Rhondda Bosworth

C.M.—portrait/close-up

1977
gelatin silver print
170mm x 253mm

Provenance

Private collection, Taranaki.

Literature

Nina Seja, PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, Clusters, and Debates in New Zealand (Auckland: Rim Books, 2014), 200.; PhotoForum 42, June 1978, cover.; Rhondda Bosworth, 44 Photographs 1974-1999 (Wanganui: McNamara Gallery, 2002), 23.

Essay

Rhondda Bosworth has been making photographs since the 1970s, and has developed an extensive practice, which began in modernism but has evolved into a process of experimentation...

Read full text
Estimate $700 - $1,200
Achieved $1,201.25

Rhondda Bosworth

Self-Portrait 2

1985

gelatin silver print

dated 1985 and inscribed self-portrait 2 in ink verso

200mm x 250mm

Auction N˚5

Estimate $700 - $1,200

Achieved $1,441.50

Rhondda Bosworth interview

by Andrew Clark

Rhondda Bosworth has been making photographs since the 1970s, and has developed an extensive practice, which began in modernism but has evolved into a process of experimentation, deconstruction and montage. Her work deals with issues of gender, identity, and the body, through the creation of atmospheric images which obliquely hint at hidden, private narratives. Bosworth is particularly notable for her adoption of a post-modern approach to image-making, especially given the documentary and modernist mode favoured by many of her peers. The following interview was conducted with the artist in March 2017.

AC: You began your career at an interesting time for photography. What was the discourse around art photography when you were a student? As a young artist, who were you looking to for inspiration?

RB: I hadn’t thought about photography as a creative medium until after I graduated in painting from Ilam, in Christchurch. That year (1973), I got a good deal on a new Pentax. I struggled big-time, and didn’t have a clue as to how it all worked technically, but I began photographing, and it felt right. I processed my films in borrowed darkrooms—I couldn’t tell what negatives meant, or how to get the effects I wanted. But my initial deep ignorance proved a good thing in the long run, because ten years later, I really understood photography.

Once I saw photographs that were works of art (this had not been part of my education) I was challenged by them. I felt surprise, and slight consternation, when I saw Edward Weston’s photographs of peppers, because I didn’t know how to comprehend such images. There was no discourse on photography at Ilam when I was a student—zilch, nada. The key to my eventual passion for the medium was the feeling of power I had with a camera in my hands. Photography is very direct, and that is the way I like it.

Inspiration came (and comes) from the world within me; it is an emotional valve, as I am intense, and it is too much in real life. It also comes from my besotted response to the work of many of the great modernist photographers, and earlier, a photographic genius—Julia Margaret Cameron. I have been influenced by many photographers, but not in a literal way. I learnt that photographs that were ‘strong’ were about light itself, and having a particular and individual way of ‘seeing.’

AC: I’ve read that you first attended art school in Christchurch in the early ‘70s, and later studied at Elam in 1978-9. In 1974-5, you were also involved with PhotoForum, which brought New Zealand art photography into the mainstream. At the time, was there a noticeable difference in the status of photography between your two periods of study?

RB: My first period of study began in 1964, and later resumed 1969-72. Back then, the status of photography as a creative medium couldn’t have been lower. Its critics were somehow distracted by the camera itself, as if it was so easy to ‘take’ a photograph that it couldn’t be ‘art.’

Some years later at Elam, while faffing about with a later discredited colour process, I learnt the history of photography. It seemed immediate. I felt a strong, connected relationship with the medium.

AC: In the text you wrote for the book Photoforum at Forty, you discuss the difficulties you had with receiving technical instruction in photography when you were at art school. How does this early frustration relate to your later move towards experimentation and photographic manipulation?

RB: The emphasis at Elam was on the finished product—there was a lack of assistance or interest in the process. I knew that if I looked at great photographs from the canon, these magnificent photographers would teach me what I needed to know. Once I had figured it out technically, I no longer needed to adhere to strict principles, and post-modernism had given the green light to sacrilegious technical practices.

My own quirks as a photographer have often stemmed from not wanting to waste time or materials, and a decision to accept images that were less-than-perfect, and a far cry from modernism’s one perfect image, beautifully crafted according to an esoteric system.

AC: You’ve shown a strong preference for monochrome photography throughout your career. Clearly, in the early days, colour photography was less ubiquitous. When colour film, and the means to develop it, became more readily available, what were the reasons behind your decision to continue making black and white photographs?

