Today on Childhood Unplugged I have the distinct privilege to be interviewing Deborah Parkin; an artist who’s work documenting her family life and environment has been exhibited and published worldwide and is held in many private collections from individual collectors to museums and galleries including the Fox Talbot Museum (UK), the Centre for Fine Art Photography (US) and the Charlet Gallery (Paris).
Welcome Deborah to Childhood Unplugged! Could you share briefly about yourself for our readers?
I’m a mother of two children ages 11 and 14 and have been married for 22 years to my best friend. We live out in rural Northumberland with our animals. I have been photographing for about 15 years; coinciding with the birth of my son, although my interest has been much longer. I work with a variety of photographic mediums, including large format cameras, historical processes and I have just started to use a digital camera too. Previous to my photographic work I was studying for a Ph.D and working in adult education but over the years photography became more and more dominant and I am now working in it full time.
You and your family live in North Pennines, a beautiful, rural area of the U.K. What made you want to leave the city and move to such a secluded area? How has this impacted your creativity with your photography?
It was a gradual process to move out here. Moving from London to a small market town to the North Pennines was over a period of nearly 20 years. Over the past couple of years I had been yearning for space. Where we were living had become very busy, particularly with traffic. The space for my children to play had become non-existent in our street as gradually more families had two or more cars; the pavements had now become car parks. You couldn’t even walk on them, let alone play. Even where blossom trees once stood they were now removed & cars were parked in their place. I found living there increasingly claustrophobic.
I also had a studio out here in the North Pennines and when I took up horse riding again and helping out with the stables, I found that I just fell in love with the place. People were shocked when we decided to move out here. Some reacted as if we were taking the kids to the moon, but it’s beautiful and yes it can seem a bit bleak at times but it’s poetic.
It’s difficult to say how it’s impacted on my creativity. Being out here has allowed me to feel inspired to photograph things other than my children. As a photographer I was constantly asked what I would photograph when they grew up and no longer wanted to be photographed and although I was never worried about this it was good when I came here as I felt inspired by my surroundings, particularly the horses. I also feel that I will start to work on photographing the landscape, something I never thought I would do.
Your galleries are shot with different forms of analog film in black & white. Such a timeless feel to them because of this. Do you always prefer analog over digital for your work?
Although the majority of my work has been analog, I have always been open minded about the medium I use. In fact my ‘Horse’ series was made using a 35mm digital camera – with a 35mm lens and I loved it. I try to use a medium that is suited to what I am photographing and what I wish or hope to achieve. My series ‘September is the Cruellest Month’ and ‘Diary of Growing Up’ were both shot on a 4×5 large format camera using instant film. The reason for this was because I wanted to create quite nostalgic portraits with a sense of stillness and calm. Polaroid film was used as a way of engaging the children; they would peel apart the film. However, I couldn’t use the 4×5 camera to get the portraits of the horses, it would have been impractical if not impossible to achieve the same intimacy that the 35mm gave me, and of course wet plate was just because I love the process and the outcome.
Each and every one of your galleries are stunning, but I have been drawn to “September Is The Cruelest Month.” Such a concept that I think so many parents can relate to. Do you have a gallery that you hold the fondest?
I think it is ‘Diary of Growing Up’ with ‘September is the Cruellest Month’ alongside (they sort of merge into one another as a project). With ‘Diary’ it is just a series of images that are of the most ordinary, everyday activities, such as being in a paddling pool, riding a bike or making a leaf mask, but hopefully they are also quite beautiful and engaging. These are my most personal portraits and ones that have the most meaning for me.
What type of unplugged activities do you and your family enjoy doing together? What does a typical weekend look like for your family?
We love to go walking over the fells and sometimes I will go riding out with my daughter. A typical weekend though is dominated by my son’s rowing or my daughter’s horse riding with my husband and I watching them. However, we love it! We are outdoors whatever the weather and away from gadgets and screens.
You have started a gallery and soon to be publication on horses. It must have been exciting to focus on something completely different. Tell us a bit about that.
My new work is inspired by our new life out here on the North Pennines. This time it will be more than just portraits of my children but also the landscape that we are living in – essentially our lives together as always but with the camera expanding the view. I have never made images of the landscape, so I am finding it a bit challenging to be honest. I seem to have to get to know and love what I am photographing, whether it is the children or the horses – even with the horses I worked with them for a year before I felt I could photograph them with any kind of intimacy and I think the same will have to occur with my home series.
The ‘Horse’ series will be published by my publisher Galerie Vevais (they have published all my books). I’m not sure on the release date but we have already made a start. It is a long process of course with lots of editing, writing and re-writing and untold amounts of printing to get it perfect, but it’s very exciting to be published again.
What is your favorite image and why?
This is almost impossible to answer. I have many favorites and for different reasons. I have favorites that are just of my son or just of my daughter but I think at a push I will choose ‘Siblings’ a wet plate collodion portrait that was incredibly difficult from a technical point of view. It was a portrait that was taken indoors and the exposure time was just over a minute long. Trying to get a child to keep still for that period of time is hard. I mean absolutely still, slightest movement and you will get a huge blur and for such young children, this was amazing. It is also a favorite for another reason, as brother and sister they are close but at this age they were incredibly close to each other, always looking out for each other, never arguing, however, now my son is nearly 15 and my daughter is 11 I’m afraid it’s changed slightly although they get on well they are a lot more independent and I know that I will never ever get another photograph like this – so I cherish it.
“Stillness In Time” were all shot with the Wet Plate Collodion process. How did you learn to shoot with the wet plate? Are you self taught? I have never seen one in person or in use but it looks like such an amazing experience.
I had wanted to learn wet plate collodion for many years after seeing a Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery around 2001 but there was no one in the UK that was teaching it and the chemistry was incredibly difficult to get. However, in 2010 for my 40th birthday I got in touch with Carl Radford who was giving a workshop. There still weren’t many people doing it at this stage and the chemistry was still hard to get, most of it coming from the U.S, but I was so lucky as Carl didn’t live far from me and proved to be an excellent teacher and a very patient one. So I did a workshop with Carl and then went home and practiced over and over again for several months, making loads of mistakes and usually photographing flowers before I went on to photograph the children.
Have you had a mentor or other photographers that you truly admire?
Carl was a great mentor to me when learning the wet plate for which I couldn’t have done if he hadn’t been so patient. Also, my editor Professor John Wood. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without his advice and friendship, especially as my work was getting more recognition he helped and guided me any time I asked and is just a wonderful friend. I owe him a great debt of gratitude.
I admire many photographers – Emmet Gowin, Ragnar Axellson, Dave Heath, Robin Cracknell, Ingar Krauss, William Ropp, Julia Margaret Cameron, Jock Sturges, Sally Mann, the list is endless. I have hundreds of photo books from all genres.
What do you enjoy doing when “unplugged”? What fills your cup?
I love to go walking, running or horse riding or just sit and read a book.
To learn more about Deborah Parkin and her work you can visit her website at Deborah Parkin.