If you had to describe your overall photographic vision in 25 words or less, what words would you choose?
I’ll have to borrow Robert Mapplethorpe’s: “I’m looking for the unexpected, I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before”.
He succeeded; I’m still trying!
Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
Recently, you put Chris Friel in the spotlight [ed. you can read it here]. I was hooked by his work from the moment I first saw it a few years ago. I was at once entranced, intrigued and curious. Chris’s work gave me the courage to probe other parts of the ministract spectrum– in particular, intentionally-out-of-focus images (aka schmocus). Whilst my shots are often of the hard lined, corner-sharp, composition variety, ministract is about exploring all the fertile territory at the abstract-minimal intersect. The American poet Emily Dickinson encouraged us to “ignite the emotions and light the slow fuse of the possible”. Chris’s work taught me to aspire to do that.
If Chris represents one side of the ministract spectrum then the other is definitely the home domain of Gianni Galassi. I got to know Gianni and his wife Daniela (another great photographer) two or three years ago and now count them both as very dear friends. His work has a very clear fingerprint; you can spot a Galassi image from the other side of the exhibition room. Like the other photographers I mention in this interview– and indeed yourself, Nathan– he strikes me as a photographer who is at ease with himself– and that ease shines through his work. He also saved my photographic life once when I accidentally formatted a card holding 200 pictures that I’d just shot on my very first trip to Rome. I thought they were gone for good, but Gianni taught me better!
Jim Mortram inspires me for a completely different reason. I couldn’t take pictures like his in a million years, but through his very special combination of pictures and words, he has taught me the importance of showing humility, of both pursuing a passion and portraying commitment through one’s work. His Small Town Inertia mission (project seems too feeble a word) makes a difference in and of itself. And, unlike many others I could name, he has monetised his significant following for the benefit of the people he writes about and the special charities he supports– not for himself. That alone makes him special. As for me, taking photographs of buildings, vents or colours reflected in metal won’t change the world or even make it a better place, but if I can find a way to use those pictures for one or two charities who can, then I’ll be happy. Jim has taught me that.
What artistic influences, outside of photography, have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography (for example, painters, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc.)?
The rhythms of Calatrava, the emotions of Rothko and, subconsciously, no doubt a whole host more.
What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?
I think it’s all a question of balance. So do the best with what you’ve got and maybe even dream a little dream for something more– but don’t let desire turn to avarice.
How would you define fine art? Is it just a label?
Fine art is the making and enjoyment of visual art– where ‘fine’ is used in contradistinction to ‘applied’. It does not speak to quality. I think it’s a label that gets misused sometimes– and mostly, it seems, by people who want to distinguish what they do from the not-very-fine. Okay, I am generalising here but when a photographer adopts the description of fine artist, I wonder if they’re really telling me that their photos are just for looking at and not for CD covers, book covers, adverts or any other applied photography purpose. And, if they are, then I wonder what they did to become a Fine Artist. Is there a group of Elders who meet some place on the first Thursday of every month to declare the latest batch? Is it a kind of Marxist collective? (‘Fine artists of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your unwanted association with all those other photographers out there’). Or are they simply trying to influence how we perceive their work? (“What the heck is that terrible thing?” “Lord knows, I haven’t a clue. But, hold on a minute, it says here it was taken by a fine artist” “Really? Actually, now you mention it … Yes, it is really rather good …”).
Apologies if my sarcasm offends anybody, but I thought a bit of provocation would be okay. I’d best go and check who among my contacts describes themselves as fine artists and start drafting some apology letters.
If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
Learn, then break the rules. Not the other way around.
What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?
For me, the benefits of online sharing are very real. Indeed, without Flickr I wouldn’t even be doing photography. I opened an account there eight years ago to share family snaps because we were unable to see each other easily– and the grandparents were desperate to see their grandchildren grow. Being on Flickr then meant that I saw real photographs– by accident initially but then intentionally as I went searching for them. Eventually– perhaps a couple of years later– I built up the courage to try it out myself and quickly discovered I had found myself a new passion. The photographers I came across at Flickr became my teachers and my inspiration– none more so than Osvaldo Pieroni. I don’t know how many hours I spent looking and asking and learning but every minute was worth it.
The next stage of my Flickr journey saw many of these great photographers become my real-life friends. JiBBR is a super example. Five of us came together for a few days in Berlin in 2008 and we’ve been meeting in various capitals two, three, four times a year ever since. We’re friends now, irrespective of photography. So, without online sharing there’d be no photography in my life; no Osvaldo; no Rita, Barbara 1, Barbara 2, or Jorg (they’re JiBBR); no Gianni and Daniela in Rome; no Nene and Max in Milan; and many, many more gaps in what makes my life today so fulfilling.
