‘I used to breakdance outside Snappy Snaps in legwarmers’ – Stephen Gill’s exhausted farewell to photography | Photography

At the age of nine, Stephen Gill was already experimenting with double exposures and, by the time he was 12, he had created several photographic collages. In one surrealist-style self-portrait, his torso is a cauliflower over which is draped a camera. Intriguingly, his other hand holds a broom, an early metaphor perhaps for the way this photographer’s mind works – scooping up seemingly random ideas and turning them into images that surprise and disorient.

These precociously realised images – alongside a series made by his father in 1978, which shows his grandfather practising yoga – are an intriguing prelude to Coming Up for Air, an extensive retrospective of Gill’s work at the Arnolfini Gallery in his home town of Bristol. Comprising 25 series made between 1996 and 2021, the show attests to his creative restlessness.

Over two floors of the gallery, the prints are accompanied by a wealth of attendant material, from audio recordings to vitrines full of ephemera, maquettes, beautifully produced photobooks (Gill self-publishes under the Nobody imprint) and often exotic raw materials. One display includes a camera that was “dismantled by ravens’’, having been placed in a wood to record their presence via motion sensors. Another contains an arrangement of small bones from his series Journey Inside a Fish, in which microscopic images of the skin, guts and flesh of a sea trout have been magnified to resemble fantastical landscapes.

A different type of wildness … a portrait from The Pillar in which birds perch, preen and land on a wooden stake.
A different type of wildness … a portrait from The Pillar in which birds perch, preen and land on a wooden stake. Photograph: © Stephen Gill

In his schooldays, Gill’s imagination was so active and his inattention so acute that he was not allowed to sit next to a window lest his mind wander outside the classroom. Back then, he attended “special lessons” and it was only in 2017 that he was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). It came, he says, as a huge relief given how burnt out he felt by then because of his relentless compulsion to make more work.

As a teenager in Bristol, Gill was drawn to the nascent homegrown hip-hop scene that produced Massive Attack, Tricky et al – “I used to breakdance in legwarmers outside Snappy Snaps” – but was also “obsessed with microscopes and the mysteries of pond life”. In a way, the exhibition possesses the energy of the breakdancer and the nerdy inventiveness of the scientist. It is also a journey into the mind of someone for whom photography was a form of immersive, even therapeutic, self-expression.

“Even though I feel I have exhausted photography, I am also so grateful to it,” he says, intimating that this survey show, which was four years in the making, may be his last. “Photography is how I articulated myself, responded to the world around me, and got rid of my excess energy.”

The earliest series here is also the most uncharacteristic: a selection of black and white photographs he took in Poland between 1996 and 1998. With their monochrome tones and quiet observational style, which nod to masters of the form including Robert Frank and Sergio Larrain, they are the closest the show gets to straight documentary. “The images say more about me desperately wanting to be a photographer than they do about Poland,” says Gill. Though placed at the start of this exhibition, they mark the end of his brief embrace of traditional photography. “After that,” he adds, “I had to dismantle everything I had learned and begin all over again.”

Wood lice and a blue sky… from Talking to Ants (2009-2013).
Wood lice and a blue sky… from Talking to Ants (2009-2013). Photograph: © Stephen Gill

His breakthrough series, Hackney Wick (2003-2005), sets the tone for what will follow: determinedly lo-fi but intensely evocative images of the messy sprawl of a Sunday morning flea market in east London. Since swept away in the frantic redevelopment of the area in the lead-up to the London Olympics of 2012, the market’s hustle and bustle drew Gill there every week for two years. The faded colour tones are the result of shooting on a cheap plastic camera bought from a stallholder, but they perfectly suit the subject matter. “I was stepping back and letting the subject take precedence,” says Gill of his unorthodox approach. He wanted, above all, “to find a way of evoking the spirit and feel of a place”.

That impulse underpins the following series, Hackney Flowers (2004-2007), for which he collected wild plants, seeds and berries from the area and placed them over photographs he had taken of the streets and people. He then re-photographed these strange, layered creations, some of which featured prints that had been buried for a time in the ground to evince a sense of organic decay. If Gill’s approach can seem extreme, the results are always strangely compelling. His photographs often seem low-key even in their subversion but they repay close attention and, in grids on the wall, acquire a cumulative power.

In Talking to Ants (2009-2013), he placed objects, insects and dirt from the local area inside the actual mechanism of his camera before shooting on the streets of east London. The results, printed relatively large, are disorienting: stranded woodlice floating in a pale blue sky; leaves and soil seeming to drift past as if on the wind. The title, incidentally, came from a chance encounter with an old primary school friend, who introduced himself to Gill and said: “I remember you in the playground – are you still talking to ants?”

From Night Procession (2014-2017).
‘If I was a deer, where would I drink from?’ … from Night Procession (2014-2017). Photograph: © Stephen Gill

There are traces of that childhood otherness throughout the exhibition, as well as the sense of an artist totally immersed in an interior world of the imagination. His approach undergoes a radical shift after his relocation to rural Sweden in 2013. There, amid an elemental landscape and in close proximity to raw nature, he retreated even further from what in literary terms would be called the author’s intention. “I thought, ‘Who am I to impose my vision on nature?’ Instead, I wanted nature to shape and guide the work.”

For his series Night Procession, which took three years to complete, the images of nocturnal woodland creatures were created manually and by motion-sensitive cameras Gill positioned in the undergrowth. “I would go out into the woods as darkness fell and think, ‘If I was a deer, where would I drink from?’” The results are spectral glimpses of a secret, nocturnal world of activity that exists unseen alongside our human realm: a fox sipping from a stream, an opaque silhouette of a poised deer, the feral, bristling presence of a looming wild boar which, he says, sent him fleeing into the woods in panic.

In another recent series, The Pillar, the snatched portraits of birds of prey – perching, preening, landing on and taking off from an upright wooden stake – are of a different order of wildness. Captured on a motion-sensitive digital camera, the files were turned into negatives and printed on silver bromide paper. A selection, arranged in a line around a room in the gallery, are a testament to the power of a single inspired idea. But they are also much more than that, as evinced in a video loop of the entire series that unfolds to a sombre soundtrack of repeated cello notes played by Gill’s five-year-old daughter. By stepping back even further and allowing the camera to engage directly and viscerally with the subject without his active involvement, Gill allows us to see these creatures in all their feral and unsettling otherness.

Coming Up for Air is a show so brimming with invention and subversion that I have barely scratched the surface here. And, despite his compulsive work rate over the last 25 years or more, it is a calm, quietly playful and yet always engaging experience. “Ironically, the only place I found any calm was when I was working,” he says. If this does after all turn out to be Gill’s exhausted farewell to the medium, photography will be a poorer, less mischievous place.