The Photographic Processes of Ian Paterson

Photography as performance and portraiture, wandering in Paris and working in a studio. Ian Paterson’s photography embodies these themes, but his story as an ex-pat inspired by Paris also weaves in other mediums, notably drawing and painting. Gearing up for a return to the darkroom, Paterson describes his artistic processes and phases, as well as his new book “Searching for Godot.”

As an artist, and a foreigner, do you feel that you are inspired by Paris?

Absolutely! When I lived in Canada, I studied Art History and I was lucky enough to get a museum job. I was a curitor for five years after I graduated. It was great, but I got bored. So I decided to take a chance and I backpacked around Europe, like everybody else. And I fell in love with Paris. I got ideas here – ideas were coming at me left and right. So I said that if I were ever to be an artist, Paris was the place.

Now, there is a bad side of that too. I had the choice of living in London, Berlin, or Paris. Since I’m a romantic, I chose Paris. Had I gone to Berlin, or London, my work probably would have been more cutting edge. But we are what we are.

You have been a drawing professor at Parson’s School of Design for many years. Has teaching informed your personal work?

Yes, because I teach young people from all over the world. They are fresh, they don’t have an attitude yet, and they come up with some really original ideas. It’s a new generation. I’ve learned so much from them, and not only visually.

I think that as long as you don’t become a teacher stuck in your old ways and you keep open to learning from the students, then it is a really positive experience.

How does drawing and painting converge with your photography?

Well, you’re still dealing with the same fundamentals: composition, light and shadow, texture, but I think there is a big difference in terms of interpretation. And there is a relationship between photography and reality that drawing might not have.

The reality of photography is that it is really hard to get inside of a subject – a lot of it deals with external things, whereas with drawing and painting, you can get to the inside of things more directly.

I do personally struggle with the relationship between drawing and myself, and photography and myself. Sometimes I will do photography for a year and no drawing, and sometimes it’s the opposite.

What phase are you in right now?

Drawing – because so many people have done some many things in photography.  Also, for photographers of my generation, digital photography has really thrown us for a loop because it’s changed so many things.  It’s harder to find materials for “photo-argentique,” and certainly pinhole photography, you ask yourself: “Why go through so much trouble?”

It’s made me think a lot about what I can do in photography that hasn’t already been done better.

It’s very hard for me to get back into the darkroom because of the chemicals, the closing-off of light. Physically and mentally hard. I think in drawing, I really like the creative process. Sometimes in photography, I’m not sure if I like the process.

But I’m planning on going back into the darkroom in November. I’ve got some ideas in mind. My projects start off with little sketches and I see where they go from there. This time it will be studio work and mostly working inside of the darkroom creating photograms.

The last series I did that was featured at the Galerie Paviot, was that Matchstick Men. I might push that series further.

Do you find yourself returning to recurring themes in painting, drawing and photography?

I don’t know – I’ve never really thought about it. But I do know that in photography, I will often be working on conservative, classical things, and at the same time more experimental things.

At the same time as I was doing Illuminations, I was doing photographs of the Luxembourg Gardens, which were very classical.

I’m completely self-taught as a photographer. I’m not good with numbers, computers, and apertures, anything like that. Maybe that’s why I like pinhole photography, photograms, and very simple things like that.

A circular form seems to be important in your work – is there a specific reason for this?

Circles have no beginning and no end. And, on our retinas, the image we see is probably circular. I think that we are so in-tune with rectangles and squares, in terms of images, that I like the idea something round, something softer.

It also might have something to do with the fact that I really like Japanese art and there is a circle called an Enzo. It’s a form that a lot of Zen artists use to try to not draw a perfect circle.

So are you a Zen artist?

I’d like to be, but I’m not. I don’t have the discipline.

This circular element appears in series like Illuminations, and Illuminations 2. Are these self-portraits?

Yes, they are all self-portraits, but they are all masked. You can’t see my face because when people look at photo, I want them to think they could be seeing themselves. I don’t want to be identifiable. And the circles that appear in a lot of those images are the actual pinhole, the camera.

So I would be masked for 12 minutes for each image. It became almost like a performance piece. I would remain blind, in darkness for the 12 minutes, thinking about what I was doing, but not moving. It became a bit of an endurance test, but also a performance for myself.

This was all done in solitude?

Yes and interestingly, a series with six images represents more than an hour of work.

Technically speaking, how would you open the pinhole camera while posing?

The exposure time is so long that it doesn’t matter. I used paper as a negative, and not film, so it’s a very long exposure.

This series was exhibited at the Centre Pompidou a long time ago. And they wanted me to do a performance piece in the space, but I’m too shy.

What was it like exhibiting at the Centre Pompidou?

It was great. A lot of people went to see the exhibition. But, back in the 80s, a lot of photographers were working large-scale, and all of my work is small scale. And, perhaps, I’ve never had the success that other photographers have had because of scale. My photography is more intimate and I like that idea that when you look at one of my photographers, it’s an individual experience. There isn’t 10 people looking at the same photograph, it’s just you.

You’ve published a few books and your website says you’re in the process of publishing one entitled “Searching for Godot.” Can you tell us about this book?

I can’t say much because it’s a secret. But when Becket was still alive, I saw him three times, in a personal setting. I had always been fascinated by him and his writing, and particularly fascinated by “Waiting for Godot.”

I started to think about it more and more, and started doing research on the meaning behind this book. There have been thousands of theories and he always denied everything.

I interviewed people who knew Beckett very well; I interviewed one of the original actors of the original production, a man named Jean Martin, who played “Lucky.” I’ve worked on this project for 10 years, off and on, and bit my bit I started to find my answer to Godot.

So I created a small book of that story, plus drawings. The book is done, and now I’ve decided to self-publish it.

Ian Paterson is represented by the Galerie Françoise Paviot. Any inquiry to his photography may be addressed to the gallery.

Interview by LG