Born in 1975 in Suffern, New York, Margaret Salmon lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland. She creates filmic portraits that weave together poetry and ethnography. Focusing on individuals in their everyday habitats, her films capture the minutiae of daily life and infuse them with gentle grandeur, touching upon universal human themes. Salmon won the first Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2006. Her work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and the Berlin Biennale in 2010 and was featured in individual exhibitions at Witte de With in Rotterdam and Whitechapel Gallery in London among others.
Her first feature Eglantine premiered at the 2016 London Film Festival, and screens at the ICA on 5th November, where Salmon will also lead a 35mm camera workshop.
Eglantine is an artist’s film that is meant for cinema viewing. Distribution is very fluid right now, and I wanted to make a film that could exist in multiple venues and spaces: gallery, museum, institute, and even outdoors. I’m curious to see who responds to it and who’s interested in working with it. The film is a bit like a butterfly in a jar: narrative, but with quite a lot of free jazz in there!
Making a feature is part of the natural progression for some filmmakers; for me, it was a desire to participate in a conversation that was a part of my upbringing – and in particular, to think about children as an audience for films. Eglantine was a humble endeavour: hands-on, craft-based, and very personal. It was a challenge, which made it exciting for me as an artist: it’s not just that it’s feature length, but that it’s a shift from documentary to more overt narrative.
My daughter plays the main role in the film; I’m in it as well, and so are my other two children. I’ve made short films and installations with them before, they’re used to Mum with a camera. But this was a huge stretch: acting in a feature! Eglantine came to the Glasgow screening of the work-in-progress: she was excited and proud. But we just get on with life; I was brought up with the idea of humility as a virtue. Hopefully we’ll have another screening in Glasgow and she’ll come with her friends.
I’m not sure my kids understand exactly what I do, it’s very abstract. There’s cameras around, they know I’m a cameraperson – I worked with Ursula Mayer recently, for example, shooting on 35mm, which was so exciting – and was trained as a photographer. I like making beautiful images, it’s a celebration of the form. You can make other kinds of counter-points in how you structure the project. But when I’m looking through the camera, it’s an act of love and part of that is looking for beauty.
Cinematography, though, is a very intimidating world because of its gender imbalance, although perhaps not so much anymore, and maybe part of that anxiety was self-imposed. It’s been freeing and liberating to shoot Eglantine on 35mm and to find myself talking to people in rental houses and find lots of them supportive. That might come from getting older as well. And finding the right tech people, that makes the work process so lovely. Even if I’m not following male industrial models, they respect me. And those models themselves will change, as well as the on-set relationships, as more female cinematographers have more input into storytelling and what stories are told.
It makes a difference whether it’s me behind the camera, or a big, burly guy – and that can be useful, too. I can fit in smaller spaces! It was very useful on Eglantine that I was able to operate the camera. Directing with the camera strips out another step of distance, and adds a degree of closeness to the material and the performance.
We only had seven days’ traditional production with a small crew, and I was really working out how to approach making the film. The first shoot was great for locking key scenes, but the performances were not what I wanted: having the crew there was too intimidating or distracting for the kids. For the bulk of the film, it was shot over a long weekend in the woods, just me and Eglantine together, and no sound recording, and then one more round in Glasgow this summer, working with an assistant who is also a scientist to get all the close-ups of the animals. I did shoot two more scenes with actors and sound, but by then I’d worked out when I had to clear the set.
It never occurred to me not to have a family and to work. Winning the MaxMara Prize was lucky: I’d just had my first daughter and I could have fallen away, but I had a light shone on me. Now a lot of my artistic peers are having kids, and I think we’re going to hear and see a lot more work about children and bodies and families. But when I made the MaxMara commission, Ninna Nanna, there was nobody to look at, as an artist-mother, except Mary Kelly. When I was at art school, I did have a tutor with a baby, and she would
breastfeed in class, but that was treated more as a sensational performance.
When I made Ninna Nanna, I wasn’t interested in going in to the community as an outsider. I’m much more interested in intimacy with my subjects. I didn’t speak Italian or know much about Italy, but I did know about motherhood – I’d just been through pregnancy and birth! So I could connect with the women I talked to with integrity. I had my daughter with me a bit on that shoot. More recently, my kids came to Turkey with Ursula Mayer on Medea: actually, they’re a great conversation starter, and they put people at ease. They’re great to have around and sometimes they even help out!
On Eglantine, they were key to creating the score. It’s composed by a musician and DJ called Matthew Herbert, but he’s re-recording and remixing recordings that I made of my older daughter messing around the violin. The first one was just done at home one night, and I was capturing this lovely sense of improvisation. Then Matthew asked for more similar recordings – it grew really organically. The more free, organic and playful I became as a camperaperson, director and mother, the better the work became, and the more the kids and I enjoyed it.
It would be a huge risk for a commercial film not to have a score – but there were so many elements of risk on this film. We shot on location, in natural light, outdoors, with children and animals, on 35mm. Only an artist could get away with that. It’s financially and practically a difficult model because of how much work I ended up doing behind the scenes. That’s something I knew as a producer, and I knew I would have to take other jobs and take breaks.
The hours are endless: for most of production I was a single mother, having recently separated. I became really efficient. It was an obsession! It made me into an uber-filmmaker-mum. That worked for this film, but I don’t want to do it again. People will have a lot of questions about the portrayal of the mother-filmmaker in the film (played by me). The image of the perfect mother has to be pulled apart and cut wide open – with care – to look at social expectations and how far we’re pushing ourselves to prove we can be everything to everyone.
Importantly, I want to acknowledge that a lot of my wages go to childcare: not just day care, but additional babysitters when I’m working evenings. I’ve only been asked once whether I needed childcare vouchers, by Bird’s Eye View film festival. I was blown away. It was such an amazing feeling of respect and acknowledgement of my own work. I liked the voucher model, it suited me as a freelancer, because I have to top up childcare costs when I do festivals and events, and they get expensive. If you want an inclusive, interesting and diverse conversation and exchange in moving image culture, these things need to be done. It feels like things are changing in terms of programming now, if not working conditions.
I want to change things in terms of what children and families are seeing, too. A few years ago, I made a very simple short film called ‘Oyster’ that was shown at the Whitstable Bienniale. It was the first time I’d made and shown work where I was living, and I was able to get lots of lovely feedback. It’s a natural history documentary, of sea creatures I’d kept in a tank in my studio and filmed over a period of time. I was stunned by how many parents came to me and said, ‘My little kids have seen the film several times, and want to see it again!’ What they loved were the documentary elements, spending time with these real creatures.
I was lucky to grow up with PBS and Sesame Street, in a wonderful era for film, full of an experimentation and playfulness that are lacking from contemporary programming for children. I want to show children the world through the camera to engage their fascination: how the camera can bring you close to a spider, or let you hear a chiff-chaff. A film can get you to stop and listen, because one thing the camera can do is explore what it’s like to be human. I’d like people who see Eglantine to leave the cinema feeling more open, using their senses.