Collaborative approaches breaking tradition in art and design: In conversation with Photographer Mark Purdom and Designer Alan Deare

3 years ago by

Written by Holly Russell

Design strategies and a to-and-fro approach towards collaboration saw Photographer Mark Purdom and Designer Alan Deare produce Mimetic, an award winning entry to this years’ New Zealand Photobook of the year. With an exhibition at Ramp Gallery as their starting point, the duo looked to capture the gallery experience in a publication form. Embracing experimentation throughout the creation process has allowed both photographer and designer to push boundaries and pair conceptual art with a readable narrative. The traditional designer and client boundaries diminished and the process became “very much a two-way street”.

Holly Russell: Can you tell us a little about the concept of your latest photobook?

Alan Deare: Well, Mimetic started out as going to be a sampler of From Certainty to Doubt as not many people had seen that ‘publication’, and we thought it would be good if people could have a stripped back, simplified version of the publication which contained three similarly/different editions that overlapped each other. We thought we might expand the scope a little and introduce some of Mark’s process/research as an alternate journey within the publication. As time moved on I think we both naturally became interested in something with new work from Mark. So it is related to FCTD and references it but it became more of its own thing, like a little brother/sister.

Mark Purdom: The book kind of grew a little organically, I was preparing for my exhibition From Certainty to Doubt at Ramp Gallery in Hamilton. Alan and I had talked about the design and look of the exhibition, and as I had some new material, which was taken after the publication of the book of the same name, we thought perhaps we should do a follow up book to accompany the exhibition, a sort of FCTD vol. 2.

The concept was to showcase the research material I gathered over the last few years, thereby highlighting the influences that had shaped FCTD. As research is a big part of my working methodology, this was a key point I wanted to communicate in the new book Mimetic and showcase in the exhibition at Ramp Gallery. Importantly I also had new photographic work which followed on from FCTD, that I really wanted my audience to see.

HR: Did this project develop via a client-designer relationship or was it more of a collaboration?

AD: It was a collaboration, but for a long time I wanted a brief! This can be a natural inclination for designers. We just kept talking about ideas, associations, and similar to FCTD, it was a process of seeing what stuck over time. I imagine it might be like when a bunch writers get together and try story lines out for various characters for a movie and have a few laughs doing it. All through the process it was clear Mark wanted to have fun, and he has natural inclination toward British humour. Our evenings might include a few beers and anything from listening to Fat White Family or Parquet Courts, watching Stewart Lee, or looking at Gregory Crewdson’s Cathedral of the Pines. I suggested a few ideas for photos and Mark suggested a few ideas for the design. It was a very pleasant merry go round of sharing references and synthesising ideas.

MP: Aren’t they the same thing! Although Alan’s accountant would probably say – I’m not really the client because I never have enough money for a full design fee! Yes, it’s always a collaboration when we work together on book projects. Initially we talk about concepts for the content and what I want to communicate, we decide what is really possible with the budget we have! Usually this process involves a few beers at Alan’s studio over several Friday evenings! Alan leads the design strategies and then it’s a to-and-fro of ideas with the book evolving slowly but surely. I think one of the successful elements of working with low fee’s is that the book is developed around other work we are both doing, and so we get lots of time to talk about the concept, potential material to include, layout and sequencing; the strengths and weakness of the project! I think if the production stage were set to a tighter timeframe and structured more formally, the book would probably be less successful, and definitely much less fun to do!

HR: As a designer, did you find this project gave you more room to experiment, how did you balance experimentation with the artist’s concepts?

AD: Yes plenty of room to experiment. I felt Mark was expecting experimentation. We did establish simple parameters that related to the previous publications — these gave us a framework to play within. We changed the insert colour at the eleventh hour and ditched the RISO inserts cause we could get them at the size we wanted.

HR: Was your approach editorial? Placing typography, grids and systems at the forefront?

AD: Design by necessity is editorial. We are always suggesting to remove or add things to enhance the narrative. There was a very organic process of reviewing every time we got together and if anything irked either of us, it would be debated and removed.

HR: As an artist, did the reading of your photographs change when graphic design principles were applied and the work was viewed within a book format?

MP: Yes definitely, the use of different weights, types, and colours of paper stock, as well as page formats, image treatments, text etc, influences how the photograph’s work together and therefore overall read of the publication. As I mentioned before with an extended time to develop the work, we have time to experiment with the design concepts, this allowed me to shoot some new work to complement my existing work, which in turn influenced how the photographs worked together with the other research material and ephemera on the final page layouts.

HR: You have used a variety of paperweights and sizes in the publication, was this important to the artwork?

AD: There are three different stocks in the publication, two of them directly referenced FCTD, one being a metaphor for the ‘final selected, articulated work of the artist’ (an idea that was fluid and contentious in FCTD) and the other uncoated stock and format was purely about the randomness and poetic-ness of research and artistic process.

MP: yes, I always see the book as an “object”, I don’t want that to sound pretentious, but if an artist is disseminating work via a book as well as a gallery exhibition, I think that it’s a chance to display work in a more interesting format that can be seen by a larger audience. It’s also a chance to make something that is multi-faceted, something that becomes more than a set of sequenced photographs on the wall. The more interesting the elements that form the design the stronger the book is for me, and hopefully the audience. However, having said that, the design must always support the communication of the photographs and the concept of the book. It must never look “over designed” and the design shouldn’t distract from the photographs.

HR: As a designer, do you look towards artists for inspiration?

AD: Yes, we’ve done some recent branding for several exhibitions and the ideas around the typography related directly to James Ormsby and Tiffany Singh’s Work.There is inspiration everywhere, architecture, fashion, movies, music and Pinterest lol.

HR: As an artist, do you look towards designers for inspiration?

MP: Yes, it’s simple – I couldn’t make the books I make if I designed them! And I am fortunate to work with Alan, I find being in his studio, talking with him and being amongst his personal collection of books and other printed publications very inspiring when I’m book making.

HR: Do you think artists and designers need each other?

AD: Like producers who work with musicians, designers can help artists organise their work/narrative and provide a sounding board and translate their work and ideas into print or other digital media. We share some of the same language. I’ve worked with artists like Martin Poppelwell, Douglas Wright, Darren Glass and Yvonne Todd and they have a really interesting way of looking at things, it’s very much a two-way street.

MP: I can only speak for myself; I know my strengths and graphic design is not one of them! Being a specialist in one’s field is hard enough without having to develop additional skills as a designer. As I mentioned I would never take on the design of my own work, but having said that, I’m not passive in the process, I know what works and what I like, and fortunately Alan is on the same wavelength, so the process of book production is a good one for me, I enjoy collaborating with him and what that collaboration brings.

Mark Purdom is a photographer and teacher at The School of Media Arts, Wintec. See more of his work at and @mark__purdom 

See more of Alan Deare’s work of Area Design at @areadesign_nz


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