"One of the things I like about photography is that it gives me an excuse to go exploring – visually and mentally."
(Tim Durham, April 2005).
ARTIST INTERVIEW: Tim Durham in conversation with Nicola Murphy on Wednesday 20 April 2005.
In this age of computer graphics one could easily mistake Tim Durham’s pictures as computer generated and manipulated, and then be surprised to find they are photographs of a humble soap film. The effect is the same as you may see in diesel floating on wet streets, on the multi-coating of spectacle lenses, or on the protective layer of compact discs. Tim usually says, when asked, that these photographs are of bubbles, but strictly speaking, he says, this is untrue. They are rather of light interference on the minutely thin film that forms a bubble once blown.
Despite the peaceful, delicate and fragile appearance of a soap film, its lifetime is characterised by the most agitated commotion in the form of convective swirls driven by the relentless pull of gravity and molecular forces. Ultimately, this seals the fate of the film which vanishes in a violent explosion.
This exhibition will be supplemented with information on the science of soap films and bubbles by Dr. Stefan Hutzler, Physics Department, Trinity College, Dublin.
The most accurate biography of Tim Durham is perhaps to be found in the pictures he makes and those he chooses to show. Born in 1963, Tim makes his home in Killucan, Co. Westmeath. His roots are in nature, abstract and travel photography, and over time his direction has shifted towards exploring the themes of entropy and physical memories of motion. His other passion is conducting photography and visual awareness workshops.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, where you’re from?
My name is Tim Durham and I was born in London to German and English parents. For the past 10 years I’ve lived in Killucan, Co. Westmeath. In a serious way I got into photography whilst travelling in Africa. My motivation was to accurately record my three years bicycle journey to Cape Town. Whilst visiting the amazing spring flower displays in Namaqualand I met Canadian photographer, Keith Ledbury, who after three months of travelling together in Southern Africa offered me a role as a photographers assistant in Canada. A chance meeting that allowed me to change the course of my life. Then to Ireland where I work, where I make pictures and teach photography and visual design.
Q: How long have you been a photographer and why choose an arty profession over a more conventional career, like being an accountant, or working in an office for instance?
I’ve been a professional artist for the past 16 years. I’ve stayed in this field because it suits me well. The work gives me a great deal of pleasure and fulfilment, both the making of photographs and the sharing with others. The learning is endless. One of the things I like about photography is that it gives me an excuse to go exploring – visually and mentally.
Apart from a Kodak Instamatic that I borrowed from Dad to take along fishing with me in my early teens, my first camera was a Minolta SLR, which I purchased with my first pay packet as a guard on British Rail at the age of 19. Along with it I bought 3 rolls of film - a black and white, a colour negative and a slide. I tried the black and white first, liked the results. Then the colour negative, liked the results. Then the Kodachrome, and was bowled over. I’ve used slide film ever since. I enjoy that slides are positives, that they can be projected, which is almost an opposite of capturing the image. Slide film encourages a discipline in exposure that I enjoy. But I also know when I’m looking at this transparent image I know it was there with me on the day I made the shot.
I wouldn’t describe what I do with pictures as a passion. It’s more like a conviction – I need to do it. It’s a way of expressing my own personality, and its way of communicating something that I can’t say well or at all with words.
Q: Do you also have a conventional day job to supplement your income as an artist and if yes does this interfere with your creativity and focus?
No I don’t. I do though divide my photography into 2 areas. One is actually creating pictures and the other is teaching. Certainly the teaching was a supplement to the income of being a photographer but a couple of years back, I asked myself the question - If I had to give up either photography or teaching, which would I give up - and I couldn’t answer clearly. It was too difficult a choice.
I’m stimulated by the work that young people produce. Actually I’m continually surprised. Surprised by how much they see, and about how much I’ve missed. They have a fresh eye and they are receptive to ideas. They just need a forum in which to go out and make pictures.
Q: When you first started taking photographs, what was your subject matter then?
The very first pictures were of derelict buildings, canals, rivers, and railways – those sorts of subjects, and cycling - whatever my hobbies were of the time. There were very few pictures of people, and there still are few. The exception was a trip to Morocco in 2000 when I photographed almost nothing but people and how they lived their lives.
Q: The pictures I’ve seen by you so far (Soap Opera series) are really vibrant and beautifully colourful images of Soap films. Is this typical of your work or do you have many different styles of photography?
The Soap Opera images are my most vibrantly coloured work. My direction though is toward muted colours. The Soap Opera images are not typical, but the connection to my other work is that I’m really captivated by the design of pictures, about the juxtaposition of objects in space and about working with the building blocks of design; shape, line colour, etc, and it’s that that connects my pictures more than the subject.
I have a leaning towards photographing natural subjects, but even that I notice changing, becoming more about the place that nature and man meet. I very rarely do a large landscape, and apart from bubbles, I very rarely go into a macro world, so that leaves the middle ground. A favourite design style, well that would definitely be all over compositions, where no single part of a picture dominates. There are examples in the Soap Opera exhibition at Draíocht. They are of soap film that is on the verge of breaking, in the very last stages of its life.
Q: What other artists or people have influenced or inspired you?
Initially photographers such as Freeman Patterson, Ernst Haas and Elliot Porter. More recently the drawings of Jim Dine and the paintings of Gerhard Richter. Last year I saw some wonderful exhibitions that inspired me. The Juan Uslé, Sophia Calle and Louise Bourgeois at the Irish Museum of Modern Art as well as the work of Jane Proctor at the Royal Hibernian Academy.
