Tim Oliver’s best known for his work in the music industry. A widely respected recording engineer and producer, he’s worked with the likes of New Order, Brian Eno, The Stone Roses, Goldfrapp and Sinead O’Connor, and is currently based at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire.
When not in a recording studio you’ll find him in his photography studio, working on his latest project Micscapes.
The concept is microscopic crystalline photography, utilising a tri-nocular polarising microscope and SLR camera to create abstract landscape compositions from crystallised solutions of everyday substances.
The results are mesmerising – at first glance alien, yet strangely familiar. Epsom salts become detailed architectural structures and vitamin C yields exotic birds and otherworldly landscapes. Ketamine manifests itself as a Pacman-like figure, while body fluids take on striking modernist forms.
We caught up with Tim ahead of his exhibition at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill to get some insight into the project.
You’ve had a long career in music – when did photography come into the picture?
From a very young age I’ve been a keen photographer and always owned cameras of varying quality, but as hard as I tried I could never get engaged by the technology. I dabbled in dark rooms and f-stops but never got hooked by it, unlike music recording technology which has been my entire working life. It was purely an aesthetic and abstract pursuit, I rarely took pictures of people. I discovered photographers such as Edward Weston, whose rhythmic, organic approach really appealed to me, and Andre Kertesz whose eye and angles make for fascinating images.
How did you get switched on to the processes and themes behind Micscapes? I’m guessing your background as a geology student fits in there somewhere?
Yes, I spent my undergraduate days at Manchester University looking down polarising microscopes at thin rock sections. But instead of focusing on identifying the included crystals, I was absorbed by the colours and patterns that the crystals formed.
Those images remained with me since then and it wasn’t until a year or so ago that I thought about the possibility of harnessing new digital technologies to re-visit them. I used some money from an insurance payout to kit up with the necessary gear, but then realised that the most expensive part was buying the rock sections themselves. So I started making my own crystals and accidentally stumbled on this world.
It’s a world that blurs the boundaries between science, nature and art – where do your main inspirations lie?
Nature definitely. My father was a forester and we lived on the edge of a wood in a house with no garden fence. I would wander for hours and observe the rich variety of natural history that surrounded us and to this day I still draw energy from that natural world.
Observing nature also affects the way you look for and at things. Amongst all that life, one develops a way of scanning rather than looking which involves peripheral vision as much as direct sight, and I use this when I’m scanning slides for my images.
The balance between art and science is an interesting subject. If you believe the right brain/left brain theory I would have to sit somewhere in the middle, with no particularly dominant side.
I’ve always loved science and analysis and I can happily focus on the detail but at the same time I get a palpable buzz from a resonant image or sound. My work as a recording engineer and producer also straddles this divide with its clear technical and artistic aspects, and my ability to use audio processors to create sounds that resonate has been a key to my success.
I’m assuming there’s an element of chance and unpredictability involved in creating each Micscape, with regards to how well a subject matter performs. How do you respond to this as an artist?
You’re right. It’s a very exciting moment to mount a fresh slide and find that a) it’s actually formed crystals, and b) there are some interesting formations within those crystals. I simply move the slide around until I spot an interesting formation and by ‘playing’ with the filters and field depth on the microscope I work it into a frame that has the right sort of feeling.
That feeling is usually something to do with a familiar shape or form, or an organic movement or an appealing colour balance, but I know immediately when it’s there.
What’s been your favourite substance to work with so far?
I would say vitamin C because it’s so diverse. One day I see desert landscapes, the next I see fantastical creatures. Epsom salts is a close second because of the depth of imagery it produces.
Micscapes is at The Tabernacle, Notting Hill, W11 2AY, December 2-7.
And your favourite individual piece?
My favourite individual piece is one of my own bodily fluids. It’s an odd thing crystallising your own urine and so for this image which looks like a classic piece of modern art, to come from that makes it somehow very special!
Where does Micscapes go next? Do you have new techniques or projects in the pipeline?
Well, talking of body fluids, I’m doing a series of other people’s to discover whether there’s an individual identity to them. I currently have slides from four volunteers ‘cooking’ in the store cupboard and can’t wait to discover the result.
Other than that, I want to explore new methods of crystallisation, because it’s the environment and conditions that govern the forms.
All images by Tim Oliver 2014