Noel Zhang reviews Stephen Gill's new monograph, Please Notify the Sun.
On July 12, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, one of the most significant advancements towards observing the universe in the last three decades, released its first images to the public. These images are an impressive showcase of the grandeur of space; billowing nebula clouds and organic formations of galaxies dancing around one another captured in millions of pixels of detail.
On the same day, photographer Stephen Gill took to social media to celebrate the occasion by posting a selection of cosmic images from his latest photobook; an alien mountain range from above, the cratered surface of a moon, the suggestion of ripples along the expanses of a gas giant. The caption reads “Please Notify the Sun, James Webb Telescope, inside a sea trout”, revealing the origin of the uncanny photos.
To call Please Notify the Sun a book simply about a fish is true, but Stephen Gill elevates this premise and brings it to the very limits of recognisability by exploring what photography itself can be as a medium. In the height of the pandemic, Gill caught a fish and went about photographing its insides for the next ten weeks in all its stages of decay with a specialised setup: microscope, camera, lights, fridge and so on. The resulting photos are endlessly surprising. Some are abstract blurs of colour and form, while others evoke all sorts of natural phenomena from planets and stars to insect wings and plant roots. The edit is over a hundred pages long, with a deceptively conventional layout of either one or two paired images of unwavering size per double spread, a presentation that makes me in part think of the formalism revived by Alec Soth in his seminal Sleeping by the Mississippi. In contrast however, the content in Gill’s book defiantly belies its structure.
Gill’s approach to image-making holds valuable lessons for how we approach photography both as a viewer and artist. What constitutes a valid narrative for a photobook? Here there is no narrative, and its fully realised yet sprawling length only further challenges our expectations of how much a singular concept could offer us. Gill also asks us how much a photographer needs to impose themselves on a subject, if at all. My first exposure to Stephen Gill was his previous book The Pillar, mounting a motion-sensor camera to a wooden pillar to produce a hundred or so photos of different birds coming by the structure, meaning a vital aspect of the final result was entirely out of Gill’s hands.
Look further into his work, and these themes repeat. Nature reoccurs often, especially in its most overlooked or mundane forms. Technical experimentation is another, coaxing the full potential out of his subject matter in the process: plant pigment-stained prints in Night Procession, putting objects and even ants inside his camera in Talking to Ants. Both ideas lend themselves well to exploring Gill’s philosophy of taking himself out of the equation in creating an image. Please Notify the Sun’s relatively more scientific setup may seem intimidating, but to me it showcases that our ideas should not be limited by our narrow idea of what typical photography might look like. Gill himself spent much of his early career photographing on a plastic camera he bought for 50p from a flea market; we might consider that many of us have access to smartphones whose cameras have all sorts of unique nuances that we take for granted.
In the book’s accompanying text by author Karl Ove Knausgård, he writes to the surprise he felt. “What I see, in other words, is something grand. And to grandness belongs a sense of value. It collides completely with the idea I have of a fish. That idea says that a fish is not valuable at all.” Please Notify the Sun tells us to look at the world with a greater sense of wonder. Gill says photography is democratic in nature and often a vehicle for the unexpected—and that in some ways it is a photographer’s prerogative not to take for granted what we think we know.
Written by Noel Zhang
Stephen Gill's Please Notify the Sun is published by Nobody Books. Available to purchase here.