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Dolly Brown: The Space Between Process and Presentation

I have been really keen to feature a photographer on Between the Art for a while and so this week’s article is a great one with artist Dolly Brown.

Dolly is a Korean-American photographer who lives and works in London. Not formally trained, Dolly came to photography through Instagram. It was through taking photographs, initially on her phone and then eventually on “proper” cameras, that she realised that she had a visual sensibility. Through the medium, Dolly started to come into contact with dance companies, dancers, choreographers, arts organisations, performing arts venues, visual artists, museums and galleries. She began developing a photographic practice around movement, performance and the presentation of artistic practice in performing arts venues and arts institutions. She has worked with the Royal Ballet, Barbican, Tate Modern, Trisha Brown Dance Company, BalletBoyz, Mark Morris Dance Group, Sadler's Wells and Darbar Festival, among numerous others.

Latterly Dolly has been focusing on parallels between dance and other art forms, including sculpture, photography, and painting; and between dance and nature. She balances all of this with her day job as a partner in a City Law firm!

I first came across Dolly's work when she was the guest judge for the annual Royal Academy of Dance's photo competition this year (2021), so it was interesting to learn about her own thought process behind the beautiful images she takes. Read on to hear more...

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I tend to work in very specific spaces that are not necessarily my own space: in the wings of the stage at the Royal Opera House; in a rehearsal studio at Sadler’s Wells; in the studio of a painter who I’m photographing while they paint.

In the successive lockdowns, I took much solace in nature and spent quite a bit of time exploring and making images in the Hackney Marshes. I find it to be a very magical place, in the sense that it’s what you least expect to find in that part of the city, and then there is so very much of it. It is a series of nature reserves and wetlands that abut the city, so it feels like a sort of halfway, liminal space that still feels very London-specific.

I don’t really have a studio-based practice, but I like the idea of have one at some point in the future. I seem to be saving a lot of odds and ends – packing materials that I like the texture of, the blue Styrofoam corners that go on picture frames – that somewhere in the back of my mind I think I might eventually make impermanent sculptures out of and photograph one day.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

Because most of my work is made in the presence of other people and runs alongside their own artistic practice or performance, my creative process is really about a constant negotiation arising from being in a physical space with another artist. It is about a mutual respect, where I respect and show that I understand their practice, both by how I act in and around the space and through the images that I make, and where they respect my contribution. The work is most successful when that mutual sense of respect, comprehension and collaborative spirit come through in the photographs.

My focus tends to be on the edges of things – in a literal sense on the stage, where I prefer to shoot from the wings, and in a figurative sense by showing how a major sculpture exhibition comes together, such as when I was asked to make work around the installation of the Space Shifters exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. My primary interest is in artistic process – the circumstances under which work is created and the conditions under which it is presented.

"My creative process is really about a constant negotiation arising from being in a physical space with another artist... The work is most successful when that mutual sense of respect, comprehension and collaborative spirit come through in the photographs."

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

Movement, time and beauty.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m loosely working on a couple of longer-term projects.

One is a collaboration with choreographer Daniela Neugebauer and sculptor Florence Sweeney, loosely titled The Veil, which explores the intersections between dance, sculpture and photography through ideas of loss, expiry and death.

I also have an ongoing project about my family centred on diasporic narrative and experience, nature and again, the idea of loss.

Finally, I’ve been working on a project documenting the corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet. I had been taking photos from the wings for about three seasons when the pandemic brought everything to a halt. I’m hoping to move forward with this in upcoming 21/22 season, and I would really love to publish a photobook in due course.

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

I think my work itself is not really sense of place, rather it is about sense of space. It is always about being slightly off to the side, on the margins and showing things in a way that they are not normally seen. It is not about taking a shot of the entire stage directly from the centre; it is about looking off to the side and seeing the real drama of performance – the place where the performer gets ready to go on the stage and perform. It’s about showing a sensibility that is halfway between the performer and the audience. There is a sense of being more interested in showing how it feels to experience the performance, or to be the performer, than it is to show what the performance looks like.

"It is always about being slightly off to the side, on the margins and showing things in a way that they are not normally seen."

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

I’m very inspired by the natural world. I think my work around nature, such as the pictures I’ve been taking in the Hackney Marshes, is probably a metaphor for painting or death or both, but it is also about rhythm and movement. It was in the process of making this work that I latterly realised that it was connected to my work with dancers and that actually the two subjects were linked and possibly the same.

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

On a daily basis as I go about my life in London, probably not, although I realised in the lockdown anew that in London we are so blessed to have so many green spaces. However, when I do feel a need to reconnect to nature, I take myself to the Marshes.

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

There are too many to mention, but here is a list of a few who have been at the top of my mind lately!

Auguste Rodin for the negative space his sculptures create and embrace; for the sense of movement in his work; and the attention to hands. At the most recent show of his at Tate Modern, they showed these watercolours he had painted of bodies submerged in water and I was rather obsessed with those for their serene sense of weightlessness.

Painter Alice Neel for her unflinching portraits and social sensibilities. I’m also quite obsessed with the hands in her paintings.

Jan Svoboda, a Czech photographer who took these really quiet, subtle beautiful black and white photographs of things such as light on a wall, or a wrinkle in a tablecloth. The will to simplicity is quite stunning. I learned recently that he photographed a lot in artists’ studios and how his work was regarded not merely as a document of that space or that other artist’s work, but as an art practice in its own right. This obviously touches quite closely to my own concerns and subject matter.

Lastly, Jennifer Packer as I was recently very moved by her show at the Serpentine Gallery. She paints figures, but also funeral bouquets and the flower paintings have titles that refer to the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police. A painting of a bouquet is not just a painting of a bouquet.

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

I can only give the advice that I follow myself: don’t make work for the market, make work for yourself. Surround yourself with other artists who truly see you, understand your work, and whose work you also respect.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

In the words of EM Forster, “only connect… live in fragments no longer.”

Dolly's Book List:

I look at a lot of photography and art books and I’ve become that person who buys the catalogue at every exhibition I go to! I also very much enjoy reading biographies of women artists. Lately I have also been reading a lot of fiction by Asian and Asian diasporic writers. Currently on the go:

1. Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban

A biography of painter Alice Neel. I think what comes across most clearly in the biographies of women artists is their drives to make the work - lovers, children, money – these are only incidental to the central concern of the work.

2. Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A ‘biography’ of Bloomsbury told through the lives and works of five women: H.D. (poet), Dorothy L Sayers (novelist), Jane Ellen Harrison (classicist and translator), Eileen Power (historian) and Virginia Woolf (writer and publisher). It feels very “London” so it’s ideal for travelling abroad to keep a piece of ‘home’, which London is for me now.

3. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

The author writes about the death of her Korean mother and how they connected through food. I actually haven’t started reading this yet because I suspect I will end up ugly crying through the entire thing. I’m at that time in my life where the mortality of my parents is coming into focus and I think I will be devastated by this book.

4. Anything written by Joan Didion

Didion’s work is very photographic for me, or perhaps it is better to say that it is cinematic. Ultimately, she was a screenwriter living in California. She sees right to the heart of things in a clear-eyed yet undramatic way. Didion admits that she was influenced by Hemingway, and the New Yorker critic Hilton Als draws parallels between Didion’s writing and Hemingway’s in the introductory essay to her latest published collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. This is probably the only thing that could ever induce me to revisit Hemingway.

To see more of Dolly's work visit her website and her Instagram accounts @londonlivingdoll and @byllod

All Images: Artist's Own


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