The Grammar of Photography – a Conversation with Roseanne Lynch

Roseanne Lynch has worked with photography for more than thirty years – first as a photojournalist and a commercial photographer, and more recently as a photographic artist. Since completing her MA in 2010, Lynch has engaged in a systematic investigation of photography’s most basic elements: the nature of light, the materiality of the photographic print, the way that the camera mediates the photographer’s relationship with the world. Eugenie spoke with Roseanne via Zoom in early 2024.

Eugenie Shinkle: Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got started in photography?

Roseanne Lynch: I did a higher Diploma in Photography at Napier, in Edinburgh. The course was meant to make you a photographer; it wasn’t an art course. My technology was the Zone System – it’s a complicated but very satisfying, very gratifying process, and I still love it, I still use it. I’d previsualise the image and then, using mathematics, I’d expose for the shadow and process for the highlights, to meticulously get the image that I’d previsualised in my head.

I think maybe I should’ve gone to art college, instead of training to be a ‘proper’ photographer, but then I wouldn’t be the kind of photographer I am. My education made me into a particular type of competent maker and viewer, but then I had this whole other world going on in my head. Even at college I was trying to break the rules to do something more creative, but the validation for my approach wasn’t there, as it was a beautifully technical course rather than an expressive one.

I think maybe I should’ve gone to art college, instead of training to be a ‘proper’ photographer, but then I wouldn’t be the kind of photographer I am.

When I left college, I had no intention of working in photojournalism, but I went for an interview with Independent Newspapers in Dublin, and for starters they told me how much the salary was going to be, and then, on the second interview, they said they had a problem employing a woman. This was in the early 1980s, and both of those things compelled me to really want that job. So I brought my way of thinking to that job, and even when I was doing whatever news/editorial/fashion assignment, I was always looking at light, sometimes at the cost of actually paying attention to the story, and what the picture editor was interested in showing. I stayed in that job for four years, and I don’t think I would’ve stayed forever, but it was a great training in so many ways. I would find good lighting situations, and bring my subject to those situations. So really, I was a square peg in a round hole, making it work for myself.

ES: It’s interesting that your fascination with light developed through a kind of work that is so different to what you’re doing now. No picture editor wants someone making abstract photos, unless they commission them of course.

RL: I’m still proud of some of those images! And after that, I went back to live in Scotland, and I had a commercial studio. I moved around quite a bit. I also had a commercial studio in England for a few years. I remember I had a graded background, and I was doing an advertising photograph on a 5×4 camera, shooting a transparency of some black handles. I just loved those images – it was all black and white, even though it was shot in colour. Even though the commission was commercial, those images still live in my head as something completely non-commercial, but my life didn’t allow me to pursue that. I felt at the time that I was on a trajectory of commercial photography, making money and not having the space to try things that would maybe fail. I had a few of my own little projects going along to keep myself sane. I was married, and I had a child. I had to get to the age I am now to be able to go back and pay attention.

ES: So you had many years of professional practice behind you, and a high level of expertise, and then you went back to school. What was it like learning a new language, a new way of working?

RL: In 2010 I did my Masters’ at Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork, Ireland. I had tutors talking to me about things that I just hadn’t got a clue about! I didn’t have that language. I loved it, I was like a sponge. Document was made in 2010; that was my Masters’ work.

I had a studio visit with the photographer Fiona Crisp when she came as a visiting lecturer to Crawford. She talked to me about the indexical link that photography has that other mediums don’t have. This has stuck with me always. The thing had to exist in order to be photographed. We read a photographic surface and we are predisposed to believe that the thing existed in real life. When I make a luminogram or a photogram, however, there was nothing that looked like that in real life. For other mediums, this is completely acceptable and it’s always been that way, but with photography that is not the norm. Those things still excite me.

I was also introduced to the work of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology. It completely made sense to me. I didn’t know there was a whole body of thought around what I felt when my whole body encountered something. Like the work of Lee Ufan, which I saw in the Guggenheim in New York. I was so bodily moved by that work, ‘Marking Infinity’ – it was the only piece of work in the room; it was a very broad brushstroke going from pale to dark – what looked like one brushstroke. I was engaged by the simplicity of the work.

ES: At a certain point the Bauhaus, and the teaching of Johannes Itten, started to play a really important role in the way that you work. Can you talk about that?

Exposures 3-9 from ‘Sentence’, Sternview Gallery, Cork, Ireland, 2014

RL: In 2014 I had an exhibition at the Sternview Gallery in Cork. One of the pieces I think of as a ‘sentence’ on the wall. I can look back at that and say that I was intuitively making work that I later revisited when I did a residency at the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau starting in 2018, in the abstract work that I was making knowingly.

