The Edges of These Isles
Simon Bray +Tom Musgrove
We have a firm belief, here at of the land & us, that the practice of other artistic mediums can only improve your photography and art.
Painting yields understanding of light, drawing yields understanding of composition and the necessary slowness and attention to detail in both of those things yields patience and a keen eye.
In the same manner, collaborating with others, other artists with different mediums, mindsets and approaches will do the same for you.
And so, we’re pleased to announce our latest feature on collaborative photographer and artist duo Simon Bray and Tom Musgrove, who have done just that.
Their work together has culminated in the project The Edges of These Isles, which has been produced as a beautifully made book — beautiful to look at and beautiful to touch, and refreshingly candid.
It is wonderful to read about the developing relationship between collaborators: the newness of it all, the doubt, the struggle to work in the same space with such different mediums, and then the realisation and the inspiration and motivation.
Together they have created a wonderful narrative that many of us can identify with. The book is a brilliant insight into this collaboration, a book put together with finished works and uncomplete sketches, tales of the work as well as tales of their adventures and worries — not unlike a collaborative field notebook.
It’s an uncommon and uncomplicated format that highlights the importance of working with other people, other mediums and skills, to improve and benefit our own practices.
Tell us a bit about yourselves.
Simon Bray: I’m a landscape and documentary photographer based in Manchester, although originally from Hampshire. Working in the landscape for me is a huge pleasure, certainly the subject matter that I get most personal satisfaction from although I love working with people, telling their stories and posing challenging questions through my documentary work.
Tom and I met through a mutual friend whilst taking on the national three peaks challenge in 24 hours. We both had an affinity for creating work from the landscape and, after seeing sketches that Tom had made from that trip, we decided to try going out on some trips together and that grew into what is now The Edges Of These Isles.
Tom Musgrove: I’m from a small village called Manley about 12 miles outside of Chester. I studied for my BA in Drawing and Applied Arts in Bristol and now I live with my young family in Manchester. As an image-maker I can see that throughout this creative field I have always drawn from the landscape; that is to say, at times I draw it literally as I see it and other times I use it as a ground to place ideas or feelings about human issues.
In the film documentary I think I say I haven’t worked from the landscape before — I see this this is nonsense now! We met as Simon describes — through our friend Ralph — and I remember showing him some of the work I’d made later on in the studio after the three peaks thing. It was pretty abstract — I mean there was nothing recognisable in it, but Simon really seemed to enjoy it and was very open to read it with sensitive and critical eyes. I just really appreciated that.
How did this collaboration come about?
SB: Originally, we asked friends to recommend potential locations that we could visit together, somewhere that meant something to them. We whittled that down and decided to go up to Buttermere in the Lake District.
We didn’t go with any preconceived ideas of what the outcomes would be; in fact, neither of us had ever worked with another artist on-location before, so it took us some time to get used to having each other around.
I remember being at our first spot, I’d set up my camera and taken some shots and then wanted to get moving, I like to be on my feet and observing, so I went over to Tom to see how he was getting on, and he’d just about opened his pencil case with his unmarked sketchbook in front of him.
I didn’t say anything at the time, but through Tom’s pace of working we’d begun the collaboration. It forced me to slow down, go back to the lake and try some new shots. It gave me time to soak in the place we were in, watch the light and the clouds move.
I knew at that point that we’d have to work together, build up an understanding and look to accomplish tasks together, which wasn’t something that came naturally to me at first.
TM: Yes, I remember Simon’s spontaneity taking me by surprise on that first trip actually.
We were right at the beginning of a pass and the mist was doing something special, so he just pulled over, jumped out and started taking pictures.
I think I then started taking photos of him taking photos… I wasn’t ready to get out my sketchbook in time — I should have been.
Simon — what’s your story?
I began taking pictures when I first moved to Manchester; it helped me assimilate with my new surroundings. I get everywhere on foot, so it helped me observe and really look at this new place I called home.
That was over ten years ago, and in that time I’ve completed a music degree and spent five years working within the music industry.
But my photography is something that I’ve continued to be given new opportunities in, from making commercial work to pay the bills, to finding inspiration for a variety of personal projects — plus working with a collective and also having the chance to take part in events like Manchester International Festival.
Tom — why did you want to work with a photographer? Has your art benefitted or changed from doing so?
This is a difficult question for me — really I didn’t choose to work with a photographer, I chose to work with Simon, whose method happens to be photography.
I think what Simon mentioned about time or pace of working is really crucial and important to this collaboration, on-location, because we have to maintain the relationship and be sympathetic to each other.
But then, when we come together to read each other’s work later on, to go over the narrative of the day, the sense of time and moments in a place is really made quite tangible through there being photographs made in a second that express the light and atmosphere — and then sketches, made over maybe half an hour that show a completely different aspect, but of the same landscape.
It is having that second aspect of the same thing that really blows it open. Simon has mentioned in the past about learning to ‘put himself in the photograph’ and also about ‘finding the narrative’. The same is true for me.
Like I mentioned earlier, it is only now after this particular phase of the project that I see how I have always been deeply affected by the landscape and being there in it; seeing Simon tell his story of it only adds to what I see there myself.
Tell us about The Edges of These Isles.
SB: The concept really was quite vague at the start, but as the project developed, we realised it was far more about the relationship between Tom and I as artists rather than the places.
The locations ended up feeling like a reason for us to go exploring together, but the real beauty was in the collaboration, finding space to share work together, talk about our process and approach.
How does the momentary reaction of a photographer in creating an image vary to that of the artist who might have days, weeks, months or years to create an image of the same place.
