University: University of South Wales, Newport
Genre: Research Based Documentary
Artist Statement: The series Drake's Folly focuses on the historical oil town of Titusville, Pennsylvania, where a gentleman named Colonel Edwin Drake became the first person on the planet to successfully extract crude oil for commercial use.
In the early 1800’s, after the emergence of stories of a black liquid seeping from the ground, the then fledgling Seneca Oil Company sent Drake, a retired railroad worker from New York, in search of this elusive substance in the hope that it could be used as a fuel source. Little did he know, a long, difficult and frustrating search lay ahead of him. Obstacle after obstacle thwarted Drake’s attempts, including collapsed drilling wells, impenetrable bedrock and abandonment by the very company who sent him in the first place. As painfully slow and seemingly unproductive progress was being made, many of the local residents would gather to mock and jeer at the operation, dubbing it “Drake’s Folly”. However, he kept faith and a short while later, on the 27th of August 1859 in Titusville and at a depth of 69.5 feet, Drake made a discovery that would not only illuminate peoples homes but also radically transform the evolution of human civilisation.
I travelled to Pennsylvania to see how the town and region had faired, long after the oil industry had moved on and nature had taken back control.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? As Magnum photographer David Hurn established the documentary photography course at Newport, we had access to some extremely well established visiting tutors to get feedback from. It was always daunting having tutorials with the likes of Martin Parr and Mark Power, especially with a culture of harsh and honest portfolio reviews on the course. Looking back, these kind of experiences are what stood out for me because as challenging as they were at the time, they undoubtedly made me a stronger and a more thoughtful image-maker.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I like to consider that my practice sits between the realms of documentary, fine art and conceptual photography. I agonize over the right light conditions and composition of an image, while at the same time I spend a great deal of time researching the humanistic and conceptual aspects of a project.
If I had to make my own genre I would have to go for “Research based documentary photography”.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? My main photographic interest lies in anthropology. Within that, I seek out themes that explore how humans interact with their surroundings and how modern infrastructure and ideology coexists with the natural world.
What visually and/or theoretically influences your practice? Many facets of life influence my practice, from reading visual literature, traveling, exploring interests outside of photography to observing human behaviour and politics. I try to let my life experiences influence how I respond to the world as a photographer.
Visually, I am a keen Instagram enthusiast. I really value the inspiration I gain from the platform. I use it as a sort of live mood board to inform and inspire me. It's a great tool to use as a test bed for project ideas and to keep up to date on the rapidly changing photographic scene.
I am also a keen radio listener, primarily BBC Radio 4. I find the programming variety incredibly engaging and often find myself jotting down themes and topics that I think I could weave into my practice.
Tell us about the process of creating a book for the project Drake's Folly. From the start, Drake’s Folly was designed to be presented in book form. I wanted to shoot a large body of work in which the narrative could unfold in a more expansive way rather than a tightly edited set of pictures. After I returned from shooting the project and set about developing and scanning the negatives, I began to see the images that I knew for sure would make the final edit almost straight away.
As the book design took shape and my designer shared her thoughts on the layout, the edit got tighter and tighter, with the narrative beginning to show itself in a clearer way. It was at this point that the editing process really began to become difficult, as you develop an attachment to certain images for all sorts of reasons, thus making it extremely difficult to remove them for the overall good of the final edit. Ultimately this process was helped greatly by getting feedback from fellow photographers who had book-making experience.
Once the book was sent to print it was then a matter of getting the cover screen printed and ready for binding, which I chose to do myself to keep costs down. As all this was going on there was the book launch to think about and all the promotion that went along with it. It was a very busy couple of months, but looking back, it was a massive learning curve that was invaluable moving forward as a photographer.
What advice would you give to photographers embarking on the creation of their own photobook? Content is king. However like framing your work for a show, the final presentation of a photobook can make or break its success. So for me the most crucial aspects of book design are the materials you use. Paper choice is of utmost importance in my eyes, I have lost count of how many great projects I have seen that are let down by the use of standard stock white paper and a cover that feels mass produced. When I hold a photobook I want it to feel like a unique and well-made item.
I would also emphasise focusing hard on the design and layout of the book. How do the images sit on the pages? Do you go for a linear approach or something that requires the reader to peel back the layers in order to extract the narrative? If you need to outsource the layout design in order to push it to the next level then do so.
I would have to say one of the best pieces of advice I can give, going off personal experience, is find the right printer. Find someone who will work alongside you and embrace the challenges that inevitably arise in the publishing process. Just as importantly, do not cut corners on the cost. A high quality printer will be expensive, but ultimately you will get what you pay for.
Have you got any new photographic projects you're working on or about to commence? If so, can you tell us more? I am currently well into the R&D phase of a new long-term project. I really don’t want to say much about it yet due to the fact that the concept is still in a fluid state as research deepens.
However I have just published a new body of work on my website. The series Anti Social is an ongoing project that focuses on how the proliferation of portable networked communication devices are beginning to affect our lives. The images in the series attempt to communicate the sense of loneliness and isolation we find ourselves in when in the limbo of reality and virtual reality.
You’ve mentioned that you’re very particular about the lighting, composition, and research behind a project, which is apparent when looking at your work. How long do you spend planning a body of work? I approach the research and development phase in a structured way. I always have ideas for large-scale projects in my head and constantly evaluate the feasibility of each idea depending on how it will resonate with others, logistics, or whether another photographer is focusing on that subject already.
