The following comments have been made after looking at Sophy Rickett’s work “Objects in the Field” (1) and reading the interview included at the end of the course guide (2)
“Objects in the Field” combines photographs and text. The images were printed from negatives taken with a Three Mirror Telescope at the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge University in the early 1990s. The text includes both fragments of a conversation between Rickett and Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy who had been responsible for the design and operation of the Three Mirror Telescope, as well as personal anecdotes taken from Rickett’s life. When looking at the text for the first time, there is a sense of disconnection between its component segments and in some cases is hard to make the connection back to the images in the series. What was clear to me when I read it the first time around, was that there was a great deal of tension between the artist and Dr Willstrop, particularly observable in the following fragment of the text:
‘What will happen to the negatives eventually?’
‘I will deposit them with the museum archive.’
‘If I print them, will the prints be of scientific interest?’
‘No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated. A few of the nearest stars move slightly against the background of the others, and any planets will have gone around their orbits four or five times. These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.’ (3)
The first think that came to my mind when I read the above was that Dr Willstrop did not seem to care much for the outcome of Rickett’s work, at least from the perspective that interested him, which was the scientific one. He also does not seem to care much about the value of the negatives themselves, although later in the interview it becomes clear that he at least is grateful for them being digitalized in a way that they are made clearer. This tension between Rickett and Willstrop is mentioned directly by the artist in the interview, but what is interesting in this case is that rather than shying away from this, Rickett has sought to incorporate that tension into the work itself, not only by showing it clearly through the text, but also by her choice of treatment of the source material in the final prints, some of which are brightly coloured (see here, for instance), perhaps as an attempt to aestheticise the subject for the purposes of removing it as far as possible from its scientific origins.
The other two elements of the text, a short passage describing Rickett’s experience when going for an eye test as a youngster, and another one about two boys waiving at a train on which she was travelling, are more difficult to associate with the series (although in the case of the former passage, there is a faint link between the spectacles and opticians mentioned in the text, and the process whereby the Three Mirror Telescope negatives were obtained), but Rickett makes clear in the interview that these passages are all related to the original context of the series (4). They reflect how the artist felt at that time about aspects of her work process, and how this contrasted with the original work process used by Dr Willstrop in the designing and building of the telescope, and the production of the negatives. They also reflect the connection that she felt between the usage of the telescope to see beyond our capacity and her own experience in getting glasses to improve her vision when young. The connection is there, but in some cases is only apparent when the artist explains herself and this makes the text and the images to go their own ways at times, creating un-clearness and confusion. This in itself is also by design, as Rickett makes clear during the interview that with the work she wanted to evoke the idea that her view on the subject, and that of Dr Willstrop, were not always compatible with each other, that there is contradiction in the interpretation of that subject.
Overall, I find Rickett’s work to go beyond what I would normally expect of photography and to transcend into more conceptual levels. Maybe my expectations of photography in itself may need to be recalibrated, but other than in the work of other conceptual artists that have used photography as a medium, such as Sophie Calle or the early work of Keith Arnatt, I have not seen such a level of detailed reflection as in Rickett’s work in here. What I like the most about her work in “Objects in the Field” is that in the end, it seems all to be about finding a connection. It is not only the objects themselves, be them stars or their photographs, but is the actual connection between the artist and its subject, and in this particular case, the subject is not just limited to the old negatives produced by the Three Mirror Telescope, and how these could become works of art, but also to the way in which those negatives were obtained in the first place, who obtained them, and how all of that connects with both the personal experience of the photographer and the way he uses those connections and that experience to shape the artistic output, which in this case is not only the photographs but the actual text accompanying them.
(1) I have explored this work through an entry in Photographer’s Gallery Blog: BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. 2017. Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field – BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/. [Accessed 17 October 2017], as well as an entry in the Little Toller Books website: Little Toller Books. 2017. Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field – Little Toller Books. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/. [Accessed 17 October 2017].
(2) Boothroyd, S., 2017. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 4th ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts, p.p. 130-137
(3) Photographer’s Gallery Blog: BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. 2017. Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field – BLOG – The Photographers’ Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: https://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/03/19/sophy-rickett-objects-in-the-field/. [Accessed 17 October 2017]
(4) For a discussion of original context, please see Terry Barrett’s article on this, which is available in his website (http://terrybarrettosu.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Barrett-1986-Photographs-Contexts.pdf)