ES: So the Bauhaus residency, and Itten’s work in particular, along with Merleau-Ponty, provided you with a conceptual framework for understanding what you’d been doing all along?

There was something about the teachings of Bauhaus, or the founding thought behind the principles of their teaching, that made sense to me.

RL: Absolutely, yes. But it wasn’t given credence until I was given a copy of Rainer K. Wick’s Teaching at the Bauhaus, by the librarian at the Bauhaus Foundation. The book showed how Itten instructed students on the Vorkus, or Preliminary Course, to put aside everything they knew or did and learn the grammar of their materials. That really struck a chord with me, and that’s when I started to really scrutinise the medium itself. There was something about the teachings of Bauhaus, or the founding thought behind the principles of their teaching, that made sense to me.

ES: That residency also gave you the chance to experience a relationship with a very specific kind of modernist space.

RL: I was living in Leipzig in a studio, it was all one room. There’s an American photographer, Paula Chamlee, who taught a course that I attended in large format cameras a long time ago. She said that when using a large format camera ‘whatever picture is in your head, do it and get that out of the way, and then look through the camera, and see what the camera sees.’ The studio in Leipzig was a long white box with a big window at one end, and no window at the other end, and I did feel like I was living inside a camera, and the excitement of that versus the images that I had previsualised on the wall, didn’t line up for me.

ES: I can imagine that being inside a camera would have been a really validating and revelatory experience for you. That chance to interact with architecture in two ways – the interior architecture of the camera, and the exterior, camera-like architecture of a building.

spread from Grammar, 2023

RL: In my book, Grammar, there are two pictures of stairs – a double page spread of the interior with the stairs. They’re studies in tone, but we read them as what they are, as a 3d space. The tone defines the space, so we read them as this part is nearer, that part is further … we know what we’re looking at, so they move away from being studies in tone, and we recognise them as stairs. I like that double page spread, but it’s those two images that compelled my informed re-turn to abstraction. You can imagine doing a test strip for those images, and how much more interesting the test strip would be after reading Johannes Itten. I loved those images, I had seen them already in my head, and I was satisfied with their pure quality, but they didn’t scratch some itch that I was interested in.

ES: Like you, I’m very interested in challenging what the camera does, and of either subverting its process, or making its process very visible. So I find the idea of using the camera as a tool for abstraction very appealing, because of course that’s not what it’s designed to do. Your work Matter (2013) hints at this move towards abstraction, Can you talk a little bit about that?

RL: That was shot on holiday in Catalunya. The scene didn’t look like that. The first images were shot on 400 ISO pushed to 1600, with a red filter on the camera, in blinding sunshine, and the photograph that emerged looks nothing like the scene – that’s what I enjoy.

ES: When you saw that scene, did you previsualise it? Do you always previsualise?

‘Catalunya’, from the series Matter, 2013

RL: No. But I play. I don’t even always carry a camera, because – I’m sure you find this too – the way I interact with being alive is completely different when I have a camera with me. I’m like a seeker. I bring it when I have the time and energy to be that person. If I’m going for a walk with somebody else, I don’t bring a camera because, you know yourself, you’d be up a tree, or away off in the forest, and the person will be still talking to you, and you’re not there. It’s pure frustration for both.

ES: Yes, I understand that very well.

RL: I went to see an exhibition of Garry Winogrand’s work in Paris. He shot film without processing it for years, in his later life. The curators had taken it upon themselves to process all these rolls of film; they’d made contact prints, and some larger prints as well. I thought it was the most awful thing to do to somebody, because maybe he never intended for them to become prints. Looking through the lens was his way of being in the world. And a lot of the images weren’t great, and I felt it diluted his whole body of work. But it’s something that I’m so familiar with; making photographs is a way of me being in the world. This part of your brain that’s activated when you see light on an object… the thinking, and the pleasure, and the internalising, or if there’s no thought. It’s like you’re doodling.

ES: I really love the idea of photographing as a way of being in the world. When I’m making a photograph, that initial moment of exposing the film is an embodied act that’s very much shaped by whatever’s going on around me. Processing the film is another stage, and then the images themselves are raw material that leads to a different outcome, subject to different decisions. What I make, in the end, is never a direct transcription or representation of what I originally saw in the moment of taking the picture, but something entirely new. Is that the case for you as well?

RL: Absolutely. Very well said. And often you don’t know what you have.

