Photographers Eye: Colin Gray

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Colin Gray, In Sickness And In Health

In the second part of our interview with Colin Gray, he talks about the evolution of his Parents project, his New Wave art school contemporaries, and managing his commercial work at a time when he was involved in a psychologically powerful photographic project

Click here for the first part of our interview with Colin, These Five Things

IMSO: Did you study photography?

Colin Gray: Yes, initially on a graphic design course in Leeds, UK 1977-80, but to get away from doing design studio projects, I’d sneak out to take photos. I then had 2 years of freelancing and assisting, before going to the RCA in London 1982-84 to study photography. It was a great experience.

IMSO: There was a lively art school/college music scene in Leeds at the time…Gang of Four/Scritti Politti/Soft Cell… was that something you remember at the time?

Art Direction, Vaughan Oliver. Design, Chris Bigg. Photography, Colin Gray.

Colin Gray: When I was in my first year Gang of Four were in their last year, I first saw them play at our xmas party and were impressed. Soft Cell were in the same year, but they were dreadful! My college band The Acetate Overlays played around that time, but we weren’t that much better. I got to know both bands and took some early photos of Soft Cell, the last being when they were on the dole and Tainted Love was at No 1. The rest is history. I’ve worked with Vaughan Oliver (V23) doing sleeves for Dead Can Dance, His Name is Alive etc. [For those who are interested Jon King, singer with The Gang of Four, is Managing Director of Storyworldwide]

IMSO: Who were/are your photography heroes?

Colin Gray: Tony Ray-Jones, Bill Owens, Diane Arbus, John Hinde, Guy Bourdin, Brian Griffin, and Arthur Tress.

John Hinde’s Butlin’s photographs

IMSO: How did you get a start and now based in Glasgow, how much has the city influenced your work?

Colin Gray, Second Sitting, 1992. Parents project

Colin Gray: As a child I always felt at ease with photography so didn’t pursue it as a career. I felt art should be a struggle and at Art college, drawing was as struggle, so I went back to what I felt at ease with, not that it’s been easy.

Glasgow hasn’t influenced my work, though people like Malcolm Dickson at Street Level Gallery have helped me. My home town of Hull has been more of an influence, it has many emotional and visual memories: childhood, working, industry, shipping noises, fog on the river are more influential on my visual influence.

IMSO: When did you start your Parents project and why?

Colin Gray, Hull Under Water, 1992. Parents project

Colin Gray: 1980, I wanted to create my own family album and having left home wanted to understand my relationship with my parents by using photography.

IMSO: Digital makes such projects relatively easy to manage nowadays, how did you keep it going?

Colin Gray, Picnic, 1987. Parents project.

I wanted to keep a continuity so kept the same camera though out the now 32-year project, however, the film stock has changed several times. I started with Kodak VPL, VPS, GBH and few more and now using Portra, which has just changed again!

I shoot digital on many other projects with a 5D II. If I could have started using digital 30 years ago, the work may have looked very different, you had to ‘light’ that film or it looked flat, the opposite now on digital, it looks better under ‘natural’ light.

IMSO: In 2000, part of your Parents project evolved into In Sickness and In Health, when your Mother, Rene, had a stroke. How did you abstract yourself from the subject matter enough to be able to construct such a narrative that is both visually and emotionally challenging?

Colin Gray, In Sickness and In Health

Colin Gray: It was very difficult, but photography really helped make sense of what was happening to my mother. I find taking pictures detaches me so I can look at a situation objectively. The process of taking a picture held me together, so I wasn’t breaking down. As time went on the pictures evolved into a body of work, then I looked at how to construct a narrative from all the images I had.

IMSO: The photography critic John Berger says, “Photographs are there to remind us of what we forget.” How did photographing the journey of your Mother dying (and the edit for the book) shape your experience of her dying, and your memory of her?

Colin Gray, In Sickness And In Health

Colin Gray: I worried that ISIH would overshadow what a brilliant and beautiful woman my mum was. As time passes those 4 years of her illness and death are now in perspective and I can look at her life as a whole. I have been taking of my parents since the early 1960s.

IMSO: The images create the feeling of being emotionally, psychologically, and even spatially lost. Were there any photographers or writers who were influential in organizing your thinking around the project?

Clin Gray, In Sickness And In Health

Colin Gray: No photographers as, at the time no one had really covered the subject, but lots of different artists from Goya, Munch, Van Gogh, Bruegel, and the films of Tarkovsky, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy.

IMSO: How did this work fit, psychologically, aesthetically, with your very successful commercial work? Are you able to compartmentalize this easily?

Image Source / Colin Gray

Colin Gray: During that four-year spell I felt that I was in a zone, so all the work I looked at had to do with death and decay. I would not show this personal work to designers or art directors. However, as a counterbalance, I produced happier work usually with my kids on holiday for Image Source.

IMSO: The photos were also an exhibition. How did people respond to them?

Colin Gray / In Sickness And In Health

Colin Gray: Very emotionally: I have given many talks on the work and I’ve had people break down in tears. I’ve also talked to people about their lost loved ones, so it has become a form of therapy not only for myself.

IMSO: Any other projects you are working on?

Colin Gray / Nina Goes Shopping

Colin Gray: Many projects with my children, I’m very slow at getting them ‘out there’. The last one was, Nina Goes Shopping, This project started on a shopping trip with my daughter Nina about eight years ago, initially to relieve my boredom of shopping. As the project progressed we have collaborated and worked as a team, to avoid being caught by the security guards. It is a bit like shoplifting; you have to be as discreet as possible. We have been caught a few times and have been thrown out of stores. I shoot ‘from the hip’ without looking through the camera, a spirit level helps me frame the image through my 24mm lens.

Click to see more of Colin’s personal projects

Click to see more of Colin’s work on Image Source

To buy In Sickness and In Health from publishers Steidl.

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