Working predominantly with the medium of photography, Robin Friend explores the increasingly chaotic relationship we have towards the natural world, examining the beauty of both nature and decay. We caught up with the artist to discover more about his inspirations and practice ...
When did you first discover photography and how did you decide that it was what you wanted to pursue professionally?
On my fifth birthday I was given a red camera from my Grandma. It took an unusual film type and had a built-in flash. At that age the back garden was a favourite subject of mine and the camera gave me a license to get in to even more trouble than usual!
I took my camera on numerous family adventures growing up. I remember one particular time we were camping by the sea and I found a blowfish, which had washed up on the shore. I lay on my stomach so I was at the same level as the fish, and made the photograph. When I got the prints back this strange creature appeared alive, still breathing with its mouth wide open. Its fixed stare looked through me - as if it knew something I did not. At this point photography began to change from a part-time hobby into a full-time obsession.
How was your experience studying at the Royal College of Art and how has it influenced your practice?
The RCA gave me the freedom to hone and advance the ideas I’d developed whilst studying for my BA. It brought me to London where I was able to take advantage of the galleries, museums and exhibitions. The city was great for providing inspiration although I quickly realised it would not be good for making work in - for that I would need to get out of the concrete jungle! I made a lot of great friends whilst studying for my MA. Many of us still meet up to discuss ideas and current projects.
Did growing up in Australia influence your connection with the landscape and desire to explore this in your work?
As a child I was fascinated by the aboriginal 'Dreamtime' stories and how their teachings about the landscape created a framework with which to understand the world. The stories explained how the land came to be shaped and inhabited; where food and water could be found, and how to exist and behave. These were enlightening and at the same time mystical; they created a code and set of laws to live by. This different way of thinking and seeing somehow made sense to me.
The colours and textures I remember from my time in Australia have undoubtedly had an impact on the palette I employ in my work. The Australian landscape was both alive and dead: numb, muted shades would be punctured by vibrant and dramatic hues. I moved to England permanently at the age of fourteen and found myself drawn to sites that resembled or reminded me of the landscape I had left behind. Our physical and visual environment not only influences our imagination and perception but also shapes our identity and memory.
The fragile relationship between human beings and nature is a very poignant theme in your pieces, what continues to draw you to this subject?
I find this power struggle fascinating. It is all around us. A relationship in flux that is always ebbing and flowing and therefore impossible to predict - apart from the final outcome that is. For that there can only be one winner.
I’m making a lot of work in abandoned mines in Wales. I see these dark, dangerous places as arenas where humans and nature have done battle. Sometimes the men working in these mines had a good day and a lot of tin, slate, coal was excavated. On a bad day, a number of things could go wrong and a man might die. It would have been a constant fight for survival.
Do you use any unusual camera techniques or equipment in your creative process?
When making work down mines and in caves I use a technique that people have described as painting with light. These places are pitch-black so one has to manufacture the light to create a photograph. I set up the camera on a tripod and with the aperture open I use a hand held torch to scan the beam of light over the subject I am trying to render. The length of exposure can be anywhere from between 5 and 20 minutes.
Working in mines and caves also brings about a number of logistical challenges. Ropes, harnesses and even an inflatable boat are important pieces of kit when I am working underground.
‘Belly of the Whale’ is a stunningly eerie series of works, how did you go about sourcing locations for each shot?
The ‘Belly of the Whale’ is affected by the cumulative consciousness and experiences of the past. The shipwreck, the white horse and the light at the end of the tunnel are archetypal images and ideas. They resonate and reoccur throughout history in the arts, myth, and religion. With every manifestation their meaning has shifted and evolved. What we are left with are these symbolic images that are simple and instantly recognisable in design yet more convoluted in their nature and meaning than we are ever likely to understand. To recognise the deep changes in human experience and perception over time is to recognise the fragility and fleeting nature of our own existence and ‘modern civilisation’.
The ‘Belly of the Whale’ is about seeing and experiencing these feelings. Standing before the subject I know if I am witnessing the ‘Belly’. It is difficult to explain. A mood, a balance, a sensibility; it is nostalgia, nihilism, and melancholy all rolled into one. It is instinctive and primeval and relies on one’s capacity to imagine and comprehend. The images come about through chance encounters and intuition.
You recently completed the photography for the beautiful book Sanctuary: Britain’s artists and their studios, taking readers behind the scenes into the working spaces of 120 living British artists. How was your experience meeting the artists and how did you try to capture their personality within the shots?
Meeting all of the artists that took part in ‘Sanctuary’ and being allowed access to their studios is something I will never forget. It was an education and through the experience of making that book my own art practice and outlook has evolved. When making the photographs I thought it was important to let the studio and the work be the main subject and the artist almost secondary. Most artists shy away from the camera so I left it up to them to decide how much of themselves they wanted to reveal. You’re entering a very private space and I had to be respectful of that.
Meeting David Nash was one of the standout experiences. We visited and photographed his Ash Dome piece living sculpture that he has been tending for over 35 years. He has a beautiful chapel for a studio in a town called Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. It’s an area I know well as there are many mines there that I visit for my own work.
How do you like to relax outside of the studio?
My girlfriend and I have just got a puppy; not sure I’d say it has been the most relaxing undertaking, but she is certainly a lot of fun. Right now she needs a lot of attention but once she’s a bit older we’ll be able to take her on lots of long walks. Walking, swimming and cycling allow me to reflect on work and come up with new ideas. I play a lot of cricket in the summer, I also love to cook.
What exciting projects do you have on the horizon?
I’ve just completed shooting the American version of ‘Sanctuary’ which has kept me very busy for the last year. It was a real adventure; I visited some amazing American landscapes and met a lot of unique characters. The book will be published in October.
My dad and I are currently working on a book about the late artist Eric Ravilious. It involves uncovering new research about his life and returning to the sites he made his work. Whilst in Iceland we found the overgrown runway he took off from in September 1942 before being lost on his fateful reconnaissance mission.
I’m also planning a couple of new trips to North Wales. It’s all about getting underground as much as I can!
Do you think frame design plays an important role in the final presentation of photography?
It plays a very important role. There should be cohesion between the artwork and the frame. The colour, texture, material, and scale should all work in harmony with the print. A good frame will have a number of archival attributes that will preserve the longevity and life of the work.