Above The Fold is the culmination of an ambitious long-term project (2012-2020) by photographer Noel Bowler. Using his signature medium format film camera to photograph newspaper newsrooms across Europe, the United States and Asia, he shows us the physical space and the structural layers that have formed the foundation of our modern press.
How would you explain your approach to your work and process?
On some fundamental level, I think most, if not all of my work exists around the process of ‘access’. I used to only consider my practice in terms of a visual output, but now I realise that my process begins long before any shutter is clicked. Access and accessibility become the cornerstone of all of my research. Early evidence of this was my very first large body of work The Joy [which began as my degree project] in which I spent years inside Mountjoy Prison.
From that point onwards, my practice has continued to examine the idea of ‘the institution’ (in a global sense) and the effects of change and circumstance on these institutions and the ideals and functions we take for granted. From examining ‘how we work’ in a global labour market in the time of a global recession [Union], to the future of the global newspaper newsroom, my practice has always looked at the ongoing consideration of the political forces that shape our world reflected through the organisation of social space.
This strategy of photography, mostly unpeopled, is made up of interior spaces that I like to think are quietly revealing. There’s a nice quote from Ken Grant in the essay A Seat at The Table he wrote for my Union book, “Space portrays those who populate it.”
Your most recent project Above The Fold is finally out in the world. Can you explain more about the project, how it came about and how you went about making it a reality over so many years?
Around ten years ago, I began reading a lot around the western newspaper media’s plans to move online to a subscription based system and not paper. This was probably the origin of the idea and from then I pretty much embarked on what was the beginning of a journey that would witness and document some of these changes and to try to examine what the future holds for these spaces and its people.
For most of my career I have focused my camera on workers, workspace and the labour market as a whole, and for me this felt like a logical progression towards a subject matter that has always been close to my heart.
Like most of my long term projects, there is a point at which it becomes clear to me that this project should be wrapped up or released. I think 2016 was the turning point for me with ATF. As Trump became president I watched, daily, the overt attempts to systematically undermine the processes of print media and so I felt that the timing was right for me to offer my counterpoint to this troubling narrative.
With this in mind I feel that Above The Fold is a story about legacy, and the future of an industry and its workers, through an evolution of technological change and political upheaval in which human input still remains the cornerstone in the production of legitimate news today. These photographs offer us a glimpse into the places where the decisions and policies that affect so many are created. While these places may be separated by geography, culture and politics, they are all inherently linked by one fundamental attribute; the commitment to inform, educate and reinforce the importance of a free and trustworthy press
Why are large self-initiated, narrative driven projects so important to you?
This might sound counterintuitive, but I’m not sure that they are. What’s important to me is the subject matter and the evolution of my own learning and research around certain themes and ideas. I consistently try and make work that I want to make and about subjects that I feel are primarily important to me (but, also, of interest to an audience). In a lot of ways, I think I suffer from a creative naivety where I think that my projects won’t take as long as they do. In some ways I’m grateful for this as I always feel that had I known how long it would actually take, I would have scared myself away from trying!
So, I don’t really set out to spend years doing one project, it’s just how it always ends up. These kinds of projects are really all I’ve ever known. It’s what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me awake at night too. I’ve never wanted to have to turn work around quickly, it’s not about that for me. I think work needs to have time to evolve and personally I need to learn and evolve with it along the way.
Your projects are huge commitments to a single thought or idea, albeit with many strands, locations and all the associated negotiations, travel and much more, I guess. How do you ensure you keep these projects moving towards a final destination and output over what can be years?
One of the important things for me from the outset is not to commit to ‘a final destination’ at the beginning, but to simply lay down a path or a direction. If you commit to an ‘ending’ at the beginning then I’m not allowing myself to learn and evolve with the project and there’s a danger of backing myself into a creative cul-de-sac in which its difficult to get out of. I like to think the conclusion will become evident as the project develops and when it makes sense to the work, not just an arbitrary time frame. Obviously, this is easier said than done.
The key to managing projects of this scale (for me anyway) is to have more than one idea on the go. This allows time for reflection but also allows me to continue moving forward with one idea while I may have hit a wall with another. It’s also why I wanted to teach. I like being surrounded by photography and ideas and I find listening to students talk about their work to be inspiring.
There’s something eerie about the fact you took these images pre-pandemic in what were normally busy newsrooms. This seems to take on more significance given the pandemic caused these studios to scatter their teams to the wind when it hit. Do you look at your images now in a different way?
I don’t think I see it differently but I’m conscious that other people are beginning to come around to seeing some of the spaces in the same way I always have. It’s definitely made things easier to explain to people. Now everybody can see the relationship we have with space (in this case, workspace) perhaps with a little more layered understanding.
In your professional and educational career, have you seen a shift in how photography is perceived both in the creative community, and in the wider community here in Ireland? If so, how do you see that change and what are your hopes for your craft next?
Since I began, there has been a huge shift in how photography has been both understood and received in Ireland. When I chose to study photography at Uni the only option was to go to the UK, now there are an incredible range of courses and emerging talents in Ireland.
