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Work / Publication

Early Russian colour photography and Spaghetti Westerns collide in new book from S_U_N

Bill Sullivan’s Pure Country is an exploration of the history of colour image-making, told via Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii’s early colour photography, “remixed and recast” by Bill; representing “the Russian landscape in the manner of a Spaghetti Western… transposing the look and feel of the United States with that of 20th Century Russia”. It’s a complex set up, with two poles, dual histories of both places and colour image-making. “It all started when I first came across the images of The Russian photographer and colour scientist, Sergei Produkin Gorskii, about eight years ago – they just stopped me in my tracks”, Bill tells It’s Nice That.

“I was looking at a full-colour image from 1905 like it was something from the present day – but at the same time it felt like it could have come from a pristine frontier town from the American West, like Idaho or Montana. I wanted to keep that initial sensation alive in the book” Bill says. “The images I came across were framed with these modern blocks of colour bars, which another colour scientist, Blaise Agüera y Arcas, had left in place of his colour renderings of the images. By including these, it was almost as if you could see the colours that went into the making of the image sitting side-by-side – that duality existed right there. I wanted to keep that feeling alive, that you could have a modernist painting and a realistic landscape in the same image and narrative framework.”

This is the second edition of Pure Country, and it’s been edited down from its first edition, which included close to 300 images; “it was a bit too much of a winding and twisting journey, and not grounded enough in real places” says Bill. It also comes with an index, which “presents or reveals all the sources that were woven into the images”.

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

Addressing the decision to focus on two periods of time, one century apart, Bill says: “I guess it’s similar to how Rembrandt, or other painters from the 1600s, used to represent the important stories of their age, with images from the past. It’s an experience filtered through a memory informed by my current place. Both times are meaningful.” Pure Country draws upon the American Library of Congress’ newspaper archive and Blaise Agüera y Arca’s renderings of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs, with Sullivan “injected into the conflated landscape with a paintbrush and a can of spray paint, spreading graffiti and abstraction along a new path that feels strange but familiar”.

That abstraction, which adds a further layer of story to the landscape of Pure Country, was what initially interested Bill, when thinking of putting the book together: “It was the first dynamic I wanted to work with and really get across in the book, this parallel relationship where the viewer is somehow feeling that ink hitting the page, feeling it seeping into the paper and also resting on top of it.”

“It’s a similar dynamic happening with spray paint on rocks and walls, where the paint hits the rock and spreads out on top of it” he continues. “For me, this is colour being revealed and coming to life, it’s what we’ve experienced since the origins of cave painting. It’s seen in photographs of graffiti from 1905, it’s on the street outside left over from cable and utility companies, or graffiti. It’s what Gorskii’s images did when they were finally projected in full-colour as slides. The two poles are much the same – ink on paper, or paint on rock, as you pass through the streets, and time itself, through images.”

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N

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Pure Country: Bill Sullivan, published by S_U_N