Tony Bowen is a British Visual Artist based in Brighton, UK.
Alongside formal and atmospheric considerations, his work is largely inspired by the power of the trace, the fragment and the unresolved to provoke the imagination in unexpected ways.
A longstanding preoccupation with the 'found mark' has led to work which observes, interrogates and documents banal and often overlooked surfaces. Residues of human and other activity present in domestic, natural and urban environments are areas of particular interest. They suggest all kinds of narratives and stimulate broad lines of enquiry. Whether literal or metaphorical, responses to these encounters open up new, personal ways of reading the environment, and of experiencing, deciphering and relating to landscape.
Awarded in national and international competitions, Bowen participated in solo and collective exhibitions in many countries.
Chambre Fluide: Tony, photography is the main medium through which you express yourself and bring your art to life. When and how did this passion for photography begin?
Tony Bowen: I have enjoyed taking and looking at photographs for as long as I can remember. As a child of the 1960s photographs were rare treats in our family. Taking a finished film to be processed was an exciting precursor to the disappointment a week later when they were collected. Photos were very expensive, black and white, poorly shot, badly printed and very small. They lived in cumbersome albums, held by transparent ‘corners’ that kept dropping off. My father’s boxes of carefully filed 35mm colour slides in the 1970s (each viewed on a strange plastic magnifying device) further charted our family history and often shared similar technical issues. However, my enthusiasm for these mysterious and magical objects never waned.
I got my first Pentax K1000 in 1980 whilst studying fine art (painting). I loved this camera and especially the darkroom, where I was fascinated by what could happen between the negative and the print. Photography became a crucial tool to inform and support work with other media. I found the onset of digital, and especially emerging editing software, profoundly liberating and useful in developing and ‘kicking around’ visual ideas.
I only gradually became aware of photography as a fine art form. I was impressed but unmoved by some of the big hitters of the early 21st Century photography working on massive ambitious tableaux and constructed images. I was, however, very excited by my first experiences of artists such as Keith Arnatt, Richard Long, Uta Barth, Susan Hiller, Anne Hardy, Roger Ballen, Stephen Gill, Rinko Kawauchi and Stephen Pippin, whose work seemed to transcend my sense of a photographic ‘norm’. Outside of ‘Art’ photography, I also remember being mesmerised by Google Earth when it first came out, spending hours and hours looking in wonder and in some detail at the surface of the earth all over the world.
It was only relatively recently (around 2010) that I began to consider making photographic outcomes in their own right. I was in Paris during a very hot August, recording the complex, layered surfaces of old walls in the Marais district. I was taking photos as research material for a body of paintings exploring the narrative surface (layered whispers, tensions between different voices and perpetual, unresolved arguments), but I found the veracity and directness of these images more interesting than what I had been planning. This marked a massive and significant change in direction for me, as I returned to take more considered photographs, and those paintings were never made. Since then, photographic work has become my main focus.
CF: It would be very interesting to know more about your creative process. How do your works arise and how do they develop?
TB: Of course. I think my working process is pretty fluid, and usually begins with seeing and responding. I spend a lot of time immersed in natural and urban environments, always looking and feeling. New and unfamiliar places raise my levels of alertness and help me to notice more, but they also remind me to be ‘present’ in familiar ones. I am never quite sure what I am looking for but am always interested in how the commonplace speaks to us if we listen, and in how we can see and engage with the landscape in new ways. These are longstanding preoccupations.
Germs of ideas come when a confluence of observation and reflection occurs, and connections are made between a subject (what it is) and potential content (why it is of interest). This can happen in different ways, perhaps at the scene and in the moment, or maybe much later (after days or even months) in the studio.
Once a starting point is loosely formed, a period of more committed exploration begins. Each undertaking involves surprises, experimentation, new mistakes and learning. I return again and again where possible, since all naturally occurring subjects and their conditions change continuously, as does my own receptiveness. This ‘incubation’ process is unpredictable and can take time. One project for example, “Scratch” had me returning repeatedly to specific locations to get to grips with technical and atmospheric issues. It took years and the project changed completely. A more recent series, “Detachment”, took under two weeks to shoot, whilst another body of work: “Intersection” was revisited and remade having been shelved for five years. Other projects have involved assembling and reconsidering previously unconnected material.