RB: Black and white photography—old school film and chemical processing—has a pure, austere, take-no-prisoners beauty, a tonal simplicity. It is ironic that black and white photos are considered ‘real,’ when the ‘real’ world is in colour.

Colour processes are untested in terms of longevity—only time will tell, and the gelatin silver print has already been tried and tested. However, photography has undergone a radical, astounding technical change, and sumptuous colour is one of its qualities.

From the daguerreotype to the digital selfie—it’s all one thing. The most intriguing part is the photographic urge itself, regardless of specific technique or process. Times change, it’s as simple as that—we do digital now, we did hands-on mechanical back then. To use the digital version of black and white is an option—but an affectation.

AC: You mention digital photography—it’s become a cliché to talk about the ubiquity of digital cameras and the rise of smartphone culture, but as you say, photography is in a period of rapid change and expansion. As an artist, what effects do the technical differences between the digital and chemical processes have on your work?

RB: The writing was on the wall, so to speak, for analogue photography decades ago. We knew it would end but had no idea how—perhaps the world would run out of silver.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both analogue and digital methods. I was forced to go digital because the materials for DIY processing were being phased out. Also, after thirty-odd years I developed a phobia about being shut in, so it was no longer pleasant to be in the darkroom.

However, no matter how powerful and occasionally beautiful digital photography is, it has a very different vibe from the knock-out aesthetic of the ‘pure’ photograph. Julia Margaret Cameron’s images glow with an inner light. Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite are stunning, and his Moonrise at Hernandez is one of the great photographs.

Whatever capacities and qualities a medium has will generally be exploited by artists. Digital photography is not rule-bound. I find the technicalities difficult, but plod on regardless. Characteristics of the image are certainly framed, literally, by the format of the camera.

AC: Some of your photographs feel very tightly composed and controlled, while others are looser and more expressive. Can you talk a little about your darkroom process, and how you arrive at your final images?

RB: I no longer use a darkroom. A lot of it is hard labour. As in all creativity, whatever the medium, the aleatoric element—chance, accident—determines the outcome. I don’t ever have a ‘final’ image—there is no end, you can extrapolate on an image indefinitely, both in darkroom printing or by clicking on whatever you need in a digital camera.

AC: Looking at your work, the thing which stands out to me is your interest in time and language. You often make photographs of photographs, such as Mother goes upside-down (1984) or, as in the case of works like Rowley’s text (1992) and I beat you at 3a.m. (2006), photographs of writing. This is an interesting dynamic: the photograph not simply as a recording, but as a mediating force, in which the artist stands between the viewer and the archive. Can you talk about the decision-making behind these images?

RB: I follow the siren-call of my emotional self. I do have a personal credo that the photograph is close at hand, not over the rainbow.

I photograph photos because I have a lot of them—I have cannibalized them—they have devoured themselves. All photographs are imbued with the human ache, a need to stave off the chill of mortality.

As for texts (both my own and ’found’ texts), I am a loquacious person, and words are it. But, ultimately, images for me are even more compelling, because they express what words can’t say.

Whether these images are a ‘mediating force,’ I don’t know. I don’t analyse my own work intellectually. It’s a way of siphoning off energy and anxiety. I am preoccupied, in the process, with visual aspects like vantage-point and depth of field—that’s what I am thinking about when I am photographing… Every moment is ‘decisive.’ Light does it for me: times of day, the evocations of light. If I were a musician it would be rhythm and melody that preoccupied me.

AC: You’ve expressed your admiration in the past for pioneer post-modernists such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Kurt Schwitters. Are there any contemporary practitioners whose work you find interesting, or whom you see as carrying on in this tradition?

RB: I prefer artists to be dead before I admire their work. I learn about photography looking at paintings! It is so easy to be intimidated by other people’s work. Initially, I was not aware of any other photographic tradition except family photographs.

AC: It’s tempting to read your work as autobiographical or personal in nature, particularly because you have often used yourself as a model. However, your work seems to me to be as much about the atmosphere of introspection and recollection itself, as it is about any specific memory or event. Is it possible to read your work as being about the process of memory, as well as a reflection of your own personal story?

RB: My work is autobiographical and personal. I don’t subscribe to some male-notion of universality. I did not and do not photograph myself as a ‘model,’ but as subject matter. I don’t speculate about meaning—I live it. That is why a visual artist needs the viewer(s) to find the meaning, a meaning they feel in themselves.

Photography is uniquely about memory—that is its fundamental raison d’etre.