A Clear Vi­sion

Paul black­more

ProPhoto - - PROFILE - In­ter­vIew by AlI­son stIeven-tAy­lor.

The decision to take on the chal­lenge of pho­tograph­ing the Siberian Arc­tic win­ter led Paul Black­more to a busy decade shoot­ing ed­i­to­rial as­sign­ments in Europe and paved the way to a num­ber of ma­jor per­sonal projects.

In 2001 I read an ar­ti­cle about the Siberian min­ing town of No­rilsk, the world’s north­ern­most city and the sec­ond largest inside the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Here peo­ple live and work in tem­per­a­tures that reg­u­larly plum­met to mi­nus 50 de­grees Cel­sius. The photographs that ac­com­pa­nied that story were mes­meris­ing. In black and white, they told of a world I couldn’t con­ceive. At the time I was work­ing in doc­u­men­tary film and sent the pho­tog­ra­pher, Paul Black­more – who was based in Paris then – an email ask­ing if I could use some of his images in a pitch I was work­ing on. I had the am­bi­tious idea to film a doc­u­men­tary in this re­mote out­post.

Fast-for­ward to De­cem­ber 2013 and again images of No­rilsk came across my desk, this time taken by Rus­sian pho­tog­ra­pher Elena Ch­erny­chova, who had spent the best part of a year liv­ing in the min­ing town that more than 170,000 call home. Elena’s images were vivid in their pop art colours that were almost surreal against the white of the snow and the blue ice back­drops.

See­ing th­ese images made me re­call my ear­lier project. I dug out the folder, found the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle that had sparked my in­ter­est and also the cor­re­spon­dence I’d had with Paul Black­more. I kept rat­tling his name around in my head. I was sure I’d come across other work of his. And, of course, I had. Ear­lier that year I had writ­ten about Black­more’s ex­hi­bi­tion New Beirut. Th­ese photographs – shot in bril­liant colour – were so dif­fer­ent to his work in No­rilsk that I hadn’t put the two to­gether. I made con­tact again and in Fe­bru­ary 2014 I fi­nally sat down with Black­more this time in his stu­dio in Syd­ney where he now lives, to talk about his work in­clud­ing his most re­cent book which is called At Wa­ter’s Edge.

Go­ing To Ex­tremes

But first I had to get No­rilsk out of my sys­tem. Sit­ting in his Surry Hills stu­dio on a typ­i­cally hu­mid Syd­ney day, Paul Black­more re­called the story of how he came to shoot this photo es­say, which be­came a cat­a­lyst for his ca­reer in Europe.

“I had just moved to Paris and was look­ing for ideas,” he ex­plains. “I’d read in the news­pa­per about this town [No­rilsk] and there was this great de­scrip­tion of a guy com­ing home after work­ing 12 hours, and he’s in the bus and it’s mi­nus 40 de­grees. It is a com­pletely bleak story and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do that’. So I teamed up with an Amer­i­can writer based in Moscow and we went up there for a few weeks.”

I ask how he man­aged to get ac­cess as this had been the ma­jor bar­rier to my pur­su­ing the doc­u­men­tary film con­cept. He agreed it was dif­fi­cult and en­try limited. His trip had been pos­si­ble sim­ply be­cause the jour­nal­ist he col­lab­o­rated with was al­ready work­ing in Rus­sia.

“Once we got there we were such a nov­elty,” he laughs, re­call­ing the faces of the lo­cals when he stepped off the plane with only a wool beanie on his head. He quickly learned why fur caps are es­sen­tial in that part of the world.

“The lo­cal news­pa­per did a story on us, and peo­ple were re­ally help­ful. We went into the lo­cal kinder­gartens and schools and churches and we got in­vited to th­ese amaz­ing Rus­sian wed­dings. Peo­ple were cu­ri­ous about us and happy to share their lives with us. It was an ideal sce­nario.”

Paul says his in­ten­tion with this project was to cap­ture “…the ex­treme na­ture of the place and how the Rus­sian econ­omy had failed the Rus­sian peo­ple again. It was 1999, the Rus­sian bank­ing sys­tem had col­lapsed, and the Oli­garchs were pil­lag­ing all

the state- owned com­pa­nies. No­rilsk had been in state hands, but was now pri­vately owned also”.

No­rilsk was cre­ated un­der Stalin’s rule, part of his edict “metal at all costs”. Around half a mil­lion po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were sent to No­rilsk to build the city in con­di­tions that are inconceivable for most and to­tally alien to us An­tipodeans.

Paul agrees, “It is so ex­treme. It’s mi­nus 40 de­grees and, in un­der a minute, your cam­era stops work­ing. I had three cam­eras with me. At times I couldn’t even push the but­ton through my ski gloves, and you think that peo­ple built roads and build­ings in th­ese con­di­tions for ten hours a day”.

He shakes his head in dis­be­lief and for a mo­ment we fall silent, think­ing about the thou­sands who died in that one labour camp alone.

Then he adds, “It is so cold that your eyes start freez­ing. We were there in Jan­uary and at mid­day it’s almost dark. It was the first story I’d done out­side of

I think with the gal­leries, fes­ti­vals, books, exhibitions and blogs, there are lots of ways to get your work out there if you’re com­mit­ted to telling a story.

Aus­tralia and I guess the ex­treme na­ture and cold made it such a for­eign story for me”.

