Interviews with Nicola Dale & Steve Iles

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PR: How and why did you become an artist?

 ND: I became an artist because I wanted to develop my own language. Art affords both making and thinking which are of equal importance to me. I want to make work that looks like thinking. I have a consistent need to ask questions that don’t necessarily have answers and art offers a space to do this.

I relish how difficult art is – it’s so slippy and surprising; it’s the ultimate devil’s advocate, always presenting a different point of view. Art encourages argument, wrong answers and mistakes. It absolutely will not be pinned down. I find this comforting.

PR: Can say something about your work with Steve  – did it feel in any way more challenging than other collaborations?    How did you discuss and agree your work together?

ND: It took a while for myself and Steve to work out how we could work together on this project, even though we already knew each other. Steve had previously taken photos of my work, but that is, of course, not the same as collaborating in the traditional sense. We wanted to see how on earth we could possibly meet in the middle in some way.

Our initial discussions were fascinating (though somewhat scary for me) because Steve is very much about “making nothing”, whereas I am all about the making process. We were also both aware that in terms of hierarchies of art, a sculpture is traditionally seen as occupying a loftier position in the art world than a photograph. What would it therefore be saying to put a sculpture of some kind in a dedicated photography gallery?

I began by telling Steve one of the issues I have with photography. Whenever I see a photo of a sculpture, I am immediately frustrated by not being able to see the back of it. I want to be able to turn the photo over and see the rest of the piece! Steve says that he often cannot remember whether he has seen an artwork in real life, or just as a photo. My memory does not work in this way. I always know whether I have seen an artwork in real life. This gives you a sense of the difference between a photographer’s and a sculptor’s visual world, despite both operating under the banner of “art”. This is not something that had ever occurred to me before. It was a good starting point actually and we both buzzed off it, once we had got our heads around it.

So, the project started in a challenging manner because our eyes and our heads work in such different ways. I have collaborated with all sorts of creative people before, but this has been both the most difficult and the most rewarding because we managed to get over the question of how to submit to each other without unhappy compromise.

What we have ended up doing is using me as the sculpture. I have previously done some performance work, so this was not too much of a stretch and, given Steve’s existing interest in how artists present themselves to the world, it seemed a natural way forward. From our discussions of the lack of a “back” in the photograph, we moved towards trying to work out how to break that sense of the flat plane – how one might suggest 3-dimensional movement through flatness, i.e. breaking the frame, thinking sculpturally whilst using a photo. We will play with this also through the way in which the work is presented in the gallery…

PR: In presenting your own body as sculptural in this exhibition are you emphasising yourself as a physical being/ body that makes and creates – and does this in any way relate to your love of Spinoza, and your interest in knowledge?

 ND: I think the emphasis is on information rather than knowledge. (I find the difference between these endlessly fascinating and perplexing in equal measure.) I’m not sure the photos are about my physical body as the site of creation – I think they’re more about questioning physicality itself: are our frames of reference regarding physicality diminishing in a screen mediated world?

I do love Spinoza and he does have some relevance here (though he is not someone Steve and I have ever discussed). As far as I understand it, Spinoza’s emphasis was on everything being one “substance” – man, world, universe, are all interconnected. There is therefore no “outside” – everything is… well, everything! This suggests to me a kind of infinite touch, where the tiniest tap reaches the farthest shores. The world of information does not suggest this kind of physicality to me. It is flatter, it is a dull thud.

PR: What is the difference between your art being photographed (as in promotions or information for previous exhibitions) – and the idea of making something to be photographed with the photograph, rather than sculpture, being the exhibited piece?

ND: The difference comes from where you or I think the “art” exists I suppose. A photograph of my work is not my work, it is a record or a document of my work (in the same way that a musical score is not the music itself.) If I make the decision that a photograph is an artwork, then it’s contents are almost irrelevant, they could be sculptural or painted or performed, depending on the idea I am trying to convey. The art will exist as a photograph.

I happen to love making things, so I tend towards the “real”, the sculptural; however, I always try to stay true to an idea so if that means a sculpture only existing as a photograph, then so be it! I guess the question always has to be “What would I like the viewer to see?” In the case of the collaboration with Steve, I would like the viewer to see that Steve and I are playing with the “flatness of information” – photography seems a better starting point for this than sculpture.

PR: Each of the images seems distinct, to be saying something different.  They don’t suggest a connecting narrative. The head and shoulders picture where the frame is broken covering your right eye seems to be questioning the very framing of photographs and portraits.  Would it be fair to describe these images as philosophical or are they all studies of you?

 ND: It is interesting that you think of the photos as distinct pieces. For me, the connecting narrative is the idea of framing, or rather, breaking the frame (Pieces of You!)… I would say the images are philosophical. I don’t think they tell the viewer anything about me personally. They provide a certain amount of information about a woman in a certain place at a certain time, but I could be replaced with someone else and the images would still stand. This is how I feel information works – it flattens stuff out.

