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From Darkroom to Street Kitchen

David Robinson’s breakthrough series began by chopping mushrooms.

David Robinson’s new series of luminograms furthers his long-standing interest in the alchemic mysteries of the photographic process. These beautifully intricate, playful and at times surreal works evoke other worlds, full of magic, menace and a mischievous sense of humour. We met in his London studio, to discuss how he developed this innovative process and the new lease of life it has breathed into his practice.

SOPHY RICKETT: This is an unusual process, but one that you have committed to and that’s clear not least in that you have become very accomplished at it, developing your technique and varying your strategy, depending on the image in hand – I wondered how it came about.

DAVID ROBINSON: My background is in graphic design, photography and also printing – i worked for several years with Magnum photographers, printing their work and also making my own photographic projects, often in a documentary style, but other work, for example my series Wonderland was much more planned.

There’s so much I love about photography, about making pictures. I especially like the printing side of it; spending time in the darkroom was always an important part of my process, but I’d been working in the same way for years and things had become too formulaic. Basically I felt stuck. I’d lost my enthusiasm for photography, probably because I’d become afraid of doing something different, of breaking out of the corner I’d painted myself into.

Partly out of frustration and also from a straightforward need to shake things up a bit and do something different, I started a mushroom business. That took me away from the darkroom and threw me into a completely different world -of early morning markets, street food stalls, music festivals, etc. It was exhausting, but in retrospect amazing because it gave me a break from actively thinking about photography. Before, I’d often think how great it would be to start afresh, but nothing ever felt quite right – and then slowly, in this really natural way and almost unconsciously, I started making links between this new way of life and all those years I’d spent with my photography.

SR: It sounds like on some level you were looking for a way of reconciling these two aspects of your life – the pragmatics of your mushroom day job with an instinct to make things or respond creatively…

DR: In the early days of the business, I’d have to get up ridiculously early and would be by myself, outside in my makeshift street kitchen, chopping mushrooms at 5am or something. Maybe it would be dark, I’d have a lot of time to think… it was like a dream space, very quiet and intimate. My mind would wander. And in a kind of lucid, spontaneous way, I’d make little designs. I’d chop a mushroom that looked interesting in some way and I’d keep it to one side and then later maybe see a story in the news and make a connection between the two. I found myself experimenting more and more – not with any clear sense of where it was going or what the outcome would be, just really enjoying the feeling of being creative again, with no sense of it being judged – no sense of an audience – just making things for making things sake.

SR: So stories you encountered in the news functioned as starting points for some of the images – that’s an interesting take on the documentary form.

DR: I know. On one level there’s an absurdity to it – but at the same time I like how that context gives me a kind of loose framework, yet also allows the work to be spontaneous. I think being on the street, on the mushroom stall, has made me engage with life in a much more open and impulsive way -something about the ebb and flow of it, the busy times and the quiet times – the familiar faces and the strangers – it’s so vibrant and of course is firmly based in a particular locality – but I think there’s something bigger about it, something more universal. I found myself becoming more interested in news events. My iPad lets me access these different news sites that I would never have thought of buying from the newsagent. I’d pick up stories from places other than the BBC orThe Guardian – CNN maybe or Aljazera and then I’d follow them through the day as they developed. If a story resonated for whatever reason, I’d save it – and then realized I was building up a kind of archive of stories from all these different sources. The continuity for me is to revisit these very disparate stories – to create a visual representation, using this very specific palette of colours, shapes and textures – which of course I’m developing all the time.

SR: There’s a lightness in the way you speak about it, which is very refreshing.

DR: Yes! And the process itself means I have to work quickly -not because I have a deadline, but because the technicalities of making the images, by which I mean cutting the mushrooms and then shining a bright light through them to make the exposure is the thing that’s responsible for their destruction. So the act of making the prints causes the destruction of the original. It gives a kind of urgency and also means I can only make one or two prints – so each print is almost like an original. It’s as if the inspiration for the work (the news) and the materials I use (mushrooms) are as fleeting, ephemeral and transient as each other.

SR: It sounds like a great contrast with the series of photographs you made for Wonderland where for each image you’d have to get on a plane and fly to a specific place, maybe a theme park in Florida or a golf course in Cape Town or somewhere – all that effort for just one picture. This new process allows you to respond in a more immediate way.

DR: Yes, each day there is something new – my whole engagement with it is different – it’s spontaneous and much freer, so quite liberating.
The photogram/luminogram process itself is of course not a new one and for some time I have admired other work made using these techniques. In 2007 some of my images from Wonderland were included in the group show Picturing Eden at George Eastman House, alongside works by Adam Fuss and Susan Derges. More recently the 2010 Victoria and Albert exhibition Shadow Catchers celebrated the importance of camera-less processes. It was around this time that I began to experiment with my mushrooms in this way.

SR: Some of them are incredibly intricate – the X-ray of the hand seems uncannily real.

DR: I produced that one by carving each bone out of a separate mushroom stem. It was based on an X-ray my wife had of her hand – I faithfully reproduced it – bone by bone – and it became the Mushroom Picker’s hand. And that has since become the cover of my children’s book, The Mushroom Picker.

SR: How did the book come about?

DR: I guess I just let my mind wander…. I’ve combined what I’ve learnt about mushrooms along the way – their names, how to cook them and where to find them, with something completely made up, so it’s ended up as this very surreal mixture of fantasy and reality. I imagined a story, where a mushroom princess, Penny Bun and her friends conspire to escape the evil mushroom picker’s grasp (that’s me!) by building a rocket and flying to outer space. So there’s an adventure story for the kids, but also some “science bits” at the end – so in time honoured fashion, I have tried to make it appeal to adults and children alike!

SR: Apart from the book, what are your plans?

DR: I’ve been experimenting with working at a larger scale. Recently I made a picture that looks like a wave at night. It’s quite abstract, but at the same time has an amazing level of detail and texture. Overall I have really enjoyed developing this process – I like the feeling of becoming more and more familiar with it, but also continually being surprised by the results I get – and while that element of surprise keeps grabbing me, I’m going to keep going and see where it takes me…

The Mushroom Picker by David Robinson will be published in the UK by Violette Editions in Fall 2012.

DAVID ROBINSON is a Northern Irish artist based in London. Formerly production manager at Magnum Photos, London, he continues to create analogue hand prints for a variety of artists from his studio darkroom in East London. Over the past decade, his photographic work has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian, The Telegraph, PDN, Photo-Eye and Creative Review. His previous publications include Golfers (Glass, 2000), Wonderland (GenerationYacht, 2003) and Lee Valley Leisure (GenerationYacht, 2005). His work was selected for inclusion in Picturing Eden (Steidl/George Eastman House, 2007) and he co-created The Official Extreme Golf Manual (Barrons, 2007). He has had solo shows in London and Belfast and work included in various touring group exhibitions. Passionate about food, especially fungi, he is also co-founder of Sporeboys, a celebrated mushroom street-food kitchen.

SOPHY RICKETT is an artist working mainly with photography and video installation. More recently she has begun to use text as part of her practice. Solo exhibitions include Arnolfini, Bristol, UK; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, UK; Nichido Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan. Group exhibitions include 54th Venice Biennale, Italy; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Centre Rhenan d’Art Contemporain, Alsace, France; Galleria Civica, Modena, Italy; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Il Museo di Trento, Italy. In 2005 a monograph documenting 10 years of her photographic work was published by Steidl/ Photoworks. She is currently working on an associateship at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK. Rickett is represented by Brancolini Grimaldi, London.