2011 Award Winner CHRIS DOWN talks to the BarTur Photo Award...
Chris Down, From the series Before the Motorcar was King
How would you describe your work?
The projects I work on tend to be long term, where I will photograph the subject matter several times in an effort to gain an understanding. My relationship with a landscape or person, built over time, is integral to the experience of making work. It is an immersive process.
How do you decide to kind of start on a new project?
It depends. It can be something I have read or something that I have seen that plants a seed in my mind. I tend to walk a lot in the countryside and if a scene reveals itself to me, I will make a quick sketch on my phone camera. This is a process of preparatory thought gathering, that can gain momentum and develop into new work. If there is a human element integral to a project, then quite often it will come about by a chance meeting, where someone will perhaps introduce me to the person. From here a chain reaction might occur, where I will move from subject to subject, or alternatively I may see someone that attracts my attention who I will then approach.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on several long term projects, although I have two main bodies of work that I am involved in at the moment. One is landscape based and the other human based. The latter is called ‘Rehearsal Room’. It concentrates on a group of musicians and the physical space where their interaction takes place. Again, this has been built up over a number of years. The second project is a body of work called 'Before the Motorcar was King’. It looks at the infrastructure that was in place prior to the decline of the railways in the UK and the impact it has had on the landscape.
Super interesting and so they nearly finished?
No. Some of the work from ‘Before the Motorcar was King’ has been published in Rakesprogress magazine, although I would say it is an ongoing process. It’s a subject that involves being out in the landscape, walking the landscape, being immersed in the landscape as these elements show themselves to me. So that's ongoing, as is ‘Rehearsal Room’, however, the place where the musicians meet could soon be lost, so this may bring about a natural conclusion.
And so what what led you to photography where did you kind of start. And was it a deliberate decision to become a photographer or was it a way in which you kind of delivered your kind of a fine art practice or same practice and kind of where did you start?
Well my grandfather, although I wouldn't describe him as a photographer, had a collection of cameras, some of which I inherited. My father also played a part in my early interest when he lent me a medium format camera, which I had no idea how to work. So growing up I always had cameras around me and started making photographs as a natural progression. My interest in photography as a medium for fine art practice did not begin forming until my 20s, I would guess, as I started to grasp how the medium could be used as a way of understanding the world, and myself. Then, by the time I started my MA, I was fully engaged with it. So to answer your question, I'm not sure. I think photography has always been integral to my development. I suppose it's always been something I’ve referred to. A camera, or seeing in pictures, feels as though it has always been with me, and it has been a natural progression to take this into the realm of fine art.
In terms of the photos that you take and what you want to capture. What is it to you that it's important to capture what you are kind of looking for in a photo essay kind of storytelling or is it illustrative of that moment in time or is it some.
I think it's going back to what I was saying earlier, about being immersed. Although I am the observer and the person taking the photograph, I'm trying to capture the essence, or theme that interests me. I don't tend to concentrate on one photograph, it tends to be a body of work so it's across a number of photographs. It's a book, it's a series, it's the project as a whole. I'm trying to communicate what I'm seeing, what I'm feeling in a way that's personal but also, hopefully, in a way that others can relate to, in a way that they may not have considered before. So it's slightly off centre. Attraction draws me to making the work and, ultimately, I'm attempting to attract people to what I have seen.
What you think is good photography and what do you think makes a good photo?
There are technical photographers who one can be impressed by, but that's not what draws me in or captures my imagination. For me, it is a way of looking, that I may not have not envisaged or not experienced myself, that attracts me. I suppose its that way of looking that just makes you look again, and makes you think again about the work and its wider context.
And do you have any favourite photographers that you either look to or you just enjoy looking at that work?
I've always admired Jem Southam’s work. Although, generally, I am drawn to a mixture of styles and approaches, everything from documentary through to fine art practice, no matter how the images are captured.
Are you represented by a Gallery? And how did you approach them?
Although not a gallery, I was approached by Bloomsbury who published some of my work in "Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography" which looks at contemporary landscape photographers, however, I am not currently represented by a gallery.
Is it something that Photographers care about, being represented by a gallery?
I think it is. Artists often seek gallery representation and I think it can be a valuable measure of establishment approval. With regard to whether it's absolutely necessary, I think social media has enabled some people to successfully represent themselves.
I wondered if you would have any top tips for people who are starting out?
You've got to believe in yourself, which isn't always easy, and that's why I think the Bar-Tur Award was something that was very good for me. It was instrumental and gave me confidence to go on after I had been selected. Once I had been given that confidence boost, it encouraged me to have faith in myself. So it’s that ability to believe in the work you're producing and believe that it can be of appeal. How you go about that isn't always obvious when starting out, having a spark of faith in what you're doing, can really help.
This will interesting question as I know you inherited some of your grandfather's cameras. What was your first camera and what do you have now?
Many of the cameras that I inherited from my grandfather were beyond my understanding so my first real camera was an Olympus. That was my personal camera. It was an Olympus OM 40, 35mm. Then, as I progressed, I borrowed an elderly medium format camera which was replaced by my own Pentax 67. My current camera is digital medium format, having switched from medium format film.
That's great. Thanks so much Chris.