I have stubbornly stayed attached to analogue: Catherine Yass on photography and film

    From the psychology of architecture and space to analogue film and BBC commissions, we talk to artist Catherine Yass about how DACS' royalties help sustain her practice. 

    What made you become an artist? Tell me a bit about how it started.

    I always wanted to be one. The first painting I was proud of was me and my family in the park with a squirrel that was completely out of scale.

    What attracted you to working with photography and film?

    I first used it to document performances and temporary installations. I did not believe in making permanent objects, as they could become as much a part of the established order as the architecture and structures I was making interventions in and critiquing. Then I got interested in the media themselves, partly through the London Film-makers’ Co-op, partly because a friend gave me an old speed graphic 5x4 camera.

    Which artists, movements or traditions have had the greatest influence on your work?

    So many! Going right back, Giotto, Titian, Donatello, then all the Goya, Velasquez, Manet, then Nauman, Stan Douglas, Martha Rosler, Ulrike Rosenback, Trisha Brown, Chantal Ackerman. Also film directors such as Jean Vigo, Resnais, Ozu, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Antonioni.

    A lot of your work explores the psychology of architecture and space. Can you talk a bit about your interest in this area?

    The way we are positioned by and position ourselves in relation to our surroundings both reflects and affects our state of mind and our sense of ourselves in the world. This is particularly relevant in the built environment which is a form of communication, an expression of society. So architecture and the space it occupies and is occupied by, represents social as well as physical structures.

    You often manipulate your images to create a striking solarisation-style effect. Can you talk through your process? 

    I use analogue film and process or cross-process it, sometimes loading it the wrong way around to produce unexpected colours and a negative image. This is overlaid on a regular image and has the effect of solarising it.
    Space becomes warped with colours not obeying the laws of perspective but increasing in intensity as they recede into the distance. The moment of truth revealed in the momentary eye of the camera is doubled over, losing its singularity. There are two moments, and the white gap between them where there was a movement indicates the moment between the two exposures which the camera could not catch. So space and time are distorted to disorientating effect, pulling you in and out of the image and suggesting different psychological, spatial and temporal dimensions. The image is de-familiarised asking us to re-position ourselves and re-think how we are in the world.

    The technology of photography and film has developed a lot since you started. How has this influenced or changed your practice?

    I have stubbornly stayed attached to analogue. In large format, it has subtler tones and constraints which make me work more concisely.

    You recently completed a major commission marking the departure of the BBC from the BBC Television Centre. Can you tell me a bit about it? 

    My idea was to float a grand piano through the air so the wind could play in the strings. The sky over London is rapidly filling up with towers and the air is becoming commodified as real estate. The first probes into the air are the cranes and I wanted to use these very structures to fly the piano. When the BBC commission came up at the BBC TV Centre this presented an ideal location as the building once embodied the vision of a socially responsible institution which is now being abandoned to put up flats and leisure amenities. The circular structure of the building both looks outward to the world and inward to the centre, bringing the world to the 'living room of the nation'. There is a hope that the BBC can speak for the nation and although the whole concept of ‘nation’ and of a single voice of knowledge may be questionable, at least there was a vision to have some kind of social responsibility and impartiality. The piano is a reminder of how the BBC promotes the arts and with that, freedom of expression - another part of the BBC which is so important to preserve.
    White Noise, who commissioned the film, along with seven other artists' work, were very good at setting up the project and establishing all the right parameters. So there was no problem with people being protective, they were all delighted by the idea of artists making use of the space before it was developed.

    It’s notoriously difficult to sustain a visual arts practice. What do you see as DACS’ role in this area? How has being a member of DACS helped you specifically?

    Just as I might pay someone for hiring a camera or a meal cooked in a cafĂ©, DACS thankfully provides a way for me to get paid for the use of my work. That’s why I’m signed up for Payback.
    I’ve also received guidance and support around copyright through DACS’ member advice service, particularly in relation to contracts for new commissions. And through Artimage, they have helped me to archive my images and ensure they are available and of good quality.

    What tips would you give to emerging artists?

    Only do it if you have no alternative! Gather a group together to discuss and show work.

    Has your artwork ever been published in UK books and magazines, or shown on TV? 

    Get your share of millions in Payback royalties. Apply by 4 May 2018:



    Image: Catherine Yass in the studio. Photo by Brian Benson © Brian Benson, 2018.

    Posted on 30/01/2018 by Laura Ward-Ure