Stephen Gill, Please Notify The Sun

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Nobody Books (here). Clothbound hardcover (216 mm x 270 mm), 168 pages, with 111 color plates. Includes a 132 x 210 mm yellow saddle stitched booklet with an essay by Karl Ove Knausgård. Designed by Greger Ulf Nilso. Printed in Denmark at Narayana Press. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The British photographer Stephen Gill has always been a curious tinkerer. A childhood spend collecting animal specimens and inspecting pond life under a microscope led perhaps inevitably to explorations in the darkroom under the tutelage of his father. Photography at that time (Gill was 11 in 1982, when he learned to print) was a material-based process involving chemistry, instruments, and some measure of aesthetic alchemy. These early science experiments remained important to Gill as he embarked on his fine art photo career, where his willful insistence on physical intervention makes him something of a relic in an increasingly screen-driven environment.

Testing one radical hypothesis after another, Gill’s path has been a whirlwind of photographic innovation. His basic mode is to invent a photographic problem for himself, tackle it through photos, make a book, then move on to another. After an early brush with straight photography investigating aspects of his Hackney Wick neighborhood, his focus since the mid-2000s has broadened to question the basic mechanisms of photographic recording. What happens if I shoot the same neighborhood with a cheap flea market camera bought locally (Hackney Wick, 2005; Archaeology In Reverse, 2007)? What if I buy flowers in Hackney Wick and lay them across the prints (Hackney Flowers, 2007)? How would my prints look if I store them in the ground for a few months (Buried, 2006)? What if I put insects and objects inside my camera before exposure (Outside In, 2010; Talking To Ants, 2014)? What if I shoot pictures through pond water (Coexistence, 2012)? What if I develop prints in energy drinks (Best Before End, 2014)? 

Most of the questions posed by Gill have no ready answer. The only way to find out is to proceed and see what happens. The Winogrand aphorism—“I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed”—comes to mind, not that Gill’s photos are anything like Winogrand’s. 

One important question nagged at him early: What if I form my own publishing company to print, market, and distribute my work? In 2005 Gill founded Nobody Books, the DIY imprint which has handled all of his work since then, publishing or co-publishing over twenty monographs. Until recently its titles reflected a variety of choices in style, size, and design. But after Gill’s move to rural Sweden in 2014, perhaps manifesting the settled pace of middle-age fatherhood, Nobody has settled into a consistent template. There have been three titles so far, Night Procession (2017), The Pillar (2019), and now Please Notify The Sun (2021). All are the same size (216 x 270 mm), with similar tricolor cloth binding, photopatterned endpapers, and a small inset booklet written by Karl Ove Knausgård who, aside from being an internationally prominent author, is Gill’s friendly backyard neighbor in Sweden.

In thinking about Please Notify The Sun (the title is adopted from a Brian Eno song) Knausgård’s essay is a good place to start. He opens with bemusement, “[Gill’s] idea was so simple it could hardly be called an idea at all: He was going to catch a fish and photograph it.” By the essay’s finish, Knausgård has been won over, or perhaps run over with astonishment is a better description. “Nothing could have prepared me for the pictures he sent me after the ten-week photographing process was over; the photographs that now make up this book. These images are like glimpses of an unknown world.” After spending some time with the book, my befuddled reaction is similar to Knausgård’s. I too feel run over with astonishment.

For Gill, Please Notify The Sun’s difficulties began even before he commenced photographing. In 2017 he felt the familiar tug of a new question. “I began to have an inkling that a single fish might contain a universe of infinite proportions and how amazing a journey within its body could be.” But first he had to catch a fish, a process that was stymied for months by procrastination, bad luck, and his natural aversion to killing. “I was lacking the courage, time, energy and mental strength to set out on this unknown voyage,” he writes on the Nobody site. 

Eventually his work flow was catalyzed by the pandemic—with its scrambled schedules and homebound focus— and by his two young daughters who accompanied him on fishing trips, and were very eager for their dad to just catch one already. With their help he eventually got a fish in April of 2020. Then the race was on to photograph its insides before decomposition rendered it unusable. He spent ten weeks shooting the fish every day with a specialized camera, microscope, and lighting. Finally he could scratch the itch: What does the inside of a fish look like? As with Gill’s previous inquiries what he found was not so simple. His results proved impressionistic and highly subjective. The photographs in Please Notify The Sun manage a rare feat of cognitive dissonance. They look exactly as one might expect, and yet they defy all expectations. 