ES: There are only five images in Matter, but it feels to me like you’re unpacking and exploring things that were going on in that original image in terms of the way light behaved when it struck this piece of material that was randomly lying in the landscape. The images become more and more abstract until you’ve finally just got this arrangement of glass, and it’s really hard to tell whether that is a glass construction, photographed very carefully, or whether it’s something flat like a photogram.

RL: These are conversations with myself about being in the real world, explaining the earlier images to myself. Two of the images in the series are of sheets of glass. There’s refraction – I’m so interested in that refracted line, the physics of the glass, and what happens to light passing through glass. I didn’t do science at school, but it naturally makes its way into my work. When I was on a residency in Brelingen in Germany, I worked with a physics teacher, who set up some physics experiments in his classroom, which I found very interesting. On another residency in Cassis, I had a great conversation with a research mathematician, which led me to name a body of work Eloquent Proof (2015). In research mathematics, an ‘elegant proof’ is when you take a long equation and beautifully condense it. Mine is a particular type of intelligence, and it’s fascinating to me to find ways to link to these worlds, so we make sense of things.

Making photographs is a way of me being in the world. This part of your brain that’s activated when you see light on an object… the thinking, and the pleasure, and the internalising.

ES: I’m often asked whether my degree in engineering wasn’t a total departure and a waste of time, and it absolutely wasn’t. It shapes the way I approach everything I do with photography – how I think and what I make. I’d like to end by talking about your book Grammar, which is where I first encountered your work. For you, what is that grammar, and what was the process of discovering it?

RL: Before I started working with Itten’s ideas, I was trying to do something linking photography and architecture, these two mediums which are so dependent on each other historically. I was exploring the medium and its importance, rather than the subject matter and the information that a photograph of an architectural space shows you. It’s funny when I look back at the work now, some of the photograms, I feel they’re so architectural. Like the image on the left below, which reads as architectural space, but it’s nothing to do with architecture, it’s a block of perspex. And the image that’s on the cover – when an architect has a blueprint, and they have to fold it down to an A4 size, there’s a particular way of folding that they use, and the image on the cover is that fold. For other works I’d shoot a whole roll of film, of the one scene, with the purpose of using that whole roll of film as a photogram. After I’d made it I’d cut the film up and I couldn’t make that unique photogram again. I began working in a more focused way with Bauhaus’ ideas; my basic materials were light, light sensitive material, and time, so that’s what I brought into the darkroom. Itten had suggested the square, the circle, the triangle and the straight line, so I brought them too. All the representational work was put aside.

ES: It sounds like this residency also involved a really intense exploration of the relationship between two and three dimensions – not just in terms of your presence in the actual space but in terms of what you were doing in the darkroom.

RL: Absolutely – and idea that what we produce, as photographers, is a 2D surface, but we generally don’t read it as a 2D surface, because we live in a 3D world, and we understand the codes. We read the tones, and these are the clues that our brain untangles and says ‘okay, this is closer, that’s further away.’ I’m just playing with those ideas. In many of the images, there’s a recognisable something in there, but it’s left as a question mark. I find that exciting. I was also using graphite on the paper – it’s semi-matte, warm toned paper, so it takes pencil well. Using graphite on it was a way for me to keep the work alive. I was living with this work, it was alive on my walls and inside my camera head, I had conversations with the work. But once you frame it, the work was saying ‘okay, now I’m framed, that’s me sorted, I’m an artwork.’ To me that’s like saying goodbye, and the conversation ends. The graphite was a way of keeping that conversation alive, because you see different things depending on where you stand. As you move across the space, the light reflected in the graphite will change, so there’s an animation. In the images in the book, the graphite doesn’t work like that so much, or even at all.

‘Untitled’, from Grammar, 2023 – graphite on silver gelatin print

ES: I’m obsessed with photocopies and tape at the moment, and low-quality prints that I make on my home laser printer. I got into them during the pandemic, because I didn’t have access to anything else, but I’m now at the point where I’m using them deliberately. They’re very liberating to work with.

RL: As makers we do the ‘important’ work and then on the side we have other interesting things going on. I love my test strips, and sometimes they give me so much more pleasure than the actual finished work. In my show at Photo Museum Ireland last year I included two test strips, that was a thrill for me. I have a box full of test strips and duff prints, which I call my ‘energy folder’. They’re images that weren’t as I intended at the time, and I go back to them, and they are like the material that I can draw on, or fold, and be less precious about. There’s this whole richness in my duff prints.

No Want of Evidence, Photo Museum Ireland, 2023. Photograph by Louis Haugh

All Rights Reserved: Text ©Roseanne Lynch and Eugenie Shinkle
Images ©Roseanne Lynch or as noted