Matt MacPake

University: Blackpool & the Fylde College, Lancaster University & University of Hertfordshire 

Graduation: 2005 & 2015

Genre: Fine ArtDocumentaryPortraiture 

Website: www.mattmacpake.co.uk

Artist Statement: The A406 North Circular is a 27.5 mile stretch of carriageway forming the northern section of the ring road surrounding the UK’s capital. Considered by many to be one of the noisiest and environmentally damaging roads in Britain, the uncertainty of the road’s development since the 1970s has caused urban decay and criticism for lack of progress and a poor pollution record. Notwithstanding its reputation, the road represents a significant artery carrying a regular life-flow of people and goods through, around and out of the city. The road is an essential blight on neighbourhoods through which it passes, representing a significant issue for government and local communities. This project highlights the life surrounding the road; local people going about their everyday life, and moments of natural beauty captured against the backdrop of the rubbish-strewn concrete edifice.

From the series To & from the North Circular

From the series To & from the North Circular

From the series To & from the North Circular

From the series To & from the North Circular

What are some standout moments from your time at university? I think the most important parts of any qualification are down to you and how you use your time, especially with a degree or masters qualification. For my masters, I was working full time and studying one day a week so making the most of my time was crucially important. Making the most of opportunities for learning and meeting new contacts were hugely important to me and I was lucky I had fantastic tutors and great facilities available to me.

Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I consider myself a fine art photographer who works with documentary and portraiture, although I am open-minded about all fields of photography and enjoy exploring new approaches.

What are the biggest influences on your photography? I’m influenced by the world around me, how we live and how we use images. I love the idea of exploring new and different ways to create photographs, and I constantly think about narrative and the uses of photography to inspire new work. I’m fascinated by photography and I read about and look at a lot of other photographers’ work. I would say I’m heavily influenced by many photographers and artists: Eggleston, Mary Ellen Mark, Tom Wood, Chris Killip, Todd Hido and Paul Graham. More recently I have also admired the work of Robin Maddock, Gregory Halpern, Joanna Piotrowska, Sian Davey, Matthew Connor and Mark Steinmetz.

Your work has gained a lot of exposure over the last few years; was this your aim for post-graduation, and what are your goals for the future? It was certainly my intention to test myself through entering competitions and online/print submissions. I think this can help you to learn more about your work and yourself, which I find helps me improve as a photographer and a lecturer. Having others review your work in a critical or comparative way gives you a greater understanding of your work and working process, which can only be a good thing. Along with the publicity you do get, there are obviously, many competitions and publications that don’t select your work, which can at times be disheartening, you can’t let it get you down you have to use it and learn from it. Think why? What has been selected? What can I take away from this to move forward? It’s always about learning more about what you do. Photography, like any creative endeavour is hugely personal, but putting your work out there to be seen and judged is a big part of the process. Any publicity that comes from that is a bonus but positive feedback does help confidence, and everyone needs that every so often as we all question ourselves.

As for the future, I want to keep creating new long and short term projects and challenging myself. Moving forward I’m keen to create exhibitions and books and to continue learning and developing my practice as much as I can. Teaching is a big part of my life and so many of my goals sit alongside my “day job” - I feel that being a photography lecturer helps me improve as a photographer and vice versa.  

Images from the series To & from the North Circular

Images from the series To & from the North Circular

How does the process of working towards an MA compare to that of a BA? The MA is more critical, with an emphasis on photographic audiences and personal or commercial work. I do think that there is a lot of benefit in having had several years between your MA and BA courses. I’d recommend that people go out into the world, continue to broaden their horizons and get some experience, then come back to a MA with that knowledge and maturity and apply it again to your practice. As with any course it comes down to what you put in to it - you have to go beyond just “doing” the course, it’s vital to promote your work and plan ahead. If you are enthusiastic about what you are hoping to achieve this will show in your dedication and hard work certainly pays off. I’ve been reading about photography for years but my MA really kick-started that again and I see more clearly the importance of consistent reading around subjects, not just photography or theory but on anything that could be something to explore.

Tell us a little about your MA and what you’re chosen project involved. My major study project To & from the North Circular, was something I started to think about in the first year of my MA. I always work on several ideas at once, and one or two key assignments eventually come out of this. I’m always photographing around my local area and the North Circular was something of a fascination for me; so ugly and yet at times strangely beautiful. It’s surrounded by life but obviously comes with very negative connotations and it’s unsustainable for the future generations. I started shooting the project about 18 months early as I wanted to use this for specific competitions I had identified to promote my work.

What themes do you find yourself exploring within your work? I often find myself focusing on areas or objects that others may consider to be ordinary or unremarkable and I enjoy exploring people and the places they inhabit, learning about their world and hoping to share this with others. The North Circular project expanded on ideas from previous projects where I have started by wandering about an area, getting a feel for the environment, talking to strangers and requesting portraits. Once I have an idea, I’ll research it more thoroughly to get an idea of the day to day issues for the people in that area. Social media can also be a useful tool for this - when starting the North Circular project, I looked at Twitter and Instagram images posted in those locations or tagged to the North Circular - most were about traffic congestion and the poor English weather, but there were also smiling selfies and images of rainbows. I was interested to photograph the banality of the place but also to see if I could find hope and beauty there as well and to show the vibrancy of people’s everyday life surrounding the area, photography not just people but also rubbish left on the streets or a local cat going about its day.

