Photograd interviews Nicholas Priest

To accompany the new edition of PGZ, we have interviewed some photography graduates from the submissions received for the Photograd blog. Here we have an interview with Birmingham City University graduate and current MA student at the University of Gloucestershire Nicholas Priest.


Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I attended BCU and graduated in 2009 and I am currently undergoing my first year of my MA at the University of Gloucestershire.

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

Tell us about your time at university. Have you got any stand out moments you can tell us about? I loved the freedom of university and was able to look at a few and mediums in the visual communication course before continuing with my love for photography. I actually transferred from the LCC in London to BCU and from marketing and advertising to visual communication as I found myself bored in lectures and bored of writing essays and all I wanted to do is to take my camera out (and that’s all I did do).

In my second year we were given a documentary photography brief and at this time I was unsure about man area or my area of photography, field and overall real identity in photography. This module and my introduction in to William Eggleston and Stephen Shore through the lectures and tutorial taught me to think about visual story telling. This project really gave me my indemnity and I want to know everything and anything to do with documentary photography and where ideas and thought process are communicate from ideas and research in to visual communication through documentary photography. 

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

What themes do you explore in your work? I really enjoy just getting lost. I have always dropped myself in a location and walked. This use to be with headphones and the latest indie band on but it is now without headphones and listening to the area and the environment and having some sort of guidance through sense of place.

I like to think about a story and narrative before I go and give myself some background knowledge of an area to then try to depict and communicate without the viewer ever being there. This has developed into adding people and trying to portray the person again without the person meeting them and getting some thought process of communication through my photographs. 

I want to try and give the viewer new knowledge through the obvious and documentation of the everyday and through the ideology of sense of place and geographically location of time and space. 

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

Tell us about your series. What's important to you about the A46? Who inspired you? How did you feel when revisiting locations from such significant times in your life? I have seen a lot of the A46 within my 31 years; Burton Farm tip, where myself and my Dad would take trips at the weekend with hedge cuttings and unwanted trinkets to dispose of and give to the Hospice shop. Alcester to Coventry is where my Dad would drive me to football games and I now drive myself up and down this part of the A46 to in and around Stratford and still playing football. My Dad drove up and down the A46 as a national sales man for different companies and I will never forget the orange lollies from Little Chefs that he would bring home and the small BP albums that we used to collect. Towards Coventry, I remember taking a bus with my Mum as a young boy to get a cyst removed as my Dad was working away and we only had one car. Warwick Hospital is just off the A46, where I have visited for twisted ankles, getting wisdom teeth removed and more recently with my Mums Mum passing away.

About 8 years ago, my parents moved from Stratford upon Avon, where I had grown up with my sister and moved down the A46 to Bidford on Avon, we helped them move and I have lived in the house a few times; after university and after a break up with a girlfriend. 

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

I remember working with adults with learning disabilities and I was driving with my ex-girlfriend in the car and was in a consistent mood and mind set of overthinking, which let me to overthinking while driving and I pulled out of a junction at Longbridge Island. Myself and my girlfriend at the time where fine, but this lead me take a step back within my life and leave that job to seek and get help for this over thinking. I got counselling and went on anti-depressants and close to a year later, I had pushed and made myself the person I am now.

I teach photography at the College in Stratford where I was first taught and grew my love for photography, I live in a house in Broadway with my girlfriend and my overthinking is near but gone. I now drive to just see my Mum in Bidford more today as we lost my Dad a few years ago in a freak accident, were we also lost our family Dog. I visit my Mum and her new dog regularly and my Mum comes to watch my play football for a local village team; Welford that my Uncle helps to run.

Sense of place and relationships are journeys, where it is good or bad memories, we change, places and landscapes change, family and friends, live changes. Visiting the A46; I took these memories to where I knew, stopping and walking and documenting what I remember to what has changed. This went up to and just passed Coventry. I then drove and walked where I didn’t know and that was from Coventry to Grimsby and Cleethorpes visting the centre and the outskirts alongside the A46 road. Documenting other memories and what could have been mine if I lived close to that area of the A46. 

As you move from Twkesbury all the way up to Grimsby and Cleethorpes more of the nation voted out in the recent Brexit vote. I wanted to try to show this, and document changes from place to place; documenting the change and giving the viewer a sense of place and idea of change from; little chefs to Starbucks and McDonalds and to portray a portrait of Britain and the real people and the roads and journeys we take.

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

Depending on the outcome of Brexit and the future of the UK, where do you see your photography taking you in the future? Brexit has become an absolute farce. Whether you voted remain or leave. The notion that the people that ‘run’ this country would rather lie than govern the country, for the people is absurd. 

