In Margaret Salmon’s Glasgow studio the walls are pinned with monochrome images that she’s been developing at the city’s Street Level Photoworks.

She’s been taking photos since she was ten-years-old and developing them since she was 16. She studied at the School of Visual Arts, New York and Royal College of Art, London.

Having also worked for News Week and New York Times Magazine, she is thoughtful about how images are distributed, used and misused. For Salmon, making film is a way of transcribing a world through an emotional gaze.

Earlier this year Salmon presented ‘Circle’, a survey show at Tramway, Glasgow. Her new film Cladach, commissioned by Invisible Dust, has just finished a tour across the Scottish Highlands.

She is currently working towards a solo exhibition, ‘Hole’, at Dundee Contemporary Arts in December and is shortlisted for the 2018 Film London Jarman Award, in recognition of her contribution to contemporary moving image work being made in the UK.

Can you talk a little about the film you’re working on at the moment that will be central to your upcoming show in Dundee?
There’ll be two new works shot on 16mm. One will be meditative and perhaps a bit more diaristic. It’s a way to share some of the spillage around how I approach researching a film – the subjectivity that’s involved. This will be a two-screen monitor work. Then the centrepiece will be a single-screen film, which is essentially a performative work; so it’s myself collaborating with and filming various couples or people on their own having erotic experiences or exchanges. The film is an attempt to trace a physical manifestation of love between committed partners, through the mediation of my camera. But it’s also a response to patriarchal visual culture, and commercial representations of sex; a simple, intuitive account of the collaboration between myself and the couples or people in the film, and hopefully a celebration of connection and physical love between caring bodies, seen through a woman’s lens.

What do you mean when you say diaristic?
I’m making the film now so it’s still early days but my feeling is that it’s a sharing of images and peripheral observations that surround the making of the work, so diaristic in the sense that they come out of an everyday looking from my own perspective, opening up some of the intentions within the work. Biography has always been a quiet companion with a lot of my films, as it is for most artists. My intention is just to allow myself to open up more, not necessarily to make the film about myself, but to make a personal meditation on looking and making and love.

Your work is a little bit like documentary to watch but something that really sets it apart is your sense of time.
That’s the privilege of being an artist-filmmaker. I have a degree of autonomy in how I use the material that I collect and a lot of times I don’t have to adhere to any commercial or logical purpose for the work. So I can start off with a degree of realism and intention to not manipulate what’s happening but to interact with it with the camera. Later that allows me to just react to what happened, and not necessarily put a stamp or a narrative logic into the result.

That feels like taking a bit of a risk, but you have many years of experience to help you navigate the ebbs and flows of a situation.
It’s extremely risky! I enjoy that. That’s what makes it experimental. I have a set of tools and materials and elements – one of them is myself – and then the rest is all open to time and space and experience, and all sorts of factors become involved. A teacher of mine once said: “You’re conspiring with reality to make something.” I like the idea of collaboration, and responding to the people or things I work with, in real time, in the moment. So though I have the camera and I’m using that as a tool, and I do have a great deal of control in what image is gleaned from the experience – that image is based on my skills and my personal reaction to what’s happening, my instinctive desire to be closer, move away or hold still – all these things are part of a social choreography that’s created. It’s all invented in the moment, but functions as a reflection of so many elements – bodies, emotions, past experiences, technical constraints…

That seems a very natural link with the Jarman Award, which you’re currently shortlisted for.
They didn’t know about this film so it’s really interesting to be making such an erotic work and to be thinking about Derek Jarman. It’s wonderful timing.

So you think of the social and intuitive aspects of your process as central to your work?
Yes, absolutely. That’s part of the body exchange as well – that we’re creating an energy together in this moment – so it’s not about me forcing my gaze upon someone, it’s about an approach where I’m inviting someone to collaborate with me and often I’m really touched and inspired by how open and interested people are in being part of that process. It’s fairly complicated these days with so much surveillance footage, so many images being ‘stolen’. It’s all part of an ongoing ethical question around documentary work; what does it mean to film someone, and is the exchange fair or is it exploitative? With the work I make, I aim to be very clear and upfront with my intentions. If you’re respectful, caring and considerate it’s a good start to making something with warmth and integrity.

Can you elaborate on images being stolen?
Within the practice of documentary film, photography and photojournalism there’s a degree of education, awareness and critique about the ethics of making images, and collaborating with non-actors or non-professionals. Of course, some informed practitioners still work in ways which are questionable. Or their work is an attempt to address injustice, face tyranny and critique power, which might mean filming hostile situations. But what I mean is that everyone these days has a camera, which allows for freedom from past financial and social constraints and expansion of the form, but also means that without ethical training, more images are potentially being made within compromised scenarios. It’s a grey area and judgement on what is right or wrong can be subjective. But as an image maker, working first with family and friends, and now with mainly non-professional actors, ‘everyday’ subjects, this is something I’ve always been aware of.

I knew from a young age you were interested in war photography. Was the ethical side of pointing a camera something that interested you?
The interest in war photography was very personal, because of my father. He was a vetern of the US Vietnam War, and though a ‘functioning’ person, privately suffered greatly from his experience in the war. I desperately wanted to know what he had seen, as a means to understand his behavior in our home. One night my parents and I watched a TV movie about combat photographers from his war (Shooter, 1988). I decided that this is what I wanted to do. And that was it – photography became everything to me.

Nowadays there’s still a sense of emotional purpose in the work I make; I think about how it might function within a greater social conversation, and what value it holds for the people I work with. Early on it was more the idea of the photographer as someone who went to a place where conflict or injustice was happening and the cameraperson was a witness; documentary photographs and films could be political instigators towards social change and justice. Currently I think about the creation of images as displays of positive, progressive possibilities, and the potential for film to heal and inspire. Even this new film at DCA – I hope it’s able to participate in a dialogue about subjectivity, love, feeling, pleasure and connection in our culture and society.

Historically, and currently, there has been an effort to make positive images of sex and sexual relations to counteract some of the commercial and patriarchal depictions of love, pleasure and bodies in wider culture. In a small way, the new show is trying to contribute to this body of work. We see images and often (knowlingly or not) mimic them as social organisms. I wanted to make something positive and different to what might be considered a mainstream/commercial view. It’s limited, so limited; but it’s still an effort.

The Film London Jarman Award Weekend, featuring work by all the shortlisted artists, is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 17-18 November 2018. 

Margaret Salmon: Hole is at Dundee Contemporary Arts, 8 December 2018 – 24 February 2019

1. Margaret Salmon, Eglantine, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist
2. Margaret Salmon filming Mm, 2017. Courtesy: the artist
3. Margaret Salmon, ‘Circle’ exhibition, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow, 2018. Courtesy: the artist
4. Margaret Salmon, Eglantine, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist
5. Margaret Salmon, Housework, 2014, film still. Courtesy: the artist
6. Margaret Salmon, Mm, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist

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