Photographic and visual arts education in Ireland is of a global standard. I think we owe a lot to some of the trailblazers like Christine Redmond and Joe Sterling who ran the famous Sallynoggin course where I was lucky to cut my teeth early on in photography. These were life changing moments for most of us who walked through those doors.
All you have to do is look at the incredible talent that is emerging from courses like IADT, TUC and Griffith and showing their work at the Gallery of Photography and Library Project. The standard of work and critical understanding of photography coming out of Ireland is second to none. There are great opportunities for support and nurturing with the photographic community
My hope is that we continue to see the diverse work outputs from our young photographers and artists. I love to see Irish photographers and artists have a bigger impact in Europe, UK and around the world.
As an educator in University of Suffolk, what do you hope to motivate in your students as they start to find their eye on the world and their own work?
I think primarily I want my students to know that they have a voice and to see that not only does their voice matter, but it’s also just as relevant as anyone else’s. In my own learning trajectory, I was lucky enough to have been inspired. From my early days with Christine Redmond and Joe Sterling at Sallynoggin to studying under Ken Grant, Paul Seawright, Kaylynn Deveney and Donovan Wylie, for Degree and MFA. This definitely led me to the teaching route.
Five photographers that inspire you and why?
I always feel lucky to be inspired by so many photographers/artists. While the work that I make is of a particular style/genre my inspiration extends way beyond the kind of work that I make (thankfully). So this is a very difficult question to answer. If you ask me this same question tomorrow I would probably have a different 5 ….
Her ability to manage and execute big important ideas and make them accessible to everyone. I’ve always loved the way she creates impact whether it’s through exhibition, publication or conversation, a seamless transition across many platforms. Definitely a voice for the now.
Is my go to artist for output and production standard. Her attention to detail and ambition around her exhibitions, installations is second only to her conceptual approach. I was blown away by her show Paperwork and The Will of Capitol in the Gagosian Gallery NY a few years back. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is one of those books that had a significant effect on me when I first saw it.
One of my favourite portrait makers and one of the finest long term projects in Imperial Courts.
Anyone that knows Ken, knows that he’s a legend and one of the nicest/greatest tutors there is. While Ken is famous for his photography, I think that Ken is one of the finest writers on photography today and I’m not sure that most people are aware of this. I’m fortunate enough to have had Ken as one of my tutors during my early degree days in Newport, and in later life I have been privileged to have him write the open essays for Above The Fold. One of the most admirable things about his practice is both his dedication to his craft and his understated approach to everything he does.
How can you not be inspired by Dublin’s’ own? Eamonn is another photographer that has been creating something or other for most of his life with success across a range of genres. Perhaps what I find most inspiring is his that he is completely unique and carved out his very own path in photography that was somewhat counter to the Irish ‘photo fashions and trends’ of the time. He continues to consistently generate incredible work. Like Ken he also has a very understated approach that you can’t help but admire.
Some of my traits:
A certain creative naivety in that I never think it’s going to take as long as it does.
Ability to access or a least commit to the challenge
Tenacity not consistent over that period, but that’s also important to allow the project evolve (and my own understanding learning)
Three cameras you’d recommend and why.
I’m really not up to date with the latest cameras and tech, I think I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to equipment. I think it’s simply all about what your most comfortable with and what gives you the greatest amount of control over what you want to achieve. Your heart and soul will do the rest.
For the entry level snapper.
Head to John Gunn’s for that one ….
For the caught the bug middleweight.
Hmmmm, I’m going to have to stick to the “whatever works for you” answer
For the pro.
I can only speak for myself here. For all my projects I have used my work horse Mamiya RB67. Recently I have begun toying with the Fuji GFX 50s. So far this is the first digital camera that I’ve used that has felt right to me, ergonomically speaking anyway.
Your favourite photograph of all time, and why?
I don’t think I can narrow this down to a single photograph. The experience for me has always been in bodies of work as a whole, whether that’s the installation, the book or the performance. There’s an experience in engaging with work as a whole that I’m not sure I get from a single standalone image. But I’ll likely think of one after this goes to print
Your favourite photography by you, and why?
When I was making the work for Union back 2014(ish), I found myself photographing at the Seafarers Training Facility at Piney Point in Maryland [Part of the Seafarers Union SIU]. This is an example of one of the many scenarios I found myself in that weren’t planned but in a serendipitous way were made available to me.
I was photographing as many rooms and areas as I could when I found myself in the control room for a shipping (bridge) simulator. I was immediately drawn to the 1970’s vibe technology and of course made a photo on my trusty Mamiya RB67. When I returned to Ireland and processed the film, I became excited about this image.
For the past six years that image has inspired me to think about different ideas and has been the influence for many new ideas and lines of research that have led to numerous new strands in my practice. So for that reason … that pic is the winner.
Any hints on what you’re planning for Adastral?
Adastral is one of my latest projects. I’ve lived in England for the past seven years and in some ways this is my “England” or “new home” project. It’s at its early stages but already it has many strands in areas of work across the UK. So, for the moment I’m going to keep an open mind and let it evolve. I’m excited though. Watch this space.
Above The Fold is available from noelbowler.com, £45
words: Richard Seabrooke