Occasionally, photography has a way of reaching into our collective psyche and ringing a bell, creating a sound both nostalgic and numinous. We often attempt to plaster meaning onto this work and are moved to ruminate internally. Sometimes the creator has an articulated appreciation themselves for the qualities churning the waters of creativity. More powerful still, is when the artist draws energy from our collective tales and nods to this while offering work which reaches back to our pre-civilizational tethers. She is the kind of photographer making imagery which maps onto our very DNA; weaving into our childhood wonder, and awakening it. Rachael Talibart fits this profile, doing so with a most romantic vision.
JR: Clearly, something more expansive than the immediate subject or objects which you shoot is at play in your work. You’ve written about myth, and your process seems to blend the elemental with some human narrative. I see a real exploration and even containment of primordial force in your photographs. This approach is unlike many photos containing similar subject matter. Yours have these energy’s and themes, not by accident or simply as a prop. They come alive in very storied ways in your images. Here is where some personal aspect also seems to arrive. I am impressed with how these forces are etching their way into our eyes, inviting us into yours.
What is underneath the desire to explore the elemental and mythic for you personally? Where does this begin?
RT: The sea has always been a part of my life. I grew up on the south coast of England. My dad was a keen yachtsman and every weekend and school holiday was spent at sea. I was a terrible sailor, and suffer from seasickness to this day, so I would have to spend long sea crossings on deck. To pass the time, I would imagine mountainous landscapes or creatures in the roiling waves. I think that was the beginning of my interest in phenomena. I like things that look like other things, visual metaphors in a way, and I enjoy trying to make photographs to illustrate this interest. So, with Sirens, for example, I used a shutter speed of 1/1000 to freeze the moving waves, making them seem sculptural.
The sea is a powerful motivator and a great comfort. I had a happy childhood but any small moments of teenage angst were almost always lifted if I walked down to the beach and watched the waves for a while. Our lives these days are so complicated; it’s all too easy to become bogged down. The sea is an antidote. Elemental, indifferent and mysterious, it makes me feel small and it makes my petty issues seems insignificant. A visit to the sea resets my internal compass.
People created myths to try to make sense of their world. It is no surprise, then, that there are so many myths about the great, unknowable ocean. Myths tap into our sense of wonder and curiosity. They are the imaginative narratives of entire cultures. How could they fail to inspire?
JR: You use colour in sparing and shocking ways. Shocking in that colour seems extra vibrate in contrast to your desaturated and (subtly) shadow laced work. How do you see colour as a character and what are it’s (various) purposes for you?
RT: I enjoy colour but I think it has to be contained. A lot of contemporary landscape photography is so saturated that the colours become the subject of the picture. They almost literally blind the viewer to any atmosphere or emotion that might lie within. I find these pictures lack endurance – after the initial impact, they become very forgettable. I prefer to make colour serve the mood of the photograph. If I seek to communicate tranquillity, for example, harmonious pastels may be ideal. For something more dramatic, I’m more likely to desaturate or choose black and white. Sometimes, as in my later Sirens where flashes of green appear, I will use colour to surprise the viewer and create a visual hook to draw then into the picture. These decisions are almost always made while I am on location. I never use automatic white balance and I carefully pick a picture style to suit my intention. I record RAW files, of course, but I make sure the JPEG I review on the back of the camera is as relevant to my aim as possible. I find it rarely works if I postpone those decisions to post-production.
JR: Your work contains gestures of the human influence, a lighthouse, or ship consumed in ocean spray and darkened waves for example. These human elements feel far away or surrounded by overwhelming quiet or noise. Do you envision a story within your shots beyond the meta-mythic or allegorical? Is there a place for people within the archetypal, natural and elemental?
RT: Although I will sometimes include human structures, I rarely, if ever, include the human figure. I am more interested in the presence of traces of humanity within the overwhelming scale of nature. Sometimes, there is even a hint of the post-apocalyptic. A tiny lighthouse almost consumed by the elements is, perhaps, my attempt to express a paradox in our relationship with the natural world. Our existence within the elements is often uneasy. We aim to harness nature and make it our servant but it can just as easily crush us. Confronting a raging storm can be frightening, yet I also feel peace in those moments. It’s a paradox that lies at the heart of the tradition of the Sublime in art and I am tapping into that aesthetic a lot of the time.
JR: You move from the micro to macro in an elegant way. The details of imprint on sand or etchings on rock, for example, resemble the movement of overwhelming waves or clouds. I would say action, in even the most peace-filled of your shots is a prime actor. Are you looking for vast spaces or close up ones when you head out to shoot, or both?
RT: I think I am becoming more of a planned photographer rather than a reactive one. I usually have a project in mind when I go out to make photographs. I find it helps to commit to a particular type of work for an outing – it’s hard to keep switching from close-ups to big vistas. Having said that, it’s also good to keep an open mind. On a recent trip to Portugal, an equipment failure in the first half hour necessitated a quick and complete change of plan and I ended up with a new portfolio that probably would not have happened if chance hadn’t intervened.
JR: How do your degrees and interest in literature inform your photography today?
RT: Literature and photography are both arts and cross-pollination of ideas are inevitable. Studying Homer obviously influenced the concept for Sirens but I draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere I can, often subconsciously. I have also studied pictorial art and people have noticed influences such as William Turner in some of my work. Studying paintings can be very useful for photographers but there’s probably no limit to the things that may inspire if we open our minds. Even the music I hear while driving to a location may play its part. My head’s always buzzing with ideas (sometimes it’s hard to sleep)! Most of them will not result in a published photo but they may be a step on a longer journey towards something new.
