Q&A: Emily Allchurch


How did you develop your collage technique? Have you always worked primarily with photography?

Although photography had always been an interest of mine, it was only upon moving to London to study for my MA at the Royal College of Art that photography and its ability to record an experience of the city became the focus and medium of choice for my practice.

Soon after graduating, I developed my technique of recreating Old Master prints and paintings through a 21st-century lens. I became aware that in the process of scouting for the panoramic industrial landscapes I was after at the time, I was discarding fascinating architectural details all around me, which themselves had a story to tell. I decided instead to shift my focus to these fragments, elevating them out of their everyday surroundings and creating new, imagined spaces in which they could exist, more in line with their classical aspirations. Using the framework of the Old Master, I was able to update the original to create a dialogue with the past and a social narrative for our times.

How do you put a piece together?

There are two parts to my making process. The first is the research and collation of an image library. This is usually a brief, intensive interaction with a city, where I see my role as one of witness, to document and absorb an impression of a place or event. Using the original painting as my guide, I look for buildings and objects that could be used to recreate it from everyday life today.

The second has a more slow and reflective tempo back home in my studio, where the essence of the encounter is gradually filtered into the construction of a story. This requires careful sifting through all the images to select the details that will build my narrative. Using digital software I collage dozens, if not hundreds, of photographic fragments over the framework of the original painting, blending the images to create a seamless new space. The tools I use to create these subtle effects – erasing and blending layers, and modulating colour, contrast, perspective, focus, highlight and shadow – require a painter's eye and skill, only for me the traditional canvas is replaced by a computer screen. Each image takes several weeks to complete.

Why do you enjoy making work inspired by other artists?

I have always had a deep interest in art history and this process gets me very close to the Old Masters, their techniques and motivations. I feel I am walking in their footsteps when I am out taking photographs, using their paintings and prints as my map and guide to interpret the contemporary world. By updating them, I feel I am re-energising these works for a modern audience, while creating a dialogue between the past and the present day.

Your commission for Manchester Art Gallery will be inspired by Adolphe Valette's painting Albert Square Manchester 1910. Why did you choose this piece?

When Manchester Art Gallery offered to show Tokyo Story [Emily's series inspired by 19th-century Japanese artist Hiroshige] in spring 2015, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to make a new artwork inspired by Manchester. I wanted to work with the French Impressionist painter Adolphe Valette because his atmospheric views of Edwardian Manchester, in the process of transition to a modern city, are so popular with the gallery's visitors.

Just like Monet, Whistler and the Pictorialist photographers, Valette was inspired by the influx of Japanese prints and design. His paintings therefore feel like a bridge between the Tokyo Story visions of Japan and the city of Manchester.

I chose this piece because it is one of Valette’s most significant works and Albert Square is still an important communal area in the city today. It is the place where people congregate for religious festivals, remembrance and festivities throughout the year, and the architecture and monuments in the square are familiar landmarks.

What are you hoping to achieve with this new work?

I’m hoping to create an updated depiction of Valette’s Albert Square, celebrating Manchester as the cosmopolitan, vibrant city it is today, but with resonant echoes of its historic past. I’m interested in how much of the original architecture has survived from Edwardian times, such as the Town Hall, Albert Memorial, and statues of Gladstone and Heywood. They have stood witness to the passing of time, as people and fashions have come and gone throughout the intervening century. I hope to capture this simultaneous layering of transience and permanence in my piece and tap into a real sense of civic pride that is coming through in the #tellemily messages. The aim is to filter through a narrative that resonates with the people of Manchester and visitors to the gallery.

Please support this project in whatever way you can. We really want to make this happen. The money raised will not only cover the costs of making the new artwork for exhibition in 2015, but will enable the piece to be part of Manchester Art Gallery’s permanent collection. It will form an important record and depiction of Manchester in the 21st century and will help support female photographers' representation in national collections.

Donate to Manchester Art Gallery's Art Happens project to help them commission a new work by Emily Allchurch. Rewards include postcards, paper fans, event tickets and limited-edition prints of the commission. Tell Emily what Manchester means to you by using the Twitter hashtag #tellemily.

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