Take Nothing an interview with John Maher
By David Prentice - Added 06/05/2014
With his latest exhibition, ‘Leaving Home, an Alternative View of the Outer Hebrides’ John Maher, along with fellow photographer Ian Paterson, has turned his attention indoors to examine a human landscape of neglect and abandonment far removed from the seascapes and sunset beaches of your typical holiday brochure. I meet with him in his workshop in Leverburgh, south Harris, to discuss the inspiration for the exhibition, and to see if I can find out what drives this unique artist, otherwise known as The Flying Monk, to head out under the full moon in search of the perfect photograph.
Like many great artists, the appeal in Maher’s work lies in his ability to make the ordinary appear extraordinary. His choice of subject matter - phone boxes, tractors, broken machinery and derelict houses – are all objects which escape our notice during the day to day, but, when captured in the right light, they take on a special significance beyond their function. In this way the lonely light of an antique telephone box becomes the last beacon of human communication at the edge of the wilderness. A chimney tower in an abandoned whaling station is transformed, through his lens, into the point of a compass, an axis for the night sky to revolve around. Maher’s long-exposure shots of a moonlit Hebrides bring a new meaning to the term ‘stillness’, as the passage of time is captured and distilled into an image that the human eye alone is incapable of witnessing.
Given that John has been living on the Isle of Harris for over a decade, it may seem odd that the natural beauty of his surroundings has featured so little in his work. I ask him if this was a deliberate decision on his part.
“When we first arrived here in 2002 I thought I probably would end up doing some of that kind of that kind of photography,” he says, “ but the truth is that I never dug the camera out for years. I love the landscape, but the landscape by itself I find, in picture form, doesn’t tell me anything about a place. It’s when you put something in that belonged to somebody or something that shows that people live here that interests me. The landscape is there but as background to the real subject of the photograph, which is the human element.”
John’s interest in people and the evidence that people leave on a landscape dates back to the holiday photographs he was taking in 80’s and 90’s, in which broken cars, family homes and tractors feature heavily. Now on Harris, the beach scenes and skylines which attract so many tourist photographers are things which John sees in every possible kind of light and weather, and so he feels little incentive to take pictures of them.
“It never occurs to me to say, ‘It’s a lovely day, let’s go down to Luskentyre and take a photo of a nice sunset.’ I don’t think I could bring myself to do that really. That photograph isn’t something that I would go to search out.”
What quickly becomes clear in our conversation is that John’s interest in photography is a personal interest, one which isn’t motivated by any desire for commercial success.
“I had no idea that people would like the pictures I was taking or want to buy them. I wasn’t taking the pictures because I thought other people would like them, I was taking them because I liked them. All of the night photography, the abandoned houses, I’m not being commissioned by anyone to do it, I’m just going out and doing it and accumulating [the photos] because I have to”, he laughs, “It’s addictive.”
John became interested in night-photography following his move to Harris, and took it upon himself to learn how to manually control a camera’s shutter speed and aperture and adding light into the camera to deliver the kind of night photographs he wanted. This do-it-yourself approach is in keeping with the ethos that informed the early London punk scene, and is something that John has been doing throughout his life. He learned to play the drums just six weeks before joining The Buzzcocks. Following the collapse of the band five years later, John transformed another of his hobbies into a career; building and racing air-cooled Volkswagen engines, the evidence of which is all around us in his workshop.
In addition to finding the process of seeking out and gathering interesting pictures ‘addictive’ (he’s always on the lookout for new locations) John tells me that there’s something in the solitary aspect of photography that attracts him.
“One of the things that appeals to me about photography is that you’re going out on your own and I like that, especially the night photography. You go out and some of those exposures will usually last about 5 or 6 minutes, and so you have that time where you’re just contemplating the universe waiting for the camera to get on with it, and I find it almost therapeutic. It’s a solitary pursuit, I think. When I’m there I lose all track of time.”
Having said that the low levels of light pollution in Harris have proved beneficial to the ‘look’ of his night-time photographs, I’m curious to know whether the island has contributed to his work in other ways.
“I think that once you’ve been here for a while you do pick up on the culture and you become more aware of the history, so that in a way when you go looking at some of these older houses you’re a little more informed when you’re taking the pictures. I can only really describe it as it’s not a tourist’s-eye-view. You might go on holiday somewhere and take a photo to take home with you and it’s like a little memento, but you don’t get to know anything about a place until you’ve been there for a period of time, and as a result your pictures become more informed.”
This is certainly true of the photographs included in ‘Leaving Home’, a series of atmospheric and haunting images of the interiors of abandoned croft houses taken throughout the Outer Hebrides. These pictures provide a fascinating insight into a previously unrecorded aspect of human history on the islands. They stand almost as stage pieces, vaults or museums to a way of life that has all but disappeared, and their silence invites us to question the circumstances that led to their being abandoned in the first place. In many, personal artefacts such as clothing, ornaments and photographs that must once have held a sentimental value to their owners have been left behind, while in others overturned furniture and broken glass make these rooms look like the scene of a fight, or of people leaving in panic.
I ask John how these photographs came about, and what prompted the decision to turn them into an exhibition.
“Well I was taking pictures of these abandoned houses, I started doing that about 3 years ago after the night photography, which I got into first, and then the interior shots came about as a result of that because I would be going into some of these houses at night to see what was in there and then think ‘I’ve got to come back here during the day’. So I was just taking pictures as and when, and posting them either on my website or on my Flickr account and then Ian Paterson got in touch with me as a result of having seen my photographs and he was actually initially suggesting a few locations for night shots because he liked what I was doing with that.”
