When does photography stop being photography?
In two decades of combining still photography with performance and moving image, Catherine Yass has refused to be confined by one medium
What is photography? Over the past few years contemporary photographers have incorporated sculpture, performance, moving image, analogue processes and digital technologies into their practice, stoking a sometimes-heated debate about where exactly the medium begins and ends. But for Catherine Yass, such experimentation is nothing new.
In a conversation with BJP and DACS, the not-for-profit artist rights management organisation, Yass explained that she doesn’t, in fact, consider herself a photographer, but an artist who works with photography.
Born in 1963, she’s noted for her vivid, glowing photographs shown against light boxes, as well as her films and installations. Her subjects are often vacant urban spaces, construction sites, monuments of the modern industrial age and the people and institutions who commission her.
“The way we are positioned by and position ourselves in relation to our surroundings both reflects and affects our state of mind and our sense of ourselves in the world,” she says. “The built environment is a form of communication and an expression of society.”
In her Decommissioned (2011) series Yass photographed a car showroom and a dance studio prior to their demolition. When the buildings were destroyed she placed the pictures around the site and retrieved them a few weeks later, transformed by the work going on around them. Lighthouse (2012) captures the sun as it moves behind the north-eastern face of a 1970s lighthouse. At once strangely familiar and yet unfamiliar, these ethereal works are created by combining positive and negative images.
“I use analogue film and process or cross-process it, sometimes loading it the wrong way around to produce unexpected colours and a negative image,” says Yass. “This is overlaid on a regular image and has the effect of solarising it. The space becomes warped with colours, not obeying the laws of perspective but increasing in intensity as they recede into the distance. Space and time are distorted to disorientating effect, pulling you in and out of the image and suggesting different psychological, spatial and temporal dimensions.”
It was while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1980s that Yass had her first forays into photography. Initially her pictures were documentary in its purest sense – she saw her 35mm SLR as a straightforward tool with which to record her performances and temporary installations in black and white – but she became intrigued by the medium itself.
“I enjoyed being in the darkroom and gaining an understanding of the different meanings you can put on an image, based on how it’s cropped or how dark or light it is. It made me distrustful of photography but also gave me an understanding that it was a language. It was adding another layer to the performances.”
Over time the performances became something she did for the camera. “I would make photographs of a little performance. One example was a photograph of myself walking past some formal railings, and I ‘de-alienated’ them by tying pink J-Cloth ribbons around the print and re-photographed it. I was trying to make it look realistic so, for example, if you tied a shoelace around a railing it would look like I’d really done it but also you could tell I hadn’t. I wasn’t trying to disguise anything.”
This in turn led organically to moving image. “The time in the photograph, the movement within and between two photographs as well, is so conceptually different from a moving image and yet they’re a tiny millimetre apart. I started filming things but slowing them down by incredible amounts so they were almost still. That was a little jump into the moving image and I got more excited by it.”
Yass’s film Descent, shot by lowering a camera to the ground from a crane in Canary Wharf, featured in the solo exhibition of the same name at Asprey Jacques Gallery, London, which earned her a Turner Prize nomination in 2002.
Having the freedom to try out new things is vital to Yass, which is why she values copyright as a way to help support her practice financially. Since 2014 she has been claiming royalties for the secondary use of her work through DACS’s annual Payback scheme, which is currently open for application until 01 May. “Just as I might pay someone for hiring a camera or a meal cooked in a café, DACS provides a way of being paid for the use of my work,” says Yass.
Any photographer or visual artist whose work has ever been featured in a UK book, magazine or shown on TV can make a claim for Payback royalties online. Last year more than 35,000 visual artists, the majority of them photographers, received a share of £5.5m.
“I’ve been claiming Payback for a few years now – it can help to cover pre-production tests and experiments that don’t necessarily get budgeted into production costs,” says Yass. “I am really excited about going back to stills and experimenting with taking photographs without using a lens,” she adds. “It’s very early stages, I don’t know if it will come to anything.”