I’ve been careful never to manipulate a subject or make any interventions to the environment. To date at least, I want to record the world as I find it, although post production and editing is always necessary. I only shoot digitally, mainly using two cameras which, although heavy, very old and obsolete, have become close companions. I shoot only in RAW format, since I know I’ll spend hours and hours playing with the digital negative, experimenting with pushing and pulling various elements and values. These processes need to be reversible, non-invasive and commutative. To me, a body of images begins to ‘work’ when, alongside formal and atmospheric considerations, it has what it needs and has stripped out what it doesn’t. Editing is a brutal process as weeks of work are discarded.
I should also say that writing helps me to understand more clearly and to articulate thoughts about what I am doing. Whether artworks need or should need explanation is a huge question but, personally, I am grateful to those who provide some sort of access into their practice.
CF: Let’s talk about your project Promise.
TB: Firstly, I think that if the recent and ongoing pandemic has taught me anything it is that we are collectively far less rational than we may have thought. We are looking forward with mixed feelings of optimism, anxiety and uncertainty, and with an urgent, profound need to see what the future holds. Material from diverse sources is interpreted to fit differing perspectives and interests, as science, politics, pseudo-science, rumour, conjecture and misinformation vie for attention in a maelstrom of media and social media output. I believe they always have, and that our yearning for signs, direction and meaning exists throughout history and throughout the world.
“Promise” emerged rather suddenly. In July this year I was walking through Brighton, my home city, enjoying the prospect of a renaissance following eighteen dreadful months. I passed the register office, itself bearing witness to scores of new beginnings as the first marriages and civil partnerships were underway after a year of postponements. It was a beautiful and resonant experience, and I was overwhelmed by their collective joy and optimism. These ceremonies are serious events, steeped in superstition and rubric: crucial lucky objects; the throwing of the bouquet; the dress; the symbolism of the ring and, of course, the use of confetti (originating in Italy, where confectionary was thrown to bestow fertility upon a marriage). I watched and took some photographic notes as confetti briefly settled and resettled before being swept or blown away. These beautiful, fragile residues were all that remained as the party moved on. Their fleeting, arbitrary configurations strangely recalled the language of ancient traditions of divination such as the 'reading' of corn, sand, tea leaves and the sediments of coffee or wine – still practised today in various forms and involving generous helpings of invention, intuition, speculation and bias.
It was difficult not to make connections between these themes, and so I embarked on a sustained period of documentation, struck by the diversity of materials, atmospheres and colour experienced and by the abstract nature of, effectively, deadpan images of a littered pavement. I became absorbed by the diverse associations that can be drawn from their elements, whose formations and contexts can suggest all kinds of possibilities: they hint for example at harmony or discord; at unity or separation; at vibrance and freshness or exhaustion; at togetherness or isolation, at light and darkness, at belonging or separation; at the nature of the barrier. Of course we can draw from these and other signs whatever interpretations we choose, or even none at all.
Hopefully this work provides a playful meditation on our own relationships to the rational on the one hand, and ritual and belief on the other.
CF: Traces, residues, signs of a human presence are recurring elements. What value do they have in your works?
TB: That’s an interesting question: firstly, so much material written about photography in the last century points to the contrasts between newsreel ‘action’ images and the photographer’s task of arriving late and working with the aftermath of an event or situation. I am definitely the latecomer.
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the power of the trace and the fragment to provoke the imagination. As a school child for example my attention in class was invariably drawn to the remnants on the blackboard of another class’ previous lesson – hurriedly and incompletely rubbed away and leaving incomplete traces of complex equations, symbols and phrases in new languages. I loved looking at battered suitcases, at the pages of passports with their feint and fuzzy stamps and squiggles, or at the ways in which marks and scarring on human skin settled and became almost autobiographical.
Some years later I learnt that a number of notable contemporary artists were exploring related themes, albeit in different ways: Cy Twombly’s works on paper for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Erasings’ or Antoni Tapies’ references to Catalan history present in unrepaired urban surfaces were crucial discoveries for me, as was the whole business of interpreting abstraction.
So, this interest in the potential of the surface to contain and release stories or mysteries goes back a long way and has never left me. Most importantly, as with all artists, my focus has changed over time with my own experience. I think that as we get a little older we become more deeply touched by particular issues. We still look forward, but absence and loss become especially resonant, as do concerns with temporality, memory and the recurrent ‘echo’ of significant life events and phenomena. I have found that, for me at least, images which focus on the trace and the residue can help to give visual form to these concepts, either literally or metaphorically. With luck, this kind of forensic curiosity will sustain work in the future which allows me to explore my concerns. I’m excited by what direction that might take.