PR: You said that you could be replaced with someone else and the images would still stand – and that they are not about you.    Wouldn’t such replacement make them images staged in a different way and somehow affect their authenticity especially as they were formed through collaboration?

ND: The images would still stand in that the ideas they present would still stand. In a very literal sense the images are about “me” but the-life-and-times-of-Nicola-Dale are not the focus.

The images would of course look different with a different person, but the notions of breaking the frame; of 2 versus 3 dimensionality; of the difference between photography and sculpture; of the fact of the collaboration between Steve and myself (and the camera) would still resonate (by this I mean that this work, these ideas, came out of a specific collaboration, regardless of who is pictured in the photos – assuming of course that we did not allow this other person to bring their own ideas to the table and that they were just a model!)

Where does authenticity lie? Is it in the idea? In the action? In the process? In the “spirit of collaboration”? In the lens of the camera? In our eyeballs? In our minds? In a mixture of all of the above? I don’t feel philosophically qualified to answer the question, but my gut says the authenticity lies in the idea, the need to question. I say this because my work always begins when I ask “What if?…”

Poems for further reading linked to some of the ideas in Nicola Dale’s work:

The Curator by Miller Williams the Copperplate Cracks by Imtiaz Dharker Information by David Ignatow Visible World by Jorie Graham



PR: How and why did you become an artist?

 SI: I’m not sure if being an artist is something you choose to become or something you are.  At first it is a title conferred upon you when as a child you show an aptitude for drawing on creative activity and you subsequently begin to assume it as an identity. Sometimes I’m an artist and sometimes I’m a photographer. I’d say I’m an artist in the approach I take as a photographer but not necessarily that everything I produce is the work of an artist.

It may be common to photographers to equivocate with the term ‘artist’ given the rather complicated history between photography and art. I’m happy to be called either but what interests me most is that as we transition from the title photographer to that of artist we do not automatically confer the title art to all our images. We may call our photographs art but they are most resolutely still photographs with properties that resist consumption by ‘art’. The way photography can equivocate in this way, being art if we call it such whilst still having an independent authority all it’s own allows me to work with a camera to explore what art might be, pointing the camera at art in the hope that it may reveal itself.

PR: Can you say something about the camera you prefer to use and why?

SI: In these times the preference expressed most often concerns the choice of medium, either film or digital. I use both medium,preference often being dictated by technical suitability for a particular application, other times because it is the camera at hand.

I have owned and used many film cameras over time, each with their different qualities and quirks. Currently I prefer a 6×7 medium format camera when working with film, the more squared format of the image more easily references painting, maybe creating a more settled image whereas a more stretched 35mm image references cinema, television and suggests movement.

Working with digital more often these days, I am aware how some of the preferences I had working with a film camera bleed into the digital environment. I prefer a digital camera with a more squared crop for example and the lenses are the same for both medium and have as much to do with the resultant image as the camera does.

The question of style in relation to the camera and subsequent technical processes is always prominent. Style is something we develop through doing, it becomes a signature of ourselves as the artist but it is also tethered to the quite specific and narrow characteristics of the technology. Working with digital I’ve found the greater flexibility and less distinctive thumbprint [than that we find with individual film types] encourages me to search for a more neutral, less stylised space and to employ multiple styles in order to try and escape the notion of style. Working and collaborating with many different artists I try not to impose my style upon their work but rather try different approaches and cameras depending upon the context.

In a sense a preference for a particular camera is like a fetish, as objects they combine magical and tactile properties so well. Their complexity makes them different to a tool, [like a brush or a chisel.] Cameras bring with them their own character and characteristics, affording them their own voice and a quota of authorship, becoming a part of the collaboration.

PR: Also, how do you select, edit, process your images and then decide on a final sequence and order ?

It’s hard to define a specific process relating to selection. With each different collaboration the approach is likely to be different, either confirming or disrupting narrative, depending again on context. Though I do find it interesting that as much as we make selections, we still seem to have thousands of them, maybe when we press the delete button to deselect we are making a most definitive selection!

PR: What is the difference for you between photographing an artist/sculptor as a collaborative work and a photograph as portraiture?

 SI: In a sense photographing an artists work is always a collaboration, between both the individuals involved and between the object and the camera. Working within a premeditated collaboration allows an exploration of the intersection between the work being completed and it being photographed.

There is always a tension between what a photograph is and what we might want to say about or attribute to it, a tension between notions of intention and authorship.  When we describe a photograph of an artist or their work as a portrait we confer the authorship to the photographer, the artist submits themselves and their work and with it authorship of the image to the photographer. The artist is still the author of the work shown in the image but not of the image itself.

In submitting to be photographed, the work goes through a metaphysical process whereby it becomes something else. It is not necessarily a copy, as it is now represented in another medium. It’s dimensions and materiality have been altered. The image begins to take on multiple identities, the relationship between the original object and its image begin to blur.

