My Friend, You are a Lunar Lamplight
Christopher J Russell
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Milton Keynes in the UK about three decades ago. It’s a town most notable for its quantity of roundabouts stuck within a grid system, its rows of planted trees and our Concrete Cows (a set of sculptures given to us by an artist in residence just after the new town of Milton Keynes was born).
Unfortunately many see it as a bleak and culture-less town, but as a resident and a child growing up here I’ve found life fascinating in my very own ‘concrete jungle‘.
Some of my earliest fascinations with the ideas of space and landscape came from family bike rides within this town when I was very young. We’d ride through the small villages in the town — each village only a grid road apart, yet miles apart in terms of uniformity. I didn’t realise it at the time, how they looked different and each village acted differently, but as I grew into my formative years, these divides became more apparent and extremely interesting
Many would rather pass through towns and spaces like this, but I find these pockets of banality the most engaging.
In 2009 I went to study photography at the University of Plymouth. Plymouth was a world away from Milton Keynes. Its grand surroundings and rolling moors that seem to stop abruptly, just before the sea, enticed me. I fell in love with my own naivety towards these new surroundings, and fell in love with Plymouth instantly.
It is for this reason that I didn’t hesitate to return three years later to begin my master’s degree in photography, finishing in 2017.
Currently, my practice is being moulded through nostalgia. The themes in which I find myself drawn to now are defined by my friends and their anecdotes which I seem to have forgotten.
What’s your story?
Photography and I just happened. I wish I could say there was a particular moment that kickstarted my love of photography, but there isn’t. In my mid-teens, when I was hanging around with some very talented and creative friends, I guess one day I just turned up with a camera in my hands (probably a little point and shoot) to fit in more. It went from there.
The point that set me on to where I am now, however, is very clear. As a huge lover of music I have collected countless CDs and vinyl since I was young. I have always found the artwork of these releases fascinating and admired how a single image could evoke large sums of wonder.
One that really stood out for me as a teenager and made me want to emulate it in some way was ‘Sci-fi Lullabies’ by Suede. The front cover features an abandoned fighting aircraft, photographed by John Kippin, riddled with bullet holes under a looming and cloudy sky. From then on, my love of photographing subjects that were not readily available to see, or commonplace, took off.
What kind of art are you interested in?
I find all types, styles and genres of photography and art extremely interesting. But over the years my real interest and love has firmly been with landscape photography. I never rule out taking a portrait, a still life or dabbling in street photography, but for me landscape photography is where I am at this moment in time.
Landscape allows me not only to explore the land, it also allows me to experience how we use the land and our relationship with it. I’m a big people watcher; I could sit for hours in silence watching people go by and witness how they interact with spaces. Oddly though, my photographs feature no human activity.
My interests in the land span further than what is just in front of us or around us though. Questioning and probing subjects such as inhabitancy and the effects of time are the backbone of my curiosities.
Let’s talk about your project.
In its infant state, the project was about getting out into the darkness at night. I knew I wanted to examine the city at night while there weren’t any people about. I also knew I wanted to experience the idea of being hidden within the confines of the city at night.
As the project progressed, I noticed a connection with a severe bout of insomnia I’d had as a teenager. I remember lying in bed around twelve years ago trying desperately to sleep but at the same time fascinated with the sounds of what could be going on outside.
As I stepped out into the darkness many times for this project, I felt a strong sense of relief that I was finally getting to see what happens when the city finally shuts down for a few brief hours.
From this point on, the project focused on my own interaction with the darkness of night. I wanted to find isolation and solitude within a city that, bar two hours of the twenty four, is a bustling and fast-paced city. In truth, it was the search for a separation from the world.
I see this as a lifelong project. I do not want to confine this search to just one city, as all cities and towns have their own individual rhythms at night. ‘My Friend, You are a Lunar Lamplight’ is only the first volume.
Are there any moments you had while making the work which stick out or taught you something?
On a practical level, when working at night be prepared to pack your gear together in thirty seconds and know where you‘re going. I had a situation whilst shooting this project where two very drunk and loud guys started taking a sinister interest in what I was doing. By always taking stock of a situation and being alert, you will always make sure you are safe. Don’t let this kind of situation put you off either.
With regards to the project, the main lesson I learnt was that your gut instinct is better than anyone else’s opinion.
You are the one creating the work, you are the one that has researched and lived the project, and therefore you are the one in control. That’s not to say that you should discard other opinions; far from it, as some of the main turning points in this project came from recommendations from peer groups and outsiders. Just keep in mind the influential opinions, and lose the uninformed.
This project also taught me to always take a step back whilst on location and evaluate if this shot really is worth taking, and if it really does say something with regards to my intentions. I work with film, and in this case I worked with a large format film camera. The processes involved taught me to truly assess the landscape, long before I press my finger down on the shutter release cable.
What are you recommending?
I love reading about travel. Robert Macfarlane writes so beautifully and poetically about his travels that it always inspires me to grab the camera and step into the world.
Furthermore, another great read is At Days Close: A History of Nighttime by Roger Ekirch. This book was vital in the progression of my project. It details the social history of the night in a pre-industrial world, such as how we used to operate on a bi-modal sleeping pattern and how we utilised the darkness of night.
In terms of photographic books, Richard Misrach and Kate Orff’s book, Petrochemical America is stunningly rich in thought-provoking material, as is Victoria Sambunaris’ book Taxonomy of a Landscape.
Can you pinpoint one piece of art that has strongly influenced you?
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hung in my parents’ room as a child. I remember being fixated on it, but not knowing why. As my love and understanding of art grew I soon became aware as to why it was such an attraction to me. It’s such a simple subject, yet painted in a way that allowed the artists personality and style to shine through. When beginning a new project, I always refer back to that painting and the feeling I had when I was young. Will someone see my work as I grew to see Sunflowers?