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EDITORIAL

EPIFANIO RECOMMENDS

CULT MOVIES AND ME
Benedict Chapman

INTERVIEW WITH HELGA NÕU
August Künnapu

THE FAKE HORSE
Helga Nõu

INTERVIEW WITH FREDRIK LAVIK, A SPECIALIST IN EAST AFRICAN MUSIC
Martin Jõela

8 QUESTIONS TO MR JOHN PETER ASKEW
Harry Pye

SPATIAL POETRY IN 2019
Vilem Künnapu

PANHUMANISM MANIFESTO
Alexey Levchuk

PAINTINGS OF ANU MUISTE

TEAM

8 QUESTIONS TO MR JOHN PETER ASKEW

Between 1996 and 2017 John Peter Askew stayed regularly as a guest with the Chulakov family in Perm, Russia and enjoyed making photographs all the way. Recently John had an e-mail conversation with fellow London-based artist, Harry Pye. Now read on...

How much do you love your camera as an object? And how long have you had it?

My first camera was a 21st birthday present from my father. A Pentax MX. Sometimes presents can be things that you don’t really like or want but I remember treasuring this. I remember taking some photos of the steep steps in Newcastle leading down to the quayside. At home, I made a picture of a floral patterned waste bin in a flowerbed. There was also one of my mum and dad in bed on Christmas morning. It didn’t come out quite right as the light got into the back of the camera and distorted the colours. That fascinated me. My father was drinking a cup of tea while my mother read from a book by Alison Uttley. My dad was half in and half out of the light.
I’m a person of habit and still use the same camera today.

Is it perfect?

John Peter Askew. Woman and Spring
Blossoms

John Peter Askew. Woman and Spring Blossoms

Well, a treasured present from your late father cannot but be imbued with a special weight.

But that aside I think a camera is a near perfect machine. Not least because of its magical qualities: a machine that captures light and returns us a moment forever.

What drives you to take photos?

I remember when I first started making photographs in the 1980’s how I used to wait with great anticipation for the box of transparencies to be pushed through the letterbox by the postman. How excited I was when it finally came. It was like opening a box of exquisite treasures or jewels. But more so. In that small box of captured light I found a world that rang true.

Is it a desire to own or preserve or capture something?

Perhaps. Susan Sontag writes how a photograph touches her like the delayed rays of a star. My mother once told me that when they were courting my father would get her to pose for an eternity while he photographed her. Each time he would carefully measure the light falling on her face with his hand-held meter.

I remember a photograph of my mother leaning up against a tree, her curly red hair falling to her waist. Her bright eyes full of expectation. Towards the end of my mothers life we looked for the photograph together but couldn’t find it. My mother recalled how she and my father were out walking in Horsham Wood and she was wearing a pink checked skirt and a yellow jumper she had knitted from fine wool. I remember my mother turning to me as she told me that her hair then was quite short and that I’d mixed the photograph up with another where she is a child holding her sister’s hand. Here her hair, she said smiling, is nearly as long and as beautiful as I remember.

What are the limitations of photography?

John Peter Askew. Ginger Cat

John Peter Askew. Ginger Cat

The limitation of photography lies in its mercurial qualities. But herein lies it’s fascination too. The naming of photography was a matter of intense debate amongst the early practitioners reflecting their doubts over exactly what the process was. It’s impossible to take photography apart like a soldier dismantles a rifle. One hundred and ninety three years later photography remains as strong an enigma as ever.

John Peter Askew. Man Riding a Bicycle

John Peter Askew. Man Riding a Bicycle

No matter how you twist and turn a photograph has something to do with revelation. It fractures the shell of our perception and fixes a moment with singular clarity. A disturbing clarity that is at odds with our perception of time space and mortality. A photograph threatens our rational world and we cope by pushing it’s intractability into our subconscious. If the photograph was still only a novelty, or viewed as a treasure - as its uniqueness demands - no harm would come from this evasion. Instead the overbearing presence of photographs and the relentless consumption of them means we evade its inexplicable nature at our peril. I wonder if this explains the tiredness I see in peoples’ eyes and the inexplicable sadness that I feel.

The ontology of photography is so complex that I try to pair my work down in an effort to get at its essence. I want to achieve a quality of stillness drawn to Luc Tuyman’s insistence that “pictures if they are to have an effect must have the tremendous intensity of silence”.

What frustrates you about the work that you do?

That I’m a perfectionist. The simplicity that I strive for in my work is paradoxically only achieved by great endeavour.

A few months back I went to the launch party of your book, “We”, at The Photographer’s Gallery. Your book features 164 colour photos that you took whilst in Russia between 1996 and 2017. If possible, could you select three of your favourite photos from the book and say something about them?

It’s difficult to single out three photographs from the book. My ambitions for We are not immediately legible in any single picture or small group rather it builds incrementally through each image and cumulatively through its extended timeframe.

John Peter Askew

John Peter Askew

“We”, as a title, refers to the subject, the photographer and the viewer. It’s inclusive and expansive. “We” holds the idea that although the photographs are particular, being about a single family, the Chulakovs, my intention is that they hold wider resonances that touch on everybody.

My work stems from a belief in the importance of tenderness and kindness in our interactions with the world, coupled with political conviction that we can create a better one. In picturing this we bring it into being. I hope my pictures ask a question: “How is this world [pictured] different from our own?” Playfulness or play is a recurring motif throughout the book. As it is in play, everything I picture is an end only to itself. I want the picture to be unambiguously about the cat, rather than being a sign or a symbol for another thing. Barthes believed that “In myth...I speak the tree, I do not speak about the tree”. The photographs should show things in their best light, whether it be a person, animal, plant or object.

I have no inhibitions about producing beautiful photographs because the beauty of the everyday and the commonplace is antithetical to the individualism, excessive wealth and the consumption that drives and blights our lives. In some way I am interested in re-enchanting the world.

The first picture is of Anna Kligman [née Chulakov]. Anna wrote a text for the book which concludes with:
“It is an exciting, interesting and even mystical sensation, to know that there is such an observer to your life. To be part of this process is very valuable to me. And every time I look at these photographs I feel joy, seeing how beautiful life is in every moment! This is a great gift.”

The Chulakovs have become family to me, and they joke that I am relative who lives in London rather than St Petersburg. They always have a vacant bed in their home, a seat in the car and a plate at the table for me. I have a place in their lives; a role in their stories.

The heart of my work lies in our friendship and shared journey through life over the last quarter of a century, as much as in the photographs themselves.

https://www.kerberverlag.com/en/1658/John-Peter-Askew

HARRY PYE
is a writer, curator and painter who lives and works in London.
See also his postcards from London, São Paulo and Leeds in previous issues of Epifanio.