PR: It seems important that these images not only question the framing and stillness of photographs but also capture internal spaces – can you comment on the space in which the images are set – and why this is important?

 SI: A camera gobbles up space with a voracious appetite, in a fraction of a second it can render an inordinate amount of information. When the camera photographs a space it photographs all the things in that space and a narrative begins to emerge where the image can be seen to be about that space, or the content of that image can be subjected to further narratives and concerns.

By working in a more neutral studio space, [which provides minimal visual information about itself] the notion of space as it exists within the camera  begins to become more prominent. It’s about trying to address the idea of a ubiquitous space as opposed to a specific one, to marvel at the cameras ability to dialogue with space rather that to simply copy it.

PR: Has this collaboration with Nicola been challenging in ways you did not expect – and, if so, how?

 SI: Through collaboration we can take this event, [photographing a piece of work] and begin to stretch it. We can explore the degree to which a physical work may be conceived as image as much as object and reflect upon the fact that works are seen, [and therefore known?] more by their image than by their physical presence. We can ask to what degree does the object serve the image when the more accepted scenario is one of the image serving the object.

PR: Is there anything else you think important to add? 

SI: The majority of my photography work is to some degree or other in collaboration with other artists where the challenge of representing art through photography is the central concern.  The ambiguities that exist between a work and a photograph of that work and the ensuing skewing of things like intention determine a constant adjustment of expectations.

Poems linked to ideas, energy and themes in Steve Iles’s work

Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits   Elizabeth Jennings

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Wallace Stevens


There are five pieces in the collaborative work by Stephen Iles (who has specialized in photography associated with artists and artistic space) and Nicola Dale who is a sculptor most interested in making three dimensional art. Have they managed to find a way of working that reflects very different aesthetics?

These pieces are both intriguing and challenging. The first shows an image of a metal looped sculpture hanging in a neutral warehouse space. The image is set on the right, framed by white card, in glass, with more white space to the left of the image. The sculpture is depicted hanging from a large chain and there is a sense from the shapes of a leather harness; something industrial. In the background there is either a photograph of the sculpture on display or it is a mirror reflecting the image. Some of the lines of the sculptural piece look transparent and it is difficult to understand how the artists have devised or constructed this piece. You cannot look at it without questioning what you are seeing.

The second image is smaller than the first and a close up of the curves and lines of the sculpture in space. It looks like a painting and the lines seem to float and change. I got as close as I could to this image convinced it was painted but unable to make it out.

In image 3 the sculpture is in the foreground with either a photograph of the piece on a wall behind it – or a reflection of it. The uncertainty of what one is seeing is a provocation and linked to the philosophical and artistic differences between photography and a sculptural 3D piece. There is a feeling of movement here, of curiosity and frustration. You want to be able to step into the picture, to touch the sculpture, to work out how this image was made.

Image 4 is a small white frame attached to the bottom left corner of a much larger frame (which holds the final piece); within the small frame is a close-up of the left corner of a white frame set in a black background with blackness within the section of frame. This again made me question whether it is a photograph – and its attachment to the much larger frame seemed to be suggesting different questions about framing, about how we make decisions about visual information, how artists present information, how we receive and accept images.

The final image is set into the largest frame and is split by the white card it is mounted in. It shows Nicola holding a white frame on her left shoulder. The works on display are different to the ones in the publication Pieces of You, which (like the final image in the Gallery) depict Nicola herself as the sculptural element in various engagements with large white frames in anonymous space.

As Nicola herself asks:

Where does authenticity lie? Is it in the idea? In the action? In the process? In the “spirit of collaboration”? In the lens of the camera? In our eyeballs? In our minds? In a mixture of all of the above?

As I looked at these collaborative pieces I wondered if it would have been helpful to have the sculpture displayed alongside the photographs. I felt I wanted to be able to see it in space and work out how the images were captured. The point of this collaboration is to contemplate questions of how photographs are composed, whether they are the products of art, what happens to a work of art when it is depicted in a photograph, what does the viewer understand when they wish to step into the piece or touch something within it? Stephen offers some ideas that are helpful here:

In submitting to be photographed, the work goes through a metaphysical process whereby it becomes something else. It is not necessarily a copy, as it is now represented in another medium. It’s dimensions and materiality have been altered. The image begins to take on multiple identities, the relationship between the original object and its image begin to blur.

This collaboration offers us photography that is tantalizing, enigmatic and philosophical. It leads us to ask questions about the spaces in which photographic subjects exist, the limitation of flat information, questions of mimesis and reproduction of images, the restrictions and directive nature of frames, the need to hold and touch sculptural objects.

It is a rewarding and fascinating collaboration.

Pauline Rowe

With thanks to the artists and The Open Eye Gallery who provided the opportunity for these interviews through their Pieces of You exhibition (2016) and the LiNK placement with the University of Liverpool.

Further information about the artists here: Nicola Dale  Steve Iles