Tom taught me about soaking up a place, about using all my senses to really feel how a place is affecting me, and to build my response from that.
I like to shoot quite instinctively — on my feet, camera in hand — so it’s a case of building in my broader emotional response to work with my visual response to create a imagery that reveals just as much of me as it does of the landscape.
TM: I agree, the concept was vague to begin with, and the collaboration really did benefit from that in the early stages and locations. We both knew how to respond to the landscape on our own terms, but as a collaboration we really didn’t know or could foresee how or what would come of our trips together.
This meant that by simply pressing forward with it, standing by each other in our creative endeavours, being open and supportive of one another’s imaginations, we couldn’t do anything but make new territory.
So the idea of taking something that you love and going somewhere you don’t know with it, that seems to have been one of the core values — and still is.
What is it about the landscape that draws you in?
SB: I grew up surrounded by countryside, and we would go on holidays as a family to the Lake District, North Wales, Cornwall… so I have an affinity to the landscape from my childhood.
Living in a city like Manchester really makes me pine for the outdoors, and if I don’t get out somewhere vast and wild every few weeks, I start getting a bit tetchy and anxious.
I need to find some space, some peace, free my mind, breathe in the fresh air and then take pictures as a response to those feelings.
The landscape really does help me know my place in the world, not as a means of telling me that I’m small and insignificant, but that I have the pleasure of seeing such beauty, of experiencing something that is real, that I can touch and smell and run around in; it relaxes me and inspires me.
TM: For me, looking at and being in a landscape is like an open invitation to thought. Thought about human history mainly but also natural — what has this vision before me gone through to meet me in this state?
I think about what has happened here, in this locale and even in this very spot — these are the thoughts that captivate me.
The change between landscapes, like the feelings of déjà vu I had when driving through hedgerows to Rhossili, and the sensation of emerging from four hours of motorway then A-roads, and finally getting a glimpse of a new realm opening up.
What are you recommending?
TM: I’m just getting through a book Simon lent me actually — Geoff Dyer’s White Sands and also V.S. Naipaul’s India, which my dad has been pushing me to read for ages.
As for books that I have fully read, John Berger’s And our faces, my heart, brief as photos has to be my favourite, his dealing of love in time and space is mesmerising.
And then The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Murakami for the same reason.I’m really eager to see The Season’s In Quincy, as I’ve only recently come to John Berger and have fallen in love with the man, so that film will be a real treat.
Two of my favourite films are The City of Lost Children, my first experience of a foreign language film — I was romanced right away — and The Royal Tenenbaums. That film for me is perfection.
Music, I will often play Stars of the Lid when I’m in the studio painting, away from the house so I can really turn it up loud.
I find their song The Ballasted Orchestra particularly moving. Or it’s some kind of jazz like Ornette Coleman, Hidden Orchestra or Soft Machine.
Do you know what though, now the summer is coming and it’s getting warmer and here in Manchester with that warmth comes the rain — I love to listen to Latin American music when I’m working and can hear the rain on the roof. There’s one album which is really special for me, it’s Partiu Do Alto by Edson & Tita Lobo.
SB: I’ve just got to the end of season one of Designated Survivor on Netflix, which sucked me in in a way that doesn’t usually happen to me! I’m also really enjoying a show called This Country on the BBC. Having grown up in a rural area, it really does resonate with me.
I read a lot of magazines and journals, titles like Smith Journal, Avaunt, British Journal of Photography, Boat, Mondial, all of which have beautiful photography and get me thinking and inspire.
Tom and I will often share books that instigate thought. I’m about to read Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, which I’ll probably also end up lending to Tom!
Music was the thing that really brought me and Tom together, sharing records on the long journeys to locations — it was a way of building trust and opening up to one another.
I listen to pretty much everything released on a label called Erased Tapes, which I suppose would be classified as contemporary classical music, but it’s far more diverse and engaging than that title would suggest.
There’s also a record called Deer Heart by an Australian artist, Tilman Robinson, which is excellent; in fact, I’m going to put it on now.
Tell us about an artist who inspires you.
SB: There’s a piece of music by composer Arvo Part called Spiegel Im Speigel, which translates as ‘Mirror in Mirror’. I love the visual notion of the piece, an infinity of images produced by the mirrors.
It teaches me of the scale of life, something tangible that can last forever, the beauty of light and science, how much I don’t understand about the world and the notion of creating something from nothing.
It’s a beautifully serene piece of music that really does reflect the stillness and emotions I experience when I’m in the landscape.
TM: I’m so inspired by the work of Talar Aghbashian at the moment. She’s a Lebanese Armenian painter, artist and was a prizewinner at the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize.
I’d recommend looking her up on Google and seeing her recent work, I find her choice of perspective breathtaking — and the colour palette very refined . Works in particular: Land’s End — 2015 and Bridge — 2010 and also, Saida Castle — 2011.
Finally, what’s next? Will the collaboration continue, will it evolve into something different?
SB: We both want it to continue, but we’re not quite sure what that’ll look like yet. We’ve toyed with the idea of bringing other people in and making it much bigger than just us — there’s still a lot of places in the UK that we want to explore.
We’ve both learnt a lot from delivering the first stage of the project, making the film, writing and preparing the book, the exhibition, talks and interviews.
We need some space to put that all into practice before we go down the road of bringing too many other elements in. We will see, but there will be more in due course.
TM: Yes, definitely more to come, as Simon says we seem to have covered so much ground already and we need to take stock of that, realise what exactly we were doing up to this point and then perhaps plonk ourselves (and others maybe) right back in No Man’s Land — figuratively speaking!