The Alchemist

 In photographer Giles Revell’s hands, hi-tech  processes re-present the most traditional of  artistic subjects in unexpected ways 

In the early days of its invention, photography seemed like magic. With our society now saturated with images, obsessed by them even, it is easy to forget the power that these first prints would have had. By harnessing science and technology, photography allowed us to look at our world differently, think about it differently.

There are not many artists who are able to achieve this kind of impact on audiences with photography today, but one of them is Giles Revell, who takes subjects that we think we know – insects or flowers, say – and gives them back to us transformed. In his work, a handful of petals becomes a graphic series of colour lines, or a beetle a giant, cartoonish monster: the images might be rooted in the real and the familiar, but are usually like nothing we have ever seen before.

Much of Revell’s work is preoccupied with nature, so it is unsurprising to discover that before turning to photography, he trained as a geologist, and worked for a couple of years in the field. He sees a link between the two subjects in the way he now works: “Geology is all about observation, seeing things, recording them, logging them,” he says. “You’ve got to have a keen eye, and you’ve got to understand the environment…. I think the method and the way that I work has been instilled from [those] early days, it’s all highly observational.”

Revell chooses subjects that on the surface appear straightforward and then offers an unexpected viewpoint, turning the subject on its head. He has an ongoing relationship with the Natural History Museum in London, which has led to a fruitful series of works, including the documentation of insects, as well as a series of botanical portraits of medicinal plants, commissioned by The Times’s Eureka magazine. In both the insects and plants series, Revell used a CT scanner to document his subjects, allowing for a high level of anatomical detail. Presented in black-and-white, the finished images are clinical yet otherworldly.

Of the experience of working at the Natural History Museum, Revell says “it’s a privilege”. “You’re sitting down in one of the labs and someone might come in who is working with beetles, someone might come in talking about meteorites. [There is] this mass of knowledge in one place.”

In contrast to the scanned works, which offer a highly accurate, if unexpected, vision of the natural world, other works by Revell are more abstract. “I’ve been doing quite structural stuff, like the flowers, the medicinal plant stuff,” he explains. “[Which was]all about form, all about structure, all about the beauty of line and natural form. But recording it in an incredibly hi-tech way. Then going from that to purely colour.”

One of his colour projects is the aforementioned series with flower petals. Titled Linear Palettes, the purpose of the works is to take a flower bouquet, a “highly structural” object and then “break it down and turn it into just colour only,” Revell says. “With the Linear Palette project I thought ‘I want to get away from form, all I want to do is just concentrate on the line. How difficult is it to make a photograph of colour, without showing form?” The resulting images are striking and abstract, with their origins almost entirely hidden in the finished work.

In another project based on colour, this time commissioned by Red Bee for the BBC to promote its 2011 series Art Revealed, Revell created a film piece and a series of stills that involved him dropping paint pigment into water. While this is in itself not a new idea, in Revell’s hands, the paint forms incredible, slow-moving painterly shapes. The piece was created in reaction to a prevailing trend at the time – one that is still popular now – for using super high-speed film. “Art Revealed is completely the opposite route,” says Revell. “Those takes were half an hour long.”

Technology is a crucial element to Revell’s work, yet his relationship with tech is a somewhat conflicted one. “I get labelled for some reason as Mr Hi-Tech,” he says. “I’m the person that will sort out a technological problem. You know, I’m a good thinker, but I’m not obsessed with software or that kind of stuff.”

Revell’s work uses technology in unexpected ways, yet it never supersedes the core idea of the work, and instead aids it. An example of this can be seen in a personal project from 2011 where he created a 3D animation within certain technical conditions. Titled 100 Frames, it was based on human movement and dance, but with the figures turned into abstract shapes. The film can be stopped at any point and there will always be 100 frames of information on screen: the intention was that this information could then be used to create 3D sculptures (the piece was originally envisioned as a proposal for the 2012 London Olympics, but only one sculpture was made). The piece is rooted in the core idea of finding a new way to explore movement, rather than as an experiment with software.

100 Frames was created alongside 3D artist Ben Koppel [see p42], with whom Revell collaborated closely. “He’s an inventive 3D artist,” he says. “He’s very technical and he understands what we’re after…. The way forward for everyone,” he continues, “whatever discipline you’re doing, is to form tight little collaborations. If you’re doing anything inventive, that’s what you need, an infusion of different skills. Even down to conventional retouching, I remember I used to do everything… I was a perfectionist, but now you find someone that you get on with and who is incredibly good, and it’s much freer and easier, you get more things out.”

It can be difficult to locate the right people, however. “The skill level, it’s incredibly high,” says Revell. “But in the world of 3D, I think the problem with some of the operators is the fact that they’re incredibly technical people that are fantastic at understanding how a programme works, but when it comes down to making an idea work, quite often that wouldn’t be their interest.

“I think a lot of CGI establishments are factories,” he continues, “rather than people with individual thought actually making work. If you do a car campaign, say, if you look at most of the stuff it looks very, very similar and one of the reasons for that is you’ll get somebody who will make the body work, somebody will make the wheels, somebody will render it, somebody will light it… so all these parts come together but it doesn’t feel like there’s the passion of one vision to actually make something that might look a little bit different, because they’re so detached.”

Revell expresses similar frustrations over the creative processes within advertising agencies now, and the role that he, and other photographers and artists, are brought in to play. He talks with enthusiasm about a recent job he completed with Paul Belford for car brand Infiniti, where he was brought into the project very early on, but admits that this is now a rarity, with creatives more often having a set idea before they come to him, leaving little room for creativity. “I think the emphasis is on getting ideas down in front of clients very early on,” he says. “There are lots of images that are scoured through on Google, source imagery…. You don’t want to be just employed as a troubleshooter to sort out a piece of work that isn’t really good to start with, you want a clean slate.”

This lack of creative collaboration on ad shoots has increased over the last five years in Revell’s experience, and he puts it down to changing processes in agencies, but also that “maybe they don’t hold their nerve enough. They don’t hold their nerve and say ‘no that’s not right, we’re not doing that’ … I think it’s fear. There’s not many people saying no … and that’s frustrating because then you can be put into positions where you’re making images that you don’t believe in.”

Despite these challenges, Revell continues to make work that is surprising and inventive, with experimentation at its core. The subjects currently preoccupying him – colour, form, landscape, the passing of time – may seem traditional, but they will always be presented with an idiosyncratic touch and a unique ‘Revell twist’.

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