Guest Lecture: Sam Laughlin

This interesting talk by Sam Laughlin from 10th April, gave an overview of his evolving practice from graduation to the present, moving away from obsessive “Becher-esque” typologies to a current interest in animal behaviour and nature’s processes.

Following graduation, a single image from the project he was working on led him to change his direction, and he adopted the aesthetic of this single image to create a new body of work.  In  Frameworks his attention was on the structure of buildings before they become functional spaces, linear concrete frames, sites of pre-completion.  The initial image that prompted the series reminded him a little of the Parthenon and he decided to continue the project following a very specific set of criteria;  that each structure must have the feeling of a ruin, e.g. nestled in landscape, and that their shape suggests a ruined structure.  Laughlin’s influences included artists from outside the photographic field, such as Piranesi and Escher.

His self-imposed aesthetic agenda included seeking very particular forms, working at night with low light, use of large format and long exposures, often with light coming from behind the structure which Laughlin felt gave a “more monumental effect”. In time, working on a typological project led him to feel rather restricted and he has since moved away from a prescribed “Becher-esque” aesthetic.  The work, however, did lead him to a commission from a gallery, photographing within a construction site which was to become their gallery space.  A new license for artistic freedom prompted him to looking at different parts to the site, but still consistent with the theme of what lies behind the façade of a building. “A construction site is just a constant rearrangement of objects until at the end you have a building”.  His images include details such as a trailing cable or a line of sawdust left behind, which he calls “incidental sculptures”.

Laughlin’s images are uniformly grey in tone, an aesthetic he says has taken a long time for him to settle on.  With concrete as a subject, grey seemed to him the right choice to make, but he also believes that greyscale is “democratic to the eye” as the viewer has to really look at the whole frame and is less directed to certain points within it.

Untitled (2015-2017)

Some images were constructed on site, new subjects made from parts and pieces left behind by construction teams. Laughlin refers to these as  “interventions” and set up a makeshift studio on site in which he could photograph  found objects such as rubble.  He was interested in the processes of making the building itself and the materials for the building, ideas of construction  – destruction – reconstruction.

Following this project, and having been used to working with large format, Laughlin then found liberation in his rediscovery of the 35mm camera as it freed him to walk and photograph without the need for additional equipment.  Slow Time (2014-present) is an ongoing body of 35mm work he is creating on visits to the alps, exploring the notion of shaping and unshaping in mountainous landscape, a development on his earlier buildings projects.  He found he was re-learning how to photograph disparate subjects and maintain a consistency in a body of work, and presented in the talk an example of shapes echoed in three images; a tree, a horse, and a cloud. His interest is also in the natural cycles which connect everything together, using photography as a way of understanding processes of existence.  His images do not specify their locations, a decision justified by Laughlin: “A mountain doesn’t know that it’s in Italy or France, that’s just a line drawn on a map”.

Laughlin has self-funded exhibitions which he felt allowed him to exhibit on his own terms and work out his own thoughts.  His exhibition included artefacts which echoed the image content, e.g a split rock beside an image of different split rock, in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the processes at work, processes so key to his thinking.  The works in the exhibition were presented unframed and unglazed, so as not to disturb the visual relationship between the picture/viewer.

Laughlin maintains a sensitive approach to the things he chooses to photograph, and seems very aware of the impact of his own presence in the natural environment.  This has been especially important in his work with reed warbler nests and his current ongoing project A Certain Movement, funded by a successful application to the Jerwood Photoworks Award. The award not only provided financial input, but mentoring and a touring UK exhibition also, including London, Bradford, and Belfast.  The focus of the work is movement of animals within the environment, not looking at the animals themselves but at evidence of their movement and interactions with their surroundings, in spaces created by animals for themselves, their “niches” in the natural world.  “They shape it, and it shapes them.”  (Laughlin corrected himself here from using the term ‘landscape’.  He prefers to describe his work as taking place in the land, not the landscape,  landscape being of human construct).

Though Laughlin, does not wish to label this work as an environmental statement, my view is that this is very important environmental work, as he is highlighting the delicate living worlds of important and overlooked creatures whose habitats are constantly threatened and presenting them in such a way that we must think about our impact upon the natural world.

02 01 Gorse Spider-mites (Tetranychus lintearius) CAPTION WEB.jpg

Gorse spider-mites
from A Certain Movement
(2017- present)

Laughlin often prints his own work, and sometimes will hear comments about flatness or lack of contrast by viewers who do not know, understand or appreciate his rationale.  This aesthetic is Laughlin’s own way of working and makes complete sense in his work.  To defy convention and remain true to your ideas is always a bold thing to do.  He recounts how he visits own exhibitions during the show so he can look at people looking,  and his finding frustration with the visitor who seems to skim over images, missing the point altogether.  From my perspective as a volunteer gallery invigilator, there is a portion of the audience who attends an exhibition simply so that they may go away and say to others that they have attended an exhibition; I have seen them skim masterpieces.  No doubt this will always be so, and it is not for the artist to worry about.

All quotes and images: Laughlin, S. (2019) Guest Lecture, 10-4-19, part of the Informing Contexts module at Falmouth University, (Accessed 25 April 2019)