INTERVIEW with Stephen Tierney.

Mar 2011

Solitary, Half Mad.

ST - Having grown up myself in the Irish countryside I remember many echoes of your works atmospheres in the empty houses we would explore when we were young. I am interested in how views of interiors can be used to communicate or suggest meaning. Regarding your series Solitary, half mad, which I believe has a fictive aspect to it, did some of the interiors that you created have some personal resonance for you?

PH - When I began this project, I decided to move from the urban area where I had been living, to a small cottage in the Tipperary countryside. All of the interiors that I photographed were found around the area where I live but they have no direct relevance to me, other than to say that they were chosen and photographed with a degree of empathy.

As I had been living alone and also working on this project alone for six months and on a very low budget, you could say that the overall series has absorbed a mood and a tone that I don't think would have emerged otherwise.

Initially, I was interested in the notion that romantic ideals of solitude and escapism are often more fantastical than reality will ultimately offer. Regarding meaning, I wanted to find a way to communicate this sense of tension between reality and fantasy. All of the interiors that I photographed were rooms where people lived or died alone. For the most part, everything was photographed as I found it. This was important. By paying particular attention to how these interiors were composed and lit, I could bring a sense of theatre to these very real situations. The sequencing of interior and exterior pictures and the significantly small number of pictures used in the final sequence, leaves enough space between the images to enable the viewer to form their own interpretation. In this sense, I think meaning is communicated by suggestion rather than direction, and relies on an element of elusiveness.

ST - In terms of point of view were you seeing the spaces through someone else's eyes?

PH - While I was researching this project, I found an unused and isolated house at the edge of a wood in the mountains near where I live. The house had been owned by a man who lived and died alone there only a short time before. Everything had been left untouched after his death. His bedroom remained as it was, as did the contents of all the other rooms. Looking at the poor conditions he had been living in, I became interested in the capacity we have as people to be alone and whether we're capable of long periods of isolation. I found myself returning to this house many times, often at night. I photographed interiors and also the woods around the house. I tried to see the place through his eyes, although this was done very much in a fictional capacity. At this point of the project however, I found that the original significance of the subject matter - that of isolation, had begun to shift from real to 'ideal' and a rather psychological landscape was emerging. Also, the final process of selecting pictures and constructing narrative was conducted very loosely with this person in mind.

ST - The interiors seem to reflect a life of exclusively solitary existence and both attract and repel through curiosity and food. Are these found spaces?

PH - Yes, all of the interiors are found spaces. Over the six months of the project, I met with and photographed people who live alone or in remote areas and also photographed the unused house as I mentioned. When I met people, I would usually begin with a portrait but soon found that the interiors seemed more interesting and were places that could hold more meaning than a portrait. In the end, none of the portraits were used.

The tension between attraction and repulsion that you mention was important throughout this project. Some of the interiors were photographed in what could be described as a forensic manner, like the bedroom, using a wide angle lens to include as much information as possible and photographing it as I found it. On the other hand, by controlling the light and considering the camera view-point, the colour palette when printing and finally the framing, I could bring a somewhat seductive quality to these images. On closer inspection of course, we can see that in most cases, we are looking at scenes of neglect and often poverty. In this sense the visual language employed relies on a contradiction and I think meaning is communicated through this opposition.

ST - The claustrophobia of the interiors are relieved by the freshness of the exteriors was there some aspect of depicting a mental space? A life lived between the two?

PH - Yes, the forest scenes at night were used in sequence with the interiors to help construct a mental space, but in a visceral or imaginative sense. The sequence switches between exterior and interior to suggest both a physical connection between the two, and also, in terms of a viewing experience, to create a psychological sense of restriction and then release. This movement between the two spaces also allowed me to experiment with the rhythm and pace of the overall narrative and I've used this as a platform to explore, in a fictional sense, the internal psychology of the character I had in mind. Again, lighting was important when I photographed the exterior spaces. I used different techniques, often making use of long exposures, lights and sometimes torch light to bring a subtle sense of fantasy to these natural spaces.

Technical Info

I use a nikon DSLR and a Bronica medium format film camera depending on the situation. Colour film is Fugi Pro 400H 120 film for the Bronica or Ilford FP4 Black and White. I scan the negatives and use photoshop to adjust colours/levels etc. Other than basic colour correction, photoshop isn't used much.

If I shoot digitally, I will shoot in RAW format and use Nikon Capture NX to process if there are a lot of shadow areas, as there were in this series. I find it better for reproducing shadow details, or Aperture if the highlights are important.

The animals and some of the interiors were shot digitally. The exteriors use long exposures. The woods were 10 mins I think and the shed was 2 mins to get some movement in the trees behind. With the lighting I kind of experiment using handheld flash or a torch during the exposure. The interiors use mostly available light with a reflector, and sometimes a softbox.