As you can tell, the camaraderie of sharing sites is the biggest thing for me but since the recent changes at Flickr (and the mini diaspora it’s precipitated) I’ve been thinking about whether to shift my primary online home. I’ve toyed with other sites– 500px (nicely presented but soulless), Google+ (too busy and lacking the possibilities of deep interaction that Flickr groups and galleries offer), ipernity (the big new hope for many people but I’m not persuaded), etc– but none of these seem to offer what Flickr gave me in “the good old days”. Right now, I’m wondering if my future will be a combination of my personal web site, Twitter and RSS. I’m not trying to sell my pictures, so I don’t need to worry about traffic. I just want to enjoy seeing other people’s work, and I love to hear once in a while that people like what I produce. I don’t know. Let’s see what happens …
I haven’t mentioned Tumblr but I do use it actively – as an electronic scrapbook for sharing the great things that other people produce. And Facebook is a place I keep for primarily keeping up with friends although I do post a picture there occasionally.
Obviously, I have a particular perspective that’s driven by the fact that I don’t seek to make money from my work, and it’s this perspective that explains my major dislikes. For those who want to make money from their photography, then, understandably, a major objective is to maximise and then monetise their following. I can understand the logic behind what they’re doing, but it’s not for me. My other major dislike of online sharing sites is what I call the wow and awesome insincerity syndrome, which comes with flashy icons thrown in for good measure. That’s why I search for oases – places at Flickr such as your Chasing Shadows group or my own Ministract group.
Frustrations aside though– every online sharing site is beneficial in its own way to its own audience, providing a wide range of choice and opportunity to us all. If people can find a place among the myriad of photo sharing sites on offer– one that gives them the fun, inspiration and friendship that I’ve found on Flickr– then I’d urge them to grab it with both hands and hold on tight. They’ll love the ride.
What photographic cliché or common photography question, if any, irritates you the most?
Nothing much– unless you include that stuff I said about fine art.
If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CDs, what would they be and why?
Camera – The one I have– a Canon 5d Mark III— because it addresses the shortcomings of the previous model and I’ve still got loads to learn about its capabilities.
Lens – The one I dream of: an L series 24–300 f1.2 IS. (If I’m to be stranded on an island then the least Canon can do is to create this beauty just for me– and at a portable size too thank you).
Tripod – The one that would do the best job of holding a cooking pot above the flames of the island campfire because that’s the only time I imagine using one.
Two books – Only two???? Golly, this is difficult … One of them would have to be The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki because it fed my curious mind and it would remind me of all the other great Japanese authors I discovered when I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s. The other book would be Whose Life Is It Anyway? by Brian Clark (the play, not the novel adaption). I remember, in my late teens, reading it in one sitting with tears streaming down my cheeks through the closing pages. It spoke to my head and my heart as it explored the legal conundrums and personal tragedies faced by a sculptor who’d lost the use of his hands.
Ten CDs – All of these, bar two, remind me of special people, places and times in my life. The Adele and Cabezon are included just because I love the music – although now they’ll always remind me of doing this interview!
- Distance and Time – Fink
- Crash – Dave Matthew Band
- 21 – Adele
- Asylum Years – Tom Waits
- The Melody at Night, With You – Keith Jarrett
- Life – Chie Ayado
- Cello Suites 1–6 – Bach (performed by Rostropovich)
- Faure’s Requiem (the version that includes Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater)
- Pictures at an Exhibition – Mussorgski
- Spanische Instrumentalmusik zur Zeit Karl V – Antonio de Cabezon (performed by Jordi Savall & Hesperion XX)
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
Not so sure about specific directions but in terms of goals I have a few. I’d like to overcome my fear of asking permission of a stranger to take his or her picture; I’d like to take some time off work to pursue my dream project and then have an exhibition of my work; I’d like to meet all of my Flickr contacts face to face, including, especially you, Nathan, and share an evening of chit chat (the current tally is that I’ve met about a third of them); and I’d like somehow to use my photography to help those less fortunate than myself.
Is there any specific place that you would like to visit to take photos?
The Milwaukee Art Museum. I have long been fascinated by Santiago Calatrava’s architecture, and a couple of years ago I decided I’d try (money and time permitting) to photograph as many of his structures as I could. That’s my dream project and the Milwaukee Art Museum is at the top of my Calatrava bucket list now that I’ve been to Valencia. I’ve also long wanted to visit Iceland, but I think that’s more to be entranced by the landscapes rather than photograph them myself. Then, again, if Calatrava were to build something in Reykjavík …
Is there anything else you wish to add?
Yes – a big thank you for giving me this opportunity – not just to share my thoughts and pictures with your audience but also because you’ve caused me to spend a weekend reflecting on what I do and why I do it. It’s been a special treat and I’m enormously grateful.
One final thought: photography has enabled me to see our world in a new way. I see things now that I never even new existed before I first looked through a viewfinder. But every once in a while when we’re standing on the shoreline, looking out to the ocean as the sun merges water and sky into a horizon to die for, or when we see a building with lines that dance to the rhythm of a Baroque masterpiece, let’s all remember to leave the camera hanging around our neck and enjoy the moment just for the hell of it.
Explore more of Tom’s photography: Website | Flickr | Twitter | Google+
Spotlight on Three Images
All images on this page are protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Tom McLaughlan‘s permission.
The text on this page is protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Tom McLaughlan or Nathan Wirth‘s permission.