Kingsley Ifill

The photographer’s images document the fundamentals of the technique, light and subject, merging processes from photography, painting and sculpture.

By Rafa Yuste

The photographer’s images document the fundamentals of the technique, light and subject, merging processes from photography, painting and sculpture.

Photograph of a model in studio

‘They’re not quite paintings, and they’re not printed editions, they’re more like photos that have been painted through printing,’ explains photographer Kingsley Ifill on his process-based oeuvre. Based between Paris and London, Ifill’s work could first appear as nostalgic – his rough black and white aesthetic, energetic shots, and statement images could sit among the pages of the legendary mid-century Japanese zine Provoke. However, his multi-layered photographs seem to be oriented towards retaking, in contemporary terms, a conversation left behind.

This isn’t the photographer giving up on so-called obsolete methods of image reproduction, but rather taking an opportunity to rethink his own images. In a collection of riso prints, he makes clear the prominent role of the printing methodology as a way to keep developing and creating images. By treating the print as a painting, Ifill demonstrates these photographs are not finished until they’re tactile.

Elsewhere, his photography documents the fundamentals of the technique, light and subject, in conversation with screenprinting, photocopying and printing. In his series Eye For A Sty, Tooth For The Roof, Kingsley breaks the anaesthesia generated by the formalism of classic nude portraits with unexpected elements: fruit stickers and children’s cartoons and drawings.

Here, System speaks with Kingsley Ifill about the nature of his practice, how photography, painting and sculpture convey the development of a picture, and the process of putting together a photographer’s book.

Can you tell us about your background, growing up, and how that shaped you as a person?

Kingsley Ifill: I grew up in the south of England, a small working-class seaside town. My mother worked as a psychiatric nurse, and my father, wheeling and dealing, mainly selling antiques or anything that could turn pennies into pounds and put steam on the table. That’s the beauty of the place I call home. To greater effect, everything stays the same. The tide rises and falls, but ultimately the desert of the sea doesn’t change. It moves but remains.

My mum secretly wants to be an artist and says that when she retires and has the time, she will be. She also collects photographs – for no other reason than they make her happy. I think about her pureness a lot when I’m working.

What was the first image you saw that made you realise you wanted to be a photographer?

Kingsley Ifill: ‘Srinagar, Kashmir’ by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The photo of Muslim women gathered in front of the Himalayas. The perfect pose of the hands, which you know that he would have waited patiently for. It has so much holy wonder in a single frame. I still get a warm feeling inside when I think of that image and the light of the sun enveloping the mountains.

Srinagar, Kashmir, 1948

Henri Cartier-Bresson

What are your influences, and how do they connect with your work?

Kingsley Ifill: The North Sea. When I’m in England, I go on long night walks up the beach nearly every evening, no matter how late or what the weather is like. Often I talk to it. I like driving too – driving for the sake of driving. Motorways, as an object, are, to me, one of the greatest achievements of mankind. How I can start driving in Kent and continue on the same connected piece of road and end up in Cornwall blows my mind. The thought that these different groups of people all poured an expanse of tar in order to provide that freedom of travel. Musically, I listen to a lot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I saw them play last week in Paris, down the road from my flat, which felt like a religious experience. Generally, I read a lot too, with the ideas weaving in and out of work, connecting dots between the lines.

‘I like to go out into the world and then retreat back to the solitude of the studio in order to process and try to understand everything.’

Kingsley Ifill

What kind of elements/concepts/ideas do you explore in your books and pictures?

Kingsley Ifill: A short while ago, over several months, I was heavily studying Mark Fisher’s PhD dissertation, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. During the process of wrestling with some of the ideas he highlights, I began to view my studio differently. The printers started to feel like they were organic and from the earth, as if they were living beings, but living organisms that relied on me to complete their circuit, pressing buttons in order to give them life and allow them to move. One day, a risograph printer broke down and it felt as though it had slipped into a coma. I then spent three days dismantling it by hand and putting it back together, tending to the malfunction during the process. I recorded the steps in photographs, which I then printed during test cycles once the machine was back together, and these became a limited edition book titled Mouth-To-Mouth – inspired by the resuscitation technique.

More recently, I made a book about an evening that I spent with my girlfriend in one of the last remaining dive hotels in east London, titled The Rose Hotel. There’s no concept or in-depth theory, it’s purely about a moment condensed down into photographs, within the physical form of a book, for the sake of relaying the story. One day soon, that hotel will be gone and so will both myself and my girlfriend, but at that moment, we were there, and it was beautiful.

In your work, we see how painting and sculpture converge in photography. How do you conceive those mediums working together?

Kingsley Ifill: It feels like definitions of mediums act as limitations. Limitations, which I’d prefer to swerve and avoid or use them as ammo against the restrictions they may impose. To me, everything is the same. A print of a photo can be both a painting and a sculpture. A painting can be printed, and a book can be a one-page drawing. What you see depends on what you look for. It all gets heaped onto the same pile.

