Q&A with documentary photographer Anna Fox


Anna Fox is a documentary photographer whose works span 20 years

Anna Fox is a documentary photographer whose works span 20 years. Fox is one of two Brits short-listed for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize, and her series 41 Hewitt Road is being exhibited in ‘London Calling’, at the James Hyman Gallery.Click here for details.

Anna Fox Q&A

DP: Your photographs are being exhibited in the ‘London Calling’ show at the James Hyman Gallery. What can we expect?

AF: I am exhibiting photographs from the series 41 Hewitt Road that is a house that I lived in in Finsbury Park with my family and numerous friends from 1994 to 1999. The photographs are vivid chaotic documents of an anarchic home.  People are absent, but the detritus and wild decoration that they leave behind is recorded as if by an anthropologist discovering an archaic dwelling.

DP: Tell us about your favourite work to date?

AF: I like each project for different reasons. Some projects were a real struggle so I tend to dislike them when I finish them, then slowly grow to like them over a period of years. Projects change over time too – that can increase my interest in them. I like the personal diaristic work and I like Zwarte Piet.

DP: You’re one of two Brits short-listed for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize. How did this come about?

AF: I have been nominated twice before and this time I got through after being nominated for the exhibition Cockroach Diary and other Stories, curated by Anne McNeill at Impressions Gallery. This exhibition was the first retrospective show of my work and also the largest show I have ever had. It was a wonderful opportunity to show people what I had been doing within one space and link several different bodies of work together. Before this show, and the production of the publication ‘Anna Fox Photographs 1983-2007 (ed Val Williams, pub: Photoworks 2007), my work was only known in parts and often people only knew one or two bodies of work as opposed to understanding the whole narrative.

DP: When do you find out whether you have won?

AF: 17th March – but being in it is the most important thing!

DP: What is the best thing about being a photographer?

AF: For the most part having a really interesting time getting into places you don’t normally have access to, seeing different parts of one’s own life and the lives of others. Being involved with a magical process (as in photography), always having projects to complete, and the ambition to create a better body of work – to make more interesting photographs, having a voice – this can never go away.

DP: How did you get started in photography?

AF: My father was a keen and very good amateur photographer, he bought me my first camera, a 35mm Nikon FM, and encouraged me to take photographs wherever we were, he bought books on all the great French photographers that he loved; Atget, Brassai and Cartier Bresson were the ones I looked at most.

Then after hating my job in an insurance company I went back to college as a mature student to study at Farnham (now University for the Creative Arts) and there tutors such as Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Karen Knorr and Anne Williams – all passionate about photography, were incredibly inspiring and encouraging. They showed us how to have a voice – and this is something I had been looking for for a long time.

DP: What advice can you give on how to progress within the industry?

AF: You have to keep pushing ideas in your photography – finding new ways of looking at the world and new ways of working and create networks for yourself all the time. It is a long process but this is probably a good thing. Keep in touch with what is going on and keep working on the ideas you think are important and interesting – photography is so versatile, it is a tough environment right now, but there are so many ways to use it.

Anna Fox offers us a low-down of her work:

1986 – I began my career as a documentary photographer chronicling new town life in Basingstoke 86/87 (locally known as ‘Doughnut City’) and going on in 1988 to publish the monograph. I studied photography at Farnham (now University for the Creative Arts) and was influenced by the groundbreaking work of our tutors Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Karen Knorr and more.

1992 – collaboration with the writer Val Williams, The Village, an experimental installation work, using sound and image, which exposed a deep-seated anxiety about country life. It was exhibited in Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Working in the village where my grandmother lived and mother grew up the project promoted a harshly critical vision of women’s lives in the rural South.

1994 – The series Friendly Fire observed the extraordinary pursuits of paintballers, young men (primarily), playing aggressive war games in the countryside. Acting the role of the pretend war journalist I documented these outlandish games, exploring my own fascination as well as that of my subjects. The work was shown in the exhibition Warworks, 11 women artists dealing with war and memory, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Netherlands 1994-1999 – Zwarte Piet is a series of portraits depicting the historical character Black Pete, traditionally the servant of Saint Nicholas arriving in every Dutch city in mid November. Posed as dignitaries in a painterly manner these blacked- up white women and children (predominantly) stare out at their viewers demanding to be acknowledged. Photographed deliberately to avoid the clichéd positions typically taken up by documentarists when dealing with such subject matter, they occupy a strange, uncomfortable space. Neither indictment nor celebration they simply are there, confrontational and ambiguous.

2000 – I completed two autobiographical works: Cockroach Diary and My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words. Designed as miniature, limited edition books these two projects observe minute details within two different households, (homes where I have lived), revealing the tragic yet comic nature of the dysfunctional relationships within. In one cockroaches are charted as they enter and exit a shared London house, arguments are recorded (in the diary), the insects act as metaphors for the crumbling social framework within the house. In the other a series of tightly ordered miniature cupboards inter space elegantly designed texts recording the strange ranting of what seems to be a mad man, an intense feeling of claustrophobia holds the work together as it teeters on the edge of chaos.

41 Hewitt Road, just published by the Photographers Gallery and Impressions, Bradford, observes the chaotic rooms of the home that produced Cockroach Diary. Brash colour, children’s scribbles, adult wall paintings and general mess adorn the walls and floors of this crumbling victorian house located in Finsbury Park. We lived in the house for 5 years and I documented it like an archaeologist who had just discovered a deserted ruin. The publication includes a series of emails sent by friends who had visited recording their memories of the place and a series of objects from the Hewitt Road Archive (stuff I packed into boxes when we moved and re discovered a few years later – a series of useless objects that could not be thrown away).

1996-2001 – Country Girls 1 – 6 is collaboration with the singer/songwriter Alison Goldfrapp. The series explores the experiences we shared as young girls growing up in the Hampshire countryside. Country Girls is both humorous and violent and taps into potent histories such as the story of Sweet Fanny Adams who also grew up in Hampshire and whose violent murder in a field has been forgotten despite the familiarity of her name (and the misuse of her name in popular language: ‘Sweet FA’).

Pictures of Linda is another collaborative work that spans over 25 years documenting the various eccentric and dramatic attires of punk musician Linda Lunus, one time lead singer of Fashionable Living Death. I started photographing Linda in the early 1980’s when working with writer Paul Barney for the short-lived music magazine Zig Zag. This work is directed by both photographer and model and, over the 25 year period that Linda and I have worked together the process has challenged many of my pre-conceived ideas around the power of the photographer, most recently in the short film, also titled Pictures of Linda, photographer and model change roles and a number of home truths are revealed.

Present – I have been developing two new bodies of work: Back to the Village which explores the masked and performed rituals going on within the small rural village where I currently live (the background research to this includes looking at literature and letters by Jane Austin and Gilbert White who both lived in the same area) and The Sunniest Place in Britain, a commission to document Butlins, Bognor Regis, in the year of its 75th anniversary.

The retrospective exhibition Cockroach Diary and Other Stories, curated by Impressions Gallery, has been nominated for the Deutsche Borse Prize. The publication Anna Fox Photographs 1983 – 2007, edited by Val Williams and published by Photoworks, gives a comprehensive overview of the history of my work.

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