Was it an aim of yours to portray the surrounding areas of the road to be somewhat pleasurable places to live in, in some of the photographs? You mention that the road is a blight on the neighbourhoods it passes through, that the government and local communities see it as an issue, do you think you have eliminated some of these issues in a way? I don’t think it’s not a nice place to live, like anywhere in any town or city there are places that look nice and places that on first glance seem ugly or dilapidated. I believe the images show both sides of this in different ways – I hope they set a mood and tone to the project, some of which is gritty and to some extent unattractive, and some of which is naturally beautiful. I wanted to look at the details and get closer to the smaller things that are by this roadside in a positive, negative and at times light hearted way. I don’t have a grand aspiration for the project, such as the government reacting to it, but I hope that people who see my work may look a bit closer to the environment they live in or pass through and perhaps look at things differently, or see the small details as well as the bigger picture in their local community.

Images from the series To & from the North Circular

Images from the series To & from the North Circular

What made you photograph the surrounding areas and the people that live nearby as opposed to the carriageway itself? It’s such a vital road that brings people and goods, though, around, and out of the city, did you ever consider showing the dismay, stress, and disaster it’s caused to the landscape in a more critical way? The road is introduced at points throughout the project but shown in a way that the viewer may not have looked at it before. It is identifiable within the series, but set in the tone of the other images.  I could have photographed a million traffic jams and the stress of driving a truck or cab but those are things we see a lot. I also wanted the project to be less obviously negative in tone to the perspective you most often get if talking to people about the North Circular. To most who travel on it, it is simply a rather unattractive, busy and dirty road where people go by necessity and not by choice. By taking less of a position and perhaps a more uncommon approach in quietly using different practices in photography to show the people, things and spaces in a unique way, I was hoping to leave the viewer to form their own conclusion about the area.

What inspired you to include more traditional style landscape photographs with those of smaller aspects of the different areas, such as leaves on a tree and a bent railing? I wanted to use different photography practices to highlight the many different aspects of the imagery and to give a sense of differing perspective. The twisted railings imply a story of something that happened previously, more than likely stressful, but the railings on their own are an interesting form; an accidental man-made sculpture. It’s inbuilt into the architecture and grit of the road and also why I wanted to include images that would tonally oppose that stress and give a more balanced perspective.

Do you know what the people in the photographs feel about living near the road? Did you speak to them when you took their photographs? There were many more portrait images in the project but I edited them down and the imagery of the surrounding areas helped build the tone. I stopped a lot of people and spoke to them about my project. Almost everyone was friendly and positive about the local area and happy to help me for a few moments before being left to get on with their busy day. Unsurprisingly, many people were negative when asked about the road congestion and the environmental impact. Most people were surprised that I was undertaking a project about the area and interested in how the images were being used. Stopping and talking to strangers with a camera in your hand is often an interesting experience, and people can be naturally cynical or suspicious. My students are often very hesitant to approach people in the street for fear of a negative reaction, and this does take a certain amount of confidence. It can also often depend on the person you stop for a portrait – you can tell a lot by people’s body language. In most cases I will try to put them at ease by talking about everyday things. You try to read each situation as best as you can and work for a strong portrait.

From the series To & from the North Circular

From the series To & from the North Circular

What was your reasoning for naming the people in their photographs? Did you want the viewer to have more of a connection to the people who live nearby? Yes I wanted the portraits to make a connection to the viewer and I thought that by giving the first name of the sitters I was able to make them more real. I think not naming them could have come across too impersonal. Plus, I think it’s very kind of people to give me their time and to allow me to share their portrait, not everyone says yes and not everyone makes the final edit so I try where appropriate to caption them out of respect and recognition. 

Do you know if many of the residents choose to live near this unpleasant road that comes with pollution and urban decay, or do they have no choice? I believe it will be a mixture; it’s very expensive to live in London now it’s a time of austerity and rents and house prices are ridiculous. So I’m sure it’s a mixture some people will have grown up in these areas and some people will be forced further out of London due to cost etc. One thing is for certain these areas are still expensive to live in and still come under the price remit of living in London so they will not come cheap despite the fact some properties appear not to be in the best locations or conditions.  

 
From the series To & from the North Circular

From the series To & from the North Circular

 

Is To & from the North Circular finished or are you intending to carry it on in any way? For now yes the project is finished, that doesn’t mean I won’t go back and revisit it in the future. I enjoy photographing my local area and still intend to carry on shooting around London and surrounding areas but potentially that would be for new projects. As for the project itself I’m still looking at the possibility of a self-published book and opportunities to exhibit, and there are a number of competitions I’ll be entering. I’ve already created a small newspaper which I may look into selling online too. So the project still keeps going in other ways.