INTERVIEW WITH ABIGAIL TINNION
by Alice Oliver
Abigail Tinnion is a photographer based in the South West of England, who creates images with the intention of reconnecting the spectator with the ancient, organic, and unfathomable. SOLA Journal founder, Alice Oliver, discusses with Abigail, her exciting practice and her new body of work Am I the White Figure? which examines how the spiritualism religion of the 19th century conceptually undermines contemporary gender norms and the symbolism of femininity.
AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?
AT: I grew up in coastal towns in Devon, close to cliffs and farmer’s fields and woodlands. As a child, I loved stories and developed a love of history which started with a fascination with the Middle Ages. I loved King Arthur, fairytales and magic and my parents would read to me every night. As a teenager, my brother and I would walk or ride bikes to the woodlands behind our house and climb trees. I would take my notebook and write. I had a humble upbringing with a family who taught me how to care for each other, value what you have, love the land and nurture your imagination.
AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?
AT: I started taking photographs as a child when I would use a point-and-shoot to photograph the stories and games my brother and friends set up with our toys. As a young teenager, I would photograph the landscape when I went walking which prompted me to take photography as a GCSE and I found it was the only thing that kept me going at school. I loved horror and had a crucial moment at 15 watching Hitchcock's ‘Psycho’ when I realised the camera was a powerful artistic medium. After spending years frustrated by writing and drawing I realised I had found the perfect way to express myself. I spent most of my early exploration of photography trying to create a photographic horror story about a small coastal town. It wasn't until A level I began to realise I could marry everything I loved into photography. Folklore, creatures, collecting bones and trinkets, ruins and ghosts found a home in the kind of photographs I wanted to take. Since then, through my BA at Bath Spa University, I’ve been developing my visual language and have been lucky to meet and create a community with other photographers and artists who inspire me.
AO: Was Am I the White Figure a new step within your practice or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?
AT: On a surface level, I felt like this was a new step. The work looks at a specific era and movement whereas I usually work with more abstract concepts around ancient history and landscape. But the more I think about it I can see common themes I always work with; an occult type interest in the power of symbols, spirits, and immateriality. It was definitely new in the sense that all the portraits (that aren’t archival) are self portraits, which isn't something I thought I would be comfortable with.
AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your body of work Am I the White Figure? and the starting point for this project?
AT: Am I the White Figure? explores how the 19th-century religion of spiritualism conceptually undermined the contemporary gender roles and symbolism of femininity. I became interested in this subject when I noticed there was a connection between the symbols of death and femininity. I thought about the trope of the dead young woman in literature, suspended in a state of youth, beauty and innocence. This prompted me to notice a link between femininity and death. For example, both death and femininity are associated with the passive, pale, patient, quiet, unseen and mysterious, particularly within occult symbolism. I also noticed that often, women who don't die tragically in literature go mad, and thus creates the links between, madness, hysteria, emotion, the moon, menstrual cycles, innocence, youth, beauty, mystery and passivity. I found this link in spiritualism during its conception in the 19th century. I became fascinated by how women were bound by incredibly strict social laws and yet were able to behave at complete odds to them through mediumship at a seance. It was a quiet rebellion because Victorian feminine ideals were not broken. It was kind of permissible; the ‘passive’, ‘weak’ woman was easily overcome by the spirits and therefore her actions and words were not her own.
AO: Can you tell us a bit about why you’ve chosen to use multiple photographic techniques within your work? How does each technique lend itself to the subject matter?
AT: Firstly, because Spiritualism approached its beliefs scientifically, developing techniques to prove the existence of life beyond death. It felt right to record the images in as many ways as possible. Some images are digital, some analogue, sometimes soaked in chemicals, sometimes double exposed. I made chemigrams and contact prints, in the dark room and in the sun. I thought it would give the project a feel of the 19th century scientific method, like a pseudo-scientific experiment. Secondly, photography has been entwined with spiritualism. Light, reflection, and time are all tools of the occult and I like to think of a camera as a little occult machine, with glass and mirrors to scry, recording light, freezing time, creating moments that sometimes never happened. This was why I wanted to include the self portraits, so that I could, also in a way become the ‘White Figure’ when a past version of myself stares back from the grain.
AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?
AT: I've only ever created work for an exhibition once in the form of an audio visual installation called 800 AD. I love it but I also do think my work suits a photobook where you can create a tangible artefact from your images. For Am I the White Figure? I wanted the book to feel like a journal - handbound and delicate. But I wouldn't say I have a preference for my own work. I plan on making more installation pieces in the future and I think when I'm making either my focus is on how the work is experienced.
AO: As a young woman photographer, do you have any advice to offer others on gaining exposure and making a name for yourself, in what is considered quite a male-centric industry?
AT: I'm still learning but I think it's important to make communities with your peers and support each other, especially supporting fellow young female artists or others who might be disadvantaged within the community. I also think that if an institution or person within the industry thinks it's ok to treat you differently because of any prejudice they hold, I wouldn't want to work with them or value their opinions. The best places are inclusive and value different voices. We can continue to nurture and build better communities that will outlast exclusive, narrow minded ones.
AO: Finally, please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced my practice?
AT: There are so many and I’m sure I've forgotten some crucial ones so here's a selection of works that have been occupying my mind recently:
Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
Regine Petersen, Find a Fallen Star
Amani Willett, The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer Tereza Zelenkova, The Essential Solitude
Sohrab hura, The Coast
Tanya Marcuse, Book of Miracles
Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick, Astres Noirs Amak mahmoodian, Zanjir