Alistair Noble 'Island Observatory' full interview

You spent months reworking your images in search of the narrative – what story do you believe the project tells the audience?

There are a few stories in this book. Several threads of narrative are about a specific place.

I took the original series of photos that became the source material on a large traffic island in Sydney. Today it is returning to bush, but a hundred years ago there was an astronomical observatory there, with an astronomer living on the site.

Then there is a more general set of thoughts around the idea of islands. Some other threads of the story are related to my perspectives, ideas, and imaginings about the place and its history.

In hindsight, I can also see that COVID-19, or rather our experience of living through it, has infiltrated the story as well.

I don’t think of narrative as any kind of straight line. This book loops around itself, and within itself. I think you need to flip back and forth in it several times.

It’s also like listening to a piece of music, which sometimes makes you think about something else at the same time… a memory, or a line of sight to the future.

The subject of Island Observatory is a “theatre of activity” – with your background in music and arts, how big a role do you think senses other than sight play in appreciating/creating this type of art?

It’s a good question. Sound is very important to me, both in terms of the actual sounds of a place at a certain time (birds, wind, traffic), and also in that I find visual and aural imagination to be closely connected.

I often think of music in visual terms (how it ‘looks’ in my mind), and also reflect on visual arts by asking myself ‘how does it sound?’

Despite this, I used to think that there was little concrete relationship between my visual work and my other work in music. This project has made me reassess.

Over the past year, I’ve learned that there are deeper structural and also process-related connections between how I approach different art forms.

You ultimately decided on a variety of mediums for your final project – What was the process in deciding on these and how do they add to the story?

The layered materials and processes serve a purpose, as a way of conveying the layered physicality and history of the place (the ‘island’), and also its ambiguity and opacity.

It’s a place that is very much ‘hidden in plain sight’, thousands of people drive past everyday, but very few see it. Certainly, almost no-one actually spends time there.

During many visits, I only once met someone else - an elderly lady walking among the trees who was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. She is present in the book, or at least a character she inspired is there.

In all my work, regardless of medium, I’m interested in layers, textures of transparent and opaque layers, and also juxtapositions that give rise to continuities and discontinuities. 

Why did you sign up for Contact Sheet’s 12-month mentorship program, what did you get out of the experience?

There were three reasons: I wanted to learn some new things in the field of photography; I wanted to get to know some other people working in the field; and I was seeking a distraction from other stressful work that I had going at the time!

What were some of the biggest highlights throughout the course?

For me there were two highlights, both related to people. One was getting to know Paul and the other mentors working on the program. All terrific people, tremendously knowledgeable and very generous with the knowledge and insight.

The other was getting to know the others in the group. It turned out to be an incredible bunch of artists… I’ve been very much in awe of the talent of these colleagues. My only regret is that I haven’t been able to spend more time talking with them through the past few months! I’ll be keen to follow their future work.

How did Paul and his fellow mentors challenge you and what did you learn from this?

Paul and the team of expert mentors are very supportive and kind. Of course, it’s the times when they challenge us that are ultimately most powerful, in the broader context.

For me, the great learning moments were when I could see from Paul’s expression that he’s not very impressed by something! Or, for example, one day he said he really didn’t like an image that was my favourite in the set.

This kind of challenge is so valuable, because it encourages us to rethink and re-analyse. 

What direction would you like to take your art in the future and what advice do you have for anyone struggling to express themselves creatively?

My next project is about my home-country in New England, NSW. I’m working on a series of black-and-white photographs, taken on film and developed using home-made chemistry.

I think this may also take the form of a book, eventually. The country here is very beautiful, but also scarred by drought and fires in recent years.

In addition, as with most of Australia, there is a dark history that seeps through everything. If you read Callum Clayton-Dixon’s recent book, ‘Surviving New England’, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

My simple advice to anyone struggling with creative expression: Don’t be afraid to rethink and revise. Treat everything as a ‘work in progress’ as long as you can. Trust your instinct—if you’re not happy with something, change it. 

One final thing I would add is that seeking out a group of friends or mentors to talk with and work with is very important.

A lot of the work we do as artists, in any medium, is rather lonely. A great deal of the process takes place inside our own head, or in quiet hours alone.

To balance this, I recommend developing a structure of interaction and communication with other people, where you can feel safe to discuss things you’re working on. This is not just social, it's a useful part of a working method.