t know what would have happened in my life.
CR: You’ve talked before about the impact, for better or worse, of digital photography. What has digital done to the way you make images like these?
RB: A lot of the imagery in the book is shot for editorial magazines; Big, Numéro, things where you’re really left to create your own stories or ideas. And it’s not really about any selling … I like to [think of it] as less commercial and more personal. I’m lucky enough to work for a lot of great magazines who indulge me in my desire to be abstract – basically creating pictures for stories where it doesn’t really matter what it’s about. It’s about just imagery.
I feel I have two things: my commercial work, advertising work where I get paid – and I use that money to support my studio and play and do what I want to do. When you do the editorial you get paid nothing and do it for love – that’s how it should be in my mind. I’ve always had that balance.
And I used to shoot 8×10 Polaroids, then they stopped being made and that’s when everything changed. People were already shooting digitally at that stage – Polaroid had gone away and it made it very hard to shoot and see what you were doing. If you had big clients and they wanted to see what you were doing then the Polaroid was the right way of doing it.
Then digital came along and you had to adapt. I was grumpy for a few years, I have to say. I think digital itself isn’t the problem, film has a better quality and it’s crazy that there are all these efforts to make digital look how film used to look. We already had film. But what changes is how people respect and view photography. And how easy it looks to a lot of people. When you’re a photographer working with film and with labs, people didn’t really know what you were doing, being a bit mad and a bit more science-y.
Suddenly everyone could take pictures and it looked so easy. And with that came this thing that you can do work faster. But it still takes the same amount of time to light and compose and make a great picture whether you record it with digital or with film. The process is the same, mentally, the way you think.
I think digital has made the whole industry shoot way too quickly … when you had 8×10 you had 90 seconds when it was processing before it came out, you could ponder and really think about what you were doing. And digital has taken that away to some degree … that chance to play and think about how you can make something better. Even just a few percentage that makes it better. So the actual recording of the image isn’t the big problem, the problem is the lack of time and lack of thought you have in terms of the whole process of making an image.
In the book, I have the pictures of the seeds which I did for Numéro. We did six to eight pages of those – it was for a story on ‘oils’ … and I loved that, I spent three or four days doing them. You try and find out their ‘language’, how it should look. And then we spent days tweaking little seeds, creating the shadows – how you compose how one seed was next to another and then we’d do the print-outs, a wall of different compositions. And you find a way that the whole thing can fit together when you turn the pages of the magazine.
What I’m trying to say here is that when you have the editorial you can really take that time to ponder, it’s a joy. The difference between that and doing six seed pictures in one day, it removes that play and that fun out of it, and the finessing.
CR: Are there moments when you’re working, when it’s at the point of lighting something that the idea gets really gets exciting? Is that where the transformation happens?
RB: I think so, I think the seed thing [is] an easy example. A tiny little thing and I wanted to give it a big presence on the page. I’ve worked quite a lot with shadows in other images.
I think shadows create this whole dimension without having to actually see any dimension. It’s funny we’re talking about [the] seeds because in most images you don’t get any shadows. It’s the only picture in the whole book where you do have direct shadows. That became about … a ‘description’ of the seeds, because the shadow shapes you [saw] were describing the actual objects.
With a lot of the other pictures you’re using light to describe the objects. And I think everything else is very linear, it’s about line and how it fits in the page; light or dark, how much dimension you give it.
CR: What do you think it is that people enjoy about abstract imagery – what is it that satisfies us? Is this a subject you think about?
RB: I’ve always enjoyed the confusion of whether something is big or small. Whether it’s macro or micro. The bubbles at the beginning [of the book] are very cellular – you feel you’re looking into the world of cells. So I think … people who look at pictures and try and guess what it is, that’s kind of wrong. It’s like looking at a [Jackson] Pollock painting and trying to recognise something. I think it is just what it is – and it should work on that level.
But I think people are scared to looking at something without really knowing what it is, and just seeing it for being a few lines on the page…. Everyone’s eyes work the same way, consciously or not. You follow threads of composition and balance and busyness and calmness, you rest in a place then continue into somewhere more chaotic. Or you have different colours and [it’s] about the way you bounce around an image. Your eyes are doing all that and, for me, that’s just a pleasure in itself. You don’t really question any of it.