At the risk of sounding unoriginal, Robert Chilton’s photographs have a haunting and somewhat ethereal quality about them. The sitters for his portraits look lost, dislocated somehow from the world around them, and his images of abandoned, long-forgotten Yorkshire landscapes appear melancholy. With both subjects it is as if their wistfulness and tinges of sadness makes them unnerving and, as can be with these things, beautiful at the same time.
When I met Chilton, these same qualities were evident in the Bradford-born man himself. Dressed head-to-toe in black which sets off his pale, second generation Irish complexion, I find him hiding in a doorway outside The Photographer’s Gallery off Oxford Street, smoking and looking across at the tinted windows of the Sweatbox Soho gay gym. He was nervous, and I felt that if I were to look away for too long, he might simply disappear into the ether, retreat back to the North, to the small town of Saltaire where he now resides, a stone’s throw from the Salt’s Mill and Hockney’s permanent gallery.
We walked along the Thames in relative, comfortable silence, pausing to look through the photography section at the Tate Modern (Chilton suggested photographers he likes: Robert Maplethorpe; J H Engström; Anders Petersen) before finally settling at a small pub off Borough Market. Gentleman that he is, Chilton bought me a pint of Brooklyn Brown and we sat out in the wet smoking area to talk about his work. He was quiet and soft-spoken, taking time to answer each question with precise responses.
All photos © Robert Chilton
So what first drew you into photography?
Probably it’s clarity, plus the resemblance to cinema and television.
Do you remember the first photo you took?
I can’t be certain – the earliest I can recall intentionally taking a camera out with me was a camping trip I went on with some friends. I was probably twelve years of age.
Who are your influences?
At the moment I’m Helen Levitt’s biggest fan. Oh, and also David Hockney’s drawings, specifically his colour pencil work. I also find plenty of inspiration from Gary Winogrand, Paul Graham and Peter Fraser.
What’s one of the most important parts of the photographic process for you?
Editing. That’s one of my major problems, because I have huge amounts of photos I’m totally uncertain about… because I’ve got no-one to talk about it with. That’s what I think about most often with my work. I don’t think you can really do it on your own, you need someone to say the same thing as you’re thinking, but unprompted. Not to say that it’s good or bad, but that what you’re looking at, trying to highlight, actually exists.
Your photos usually have a sense of alienation/isolation about them – is this an intentional conscious decision?
Yes and no. I’m probably impulsively drawn towards those themes but I’d like to think that when I’m out making pictures, I’m responding and seeing what happens without being too restricted, especially early on in a project’s inception. I’m aware that as a project takes shape and grows, then the photographs you take are going to overlay and underpin your existing ideas.
You mentioned that editing is a major problem for you – why is this?
I think it’s important to find a balance between shaping work intuitively and disrupting that internal coherence with some fresh input. Outside of an academic environment, it’s not always practical to find people ready to question what you’re doing, either to acknowledge its weaknesses or to give some faint verification that you’re on the right track.
What about approaching people on the street to photograph? Would you rather avoid this if you can?
Each situation has to be considered uniquely. If I’m looking to photograph a figure in a landscape I prefer to work surreptitiously. If it’s more of a straight portrait, I’ll just give minimal direction and see what emerges.
Has the Bradfordian environment influenced your approach to photography?
Bradford is a very particular place with a distinctive rebelliousness to its inhabitants. It can be an extreme environment with a contrary landscape and its own unique social difficulties. I think this combination leaves its imprint generally and is undoubtedly found in fragments of my photography.