Max Rush is a photographer and pianist who lives in Herne Hill and has taken his local park, Brockwell, as a subject for much of his work. He is currently a finalist in the International Garden Photographer of the Year, the exhibition of which is at Kew Gardens until the end of March.
1.How did you end up in south london and what has kept you here?
I was born in north London (though my dad’s from Bexleyheath) and traveled quite a long way away after that (Hastings, Manchester, Canada and Herefordshire) so it wasn’t an obvious move. I came back to London after my degree and shared a flat with some friends in Willesden for a few years and during that time noted with some disdain that most of my other friends were migrating south. In the end our landlord sold the flat and we looked all over London for inspiration. Herne Hill proved the most popular place we visited, and luckily an affordable flat appeared there, just opposite Brockwell Park. We all lived there for another few years, enjoying the great open space just outside our front door, until I met my now wife and we had to escape. We felt we were part of the town by then and didn’t want to leave Brockwell Park behind, so we only moved a short distance across to the other side.
This might not sound much like the life story of a true south Londoner, but in retrospect I can see how lucky we were to find this area and to be able to stay here. Since I started photographing parks I’ve become a lot more aware of how many good ones we have around here as well as all the other cultural attractions and opportunities in south London. It seems like one of those places where a lot of different worlds co-exist – the diversity of Brixton, the open spaces of Herne Hill, the architecture of Dulwich and the mountains of Forest Hill and Honor Oak. You can feel like you’re in the cultural capital of the country and breathe fresh air at the same time, which a lot of other Londoners seem to think is impossible.
2.When did you first take your local park as inspiration for your photography and what do you find particularly inspiring about Brockwell Park?
It did take a while. Like most landscape photographers I was mainly interested in wilderness and wild landscapes when I started. I’d learnt some of the craft of photography while I was in Quebec and then worked at it a lot more in mid Wales after that, so I didn’t think a London park could ever match the beauty of those kinds of environments. Thinking about it now, the thing that got me started was seeing certain kinds of weather concealing the parts I thought were unphotographable – the tarmac and concrete and flat green grass. I went out there a few times in winter fog and frost and then snow, and actually made some photographs I was very pleased with, where the weather provided a unifying natural colour to all the man-made surfaces and concealed the distant buildings completely.
I’ve always liked the old landscape paintings of northern Europe, such as the work of the 17C Dutch landscape specialists (Jacob van Ruisdael and Hendrick Avercamp) and the urban landscapes and interiors of Vermeer and de Hooch, and of course their work almost always contains elements of architecture and humanity, rather than being perfectly wild, untouched and uninhabited scenes. I like trying to do the same thing with photography, using quite a transparent process (i.e. not altering or manipulating the images to try to enhance or dramatise reality) and relying on atmospheric weather and light to show how nature envelops our whole environment, the buildings as much as the trees and fields.
To get to the point about Brockwell Park, it was a great place to start because it’s one of the most varied parks – it has the open grass and meadows, it has two hills, it has the architecture of Brockwell Hall, the lakes, the ancient trees, and possibly the greatest thing of all is the walled garden, which in my opinion is one of the most peaceful places in south London.
Brockwell Park is also inspiring because I know it so well, and this is one of the most important factors in doing good work. When the weather is really good and I don’t have time to go any further, I know exactly which parts of the park are going to be worth visiting, and what I can expect to happen.
3.Aside from Brockwell Park where in South London do you like to photograph the most and why?
The first place I started going to with any regularity after Brockwell Park was an allotment in Dulwich. I’ve promised not to disclose the location to protect the privacy of the plotholders, but it’s in a very elevated position, overlooking the London skyline from Dulwich College across to the river. The plots themselves are very interesting, but having such a large distance to work with made it a real contrast with Brockwell Park, which often feels quite enclosed in comparison. I’ve photographed it through the seasons and now have a few other allotments I visit when I can, each with different outlooks and different kinds of plots.
In complete contrast there’s Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods, which I think of as being the best proper wilderness in south London. It is managed, but it’s still wild deciduous forest and a great place to go to escape everyday life.
There are many other south London parks I try to get to and have on my list of places to go, but the ones I consider to be my main long-term projects are Dulwich Park, Clapham Common, One Tree Hill and Crystal Palace Park. I hope that the last one will ultimately be one of the most fruitful, as I’d like to really do justice to the dinosaurs. They’re individual characters as well as important historical monuments, and the way the park is landscaped around them gives the whole area a sense of consistent design that few other parks have.
4.Tell us about the upcoming awards at Kew and the category you’re nominated in?
The International Garden Photographer of the Year competition is open to amateur and professional garden photographers across the world and is divided into eight or nine main categories, such as Beautiful Gardens, Wildlife in the Garden, Greening the City and Breathing Spaces.
Most of my work is either about parks or wild landscapes rather than actual gardens, so I don’t usually expect to win the big prize, but luckily I’ve managed to get into the show for the past three years. One of my allotment photographs came second in the Greening the City category the year before last ,then I had a Brockwell Park photograph commended in the Breathing Spaces category last year, and this year it’s a Greenwich Park image which I’m pleased to say is a finalist in the Breathing Spaces category. The exhibition is now open at Kew Gardens, and a book of all the images is out now too.
I’m currently working towards an exhibition at the Horniman Museum, and hope to have a date for this soon. In the meantime I’m trying to make my prints more widely available through two new sites. My main website (www.maxarush.com) was designed to show the images themselves in gallery form, but to make choosing and purchasing prints easier I’ve opened a shop on the art and craft site Etsy where you can see a variety of my photographs of London, Wales and abroad and choose from different sizes and framing options as well as my range of greetings cards. It’s still early days for this venture but it’s a great site where artists and craftspeople all over the world can meet and help promote each other’s work.
6.Outside of your day job where and what do you love doing in South London?
I actually spend at least half of my time working as a pianist – this is as much my day job as photography, so a lot of the local things I do are music-related. There’s the new choir, London Sings! based in Camberwell, which is a very friendly group of amateur (and one or two professional) who are currently working towards a scratch production of the Mikado in Sydenham. I’m the choir’s repetiteur and accompanist so don’t get to do much singing myself, but that’s perhaps for the best. The same music charity (South London Community Music) also runs the older South London Jazz Orchestra which I’ve played with for three or four years. We perform all over London, but particularly often in the south (eg All Saints Church in West Dulwich, Clapham Common and Myatt’s Fields bandstands, even BrockwellPark).
I also play in the small jazz group Junction Jazz (http://www.junctionjazz.org.uk) based in Clapham and performing at numerous local venues.
The other third of my time (it doesn’t add up I know) I work as a calligrapher, and although this isn’t otherwise very specific to south London, we do have one of the best art paper merchants in town in Stockwell – John Purcell Paper. It’s a real cavernous warehouse packed with mysterious stacks and piles, and somewhere hidden amongst all the towering shelves is a little office full of very helpful paper experts.
Aside from parks music and paper I enjoy spending time in Brixton market, shopping around for the best vegetables in Noor (a great Middle Eastern supermarket) and admiring the bread and pizza in the neighbouring Franco Manca and Wild Caper. I say admiring as I’m a boulangerie addict and make so much French bread at home that I can’t justify buying any.
7.And finally any tips for budding photographers out there?
Get started, be persistent and go out with the right creative frame of mind – that’s the best advice generally. A lot of people plan to take up photography or to do more of it, but there are so many distractions, particularly in London that it’s hard to get started on anything. If you’re interested in landscapes then the weather is often a good excuse not to go out, but the more time you spend outdoors, even in weather you don’t think is immediately promising, the more chances you’ll have.