With the arts world this is already no funding and galleries have to charge more than I believe that they would want to as there is no backing and cuts are being made left, right and centre within the arts. 

This filters down to artists and graduates trying to get their work into galleries, exhibitions and enter them in to paying competitions, but there are platforms like Photograd that can use their platform and social media to help photographers be seen and keep them enthusiastic and motivated to continue with work and create new work. 

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

My time with photography has been up to and down and projects have come and gone and some have been finished. With the Brexit outcome I can see myself carrying on with expressing narrative through my documentary photography and this may with the outcome of Brexit and documenting people and places; like my new project the A46 and what, who, and or might be affected by Brexit.

How do you feel your series communicates the current state of the UK? What would you like your viewer to learn? I think my series gives an idea of sense of place, change of landscape and the idea of psychogeography of urban and rural environments. I want to show the viewer the nostalgia of a road and relation to myself.  To show a journey and the change of the how far the a service station has come, to observe buildings and infrastructure, cafes, signs and overall semiotics, and be hopeful that the viewer can resonate with the series and the journey and see different landscapes from west to east of the A46 through; edgelands and into environments where different people voted remain and out.

Image from the series  A46

Image from the series A46

Have you got any exciting future plans? I am about half way through the A46 and starting to get a good vocabulary and looking more in to the contextual side as the project grows. I have been looking in to the road trip through David Company’s The Open Road alongside looking into work after Robert Franks Americans. The main homage has been to Paul Grahams  A1; The Great North Road and the nostalgia of Grahams journey on an ‘A’ road. These photographers, their visual communication, and my thinking through my MA so far has lead down a path of psychogeography; before and psychogeography today and the idea of walking. This has come from readings in to Merlin Coverley, Patrick Keillers Robison series, Doreen Massey’s For Space and Paul Farley and Micheal Roberts Edgelands which are helping my understanding the idea of walking, place, representation, awareness and a vocabulary to go and continue to shoot for my essay into the ‘A46’. 

I have also begun to plan a project around villages in Britain and abroad with the idea of Brexit being a very narrative throughout. 

A catch up Feature with Christina Stohn

Tell us how this body of work came to the surface. When did it begin and what were your inspirations? Höllental und Himmelreich, which translates as ‘Valley of Death and Kingdom of Heaven’, is about tradition, folklore and religious beliefs in the Black Forest, a region in south west Germany. I grew up there, but then moved away for a decade to study photography in London and Bremen. I began the project under the working title Paradise Lost during my studies at the University of Westminster around 2012. When I returned to my home country, I had the urge to document these once familiar surroundings based on a feeling of distance and displacement. I used a minimalist approach in which landscapes void of people, and captured in foggy conditions, created a sense of mystery. At that time I drew my main inspiration from Hiroshi Sugimoto and Nadav Kander. As part of later research, I was inspired by a number of photo books relating to the Black Forest, especially Interieurs by Thomas Ruff, Einmal im Jahr by Axel Hoedt and Cuckoo Clock and Cherry Cake by Anne-Sophie Stolz. However, I did not set out to create a body of work in the style of any specific photographer.

From the series  Paradise Lost

From the series Paradise Lost

Did Höllental und Himmelreich further your decision to study in Bremen? I remember seeing the exhibition Landmark: the Fields of Photography at London’s Somerset House in 2013. This impressive show provided an overview of 21st century landscape photography featuring more than 70 international artists. However, one specific piece of work resonated deeply with me: Heimat_31, Schwarzwald by Peter Bialobrzeski (2004). It showed a vast snow-covered scenery in the Black Forest with tiny human figures populating the foreground. I instantly felt a personal affiliation with it, bringing back memories of winter trips in my childhood. This imagery made me strive further to make a real project in the Black Forest, my native soil. I distanced myself from empty landscapes and became interested in the relationship between people and place, a new venture for me. Then I found out that Peter Bialobrzeski, a professor of photography, ran the Master’s studio ‘Culture and Identity’ together with the graphic design professor, Andrea Rauschenbusch. This studio combined both my interests: photography and design and so I decided to leave London to study at the University of the Arts in Bremen.

ChristinaStohn_HöllentalUndHimmelreich.jpg
 
ChristinaStohn_Thesis.jpg

Tell us about the Black Forest. Why is this location important to you? The project results from my personal experience of growing up and living in the Black Forest. When I came to live in London I began to see things I had not previously been aware of. The Black Forest is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Germany. Tourist clichés and ‘Heimat’ films carry associations of an idyllic life in unspoilt landscapes and nature. I have always been annoyed about this idea of an ‘all-encompassing idyll’ and never connected to it. So my series is a bit of a challenge to everyone expecting these kinds of stereotypes. Even though high-tech companies are located in the area, village life is steeped in tradition across the generations. Seasonal festivals and religious processions are celebrated and centuries-old customs show no signs of being forgotten. These customs have also become commercialised and established for tourism and I find it interesting to pose questions concerning their significance within our more plural society.

