Elephant magazine // Universal Now   2015

Abigail Reynolds: Cuts in Time by Robert Shore

‘London is this dynamic, constantly shifting swirl of people and movement,’ explains Abigail Reynolds. ‘But the monuments don’t fundamentally change.’ It’s this simple but potent insight that endows Reynolds’s The Universal Now series with its quietly uncanny, subtly mythic quality.

The British Museum 1956 | 1971

The works are created by splicing together photographs of the same London monument taken from the same place by different photographers at different times – often decades apart. ‘I think it’s quite a beautiful idea that there are these people who have stopped and placed this little circle of glass in the same spot in front of these monuments that we’re constantly passing by without really looking at them,’ says Reynolds, who grew up in London but is now based in Cornwall.

‘The buildings are the overt subject of The Universal Now but the real subject is time. We’re in this fluid river of time which is unstoppable but through photography you can have these frozen moments. When I started the series I was looking at the Lorenz Attractor and ideas about how time could be folded, about wormholes in time and how you could get loops and things could be folded back over one another.’

She describes her temporary move from London to New Mexico some years ago as a formative experience in her practice. ‘Albuquerque is a place where there is only one moment. Stuff is built and it’s never demolished because it doesn’t rust, and because there’s other land you don’t pull it down, you just build on other bits of land.’ Exposure to the more expanded New Mexico architectural horizon triggered a recognition of the palimpsest-like quality of the London landscape. ‘I’d never previously really appreciated the intense layering that’s been going on in London since pre-Roman times. It was only after I’d lived in Albuquerque that I understood how I’d been living inside this extreme compression of time and detail in London.’ With its folds and careful layering, The Universal Now is a photographic-sculptural rendering of this temporal compression.

Reynolds has a collection of 300 or 400 London guidebooks that serve as her principal source material. ‘I use a lot of photographs from the Fifties because they are very well crafted. They were taken by serious photographers at a moment when photography was really doing well. Cameras were very good and people took it seriously as a documentary medium. From the Thirties on, a lot of documenting was happening because there was an awareness that London, and Britain in general, was irreparably changing and it needed to be photographed pretty quickly. So there’s an urgency and a formal clarity in those photographs that I’ve always liked.

Royal Albert Hall 1948|1985 2009

‘I’ve always looked for photographs that are formally strong because otherwise I can’t cut them together. All of the photographs of London I use were taken by photographers working to a clear commercial brief to photograph the monuments in the accepted way or in a way that’s objective. They’re not meant to be very personal musings on St Paul’s but rather THE image of St Paul’s that people instantly recognize. So I’m looking for photographs where the photographers will have stood in the same place, where the camera lens will have been in the exact same spot in space. Then they’ve printed those images at the same scale.’

The self-effacing nature of the source photographers’ style is important. ‘The fact these photographs are not strongly authored is useful to me,’ Reynolds says. An image bearing the clear visual signature of an Avedon or Cartier-Bresson would interfere with her process. ‘It would be like there’s another person in the room. I feel I just have more space to fabulate with [more anonymous photographs].’

Reynold’s working method is rigorously precise. ‘Imagine a chessboard. Now, if you cut all the black squares into an X – you slice them all straight across – and you fold out the flaps you would exactly cover all the white squares. If you do that to two chessboards and merge them, you could have an entirely black chessboard, but if you folded the flaps the other way it would be entirely white. Both chessboards are present simultaneously.’ This simultaneity is key to the impact of The Universal Now. ‘In cutting and folding these images, I’m not privileging one moment over another because they’re both simultaneously present, and though as a viewer you can’t actually fold down the flaps, you can move in relation to the image and see what’s there, so in a way you are in two moments – your present moment of looking contains these two photographic moments.

‘Initially that can be quite confusing. You have to puzzle the folds out and work out what belongs to what, which really slows you down. For me that’s a way of prolonging the moment of looking, where you lose your sense of time. That’s why I want the works to be slow or puzzling – so that time expands a bit.’

Peter Pan 1919 | 1999, 1923 | 1999 (2013)

Take Peter Pan 1919 | 1999, 1923 | 1999 (2013), for instance. ‘The black and white images are taken from two editions of the same book. That’s why the page numbers differ, and the rounded-off corner is to the other side,’ Reynolds explains. ‘I returned to this image twice because I like the print very much. There’s something very strange about the tree in the background. It can’t be throwing that shadow to the side/in front of it, and there are two printing pops across the trunk like a ghost form. The grass that holds the statue does not seem to connect at all to this background, nor that to the right, which is carpeted in white flowers. It’s surely been worked on in the dark room pre-1919 very thoroughly by Mr Rischgitz [the photographer]. It feels redolent of the “faeries at the bottom of the garden” photographs from the 1900s, which is entirely suitable to Peter Pan. It might be that the photographer felt that the black column of the statue needed a black column continuing the tree ­– so there is a sense of doubling already in the original photographic print. The double/doppelgänger I extend in the cutting, which gives the viewer a shifting sense of the visible/invisible as different glimpses of Peter are offered in each part of the diptych. The cut form has three tiers because the original has three tiers – three lines of disconnected ‘ground’: grass, grass, shrubbery.’

Though her art practice is distinctly analogue, she describes her role in the language of the Digital Age. ‘I suppose I’m a content manager. It doesn’t interest me to take my own photographs. The focus for me is on a sort of recomposition.

‘We live in a world with enough stuff in it. I don’t feel like contributing to that pile of crap. I feel like sorting through the ruins and picking stuff up. I feel very akin to T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, picking through the rubble and reconstructing. I usually work with narratives that I already pretty much subscribe to, but where I want those narratives to become larger. I don’t deface images, I resuscitate them. Or at least that’s my intention.

‘The craft of photography is on the way out. Our interest at the moment is in the fluidity of photographs, how quickly they can be passed around. But with that increased speed there’s the loss of a certain formal beauty or clarity that’s just inevitable. In the same way if you want an image to move quickly down through the internet, it gets compressed and is kind of junk-y when you get it down the other end. That’s just the way it is. The whole thing is under a lot of pressure at the moment. I’m working on that closing margin of these ways of representing.’