Coalville Photographed by Christopher Mear
UK documentary photographer Christopher Mear talks to us about his work Coalville Photographed, his work explores post-industrial landscape and the community within that dimension. Coalville Photographed is an intimate, inside look at Coalville through the eyes of fellow photographer Graham Ellis. The whole body of work is a homage to photography and subjectivity - its connection between place and man. It's a very in depth study of a man's link to a place through the medium of photography. The video work is a mix of images and informal conversations between Ellis and Mear. The conversations between the two photographers are meandering subjects on photography as a medium. The work seems informal and very genuine (background noise is kept in the video work and the video itself is mostly handheld) but at the same time meticulous as a document of Ellis, Coalville and even Mear himself. The work itself was featured on Photograd last month as a photobook and zine review.
Tell us more about you and your artwork.
My work is an ongoing exploration of the post-industrial landscape in which I was born. I made a book a couple of years ago and I wrote a little story about tripping over a brick in a field when I was a kid;
“I was born in 1990, as coal mining stopped in North West Leicestershire. I grew up in the village of Donisthorpe, on the North West Leicestershire / South Derbyshire border. My childhood home stood directly opposite what was, for over a century, the entrance to Donisthorpe Colliery - the old beating heart of my former mining village. But I knew nothing of the industry that shaped the social and geographic landscape of where I grew-up. Instead I knew a huge field, with tall grass, tall enough for me to lose myself in my imagination on a daily basis.”
I really do feel that my work has come directly from that childhood relationship with that field and the brick. And Johnny’s role within that story really strikes a chord, he has become a kind of hero for me in the same way that Graham has in my Coalville Photographed work. That small act of saving the brick and then going back years later and uncovering it and putting it on show feels so very connected to the process of being photographer for me. It’s easy to get lost and depressed in this world, trying to be “successful”, “famous” or “wealthy”, or just simply meet expectations, I only have to think of people such as Johnny and Graham, and those small acts of significance, and this whole damn world suddenly snaps back into perspective.
How did you plan for this project? What was your creative process?
It all came straight out my previous project, Just Passing By. I was fortunate enough to come up with a rough concept for that work and gain a commission from Snibston Discovery Museum (Leicestershire). I met Graham very early on in the making of Just Passing By, and he, and what he was doing, and how he was doing it, appealed to me immediately. Initially I was going to use him as a recurring narrative within Just Passing By, firstly in a series of blog posts and then ultimately in the book. But after a few blog posts, along with my commissioners we decided it wasn’t really working within the context of Just Passing By so we scrapped the idea. Although he does feature, briefly, in the book. But I carried on going on shoots with Graham, simply because I enjoyed his process and his company.
When Just Passing By came to an end I got really exhausted with photography as a medium and didn’t shoot, apart from jobs and with Graham, for a long time. It then suddenly occurred to me how fascinated I was simply watching and listening to Graham moving through the world taking pictures, and so I started filming him one day, as you do! And then it just got out of hand really.
I don’t really know what my creative process is. Except to say, that all of my projects so far are connected, they’re not really separate projects, more like chapters in a long, complex and highly contradictory story which begins in that field. Each new project really has come directly from the previous in some way. I do feel that after I’ve finished the work I’m currently working on though it’ll be time to move on to something very new.
What work inspires or has inspired you?
Too many to mention! There are two books that have probably had the biggest influence on me though, The Americans by Robert Frank and Hide That Can by Deirdre O’Callaghan. The experience of The Americans really does feel like your watching a very intense film, a “paper- movie” and so too does Hide That Can. But what Hide That Can added, for me, was the addition of text, in a way that adds voices to the visuals and that was, and still is, a very powerful experience for me.
I’m also a keen admirer of Peter Mitchell and Paul Graham’s work, as well as the obvious photographic superstars such as Martin Parr, Alec Soth, William Eggleston, etc. The films of Charlie Kaufman are becoming a very powerful source of inspiration too.
Are there any artistic movements you enjoy in particular and why?
Not that I’m consciously aware of. I’m still not even sure that I know what an “artistic movement”is to be honest with you.
Do you have any opinions or ideals underlying your art?
Yes, photography is completely subjective. My work is my interpretation of the world as it appears to me. And I have my political opinions, beliefs and ideals, I’m just another person of course. But I don’t feel like it would aid my work in any way to share them. I’m not very good with words anyway, and besides I think it’s all their in the work, if anyone wants to see it. As much as it may appear to be “documentary” I think it’s much closer to autobiographical. There’s a great quote form Walker Evens, another great inspiration of mine;
“I’m often called a documentary photographer but... a man operating under that definition could take a sly pleasure in the disguise. Very often I’m doing one thing when I’m thought to be doing another.”
Your images are really intimate portraits of Coalville experienced through Graham Ellis, along with the video. We really felt a strong connection with Graham and Coalville. You’re so inside this community with him - it's really fascinating as a body of work. Why Coalville, was it chosen because Graham Ellis was so linked to the place and why the mix of photography and video?
Well, thank you. Diane Arbus, another inspiration! Once said “the more specific you are the more general it will be”. Now I don’t know if I interpreted that statement in the way Arbus intended it of course, but it certainly has had a lasting impact on me. I think that by focussing intensely on the smaller elements of a subject you can create a much more revealing portrait of the whole. And for me Coalville is my intense study of a small element of my chosen subject.
It’s not my hometown, it’s about ten minutes down the road, but it is the town that took me in and gave me an opportunity with photography, it’s also the town that feels most organically linked to that field. It’s a very young town and it was built literally around the coal mining industry. It then had that snatched away from it around the moment I was born and has since really struggled to redefine itself, since that loss. But it retains a character underneath the surface, mostly in the people, young and old too, contrary to popular belief. And I like the character. I’m not sure I’d say I’m “inside the community” though, as much as I wish I was, I think if I was I probably wouldn’t be a photographer.
The combination of video and photography came from my frustration, bordering on hatred, with photography at the time. But I wanted to try and record my experience of moving through the world, the post-industrial landscape, behind Graham. It was just lucky for my that he happened to be a photographer and ultimately led me to fall back in love with the medium. Eventually I stopped filming, after we reached the summit in the eighth film, and I just started photographing again. Stopped following him too. Just photographing alongside him. All of the photographs in that work come from that period of rediscovering the medium of photography, again.
Any words for aspiring documentary photographers?
Work! Even when no one cares if you work or not. Because the reality is most people couldn’t care less outside of college or university. So your self-assigned job is to keep working and keep striving for that connection with the world, which maybe one day others will feel through your work. Of course there’s just as much chance that others won’t ever feel that connection through your work, probably more chance in fact. But don’t beat yourself up about that. Don’t let the amount of viewers or admirers, the lack of “likes” and “retweets”, of you work play to great a role in your relationship with photography. Simply going out, engaging with the world, learning from the world and keeping a record of that, in any form, is a wonderful and worthwhile thing to do in itself. Regardless of recognition. The fresh air is nice too. Don’t chase art-world or photo-world fashion or trends either, it’s as pointless as trying to keep up with the latest camera equipment. They’ll always be seven steps ahead, they’ll never run out of ways to get your money. Just make the work that comes from you. But don’t let photography take over your whole life either, it’s too lonely a medium for that. Best piece of advice I could offer is don’t listen to my advise though, because I don’t know what I’m doing, as you can probably tell!
“Knowing that you don’t know is the first and most essential step to knowing” - Synecdoche, New York, 2008
Is Coalville Photographed available to own anywhere?
I published a limited edition zine of my Coalville Photographed work which is available here.