From the series  Höllental und Himmelreich

From the series Höllental und Himmelreich

What have you learnt from making this work? To be honest, the journey has not always been comfortable. I have had quite a few arguments about both content and aesthetics of my work. Over the years my image making process has developed. I now follow specific methods and I am really happy that I found a visual vocabulary to express my views. I have started to trust my instincts, no matter what others say. It is impossible to please everyone anyway! Producing this work has also taught me to be patient, as it has already taken a few years of going back and forth. When it comes to editing, this process is quite challenging. I have to be ruthless to edit my images and it takes time for the narrative to start fitting together. Seeing the work progress and strengthen is very rewarding.

Installation shot of  Höllental und Himmelreich

Installation shot of Höllental und Himmelreich

Tell us about your written thesis which accompanies this body of work. What was your main focus and why? In my thesis I critically analyse the German term ‘Heimat’. It is a complicated construct, which can translate into English as 'home', 'homeland' or 'native region'. The notion of ‘Heimat’ combines the ideas of a place of origin, a sense of belonging and identity. However, the concept carries both positive as well as negative connotations.

I took one semester off in Bremen to attend classes at the University of Freiburg given by the cultural anthropologist Werner Mezger, a specialist in south-western German regional culture. The university library offered extensive research material on the term, which is centuries old. My goal was to reach a historical understanding and examine its varied cultural manifestations. Nevertheless, after a year of researching the idea of ‘Heimat’, the negative aspects of the term still troubled me.

In my thesis I refer to academic sources by writers, scholars and politicians and juxtapose their definitions, contrasting one quotation with another. The introductory quotation is by author Martin Walser (1968). It reads: “Heimat, das ist sicher der schönste Name für Zurückgebliebenheit.”, which translates as: “Heimat is certainly the most beautiful name for having stayed behind.” But I enquire whether the term is still relevant in an increasingly globalised world. The plural form ‘Heimaten’ is rarely used. Given the increase in mobility and migration, I query if the term still refers to one specific location.

From the series  Höllental und Himmelreich

From the series Höllental und Himmelreich

'Heimat' sounds really interesting and you've mentioned it can't fully be translated into English. Can you describe to us what connotations this word has and how it relates to your work? ‘Heimat’ has spatial, political, social, cultural and emotional connotations. Etymologically, the term is based on the Germanic term ‘haima’, meaning village or home. However, over time it has acquired multiple and problematic associations. In the 18th century, ‘Heimat’ was conceptualised as a space of identity and origin. Throughout the Romantic period ‘Heimat’ echoed a sentimental longing for homeland. The ‘blood-and-soil’ propaganda by the Nazis brought ‘Heimat’ into dispute. Most recently, the term has experienced a renaissance in the political field: the Home Office has been renamed the ‘Heimatministerium’.

In my work I have always questioned how to approach regional customs. Structures, which help to create community, like tradition and local practices seem to contribute to the stabilisation of a sense of home. Factors like language and religion form collective ties. These are symbols of togetherness but also delineation. On the one hand, repetitive customs serve to preserve tradition and culture, but on the other hand they are from a past era. ‘Heimat’ is supposed to be familiar to us. Because of my experiences abroad, my perspective on the Black Forest region has become one of alienation from these once familiar surroundings. Now ‘Heimat’ becomes something artificial, like a stage set in a theatre.

From the series  Höllental und Himmelreich

From the series Höllental und Himmelreich

What are your plans for the near future? Short term, in April I will join my former fellow students and professors from the University of the Arts in Bremen on a field trip to Sarajevo. As every year, each of us will work on a different concept on the city and we will then publish an artist book from all our work.

I cannot see myself finishing Höllental und Himmelreich in the near future. There are still more locations and events to go to. However, I have got a lot of material already so it is my goal to make a second edition of the book. The first edition as part of my graduate work was quite expensive to produce so I would like to make a different version, which can be made available to a wider audience.

I exhibited a selection of images during our degree show. Given the opportunity, I would like to show the series in its entirety, so I am hoping to have a solo exhibition.

I have currently started developing a new long-term body of work in the region of Freiburg.

Other than that, I am looking into grants and artist residencies. I would love to have the opportunity to make more work abroad.

I am splitting my time between personal projects and commissioned work and am currently working towards getting more editorial stories as a freelance photographer.