Artist of the Month: October 2012, Alicia Bruce

Artist of the Month: October 2012, Alicia Bruce  Alicia Bruce, Flood in the Highlands: after Sir Edwin Landseer, 2008

For October 2012 Ruth catches up with photographer Alicia Bruce to discuss what makes a successful photograph, the inspiration she finds in other people's lives and how she helped the residents of Menie in Aberdeenshire thwart the property developer Donald Trump. 

Ruth Wilbur: You are a regular tweeter - describe yourself in a tweet. 

Alicia Bruce: I'm @picturemaking a Scottish photographer, educator and community collaborator. Love meeting likeminded people to rant & share skills with.

RW: How do you choose the people you photograph? 

AB: It almost always happens through real-life interactions. I’d describe the people I choose to photograph as remarkable everyday people. Everyone has a significant story to tell. The conversations and processes leading up to a portrait are what excite me.

I recently photographed George Spencer, an 83-year-old shopkeeper in Blaenavon, South Wales. His shop had been described to me as a Steptoe & Son bits & bobs shop. Having spent time with George (and also slyly researching him), I found out he’d studied medicine, which he gave up when his father died down the mine. He then came back to Blaenavon to run the family business.

In the 1940s George was the projectionist in the Blaenavon Workman’s Hall and his wife was an usherette. They became champion ballroom dancers. In the 1970s George was Major of Blaenavon. I found an image of him from that time with his arms round two dolly-birds in bikinis. I almost always decide if I’ll photograph someone through my gut instinct and never judge on appearances alone.

Alicia Bruce David Milne Hermit Point 2010

Alicia Bruce, David Milne: Hermit Point, 2010

RW: What are the challenges involved in photographing people? 

AB: Not everyone wishes to be photographed, so it’s my job make them comfortable and to make the shoot as easy as possible from their point of view. I often photograph people outdoors and with additional lighting, so other challenges include weather and training up assistants if needed. For my portraits of David and Moira Milne I wanted a certain colour of sky. This meant checking weather forecasts along with everyone’s availability over ten days before we got the right conditions. Worth it though.

RW: What do you think makes a successful photograph? 

AB: A photograph can be successful in many different ways: emotionally, politically, intellectually, sociologically, technically, commercially. If you can move someone to stop to consider what they are seeing for a minute or more, that's great. If it’s a political photograph and it moves them to take action, then it’s a real success. Technically, for me, a successful photograph is one which you’ve got right ‘in camera’. You shouldn’t need to manipulate it.

RW: You created a significant body of work around the Menie Estate residents’ protest against Donald Trump’s planned golf course. Have you got to know the community? 

AB: I was in Menie almost every day for the first two months of my project in 2010 as construction began on the controversial golf course and proposed housing development. I know the community very well and now count them all as friends. We’ve laughed and cried together. They know that landscape better than anyone else and were never consulted about what would happen. It was heartbreaking to see at first hand what these families had to go through.

Alicia Bruce Please Dont Pretend 2012

Alicia Bruce, Please don't pretent to care about my country's scenery in order to make yourself even richer, 2012

In summer 2010 there were land grabs, arrests, constant stalking by Trump security. At that time I’d felt a tremendous pressure to record everything that was happening. This changed when I got to know the filmmaker Anthony Baxter, who was making the documentary ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ in Menie at the same time. This gave me the freedom to record the situation from a different viewpoint and for a different audience. 

Alicia Bruce Mike Sheila Forbes Mill of Menie 2010

Alicia Bruce, Mike & Sheila Forbes: Mill of Menie, 2010

In 2010 the residents were living under threat of compulsory purchase order, so I wanted to use my exhibition at Peacock Visual Arts as a tool to get positive press for the residents and allow them to represent themselves. Until that time they had been wrongly portrayed as peasants and protesters. When the show opened in January 2011, we gained positive press for the residents for the first time. The photographs were featured on STV Six O’clock News, in The Times, The Scotsman and in the local Press & Journal, who have been vocally in favour of Trump since 2006. Shortly after the exhibition opened, Donald Trump released a statement saying he no longer intended to pursue compulsory purchase orders.

RW: Your work was described by Catriona McAra as distinctly Scottish. What do you think makes it so?

AB: Much of my subject matter is Scottish. The Menie project and other photographs engage with Scottish politics and local issues, whilst often appropriating works from Scottish collections. The most recent phase of the Menie series depicts an Americanised ‘Disneyfied’ landscape in the North East of Scotland.

In 2011 I made a significant body of work in The Valleys of South Wales, commissioned by Ffotogallery. This work is not yet in the public domain and will be exhibited in 2013. Much of the work responds to the National Museum of Wales collection. Will it still have a distinctly Scottish context? I’ll leave that up to the audience to decide.

RW: You use art historical images in a lot of your work. What first made you decide to reference iconic works?

AB: It’s something which I’ve kept coming back to since my student days when I made works which took influence from Man Ray, Mondrian and Magritte. This wasn’t always encouraged by some of my lecturers, but it was a working method I couldn’t shake. During a residency at Aberdeen Art Centre shortly after graduating, I started to explore narrative- based works from the local collection including Landseer’s epic Victorian painting ‘Flood in the Highlands,’ which I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with. I guess you can’t choose what fascinates you - it chooses you too.

RW: Share with us something you have learned.

AB: Don’t get caught up in trends. No one owes you anything. Life isn’t always fair. Learn from rejection but don’t take it personally. Don’t get too upset if other artists/photographers try to copy you - you must be doing something right and they’ll never do it with your heart. Working in the creative industries we put ourselves out there and keep taking risks. I’ve also learned to ENJOY things as and when they happen.

View Alicia Bruce's profile >

Interview by Ruth Wilbur, October 2012

Coming up

A selection of work from the Menie series will be shown at The Scottish Parliament in early 2013.

Photographs from her 2011 Ffotogallery commission in Blaenavon, South Wales, will be exhibited at Cardiff International Photography Festival in May 2013. This work can be previewed at ‘Into the Valley’, a photography conference at University of Wales, Newport, in early 2013 (date to be announced). This will include portraits of Blaenavon Male Voice Choir and figurative portraits in the landscape referencing ‘Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting’ by the Aberdeen born painter William Dyce.

About Alicia Bruce 

Alicia Bruce is a photographer based in Edinburgh. She will be showing works commissioned by Ffotogallery at Cardiff International Photography Festival in May 2013. A selection of work from her 'Menie' series will also be shown at The Scottish Parliament in early 2013.

Further Information