Once I’m confident that I can move forward with the idea, I will begin an initial research process, teasing out information that can be used as part of the narrative or method of shooting. Once all these aspects have been considered and I am satisfied the subject can translate into a solid body of work, I can then commit to it fully and enter into a deeper research phase.
By the time I get to the stage of shooting, it could take a good 6-8 months and once the project has been shot and developed it could be in excess of 15-16 months until I am ready to release the work. I am comfortable in playing the long game with my practice, as I understand you cannot rush certain kinds of projects. Although it can be frustrating at times when you see your contemporaries releasing new work, it is worth sticking to a plan.
Your approach is very considered; have you ever just gone out and photographed without any form of plan? I am always making pictures whether it is on my iPhone, DSLR or testing on my large format camera and that is because I’m really passionate about the image making process. However, the majority of it is not up to the standard I want to put out, and stays lurking on my hard drive. If I am shooting for a project or commission, then I will stick to my usual favoured parameters of working.
The work on your site varies considerably; why do you think you’re drawn to documenting such varied subjects? As I mentioned previously, I am influenced by many facets of life and make pictures of what interests me. I don’t want to be “pigeon holed” into one particular genre of photography, as that is when you become lazy in my opinion. If I need to make a portrait project in order to make a point then I will. I don’t feel constraining your practice is conducive to the creative process.
Can you tell us more about your recently completed residency in Træna, Norway, and the call out for photographic submissions that you held? Myself and fellow photographer Marianne Bjørnmyr were selected for the Artist in Residence program there. Located 60km off the coast of northern Norway, Træna is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. It has a fantastic culture program that would shame most European cities and runs its international residency program on a yearly basis. During our stay we began work on a photographic book that deals with the mineral SALT. Træna as an island inspired us a lot, as not only is it surrounded by the sea, but it also has a long history of fishing, holding the crown of the oldest fishing village in Norway. The islanders have always used salt to preserve fish, and such a common mineral has become very important in their everyday life. However, as photographers our starting point was how the use of salt is intrinsic in the photographic development process - no salt, no photograph. So it is somewhat of a cyclical process; photographing the salt, knowing that the photograph can't exist without it.
As part of the residency plan, we held an open call for imagery, asking participants to respond to the theme of SALT and submit images of their own interpretations. We had an overwhelming number of submissions from all over the world, including Australia, USA and Argentina. We had imagery sent from photographers, printmakers and private collectors, all providing a unique and exciting insight into our interpretation of SALT and the image making process.
The book will be launched in early 2017 during the winter festival in Træna.
Your work has gained a lot of exposure since you graduated. What advice would you give to a fresh graduate trying to get their work out there? My best advice is don’t be shy. Get out to private views and events in your area; engaging with the scene is the best way of networking and easier once you start to see the same faces around the place.
Next, if you feel that your work is up to a standard where you are happy to start sending it out for features, then just do it. Make sure your work is sent out in a neatly presented package such as a PDF, as first impressions are crucial. It is always worth doing some research beforehand, so that you contact people or organisations that will be interested in your work, otherwise you are just wasting your time.
In your recent series, Anti Social, you’ve chosen not to include the device the subject is holding, and their posture hints to a more religious form of contemplation. Was this your intention; to show the god like power our phones hold over us? Can you tell us more about this work and what you’d like to achieve with it? Were these portraits staged? Yes, it was a very conscience decision to exclude the device as I felt that its inclusion was too obvious. I really wanted to concentrate on the facial expression of each individual in the frame. I am using a medium format camera for the project and shoot in portrait view with everything being done in camera, so no cropping in post.
Your reference to “a religious form of contemplation” is an interesting one. I certainly get an impression of this when I observe my subjects, although it was not my intention to convey it directly, there is a certain religious aspect to their expressions. For me, I wanted to focus on the solemn and slightly concerned expression we display when using our devices, in order to communicate the sense of loneliness and isolation we find ourselves in when caught between reality and virtual reality.
The portraits are totally organic and not staged in anyway. For me that is the sweet irony of the process, as I am able to capture my subjects while they are engrossed within the activity on their devices, even with a loud and clunky medium format camera. I am able to move around and make multiple frames without anyone realising I'm there. It is an increasingly common sight today; a lonely figure hunched over, seemingly stuck in limbo. We are all guilty of it, I found myself standing still staring at my phone in the middle of the super market at the weekend :0
In terms of a goal for this project, I want to keep shooting until I feel I have amassed enough imagery to make a book with. I think it can be an interesting piece of social commentary as, in my opinion, this is just the beginning of our integration with networked communication devices.
Do you have any favorite photographers? Many photographers influence my practice, from Kudelka to Soth. I am constantly looking at imagery from varying sources, and so the photographers that inspire me vary depending on my mindset or stage of project development.
At the moment I find inspiration from the likes of Taryn Simon, Alexander Gronsky, Mathias Depardon, David Chancellor and Nadav Kander.
What’s your favourite photobook by another photographer/artist? That’s a tricky one. I will have to give you my current top 5, as I couldn’t possibly just name one. (In no particular order):
An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar by Taryn Simon
Norilsk by Alexander Gronsky
From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America by Alec Soth
Fig by Broomberg & Chanarin
Manufactured Landscapes by Edward Burtynsky