The book’s pictures begin on the border of recognizability with an abstracted closeup of a fisheye. The reader must seize this glimpse, for this is is as close to reality as they will come for a while. The succeeding pictures rapidly degenerate into an eerie netherworld. Early images of fluids, shadows, and vessels might possibly be fish, if one were pushed to identify them. But they could just as easily reference hot springs, mid-century expressionism, or the surface of other planets. More weird structures appear with each page. There are moonrocks, scales, bubbles, and opaque liquids with oddly illuminated surface tension. These confusing visual textures are scrambled further by Gill’s macro lens, which squeezes their content into a narrow depth of field. Into these tiny world’s Gill has somehow added spectral lighting, creating an extraordinary chromatic array. In most photographs we see a few focused elements foregrounding great color washes, like something out of a Helen Frankenthaler painting. Knausgård’s text explains that all of the frames were recorded inside a fish, but based on the images alone that fact would be difficult to discern. They lean more toward wonderment than data.  

If the imagination runs wild, that is just fine with Gill. His photographs have always followed the Minor White mantra, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” In this series the what else dominates like never before. Whether the reader envisions gaseous planets, oil slicks, paint swatches, or aerial topography will depend on individual experience and imagination. In other words, where and how his work lands with the reader will be quite personal. This is perhaps its primary objective.

For a keen literary mind like Knausgård, the mental leaps burgeon: “I see places and rooms. I see caves and grottos, beaches and fells, rock formations and oil slicks. I see sandbags, clouds of blood, ice-locked mountains, stalactites and stalagmites, red suns, underground rivers. I see prehistoric birds, frozen pools, a speedboat crossing a lake, a sandstorm in a desert landscape, flames of fire in darkness, craters, strange and primitive flowers, claws, rough seas under a reddened sky, neon lights reflecting in puddles, canes of white-painted bamboo, a koala sleeping on a limb. I see a landscape of fells with pine trees, stone sculptures under a sunset sky, a back eddy of murky water, melted chocolate, the head of a staring cat, a hugely magnified thumb, bundles of fabric, rocks covered with lichen or algae, Arctic landscapes…” And so on. You get the idea. 

Like a decomposing fish, the narrative of the book is rather formless. The page spreads are sequenced in a seemingly random mix of single images and doubles. When images are paired it is usually because they share some continuity or commonality. A similar color or texture or morphology might appear in both images, but the similarities are purely visual, and their provenance remains open. As for the single images, they are all over the map. The book wanders, poking it nose into all sorts of situations, but never settling into stasis or resolution. It is a good metaphor for Gill’s working method.

With over a hundred photographs, no storyline, and a homogenized approach without real world comforts, Please Notify The Sun will feel overwhelming to some. There is no letup in the pace of photos, no place for the reader to take a breath. Instead they are plunged and held under, where they realize that a fish’s insides take some time to digest. Perhaps a sharper edit may have filleted this project into something more palatable. But in its concentrated profligacy is some real power. If the reader finds their interest flagging mid-way, that may be the book’s excuse to daydream. Its visual density can spur a sort of meditation where memories might be sparked, the sort of mental dance referenced by Knausgård. After letting the mind wander a while inside the fish, the final pictures offer a chance to come up for air. The last three show a watery surface, backlit by a beckoning light. The actual world beyond is not depicted, but the knowledge of its presence is reassuring.

As with all of Nobody’s books, the production is excellent, with tight binding, simple design, and clean reproductions. The whole package is enclosed in decidedly un-fishy endpapers. They show monochrome portraits of Gill’s daughters Ada and Ylva, who spurred the project along (the book is dedicated to them). The girls are wrapped up in sleeping bags with sweet grins. They look as if they’ve camped out for months and are now extremely pleased to have finally caught a fish.

Collector’s POV: Stephen Gill is represented by Christophe Guye Gallery in Zurich, Switzerland (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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