“On one of his trips over to the island he called into the workshop and we got chatting. We got on really well, we both have a shared interest in the subject and it was him who suggested having a go at a joint exhibition and so it was his idea, really. I thought it was a good idea because we were always targeting An Lanntair, that’s the obvious place on the islands to try and do something like this. The gallery at An Lanntair is a big space that would be the envy of many a city or town on the mainland. And so the thing that occurred to me was, ‘If you’re going to have a go at something like that, it’s not necessarily a one-off chance, but it could be, and so you want to do a really good job.’”
Many of the photographs in the exhibition have been enlarged to a scale that is almost life-size, so that visitors will be able to view every detail in the scene as though they were present in the room. The photographs that John has posted online have been met with mixed reactions from the public. Some people are angered by the fact that these houses have been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent, while others, including relatives or people who knew the original occupants, see them as a sort of shrine or monument to the memories of those who lived in them. Considering the decline in the population on the islands and the move away from the traditional crofting way of life, I want to know if John would agree that his photographs might contain within them a glimpse at a possible future of the western isles.
“I never set out to make a statement; I’m not trying to make some kind of social commentary at all. I really am just trying to take really interesting pictures that make people want to look at them in more depth…. Definitely there’s an air of melancholy about them, some people do find them quite sad, and I understand that. There was one house I went into and there was someone’s wedding photo on the sideboard in black and white and I reckon it was probably taken in the late 50’s early 60’s (same time as my parents were married) and just to see something like that, someone’s memory of a special day, and just to see it gone it does seem a real shame to see such a treasured artefact abandoned.
There is something about them, and it’s probably too grand a term but it’s almost as if these houses get left as something of a shrine to a memory or person. We’ve had that said to us, one of the people who contacted Ian said that the house was owned by the grandparents, and when they died the family decided that the house ought to be left as it is. You’re fortunate here, you can imagine that on the mainland that the chances of an abandoned house being left intact without it being vandalised or graphitised or squatted in are impossible, and so this is something that’s really quite unique to the island.”
With this unique opportunity to document houses that have been left relatively unspoiled, I’m curious to know if John was ever tempted to ‘set up’ any of the photographs, or to arrange the objects inside almost in the way that props are used on a stage play. Perhaps not surprisingly, John tells me that he and Ian developed a philosophy or practice never to disturb the locations they visited, which was ‘to take nothing, only photographs’.
“The big deal for me with this sort of photography is not to take anything except the photo. I never come away from there with anything from the house. I prefer for people to just leave them as they are. Whatever the reasons for them being left that way, don’t disturb it, just take the picture. You’ve recorded a moment. And in a way, what you’re doing by taking these pictures is you’re allowing people to see them without having to go in and look around.”
As a further mark of respect for the locations, both John and Ian have refused to reveal the exact locations of the houses that feature in the exhibition:
“That actually became not exactly a policy that we came up with, it’s just a thing we both agree on that we don’t share the exact locations on the internet; we don’t give the postcode or provide directions because we don’t want people to go in and start taking stuff away. In fact I had someone contact me just recently saying that they were quite concerned that this exhibition would result in people going out and looting the houses, which you know, is an understandable concern, but does that mean that we shouldn’t photograph these places, or that we can take photographs of them and not show them to anybody? The best we can do is to take interesting images and exhibit them, but we’re not going to release an iPhone app of where to find them or put them on Google maps or anything.”
The decision to withhold information regarding the exact locations of the houses is not only informed by a respect for his subject material, but also for the effort and enjoyment that comes with making such discoveries. When I ask if he’s aware of spawning any imitators now that many of his photographs of the exhibition are available online, John replies:
“A few people do contact me about the interior pictures, asking for locations, and I never give them the locations, for the reasons that we’ve just mentioned. I just tell them that if they’re really interested in taking those types of photos they need to go out and find them. You get more enjoyment out of going and finding these places by yourself. If everybody had a tick list of ‘go to this house, go to that’, then what is the point? Everybody will just end up spewing out pictures that are the same as everybody else’s. So yeah, I’m not going to take any credit for it but there are now people taking photographs that weren’t doing it before. You’ve got to make that decision when you find one of these houses about whether or not you should go in or whether it’s safe to go in, and that’s their decision to make.”
I ask John if he has any advice for tourists and visitors looking to photograph the Isle of Harris.
“The night photography stuff is definitely not a summer time activity. That has to be done within a couple of days of the full moon and in summer late June July time you can forget it because the days are so long and there’s too much light, so that if you do a long exposure shot at night in summer it just looks like a photo taken in daylight. What I like about the lack of light pollution is that incredible shade of blue you get with the light being reflected off the moon, as that’s the only form of ambient light. That season only really starts from September to March are great, especially December and January. I’ve done night shoots in December and January where I’ve gone out at 7 in the evening and not come back till 6 in the morning, because if you get the right kind of moonlight, you just want to keep going.”
As for the interior shots, John says:
“You can pretty much go out whenever you feel like it because they’re done during the day, although I do prefer an overcast day because you only have one light source and it’s coming in through the window and if it’s really bright sunlight it creates very distinct bright spots and very distinct shadows, which creates a very difficult scenario to photograph. I actually prefer a drizzly, overcast day for that because the light’s so diffused that you don’t get the harsh shadows of a bright day. So yeah, a miserable day is perfect for going out to photograph an abandoned house,” he says, with a chuckle.