But also my brothers and fellow artists Chris and Martin Durham have influenced me greatly, perhaps more honestly I’d say they give me a regular critical shove to look deeper, a shove that annoys and motivates me simultaneously. They both practice in Germany, Martin in Köln, and Chris in Düsseldorf. Why we are all in the arts I have no idea.
Q: How do you keep motivated if you’re having a bad day?
I don’t ever worry about ‘why am I doing this’. I’m clear on that. But I do worry financially, about making ends meet, and about surviving to continue the making of pictures.
But to your question. Photographically, for example, if I was out making pictures at some location and yet I wasn’t ‘seeing’ well, I may catch myself, in frustration, saying - This is a crap location, what possessed me to come here. As soon as I hear that, I know it’s nothing to do with the place, it’s all head stuff, attitude stuff, and so my way out of that state of mind is to give myself the task of simply photographing shapes. It’s a way I have of disassociating myself from the subject and only thinking about composition. This is my motivational tool. When I then hear the shutter clicking, I start to relax and then I see more clearly.
A friend of mine, Denis Dennehy, was on a round the world motorbike trip and he said he made his best pictures when he stopped for a cigarette. Because he would sit there on the side of the road, the travelling would wash off him, and in a quiet relaxed moment he would start to see. I knew exactly what he meant.
Q: How have you handled the business side of being an artist, promoting yourself and getting exposure, selling your work?
Probably not very well.
My photography doesn’t feel like a business. The reason isn’t to make a living. The pictures I make for myself. If I can then sell them, all well and good.
I do still want to sell the pictures. I’m not protective of them. I would love them to go! If people want to buy these pictures then I would welcome it. There are always new ones to make.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about your forthcoming exhibition in Draíocht ‘Soap Opera’? How did the exhibition come about, describe the work a little, how many pieces are there, are they mounted or framed?
This will be my first exhibition. It opens on the 26 th of May. I’ll be showing 27 works in Draíocht. The prints are Gicleé or Piezograph prints (an exhibition form of inkjet printing) on Hahnemühle Photorag. Two are mounted onto Dibond with no frame and the remainder are under glass in alder wood frames.
Dr. Stefan Hutzler from the Department of Physics in Trinity College Dublin will be opening Soap Opera and also providing the science information that accompanies the exhibition.
I started photographing soap films 10 years ago. I’d seen a short article and photographs about soap films in a Canadian magazine. I thought it was fantastic. I knew when I had a spare moment I’d sit down and try to work out how this was done. And I did! Christmas 10 years ago at a friend’s house in Donegal I started. And the results were fantastic and disastrous. I could see the potential in the photographs but technically there were all sorts of problems.
It took me 5 or 6 years to work out how to photograph these films. I dissolve sugar or glycerine into the soap detergent which makes the film more viscouse and stable, delaying the point of destruction. Sometimes I work in a cold room, sometimes in a warm room, and sometimes I’d even use boiling detergents. There are many variables that effect the convection and movement of the film. Even the different makes of dish detergent. I asked friends in California to send me their local detergent to try – I quite like ‘Joy’ (which I also use to wash my dishes!).
To make these Soap Opera pictures I work in a darkened room with no natural light. It’s only flashlight that exposes the film. The different colour effects are the result of the different thicknesses of the soap film. The soap film is a vertical sheet, hanging in a black steal frame. Gravity plays its part, pulling it down and creating a wedge shape. Thick at the base, narrowing toward the top. Each individual colour relates to a certain thickness of soap film or a multiple of that thickness.
At times, when I look through my camera, I observe that the surface of the soap film is static. Other times though, the shapes and colour would be rushing across the viewfinder. A great antidote to procrastination. This process forces you to make almost instant decisions on composition. And it’s just about pressing the button at the right time. There’s only ever one chance because these soap film patterns are unique.
What makes Soap Opera different to the other types of photography I do is that I’ve created the actual object. In the other areas of my photography, I’m recording subjects that I’ve had no hand in making.
Q: What advice would you give to an artist or photographer just starting out?
Artistically, JUST DO IT! Don’t worry about whether you are right or wrong. Just do whatever you have to do. Be curious. Expose yourself to other artists, not only ones in your own field. Actually broaden your curiosity beyond the arts. Try constantly to push your limits and not get stuck in a rut. Experiment!
Find a mentor that offers honest feedback. Not brutally honest though, you want to be motivated not damaged.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years time? Do you have plan? Do you think you’ll still be in Ireland?
I’ll probably be in Ireland and probably too in Killucan. I like it there. For years I moved around, always changing. Now my home is a steady thing. Last year was the first year that I didn’t leave the country to photograph – I just decided I wanted to be at home for a while. The urge to travel lessens. I want more to find myself in the place I live.
I hope the way I photograph changes, at least I hope I continue to improve. Maybe I won’t make photographs at all. I’d love to paint if I have the courage to start a new medium. I’ve no idea really! There’s no plan at all.
I enjoy pictures. They are important to me. And I can’t imagine not creating them.
Q: Finally, what other interests or hobbies do you have?
I have an interest in gardening, conversation, watching the world go by and a love for my partner Fiona.
Further information about the science of soap films can be found at:
Tim Durham’s exhibition Soap Opera Series opens in Draíocht’s First Floor Gallery on Wednesday 25 May 2005 and will continue until 2 July 2005.
For Further information please contact: Nicola Murphy, Marketing Press & PR Manager, Draíocht Tel: 8098021