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Chris Corson-Scott: The path less traveled

09 Jun 2017
"There can be a real insidiousness in the art world..." Chris Corson-Scott speaks to the challenges of finding a viable path as a photographer in NZ.

Photographers have had to battle for legitimacy within the New Zealand art world. Until recent times, photography was not considered a true art form due to the nature of the craft - you can print unlimited editions and therefore the final product was always sold for a low price. These days photography is finding its place as a respected art form. June marks the month of the Auckland Photography Festival, an annual festival that celebrates New Zealand photographers and their craft. Yet, there still remains to be seen a permanent exhibition in any museum across the nation that is dedicated to celebrating New Zealand photography. I spoke with Chris Corson-Scott, whose work is being exhibited in this year’s Auckland Photography Festival, about the reality of photography as a legitimate career option for young New Zealanders.

Growing up as the son of artist, Ian Scott, Chris held no romanticisms about the life of an artist. “Initially it made me hesitant to be an artist because I saw how complicated and difficult it was and the extreme ups and downs.” The road he took to become a photographer is the one less travelled, choosing not to go to art school but instead finding his own path, initially by running shows in artist-run spaces, then getting into group shows before curating his own shows. Gradually, over time, artists and critics began to see value in his work until finally, it got the attention of art galleries and dealers.

Initially, Chris found that not studying photography at art school made finding his way much harder. He has had experiences where people doubted the legitimacy of his work solely because he doesn’t have an art school education behind him. “I made it much harder on myself at the beginning. Dealers didn’t take me seriously or believe someone could produce worthwhile work without going to art school. On the other hand, that experience helped me grow, and it really helped my work. I think fast success can rob you of the chance to experiment and make mistakes – there’s a lot of pressure not to take chances or change if your work is successful commercially. Though luckily I still don’t have that problem.”

He also feels that being self-taught has given him a lot more freedom to define his own craft. “There’s a lot of homogeneity and conformity nowadays about the kind of work that you’re meant to do. And I think that’s partly because it can be hard to move away from the influence of your teachers.” Chris had already completed a music degree, and growing up around art meant that he had been exposed to it at a young age. He found the inspiration to do the kind of photography that drives him very quickly and felt there was enough there already for him to explore without having to delve into a formal education.

Art school withstanding, there are other challenges that young aspiring artists have to overcome before becoming accepted for their craft. Chris has found that there can be “a certain kind of protective coldness” that permeates the New Zealand art scene. He attributes it to the size of the population, and therefore the size of the market. “Because there are so few opportunities to go around, if an older artist helps you, you could be the one that replaces them in a show. All the same most artists ultimately seem to stick together, and I’d be nowhere without the many people who have helped me.”

There can be a competitive element that can stifle opportunities of aspiring artists in the field. “In the States you can approach nearly any gallerist or critic, and most are happy to give you 5 minutes to look at your work. In New Zealand, there are people who won’t talk to you because you’re not important enough, and there can be a real insidiousness in the art world.” Chris tells the story of an experience at the opening of a large photography exhibition some years ago that included his work. One of the speakers, a retired museum director, criticized the contribution that Chris had made to a group show the year before. Chris comments, “Wouldn’t it have been more positive to talk to me and help improve the perceived faults if that’s what it was actually about? Sometimes it’s just about people abusing power structures, and general pettiness.” In saying that though, he says that photographers tend to stick together a little more. There is less status attached to the label ‘Photographer’ and there tends to be less money to earn from the medium which creates a more open community of fellow artists.  

One of the biggest challenges that photographers face in New Zealand today, Chris believes, is that museums don’t exhibit enough local or international photography work. In recent years, four exhibitions of some of the world’s greatest photographers (Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, William Eggleston, and Eugène Atget) toured Australia and not a single one of them made it over to New Zealand. Currently, there is no permanent display of the history of New Zealand photography. Chris says that this impacts photography students the most. “If the history isn’t on display somewhere it’s hard for students who haven’t travelled to have an idea of what that history is and what they’re dealing with and responding to – seeing art in person is very different to seeing it on a screen or in a book.” He notices that the work of emerging photographers can often go misunderstood because they are responding to the work of international photographers, but New Zealand audiences remain ignorant to the message that they are making. While this is changing, it is slow and it is limiting the ability for photography to grow as an artform in New Zealand. “If museums don’t show the best international work here, let alone the best national work, how can you expect anyone else to value it as an art form?”

