As part of our temporary weekly programme Under Construction, every Friday Bethlem Gallery present artists’ work through film & video screenings, conversations, resources and online projects.
This week we invited photographer Ronnie to talk to us about his recent photographs that explore his appreciation of natural forms and interest in what often feels like, oppressive architecture.
Thank you for sharing your photographs with us Ronnie. Bethlem Royal Hospital is quite a unique site, as you have said before, it’s a combination of natural beauty alongside what might look like “oppressive gloomy structures”. How do you use the hospital grounds?
I use them to get off the ward, to get some peace and quiet. It keeps me in touch with the real world. It’s a pretty sterile environment on the ward, the same thing happens every day. But when you get out, you are back in the real world, out amongst people and nature. I have been all around the grounds, through meadows, through the woodlands, I have jumped over a babbling brook, it’s a different world out there.
You have talked before about “…finding pockets of beauty in a restrictive way of life” – seeing them first-hand in the grounds is one thing, what does it mean to capture them through photography? For you and for others?
That is the whole reason I do photography, to capture those pockets of beauty. Some of these plants, you can walk past them and some of them you just don’t even see, you have to really look for them. That’s what I enjoy, the hunting and singling out of plants. It’s like a hidden beauty you have to look for. Sometimes you have to get on your hands and knees, you have to have your wits about you. You have to be looking up, down and sideways. You never know where the next photograph is coming from.
I do get something out of it personally. I am surrounded by these walls here, I am incarcerated, detained in this hospital. To be able to get out and see things that I don’t see on the ward, to be able to find these things; is really nice.
And I get a lot of pleasure out of other people’s opinions of my photographs. I have taken a lot of good photographs and I’ve taken a lot of rubbish ones as well. I am my own harshest critic! When other people view them, sometimes they get a little bit excited and they get pleasure from seeing them. When people on the ward see my photographs, what there is available around them, hopefully they will be able to get out one day and experience it for themselves.
Plants aren’t offensive. I’m not a gardener, I don’t particularly like gardening, but I love the look of flowers and the look of a nice garden. I think most people like flowers, they’re inoffensive. A lot of people here who have seen my photographs have commented that they’d never noticed that before, the detail.
The thing is, people look but they don’t see. They walk past things and don’t always take full notice of things around them. Some of these flowers, in the photographs, people are noticing new things in them, even a buttercup or a daisy, things people walk across on the grass. They don’t really see the beauty in them, nobody actually gets down to really notice them. Whereas I do, I get down on the ground with them and try to take photographs close up.
What about capturing the environment in which you live, the “oppressive gloom”, is it important to you to express these things with people outside the institution?
Yes, it is, I don’t think people realise how difficult it is to live in these environments, how gloomy it can be. As I said I am detained here and surrounded by fencing, walls and locked doors. Sometimes it’s very depressing, but once you get outside in the fresh air, it helps. Just outside here we have a small garden called the Healing Garden, it’s a bit overgrown but to be able to take a few photographs of plants in there is really magnificent, to be able to find things like that in this environment. I think it’s important for other people outside, to see that you can find some form of beauty and life within this restricted environment.
When looking through your work, we can start to see connections between the flowers and buildings and begin thinking of them both as types of structure, architectural and natural. The way you have shot some of the flowers close up, they could almost be gigantic buildings.
So much of this is open to interpretation and people interpret images differently; they see things that other people don’t see. I like detail, I am a stickler for detail. I like to zoom in and single plants out and show their detail up close. Comparing the flowers to my structures, I haven’t thought of it like that before. For me, it’s about contrast, the contrast between the confined side of my life, the area that I get depressed about sometimes and to being able to get outside, get some fresh air and notice a plant amongst the bushes and being able to single the plant out, get close and take a good photograph of it. That means a lot to me. And to be able to share that with people, that is just amazing.
With your photos of flowers and natural forms, you manage to draw our attention in such clear detail to the form. Background detail falls away, creating a kind of complimentary canvas. Is there a lot of work that goes into doing this?
Yeah, you need the right light, you need the right camera settings. I shoot my stuff in manual mode, I set the ISO, the shutter speeds, the aperture. I play about with the settings as I go along, sometimes I take several shots of one plant with different settings. A lot of it is down to experience, some of it is still a bit of a learning curve. But I like the effect of the background being blurred out and being able to focus on the main item in the picture. Sometimes it’s not easy to single plants out because they grow in bunches a lot of the time, so to single out one plant, sometimes it can be difficult.
Can you tell us a bit more about your photographs of the buildings? Some of them make you feel like you’re losing your sense of balance, looking up you start to feel a bit dizzy…
Yes, that’s how I feel when I look at them sometimes and that reminds me of where I am and the situation I‘m in. Some of those photographs are a little bit abstract, I play around with them a little bit. I’m not talking about photoshop but just switching them round a little bit, so there’s a wrong way round. One in particular, it just looks like the photograph is turned on its side, it looks like a precarious walk across some railings, where you have to step across the railings to get to the walkway but in facts it’s the photograph that is the wrong way up.
The photograph with the brooding sky means a lot to me, it represents the depression, the dark cloud that hangs over me and hangs over my surroundings. I think I was lucky to be out there at the right time to be able to catch that.
Going back to what you were saying about contrast, by contrasting the organic forms full of colour, warmth and life with the harsher, more imposing forms of the buildings, questions come up about the architecture we employ in housing and caring for people. Do you think alternatives are possible?
Yes, I do, the inside of the wards are a bit clinical and a bit sterile. Last year we made some wallpaper and installed it on the ward. It’s a combination of Courtney’s artwork and my photography and that breaks it up a little bit. But the rest of it is information on notice boards, white paint and grey floors and florescent lighting. It hasn’t got a homely feel to it. Some artwork on the walls would be good, all sorts of people’s artwork. It’s nice to see your stuff being appreciated and I think it changes an area. Where our wallpaper hangs, next to the sofas, you suddenly don’t feel like you’re in a hospital anymore, a little bit of humanity comes back.