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In The Steps Of Robert Pinnacle
-Transcript of interview of Kate Mellor by Sylvia Rudman
  S.R. Let’s talk about the body of work called “In the Steps of Robert Pinnacle.” How did this come about?
K.M. I was commissioned by Photo98 the European Festival of Photography and the Digital Image in conjunction with the Mercer Art Gallery to photograph European spa towns. I was given the freedom to develop the project in any way as long as I did some of the work in Harrogate, the town, itself, being a historic spa town and the Borough Council being a major sponsor.
S.R. People think of them as fabulous, exotic places.
K.M. Yes in the sense of exotic being from elsewhere as in ‘the past is another country’ and fabulous too. The nature of these environments is fantastic, fabled. I think of these places as being historic and that was the base from which I began to work. To think around how we construct history. Then I began to work from the premise that history is a mixture of fact and fiction. I grew up near the spa town of Malvern Wells and I just remember being dragged along there through these ghastly elitist environments with their pompous decaying architecture until we got to the main draw - apparently - a grotesque dark hole with very smelly water in it. Dark, dank, mouldy decay. As soon as I realised that I felt some antipathy towards them - towards these crumbling aspirational places I knew I probably had a story to follow .
S.R. The person whose story you did follow was Robert Pinnacle - can you explain more about him? Where he went and what he did?
K.M. Robert Pinnacle was a historic landscape painter who lived and worked in spa town society. The society which grew up around these sources of water attracted those who had status and wealth and so artists, musicians and writers would have been looking for patrons and commissions there. Part of the idea was also to look at how the artist is positioned in society, history...
I made work in Bath, Bagni di Lucca, Aix-les-Bains, Baden-Baden, Marianske Lazne, Franziskovy Lazne, Spa and Harrogate. I tend to think of people like Pinnacle as my cultural ancestors - the forerunner of landscape photographers today - so I reconstructed Pinnacle’s works using a pinhole camera - painters of this era used pinholes in their work. Also I liked the emphasis on perspective I could create with this particular pinhole. It seemed appropriate for the rather picturesquely constructed images painters of Pinnacle’s era favoured. Then there is the curiously watery look of pinhole images and the fact that because the exposure times are so long people can be present in front of the camera but not register, not be recorded. So that was metaphorically appropriate. I would then respond to the place often working around some narrative, with a more contemporary aesthetic, less picturesque, more iconic using a Hasselblad 6 x 6 medium format camera or sometimes a Widelux panoramic camera.
S.R. What I like about this work is the varying aesthetics. You are working with the transparency of photography, because the ‘contemporary’ work masquerades as much less mediated, apparently more ‘real’.
K.M. The fact that photography has this rhetoric of truth is important to this work. I adopt different methodologies to emphasize that. Usually one strategy is kept to in order to make one particular way of seeing stronger, more convincing. Photography is seen as real and there is a parallel between that and the way that history is seen. In the Steps of Robert Pinnacle plays on that . It is in fact a total conceit. Despite the fact that his name is seen to be engraved in gold in the image Names alongside figures such as Benjamin Constant and Southey on a memorial plaque Robert Pinnacle doesn’t actually exist. I made him up and he gets to be about 300 years old before I finish with him.
S.R. How did he get his name on that plaque? Digitally I suppose?
K.M. Yes that’s me proving Robert Pinnacle’s existence. Around that time photographic discourse reflected on what digital imaging would bring to photography because the new media did not have the same expectation of it - of truthful representation - that it would not be able to function as evidence in the way photography did.
S.R. How does the audience respond when they find out that Robert Pinnacle is a fictional character?
K.M. They seem to like it a lot - they've been round the show, looked at the photographs and read the excerpts from Pinnacle’s journals and they have to get to the end before they can read ‘Robert Pinnacle is a fictional character who bears a passing resemblance to many people both living and dead.’ I think they know they've been persuaded to suspend their better judgement and that amuses them.
S.R. It says in the publication ‘Shifting Horizons’ that the work is a bit of a piss-take.
K.M. Yes and no. I had intended the Pinnacle character to be a real dog and a piss artist but - as fiction writers observe - the characters get away from you and invent themselves and their own lives. The thing is that a number of his experiences could have happened or have happened and that is something the audience recognise. But really although it is intended as a critique on several levels it is also a homage to all those artists, all the work that’s gone before, who have contributed to, helped to form to our vision.
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From In the Steps of Robert Pinnacle (1998)
"This work was made for a commission to document European spa towns. I chose to base the project on the career of the landscape painter Robert Pinnacle, who visited and resided amongst these unique societies which provided his main source of patronage. In Pinnacle's era artists frequently used such devices as pinholes to assist perspective and, partly for this reason, I chose to re-construct his works using a pinhole camera.
While re-tracing his career through Europe I made other photographic works using a variety of formats and processes, contemporary and historic, drawing on the narratives that prevail in these once fashionable locations."
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