Despite his recognition as a photographer early in his career, Chris still questions whether photography is a viable career option. In 2013, Chris co-authored a book, Pictures They Want To Make: Recent Auckland Photography, that showcased the work of 12 contemporary photographic artists connected to the Auckland region. Upon meeting these artists, he found that nearly every one of them had to do another job such as teaching in order to sustain a life as an artist, even those whose work was on display in Te Papa and in international museums.

However these challenges aside, for Chris, there is no other option. “It’s really hard making work I’m happy with, but there’s nothing as exciting as the rare feeling of getting it right. You’re always chasing that. Making something that wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t done it.” Chris says that for the last eight years he has put everything he’s earned into creating more work, and a successful show financially, is breaking even.

Chris’ latest work, Dreaming in the Anthropocene, explores the juxtaposition of deserted industrial remains against the backdrop of nature’s ultimate reclamation. He spent months camping in the South Island researching and seeking out the decaying vestiges of New Zealand’s industrial history. Chris specifically sought out sites of previous importance that contributed to rapid changes in New Zealand, such as old mines, freezing works and flour mills, and which now lay abandoned and bare, slowly being reclaimed by nature. He researched sites, spending time pouring over old maps and history books, before arriving in the towns and asking around until he found the person that held the knowledge of the site. “For me, it’s about being engaged with the world. It’s a great excuse to go and talk to people and go into places you otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to be.”

His favourite experience was in Temuka, not far from Timaru where word of mouth had led him in search of an old flour mill. He asked the campground manager who was able to introduce him to an old man who owned the building. The owner was excited that he was interested and took him up there. They approached an old five-story concrete building and started walking up the staircase. Halfway up, he realised the significance of this find. “I do this twenty times for every one where I actually get excited enough to set up the camera and make a photo. Everything is persistence. Most of the time when you go to these places there’s nothing there to photograph, or there’s no way to make the picture good, or you can’t get access to find out. Out of every picture I end up taking, about 1 in 20 are usable. Then out of the 1 in 20 perhaps a third are worth showing.” Chris found himself amongst machinery from the 1900s that was still completely intact with flour still on the floor. “In most cases people have pawned all the metal off for scrap, but the owner recognized that it was special so it was still all sitting there untouched.” Some piping in the building was so old that it was square and made from Rimu timber. “If I hadn’t been doing this research and following these trails there would never be a photo that showed this still existed in 2016, which is part of why it’s exciting.”

For Chris, photography is about making people stop and think for a moment, to consider the purpose behind our actions and our drive as a society. “I want people to think about the purpose of everything we’re doing and the goals of our society. Going through my father being sick for six years before he died, gave me a different perspective on how short and fragile life is. It made me feel that so much of what we do is a distraction from reality. So much of society is an attempt to forget things and feel satiated, or at least constantly distracted and never really present – and I think that’s the case now more than ever. When I photograph the sites I’ve been looking at recently, I think about the lives of people who worked there, and gave their lives to manufacture something or build these buildings. The owners who were powerful industrialists and had their reasons for mining a hillside, or clearing the forests or marshlands. I’m trying to think about what this amounts to, what we are looking for or striving for. Especially now in a world that has so many seemingly insurmountable environmental problems.” He maintains no grandiose ideas about how his photography can solve the social issues that he is commenting upon, but he sees it as a way to open a conversation for anyone looking to think about them.

When giving advice to others who might consider a career in photography, Chris says, “You have to really want to do it. You have to need to do it. There are so many obstacles along the way and so many times you doubt what you’re doing. You wonder how you’re going to keep going.” While the challenges of New Zealand’s small population create a competitive and often cut throat playing field for young artists, Chris feels that the outcome is a sector of people who are 100% dedicated to their craft. “It creates people who really want to do their artform because there is not financial success that comes with it. I think we do amazingly for the size of the population.” It is by no means the easiest road to walk, but persistence, a drive to connect with people in different ways and the unique experiences that come out of his photographic research keep him seeking new and interesting pathways for presenting the environment in which we live.

Dreaming in the Anthropocene will be up at Trish Clark Gallery from June 13 - July 28 2017.

Chris Corson-Scott Photography, Auckland Festival of Photography