This really comes through in the platinum palladium process of printing photographs. I spent two years perfecting my own formula. The elements have to be mixed raw and then applied as a liquid using a brush to the chosen paper. After the solution has dried, you contact print your image and then develop it in baths. Often I’m using extremely delicate Japanese papers, which have been hand-made using mulberry bark, and during each dip into the separate baths and then throughout the whole washing process, you’re really, really aware of the physicality of the paper as an object, and you’re caring for it like a little baby. Then, when it finally dries, the paper is often wavy, which you then have to press to get flat again. Therefore, in my head, at least, the print undergoes a similar process involved in both printing, painting and sculpture and it would be hard to argue otherwise – it’s all the same as one.

Often, with painting, I’ll approach it using silkscreens and print through the mesh directly onto the canvas. Using a small squeegee, I’ll use strokes as you would a brush, taking out a small section of a larger image. And do this several times, with several screens, making up an abstraction in the form of a renewed reality. My ‘Keyed Car’ works are painted this way. But technically, as a definition, they lie in some kind of no man’s land. They’re not quite paintings, and they are not printed editions, they’re more like photos that have been painted through printing.

‘It feels like definitions of mediums act as limitations. Limitations, which I’d prefer to swerve and avoid. Or use as ammo against the restrictions they may impose.’

Kingsley Ifill

What would you think are your biggest accomplishments in your career so far? Which ones are left to come – any dream projects or collaborators?

Kingsley Ifill: This will probably sound strange, but if I think about it, my biggest or proudest accomplishment is surviving the hard times – enduring long periods of nothing working out and being extremely poor, but believing in myself and not giving up. A lot of my family on my mother’s side are boxers and taking the route of being an artist often feels like fighting. Believing and trying to convince yourself that everything is going to work out.

As for dreams, I spent a long time slaving away in tough jobs and dreaming of the day when I could work on art every day instead of clocking in. I’m constantly pinching myself as a reminder that life right now was once a dream for my younger self.

Portrait of a man sat down in a table
portrait of a nude woman on a bath
portrait of a nude woman sitting down on a chair
portrait of a nude woman in nature
portrait of a nude woman in nature
portrait of a nude woman sitting down on a window
Portrait of a nude woman on a table outdoors with a fruit sticker
portrait of a nude woman in nature
portrait of the legs of a woman lying on the floor with heels
Photo of the feet of nude woman in bed
portrait of a nude woman in bed
Portrait of a nude man sat down
portrait of a nude woman lying of a couch
portrait of a nude woman in a door step
portrait of a nude woman in nature

Photographers’ books have been a common method of display for photographers, especially for mid-century Japanese photographers, whose work feels very connected to yours. Why do you think books are still a relevant element in the work of a photographer?

Kingsley Ifill: Ultimately, in whatever respect, art and photography are like any other language used for communication. If I think about the Japanese photographers of the 60s and 70s, there’s so much texture and emotional charge to the work, which wouldn’t be possible to communicate or express in any other format other than something you can hold and move around in your hands. A book allows emotions to be recalled as experience, time and time again. Like an exhibition that you can pull off of the shelf whenever you want.

‘A book allows emotions to be recalled as experience, time and time again. Like an exhibition that you can pull off of the shelf whenever you want.’

Kingsley Ifill

How’s the process of putting together a collection of pictures in a book? When is the book finished?

Kingsley Ifill: For the process of putting together a book,. I feel like there’s no right or wrong. Generally, I consciously allow the chance to play a large part to a certain extent. I’ve fussed over certain layouts for five years and got nowhere, and on other occasions, I’ve finished a sequence in five minutes.

I like the idea of feedback loops. You can publish a book without actually having a solid idea of what it’s about, then use the book’s interaction with others as a way to learn and understand what it was you were looking for in doing the work.

Last year, I published a photo book titled Crucifixion on Caulaincourt. It’s a collection of photographs which I took during a few months of walking around Paris, coming to terms with the death of a friend. I didn’t have any intentions, all I knew was that at that moment I had to walk every day, and instinctively I found myself taking photos. When I later got around to examining the groups of photos together, the underlying emotions seemed to be clearly visible, but I didn’t feel strong enough to talk about what the book was really about,or wasn’t sure if it was even necessary, but there were lots of recurring themes within the work, which I could lean on aesthetically and act like glue. So I went ahead and published it, but it was not until it was out in the world that I began to process and understand the work. Through conversations with others that had either bought a copy or seen it, if then felt like the project was complete, but I had to publish it in order to engage in this feedback loop and the subject being explored to make sense of itself.

Cover of Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a chair from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a hanger from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a hand reflected on a mirror from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a Parisian street from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a tree from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a carousel horse from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of a pillow from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill
Photograph of texture from Crucifixion in Caulacourt by Kingsley Ifill

What makes you grow? How do you keep moving forward in the industry and in your practice?

Kingsley Ifill: Everything and nothing. I like to go out into the world and then retreat back to the solitude of the studio in order to process and try to understand everything. It’s a bit like cooking – you have to go out to get the ingredients, but then return home to cook. Or a plant that needs light in the day, but then also the darkness of night to grow too. The reality is that there is no end and no goal. There is simply forward pursuit. Instead of looking at it as a sink or swim situation, it’s more like the aim is to swim until you become one with the water.

Kingsley Ifill will be exhibiting at Tokyo Art Book Fair from October 27-30 and at Paris Photo 2022 with V1 Gallery in November. He will also be part of the Offprint Paris book fair happening that month.

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