His piece on No­rilsk caught the at­ten­tion of the French pub­li­ca­tions and it wasn’t long be­fore he joined Agence Rapho in Paris. In be­tween flit­ting across the north­ern hemi­sphere shoot­ing photo es­says for the likes of Time, L’Ex­press, Le Monde and Geo, Paul Black­more also spent time think­ing about the per­sonal projects he’d like to ex­plore.

Pre­cious Com­mod­ity

One thought that per­sisted was the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­man be­ings and wa­ter, the essence of all life on earth. He trav­elled to Rus­sia, the Mid­dle East, South Amer­ica and Ja­pan, and spent time on the sub- con­ti­nent and is­land na­tions as well as his home­land. He pho­tographed re­li­gious fes­ti­vals, ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, re­mote com­mu­ni­ties and leisure ac­tiv­i­ties, all the time ex­pand­ing the con­cept of our re­la­tion­ship with wa­ter, “while I was shoot­ing I was think­ing about how, in a

glob­alised world, wa­ter ties us to­gether. We are now so in­ter­con­nected and that’s one of the el­e­ments that I tried to bring into this project,” he ex­plains.

In Bangladesh, he wit­nessed first-hand the en­demic pol­lu­tion that is di­rectly linked to the West’s predilec­tion for out­sourc­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing in the name of cheap labour and high prof­its. As he saw the toll of th­ese prac­tices, both on the health of hu­man be­ings and the planet, his work be­gan to speak of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion also.

This body of work be­came At Wa­ter’s Edge which has toured the globe as an ex­hi­bi­tion and was pub­lished in 2012, the cul­mi­na­tion of years of work. Shot in black and white, the dra­matic con­trasts of dark and light un­du­late across the pa­per, rip­pling like wa­ter it­self, lap­ping at the edges of thought.

Paul Black­more’s photographs are both lyri­cal and doc­u­men­tary in their com­po­si­tion. He has shared what he has learned, not only what he has seen, in the thought­ful fram­ing of each scene. From the vast­ness of the Pa­cific Ocean to the toxic black wa­ters of the Buri­g­anga River in Bangladesh; from the voodoo pil­grim­age in Haiti, to the hol­i­day­mak­ers bob­bing in the Black Sea; from the wa­ter pipes that carry fresh wa­ter to Mumbai’s elite to the squalid lives of refugees in Ethiopia, At Wa­ter’s Edge re­minds us that, no mat­ter our race, gen­der or the size of our bank ac­count, we all rely on fresh wa­ter for our very sur­vival. It is a pre­cious com­mod­ity and yet the dev­as­ta­tion of our fresh wa­ter­ways and oceans con­tin­ues apace. While th­ese photographs are in part cel­e­bra­tory, they also serve as a warn­ing.

Mediter­ranean Light

When Paul was based in Paris, he took full ad­van­tage of be­ing able to eas­ily travel to other coun­tries within Europe and also the Mid­dle East; a point not lost on Aus­tralians who un­der­stand the tyranny of dis­tance.

One such trip was to Beirut, where he says he “…fell in love with the Le­banese peo­ple. The cen­tre of Beirut has been so beau­ti­fully re­built with such care and ded­i­ca­tion that it has re­ally in­spired the peo­ple. I think it is one of the great ci­ties on the planet. I went there to pho­to­graph the nightlife and street life. I spent a lot of time with Hezbol­lah and toured the south­ern sub­urbs, schools and mosques. It was such a rich story, all th­ese in­cred­i­ble con­trasts right next to each other”.

He con­tin­ues, “One day I was pho­tograph­ing in the Pales­tinian refugee camps and then, an hour later, I was at some funky beach club five kilo­me­tres away. It’s phe­nom­e­nal that th­ese two worlds co­ex­ist like that. For me, that con­trast was part of the story, with one im­age in­form­ing the other with this ten­sion be­tween the two. It was a con­scious decision to bring th­ese con­trasts to­gether. Le­banon is such a di­verse group­ing of peo­ple and cul­tures all liv­ing side by side… 15 years of civil war showed the dif­fi­cul­ties of this com­plex ar­range­ment so it was vi­tal for the story to re­flect that di­ver­sity”.

When Paul was there in the mid-2000s, only cer­tain parts of the city had been re­built. His photographs from this pe­riod re­flect the re­birth of the city as well as re­mem­ber­ing its scars, found in the bul­let holes and mor­tar wounds that mark build­ings and neigh­bour­hoods.

He showed his New Beirut se­ries in both Mel­bourne and Syd­ney where the Le­banese com­mu­ni­ties turned out in cel­e­bra­tion.

“They re­ally got be­hind it. So many who came to see it were say­ing, ‘I know that café. I know where this is. That’s my cousin’s shop’. But now many of the build­ings I pho­tographed no longer ex­ist.”

New Beirut was the first story Paul Black­more shot in colour.

“The Mediter­ranean light and the beau­ti­ful hues of the old build­ings lent them­selves to shoot­ing in colour… I em­braced it and loved it.”

Paul Black­more no longer shoots ed­i­to­rial as­sign­ments – it’s a mar­ket that is so much tougher now than when he first started. But he is still com­mit­ted to work­ing on per­sonal projects and has another book planned.

“I think with the gal­leries, fes­ti­vals, books, exhibitions and blogs, there are lots of ways to get your work out there if you’re com­mit­ted to telling a story,” he con­cludes.

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