Detail from Pussy 5 by Stephen Gill
Detail from Pussy 5 by Stephen Gill

If art imitates life, then what better art form than photography, which exactly replicates what we see?

Stephen Gill, photographer, conceptual artist and serial chronicler of Hackney, might not agree. Aware of the limitations of traditional documentary photography, Gill is interested in expressing concepts beyond the merely descriptive.

In two recently published photo books, he continues to broaden the frontiers of the medium. The first, Best Before End, is a collection of photos of East London made using energy drinks. Psychedelic images bearing little resemblance to what the eye sees is the result of Gill placing objects inside the camera before taking the photos, then immersing the negatives in the drinks.

A bare-footed guitar player on stage, traffic, undergrowth, hands and limbs suddenly gain an abstract, fantastical quality. Images shift position and are manipulated to reflect the giddy pace of urban life, just as energy drinks are a symptom of it, something one-time Jolt Cola junkie Will Self points out in the book’s foreword.

East London is more recognisable in the series that makes up Talking to Ants. Here the city and natural world entwine: a building site overlooks a calm stretch of water; a figure appears buried by undergrowth; and a bespectacled man with shoulder length hair sips from a bottle cap.

The ants of the title are a reference to Gill’s method of placing surrounding objects and creatures (including ants) behind the lens whilst taking photographs. A close-up of foliage includes the black outline of a broken ruler and a couple of wood lice, while a row of houses is strewn with pieces of soil.

Arranged randomly, the deliberate act of taking a photograph is suddenly subverted, with the end result not simply a representation of an environment, but also a product of it. This is image manipulation using an analogue lens that achieves more artistically than the digital enhancement of Photoshop.

Both books are published by Nobody. Talking to Ants, RRP:£35, ISBN: 978-0957536913. Best Before End, RRP: £44, ISBN: 9780957536951

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