An interview with Aliki Braine

Aliki Braine is a London based Artist and Art Historian using the medium of Photography to craft stunning landscapes inspired by European paintings of landscapes. The artist explores the interaction spent creating and observing Photography through working with experimental Photography techniques in the dark room. 

“Tell us a bit about you”

My name is Aliki Braine and I'm an artist and art historian. I’m French by birth but I moved to England in my teens and never left. I trained as an artist at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford and then at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and as an art historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art. I've always run a life in parallel between being an art historian and an artist. I teach about the old masters - and old mistresses - painting but, whilst I have an interest in art history as a teacher, my own work as an artist is photography-based and created from negatives in the dark room. 

“As an art historian, what are the references and eras you are drawn to and does that shape the work you made as an artist an if so, how?”

Art history really shapes my practice; one of the running themes in my work is its interest in precedence and in how images, whether painted or photographic, are actually constructed. The way that I reference historical work is that the formats, compositions and subjects of art history are in my mind at all times and inform the images that I make. 

The period I'm particularly interested in is the 17th century in northern Europe when landscape became a booming subject matter; the need at the time to both record the landscape topographically and create fantasies of landscape is something that really interests me. And I translate that in my photographic work, not just by having a similar subject matter but also by manipulating the negative in order to point to the constructed nature of the image. For example, I may start with photograph of a landscape, but I will fold the negative to push and highlight the compositional devices at work. A chunk of the landscape may end up missing or doubled over, reminding us that like a painter, even if I’m using a camera I'm able to make decisions about composition.

“You’ve touched on this a bit already but, by creating these physical ‘edits in your work for example the folding or the wholepunches. Why is that so prevelant and what does that communicate to the viewer who doesn’t have that western art history background?”

Along with always utilising historical references, I'm also really interested in the photograph as an object. So, in the same way that an artist may make the painterliness in their work clearer through more evident mark making or by allowing different textures of the paint to remain visible, I am equally interested in making the ‘object-ness’ of the photograph visible. 

Despite photography's amazing ability to document the real, its physical properties are often made invisible; I’m interested in pointing to that physical nature of the photographic image. A photograph is paper, chemistry, dyes; it is an object because It has a front and a back and in order to point to its physical status, what I've been doing for many years is attacking the negative in various ways. It's quite an iconoclastic strategy because it destroys the image or part of it in order to make you realise that the image is a construct, but it also weirdly validates the image for having great potential for recording the world. 

I use different strategies. I hole punch the negative which means that the holes or spaces read as black marks on the print. I’ve also folded the negative or added stickers. All these strategies, which are very physical and playful, pay homage to my love of crafts and the ability to work with my hands. Photography is one of those mediums that is very clean. I don’t have a scientific approach to this technology, so I use it in a way that is quite unconventional and quite messy. I like getting physical with the negative; I use very basic, daft and playful strategies to create an effect on the negative and all this is done to make the physical nature of the image known.

"I think the detachment we have with Photography is quite dangerous. We see this increasingly in the way Photography is used today. The authority of the Photograph is overused and overpowerful."

“I think that’s really what Beyond Photography is about for us; there is this community from Collage artists to CGI where people love images and Photography but we require more involvement than pointing and shooting.”

This detachment and coolness of photography is something that I struggle with. I love taking photographs both on film (and on my iPhone), but one of the things that pushes me to rework them is that I think the detachment we have with photography is quite dangerous. We see this increasingly in the way photography is used today. The authority of the photograph is overused and over-powerful; not only is photography endlessly repeatable, but it also comes to a point where we stop seeing it. 

One of the things I find really interesting is the fact that when we take a photograph, we capture the moment we haven’t witnessed with our sight. If you are using a traditional reflex camera, the split second you are recording is one you are blind to as the shutter comes down, so you don’t actually see it. The moment you photograph is the one moment you haven’t actually witnessed. And what I find extraordinary is that the iPhone has replicated that for no reason except for that historical convention of the mechanical. One of the reasons that I rework my images is not just to engage with the them, but to reinvest time in them.

“Returning to the image more as an artefact and engaging with them at a greater length of time as you said is extremely powerful in negating that detatement you speak about. Can you tell us about how you got to this extensive level of work in the darkroom as part of your practice?”

I think one of the reasons I feel quite happy to torture photographs in the darkroom is because I have no official training in photography. I did my BA in the Sculpture department, so I was really thinking about photographs as objects; I had access to the dark room and to the technical knowledge, but actually I was very clumsy in the dark room. Very quickly, I realised I wanted to make images that incorporated photographs, but not ‘do’ photography. I didn’t have the skills or the interest to do things digitally, and I wanted to make things quickly; one of the things we forget is that it’s actually quicker to use a pair of scissors than to upload and edit digitally. I find digital technology to be clumsy and because I had come from the sculpture background, working in this way has always felt natural to me.

I’ve recently been making negative confetti with the hole punched areas and putting them on the enlarger. I’m very disruptive to conventional photographic processes!

“We find that people are very digital or very non digital, and the people who like digital arts such as Johnny Smith who we interviewed two weeks ago, loved digital purely for the fact that its fast. Its interesting that you think this non-digital way is quicker. Can you tell us more about your thoughts here?” 

For me it’s a sense of logistics. I have an idea of what I want to create with a landscape in mind, but the time mounts up from the field trip to the landscape of the shoot, getting the negatives to the lab, receiving them back, manipulating them, and going to the lab again. The actual making of the work - e.g. hole punching, folding, stickering - is actually very quick but the full realisation of the work is quite slow. 

"In Photography, there are two ways of thinking, you either take the photograph, or you make the photograph."

Hole punching your work makes your work more like an object as you have said, your work isn’t solely photography but isn’t really mixed media either, where do you see your craft in terms of categorisation?

So, I always introduce myself as an artist. The word artist in itself is very interesting; when I introduce myself as an artist, people ask me what I paint and then I have to explain that I don’t paint, I work with a photography and before you know it, I'm asked to photograph weddings! 

Photography has had a duel birth and history; in Britain it was celebrated as a tool for the sciences, akin to record keeping, and of course that is how photography is used; but it also has this parallel history which until recently has been relatively overshadowed. It was also invented by Louis Daguerre, who wasn’t an amateur scientist but was trained as a painter, was a showman, and interested in image making. In photography, there are two ways of thinking, you either take the photograph, or you make the photograph. I belong to the second category, I construct my work using photography. It’s that kind of narrative and we’re seeing that work coming through more, both past and present. 

Of late the term Post-Photography has been used, and I would happily define myself in that camp. 

“That’s what we stand for and believe in too, the idea that Photography has a set of walls around it, but there is all this work that those like yourself are creating and we’re so interested to explore what this less explored medium is.”

The predicted amount of photographs taken in 2020 is in the trillions and we’re totally swimming in these images and I think in a way, that’s the catalyst for thinking more about the photographic image and the desire to explore what they mean and why we choose to create so many of them. Photography has got to where painting was in the 1940s, when abstraction came to the foreground; the sense that we needed to discuss the potential of photographs but also the medium of photography. What is this thing we are using that we are consuming every minute of the day, particularly in lock down? We’re finally reengaging with the medium of photography as a tool for making images rather than as a scientific documentary tool. 

“Thank you, Aliki.”

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