Blog / Artist Interviews

Isolation, Distance, Encounters, Invention

Joy Gregory x Mark Sealy

POSTED: 20 May 2021

Artist Joy Gregory speaks with Autograph's director Mark Sealy about lockdown routines during the pandemic and how these informed her new commission, Madam Photo.

In 1989, Joy Gregory was the first artist Autograph commissioned only months after the organisation was founded, resulting in her seminal series Autoportraits. 

For our most recent commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, Gregory created Madam Photo (2020), a diary-like series of photographic and textual fragments drawn from her daily walks and encounters during lockdown. 

Here, Autograph's Director Mark Sealy asks Gregory to reflect on the process of making this new work by posing one question with four possibilities: Isolation, Encounter, Distance and Invention – with the artist considering each thematic facet of the Madam Photo commission in return.

Mark Sealy: Firstly, I wanted to thank you for the conversations we have had over the past few months. It has been great to reconnect with you and share your thoughts at this most difficult time. During the lockdowns, you have walked a lot through Burgess Park as it is very near your home in south-east London. We discussed the park as a place that is both familiar and unfamiliar and how it has helped you get through the pandemic. It led to some brilliant observations and reflections and your walks have even facilitated new relationships. Can you expand a little on how isolation, distance, encounters and invention have informed this commission?

Joy Gregory: Isolation – like many artists, there is nothing I like better than a bit of solitude when it is self-imposed. I find it necessary to have that space in my head for reflection to make anything. At the end of March 2020, when the country shut down completely, fear, rather than concerns about isolation, was what most occupied my mind. The walks taken in solitude were infinite expanses of comfort. They provided a structure (along with the burgeoning nature that comes with spring) that enabled me to keep going when things no longer made sense. Unlike many others, I did not invite people to join me on my walks, nor did I speak on my phone. I did nothing other than enter my own space to savour a daily retreat that proved to be essential for my mental health and physical well-being.

Joy Gregory, from Madam Photo, 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.
Joy Gregory, [detail] from Madam Photo, 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

Joy Gregory: Distance – distance is a curious concept that refers to both time and space. I find it to be very elastic depending on the mode of transport and the regularity of contact. Being required to stay within our locale has made walking something that people have embraced over the last year. I have always used walking to alleviate distress. The walks in Burgess Park became a ritual whereby I would repeat the same journey each day. I would leave the house at the same time and meet the same people treading on the same path. I walked from one end of the park to the other, then back to the middle before doubling back on myself to approach the lake. I would walk around the lake then back to the centre, after which I would cross the road and walk towards the tennis courts and then home. Initially the distance would take just over an hour, but as time progressed, I met and became familiar with more and more people. One day it took almost two hours.

"I slowly became aware that I saw the same people walking or running the same path each day"

Joy Gregory: Encounters – rather like photography, encounters were not part of the plan when I started walking in the park. I slowly became aware that I saw the same people walking or running the same path each day. I gave them names in my head. The beige man with cans. The ladies of the walking poles and dark glasses. The man with the dog with the long tongue. The gang of ladies with floral bathing caps from the hydrotherapy pool who picnic with a shopping trolley. The large ladies of the lake. The runner with white hair and white gloves. The park-keeper who called me lioness, and Clarendon, the black photographer in khakis, who specialised in wildlife. The runner in blue and of course the man with ‘dreads’, who named me ‘Madam Photo’. In the beginning it was just observation, then I would sometimes smile, and people would smile back. Eventually, a hello or a nod would pass between us, which would lead to conversations and sometimes the exchange of names and the sharing of a walk. These encounters always led to my learning something new about the area. I might even start buying the South London Press because my locale has now begun to feel much more real than postings on Facebook or Twitter.

Joy Gregory, from Madam Photo, 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

Joy Gregory: Invention – I am a great one for the observation of things: Observing people, objects or light. Experimentation has always been part of my practice; it is part of my DNA. During the first lockdown, I pulled out some boxes of old paper that I had bought to do some workshops. With little else going on, I decided to experiment with this paper to see what it would do if I exposed it to different light sources. I enjoyed watching the colours change from creamy yellow to grey to blue to brown to plum. Observing the varied reactions to direct sunlight or the shaded light through a window was an interesting way to pass the day. I was also looking at the response of light on different types of paper or the impact that the different grades of fix or no fix would have on the paper.

I did not begin with the notion of invention or experimentation but having time to do nothing created space in which to look at things differently. Picking up these fragments of plants and fallen leaves left me with the desire to record their trace. It also makes me very happy to be ‘making’. It was a chance to do something other than thinking and writing. It was just great to respond to the impulse of making and was so much more productive. I was in my element. Then I broke my leg over Christmas and have been housebound for weeks and unable to get out at all during this lockdown. I am curious to know if the same people are inhabiting the park and cannot wait to revisit. I am also quite keen to try something new. Perhaps I will create portraits and egg prints based on my encounters in the park when the sun returns, and I am more mobile.

discover more

See the full artist commission by Joy Gregory

Read writer and curator Anne McNeill's response to Madam Photo

Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...

Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project

The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition is now in development


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Images, from top: 1-4) Works from Joy Gregory's commission, Madam Photo, 2020. Mixed Media, variable dimensions. © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other.