Features — 29th Jun 2017

Living in a Material World

Words by Alice Gray
Photography by Wes Foster

It was one of those rare summer days in Manchester where you are uncomfortably hot, but resist the urge to complain about the weather so as not to be ungrateful for the few days a year it isn’t raining. Whilst it required no small amount of concentration not to melt in Hannah Farrell’s studio, we were fortunate to be in the hands of a host who kept us hydrated with lemon and ginger tea and, to our delight, organic cider as our afternoon together unfolded. It would be quite easy to imagine we were somewhere far more tropical than Salford as we sat amongst the gleaming white walls — which Hannah admits she has grown an aversion to lately — and surfaces that are adorned with an array of objects and photographs, some from her own work and some serving as visual stimulation. The Lambrini bottle being utilised as a vase for a sprig of flora perfectly epitomises the selection process Hannah employs when arranging subjects for her work, there is always a healthy balance of tough exteriors and soft details.

Hannah Farrell in her studio at Artwork Atelier

It’s hard to assign a specific discipline to Hannah’s work as most of the pieces exist equally as both images and objects, the physical elements almost becoming installations, but not quite. Exercising a great sense of freedom in her process, she is continually “playing with the traditional idea of what a photograph is; pushing it as much as possible”.

In her most recent work, Hannah decided to turn her lens on a specific group, young men. “I photograph the subjects first, and then play with the blown-up prints of them in my studio” she tells us, consistently capturing portraits that feel remarkably intimate. The series of photographs could easily be classically presented as a body of work, but Hannah’s process is far more intricate. Adding layers to the imagery using objects, plants, metaphors and juxtapositions, she constructs a presence and physicality that is becoming increasingly symbolic of her work. “The balls and hoops were sourced from cheap shopfronts on Morecambe promenade. I started papier-mâchéing and painting them to get out of my head and into my body” she explains. “The photographs within photographs somehow explore the nature of photography and simultaneously the nature of the self, both of which are ever changing and impossible to grasp”. Hannah was born and raised in Morecambe and often draws on her time there in her work. “As I was photographing these boys and men, I was thinking about my youth a lot. It was a classic working-class seaside town upbringing, a lot of us were bored, we weren’t stimulated at school and nothing could stop us from doing the things that we were too young to do”.

Comparatively speaking, Hannah’s series ‘Journeying’ employs a far subtler photographic element. I was thinking a lot about being young, driving in older boys’ cars at night and the car as this display of masculinity and I guess all of these thoughts started feeding into my work. I began spraying two-tone acrylic spray paint onto photographic prints that had been overexposed in a darkroom [until completely black] and then framing them in aluminium”. “The pieces in the ‘Journeying’ series are very much objects, there is no ‘image’ as such, but the photograph is always there; without the surface of the lustre paper, the spray paint wouldn’t show up in the way it does and this void-like space wouldn’t be formed”. The way in which Hannah layers physical elements of her work, is mirrored in the manner in which she builds her concepts. “The title of the body of work relates to the subject that originally triggered it but the word journeying also relates to personal healing, or connecting to some sort of natural state. It can be what you do when you close your eyes and meditate. It’s about taking these old situations or memories and kind of purifying them; turning them into something beautiful”.

Light, something so ungraspable, with so little solidity hits paper and creates this physical thing that can be read in so many different ways

Physical engagement with materials might not be as commonplace as it used to, but for Hannah, it’s an integral part of her process. “Light, something so ungraspable, with so little solidity hits paper and creates this physical thing that can be read in so many different ways”. There’s a noticeable absence of a computer in her studio, which seems a likely rarity for artists that work in photography. Hannah consciously works slowly, and finds the process equally if not more rewarding than accomplishing an outcome. “It takes patience. You’re in a pitch black darkroom and there is a lot of trial and error. All of the prints are different, some of the paper is fogged and there’s often marks where I’ve licked my finger and checked which side the paper is on. The work is made in a warehouse in Salford on a very tight budget and that has to be embraced”.

Hannah had a non-traditional introduction to art education and didn’t study it at school. Certain musicians, authors and practices introduced her to Eastern Philosophy and she uses photography to bridge the gap between the ancient teachings that she is fascinated with and what she experiences in modern day life. “Ever since I was really young, I’d always have my camera with me wherever I went” so with no qualifications or foundation within the arts, just a portfolio of images she’d taken documenting her life and experiences, Hannah was accepted to study her undergrad in photography at Blackpool and the Fylde College.

It took a couple of years to really figure out the work and how it related to what was happening in my life at the time

Having garnered a lot of interest in her work upon graduation, Hannah struggled to understand her own practice at first. “It took a couple of years to really figure out the work and how it related to what was happening in my life at the time”. She was “never brought up around art”, however, she has many fond memories of discovering practitioners that served as crucial inspiration. “I remember when I first started going to galleries and finding artists books in the library, I’d see the work of Rineke Dijkstra or Collier Schorr and they connected with me on such a level. They were my teachers; they confirmed some of the things I had experienced in my life and helped me to understand them”. These were experiences that cemented the positivity that expressive, relatable and meaningful work brought to her, “they just touched me on a whole other level that can’t really be put into words, that’s what art is for”.

Hannah’s practice is an extension of herself. The way she conceptually and physically explores the themes in her work, has a direct correlation with the things she holds strongly in her personal philosophy. The physicality we see played out in the photographs (of photographs) is a further defiance to working within the constraints that are laid out in traditional photography practice. “I’ve worked in commercial photography and it just confirmed that art is the only thing that I can do”, she stresses with reassuring certainty. This feeling of embodiment in her work seems fundamental to why physicality is so important to Hannah, self and practice aren’t separated and the results are endlessly interesting.

To find out more about Hannah Farrell’s work, head to her website and follow her on Instagram. Feature written by Alice Gray and photographed by Wes Foster. Produced in collaboration with our friends at Spectrum Photographic. If you’ve just graduated, be sure to claim your extended 20% discount on their printing and mounting services by the end of the year, or take them up on a 10% discount for the entire of next year.