JR: I see the influence of Japanese print and painting in the austerity and energy of your work.
RT: Definitely. In fact, last year I enjoyed a trip to Japan (without camera) and just soaked up all the art. I admire the simplicity and austerity of some Japanese art. I am also interested in the theories behind it and have since written an article (published in Outdoor Photography Magazine) about wabi sabi. I also gave a presentation at The Photography Show in 2017 about Hokusai’s famous Great Wave print.
JR: How do you approach exposure and deal with movement and light when photographing water?
RT: With a moving subject like the sea, aperture and ISO tend to be the servants of shutter speed. This is perhaps different from most landscape photography. For my Sirens, I needed 1/1000 and a target aperture of f/11 or narrower so I had to lift the ISO. For more painterly slow-shutter work, ND filters are usually needed. Light is the crucial element, of course. Unless there’s light in the water, the picture’s likely to struggle. Occasionally, bright reflective highlights will blow out. That may kill the photo, but a few small areas may not matter. I think we have become a little too fixated on technical perfection these days. A rawer image may sometimes have more resonance. It expresses more humanity.
JR: What role does gear play for you, and currently what are you working with?
RT: I’m not especially interested in gear but, as a professional photographer, I need to have the right tool for the job. My main camera is a Canon 5DSR. In fact, I have two of them. I use Canon simply because I always have. I run workshops so I’m used to handling all brands but when I’m making my own images I prefer to use a camera that is so familiar it feels like an extension of my hands. The large megapixel count of the 5DSR allows me to capture fine detail and to make very big prints. I also use a Fuji X-T2, although mainly for video work. For long exposure work, I use ND and graduated filters made by LEE Filters. LEE Filters now support my photography but I was already using their filters before that happened.
JR: Our readers are very interested in printing technique and approach. Can you tell us a little about your preferences and also a bit about your choice of working on Hahnemühle and Fotospeed or others?
RT: Printing is important to me. Until late 2016, I was outsourcing all of this part of my workflow but I can hardly imagine working like that now. Fine art limited edition prints are the main part of my business so, naturally, I want to take control of that. If I need to make a very large print, I still have to outsource it but I do so much more effectively because I normally print myself. Quite apart from the control this affords me, I actually enjoy the process, from choosing the right paper to watching it come out of the machine. My work is fully digital now and I love it but it has perhaps been at the expense of that feeling of craft that comes from a more tactile process. Printing brings some of that back. I’ve just finished running two printing workshops. Watching my clients’ photographs printing onto fine art paper, and their expressions of delight, was wonderful.
I use a range of papers but my current favourites are Fotospeed Natural Soft Texture Bright White and Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl. I prefer matte paper for black and white and the Fotospeed paper captures a wide range of tones with a gentle, natural texture and a pure white base. I am a Fotospeed Ambassador but, again, I was using their paper long before that happened. For detailed work in colour, I like the Hahnemühle paper. It captures details with clarity and it also handles gradients of tone seamlessly.
JR: What locations, scenes or elements currently fascinate you?
RT: I’ve just returned from a trip to the East Sussex coast. This is one of my favourite local areas. I think there is value in finding places that you can get to easily and then visiting them repeatedly. Not only will you learn the vagaries of the place, which will help you make the most of all conditions, you will also be more willing to risk spending time on experiments. Fleeting visits tend to result in standard compositions.
Nonetheless, I also value travel, as new experiences usually provide a well of inspiration for later use. Even so, I tend to visit places several times. Next month, I will spend a week in the Outer Hebrides for the fourth year in a row and I will return to Oregon in the Autumn for my third consecutive year.
As for the elements, the sea remains my main subject. I am obsessed! I can’t imagine that will change any time soon.
JR: Many of our contributors and readers are involved in landscape photography, we’ve discussed how the mythic embeds in your work, how would you currently discuss landscape photography? What is a landscape?
RT: Landscape photography is a broad church these days. Even so, I only fit into that category uneasily. A lot of landscape photography, what we might call ‘traditional’ for want of a better term, is location driven. The photographs represent a recognisable place, and their titles will often be the name of that place. Making fresh images in this style is becoming difficult, necessitating extraordinary light conditions or, even harder, finding an unexplored location, and there aren’t many of those left! I tend to exclude landmarks in my photographs and I rarely name them after place. They are not about place at all really. Often, there’s no land in my ‘landscapes’. I suppose they are more accurately described as ‘seascapes’ but it still doesn’t really get us there. That’s why I end up using the term ‘fine art’ to describe my work, although it is not a term I particularly like, as it tends to suggest a hierarchy. I don’t see what I do as inherently better than ‘traditional’ landscape work, just different.
JR: Parting words of encouragement or insight?
RT: If I could give just one piece of advice to photographers it would be to experiment, try crazy things with your camera, break the rules and take risks. We have to allow ourselves the luxury of making bad photos in order to get to the good stuff and we have to be braver about pushing the boundaries of landscape photography. I primarily share my work on Instagram. It’s a good platform but there are so many photographs on there that look like each other. This homogenisation is a shame, but it is understandable. If I put up an experimental picture, engagement falls and there will always be a few followers who feel it’s their duty to tell me that I am best at stormy seascapes! I am going to try to ignore that this year because if we only ever play it safe, we will never evolve.