Kirke Kook in conversation with Pradip Malde
We are excited to have Pradip Malde giving the 2017 SSHoP Annual Photographer’s Lecture in November this year. Kirke Kook caught up with him to talk about his early career and the themes his work has explored to date.
K.K. Your early life was spent in various countries: Tanzania, India, Spain and England. What was it that enticed you to come and study in Scotland?
P.M. Travel and, perhaps more important, the thrill of being on a journey, has always been present in my life. My parents gave this understanding of transience as a positive force to their children, at times out of choice and joy, at others through being victims of circumstance and loss. I came to study and live in Scotland quite by chance. I was on my way back to London from Norway to resolve my status as a citizen of the UK (I had a colonial passport and as such, did not effectively have rights of residency anywhere in the world), when my friend and fellow photographer, Kay Ritchie, urged me to visit her in Glasgow. While on this detour, I met some faculty members of a new MA program at the Glasgow School of Art, and within a period of about 48 hours, I found myself accepted and enrolled in the program. I did not, as a result, fulfill my dream of moving to Norway and becoming a gardener at an institute for alcoholics in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
K.K. After graduation (1981), you took a job in Orkney. How did this move influence your work/career?
P.M. Upon graduating from the GSA at the end of 1980, I had a choice – I was being encouraged to move to London, and take on offers of work in the advertising scene. It really did not appeal to me, nor was I wanting to become a career artist in a big city. Alternatively, I could remain in Scotland. I had been profoundly affected by a visit to Orkney earlier in 1980, and decided to move there in February 1981. I actually went there without a job, renting a recently converted stone byre in Finstown with my friend and textile designer Morag Tweedie.
The move had a big influence on my work. The vastness of the sky-landscape began to unfetter my academic, artistic training. The cultural and historical landscape of Orkney was equally thrilling. And everything and everybody was accessible: the coastlines, the collections and archives at Tankerness House Museum, the Orkney Library, fellow artists and writers, and soon-to-become dear friends, Tam McPhail and Gunnie Moberg, Erlend Brown, John and Fiona Cummings, George McKay Brown and so many others. I strongly feel that my education really began when I arrived in Orkney.
K.K. You have been experimenting (in collaboration with Dr. Mike Ware of Manchester University) and working with the platinum-palladium process since 1981. What drew you to this process?
P.M. The first platinum-palladium prints that I saw by Edward Weston just left me speechless. It was at an exhibition of American Modernist photography at the Barbican Gallery around 1977. I sensed from that first encounter with the process, that it had a capacity for rendering highly nuanced tones unlike a photographic printing method I had ever worked with before. It was not a matter of better or worse, but more a matter of the process just being so different from anything else I had ever seen.
I was interested in the expressive capacities of this process rather than the ‘alternativeness’ of photographic practice. Much of my work is concerned with how (big) metaphysical questions are resolved in nuanced ways by the day-to-day experience. Learning from the mundane means taking pleasure in nuance. Nuance seems to define the platinum-palladium print.
K.K. How does the process you use influence your work?
P.M. I love working with 8×10 and 11×14 formats, but also know full well the extent to which they determine what happens in front of the lens. Most of the portrait work I do relies heavily on the large format negative. On the other hand, I also love working with particular lenses (Leica Summilux) and full frame digital formats (Leica and Sony) because of their speed of use, their unobtrusiveness, and incredible sensitivity in low-light conditions. Much of the work I do in Haiti could only have come about because of these small cameras.
Thus, I try to make technical decisions about format, sensor (film or digital), color and printing method ahead of the work as much as possible. But there have been many times when the work, having been made, turns around and shows me other ways of finishing it.
K.K. One of your early portfolios, Prayer and Despair (1995) is represented in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. What I love about that series is that it presents scenes that are simultaneously familiar and alien. For example, photographs of the Taj Mahal in India or the Sumo Ring in Japan are obscured by a tree trunk in the centre foreground thus obscuring the cliched view/identity of sites well-known from 19th century tourist photographs. How conscious were you of the pictorial tropes of photographers such as Samuel Bourne and Baron von Stillfried (and Fred Bremner) while taking these photographs?
P.M. Thank you for recognizing the tension between familiar and strangeness. Anthropologists think about this a lot – the matter of how to make the strange familiar enough so that it can be understood, and how the familiar, then, can be more deeply understood in terms of the strange. This applies, of course, not just to people, places and things, but to events, emotions and experiences. Prayer and Despair tried to address a remapped version of this familiar-strange-familiar tension: darkness compels us to aspire for light and light blinds us back to darkness. So the photograph of the Sumo Ring in Suwa, Japan, almost negates itself. The Taj Mahal is more sky and light than it is marble. We could think of this approach as a trope, but it seems to be one that is at odds with those established by the 19th Century photographers, much of whose works I am very familiar with – and as you know, I have a special fondness for Frederick Bremner.
K.K. Much of your work is concerned with fragments of an identity of both inanimate and organic objects – focussing in, for example, on a body part, a detail, a trace or a footprint. Did this fascination for fragments grow out of your own fragmented/international upbringing?
P.M. It comes, more than anything else, from a childhood in which I was surrounded by rituals. I grew up in Tanzania. My father, being a photographer, frequently took me along to visit and photograph tribal events. My grandparents and parents celebrated the Jain and Hindu calendars with gusto, rich in color, chant, music and incense. I attended high and low Anglican and earthy Baptist church services regularly, and knew how to comport myself during the breaking of fast at Ramadan. All of these events relied on the careful placement of things, and on a considered handling of them. So, strangely, I think this influence is less one born of fragmentation than it is of a sense of coherence in everything. I really do believe in connections.
K.K. Your portfolios have focussed on vulnerable and stigmatised communities in Haiti and Jamaica. What made you choose these particular places? Have you ever considered to document towns or communities in the USA, especially in their current polarised state?
P.M. Both islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola, the Western half of which comprise Haiti, are very near where I currently live, in Tennessee, USA. One of the five poorest, most vulnerable, at-risk counties in the entire USA happens to be next to the county I live and teach in, a scant 6 miles away. People in all three locations – more specifically, the residents of Trenchtown in Kingston, Jamaica; farmers in almost nameless deep rural locations in Haiti; and families in rural Grundy County, TN – are without a doubt what Antonio Gramsci described as the subaltern. And the reasons they are in these highly vulnerable situations, with few economic opportunities, very low access to education, healthcare and shelter, high food insecurity, low levels of maternal and pediatric nutritional health, for instance, can be tracked back to government and corporate abuse, to politics, to hegemonies.
The subaltern, as Gramsci put it, can only effect change if they communicate in the same language as those in power. This one clear insight explains why education is the first institution to be reduced if people want to consolidate power in totalitarian terms. Over the last ten years or so, I have come to understand that one way of addressing the disparities of communication is through photographic literacy. I have discussed these approaches elsewhere, particularly as I have implemented them in Haiti and Grundy County.
All of these places are not only close to me, but have also been profoundly affected by US government policy (and the financial corporations that have turned the democratic republic into their shadow) for at least two centuries. Thus, they serve not only as places for me and my students to try to do something right, but more importantly, as places where we can learn how and why things go wrong. And most of all, we design, with our partners in these communities, ways of establishing sustained and sustainable expressions and archives of their lives and aspirations.
Pradip Malde is a widely published and exhibited photographic artist whose diverse practice and considerable expertise covers many genres and technical processes. His work is in the collections of numerous institutions worldwide and he is Professor of Art at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee www.pradipmalde.com
Kirke Kook is the Curator/Manager of the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Dunfermline, and a SSHoP committee member.