I was fortunate recently to meet with Michael Hoppen, owner of the Michael Hoppen Gallery, Chelsea, London. The gallery sells the work of some of the most well-known photographers in the world – including Annie Leibowitz, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Tim Walker, Guy Bourdin, and Richard Avedon - so I was grateful to Juan Curto at Camara Oscura, Madrid, for the introduction. I made sure I set off a good 2 hours in advance to get from Hackney to Sloane Square, and given that it was steaming hot Saturday in central London, that got me there just in time!
I told him a bit about myself, and as he looked at my work he asked me what inspires me. I paraphrased that when I started, I was inspired by anything: paintings, literature, cinema; and recently I have started to look at other self-portrait photography such as Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, as suggested to me by people who saw my work. He was very polite and warned me before going on to give his full opinion on my images, and did stress that he doesn’t want to tell me what to do or where to go. I said that was fine, I wanted to hear his opinion.
His first reaction was to comment on the ‘commercial’ quality of the lighting in my work, although I use all natural light, it seemed to him that I was doing something ‘unnatural’ to the lighting in Photoshop. For example, in Girl dreaming, he pointed out the diffuse glow that I had applied in Photoshop that made the image seem false. He expressed how the notion of ‘chance’ is what makes photography, and capturing things as they really appear, but using lighting in a way that makes it interesting without looking Photoshopped.
However, he was not suggesting that there was something wrong in using Photoshop. All the works in his current exhibition by Alex Prager, he pointed out, took many hours in retouching. However, the aim was to make the final result look as natural as possible, ie. to not look as if they had been Photoshopped. The use of technology was too overt in my images, according to him, he remarked that he thinks I have talent but the Photoshop was ‘standing in the way’. He was therefore saying I was using Photoshop too overtly, rather than too much.
He also said that having been a photographer himself, he had spent years producing images that had the same ’60s/70s filter-like lighting’ that he saw in my images, and that he ‘gets what I am trying to do’, but encourages me to ‘know when to stop’ in Photoshop. He said he liked South by southeast (one of my lesser-processed images, and an image that all three fine-art-gallery contacts I have been involved with have expressed a preference for, which is interesting).
I told him that I had had all these thoughts recently myself, and that my own tastes have been evolving to appreciate these subtleties of ‘chance’ and reality, and going against the desire to ‘polish’ everything and fit everything neatly into the frame in the manner of commercial photography. I showed him my recent image Soliloquy which I had put alongside an earlier, more gratuitous image of mine Coral Sunfish Sorts (a juxtaposition a gallery have made, as you will see in an upcoming blog post). Soliloquy is very different in its abstractification of my body and the use of negative space.
I also showed him my recent diptych Growing pains to show how I have continued along that vein of minimalism and almost what you might call a more offbeat or ‘cruder’ composition.
He expressed initial disbelief that all was ‘as it seemed’ in the actual shots above. I told him that the words written on the wall were actually on the wall of the hospital, as shot. He then moved onto say that maybe I should have photographed with more depth, playing with depth of field to put something out of focus so it wasn’t so ‘straight on’, perhaps if the words were written on a glass door in front of me rather than simply above me.
He also made an observation that I have never noticed before, that most of my images are shot ‘straight-on’ from waist-height, from the same perspective, with few exceptions (at least, from the images he looked at in my portfolio and on my laptop). He encouraged me to play with different perspectives and angles, to make everyday objects, such as a table, take on a different shape, through high and low angles.
He suggested I look at the work of historical artists who were amongst the first to use compositing in their photography: such as Lady Clementina Hawarden, Henry Peach-Robinson, and Julia Margaret Cameron, and to go and look at their work in print, which I intend to do. He reiterated that he just wanted to encourage me to look at them, rather than suggest a restrictive outlook. He showed me books by Denise Grunstein, Bellocq and also the exhibition in the gallery in which we were sitting, by Miroslav Tichy (Tichy’s images were shot for himself, without any intention of exhibiting them, which was an interesting comparison).
Before I went, I wanted to ask whether he thought it was a problem to be doing all self-portraits all the time, and also, whether I should go about with a more specific conceptual purpose to make my images have clearer ‘meanings’. Contrary to the impression I have got from other curators and directors (one advising me not to simply to show off myself looking ‘beautiful and long-legged’, but to look at the work of other trending, and more sobering, self-portraitists; one saying it is not clear what my pictures ‘are about’; and another one asking me ‘what I am trying to say’ because she doesn’t like ‘empty work’), Michael expressed surprising nonchalance regarding my employment of subject and arguable absence of clear meaning. He said that he thinks there is nothing wrong with ‘beautiful images’ and neither did he mention any issue in repeatedly using yourself as a model – these two factors were fine in his view.
I feel in retrospect very pleased with the meeting which was not too formal.
Thinking about his comment about too-overt use of Photoshop, I recall that other people have remarked that my work, to them, does not look ‘Photoshopped’ per say, but uses enough to achieve each image’s certain illusion or effect. This is because those people see a lot more Photoshopped images on the internet and make a positive judgement of my work by comparison. Michael Hoppen, on the other hand, is used to looking at a certain type of photography (his gallery deals only with analogue at the moment, predominantly silver gelatin prints) so how ‘Photoshopped’ something looks is of course will always be relative. Parts of my work may looked Photoshopped to certain people, even the bits that aren’t.
I do believe in challenging norms and expectations of the art scene, after all, being an artist is surely about being different, about expressing oneself without restraint or pressure of convention to ‘fit in’. In that sense, I might consider the unconventional parts to my practice as a potentially good thing. I say this only in a suggestive way, because I am aware that my feistiness in defending my sense of artistic autonomy has sometimes prevented me from having an open mind to what I could evolve or explore in my own work. A couple of years ago, I had yet to be truly aware of the commercial influences that shaped my work, being non-art-educated and spending most of my time on Flickr, looking there for inspiration, along with maybe some fashion magazines and movies.
I thought about work that does look extremely polished and contrived, even commercial, that can still be ‘art’, such as Gregory Crewdson’s. After all, anything can be art, it just depends on context, on who is saying that it is art. Context is also important: the fact that digital photography is somewhat commodifying photography and turning the ‘unique object’ of an analogue print handcrafted in the darkroom, into a global mass-production of instant image-making. If digital photography became (hypothetically) obsolete in the future, the work of a digital photographer could be displayed on walls with the Photoshop flaws as evident as the bugs trapped in the revered handmade camera of Miroslav Tichy, whose remarkable age-old one-offs now sell for £7500 a pop. That probably won’t happen, but I am trying to express how the context of a photograph, its historical relevance as an ‘object’, can be an esteemed part of its ‘art’ and sometimes equate the sum total of its value.
In this sense therefore, I fully appreciate the words of someone as experienced as Hoppen advising me on how my work can fit in with the contemporary photography scene as it stands today, without didacticism or self-righteousness. I also value how it is necessary to make sense of that person’s perspective, where they ‘are coming from’ in order to have made those judgements. As an artist it is important to listen to experienced people’s advice and consider also how your audience see your work, but that must be filtered through your own mind as the artist, because if you don’t have the last say, there’s no point doing what you do. Keep an open mind, be willing to ‘learn’, but let your style evolve through your own genuine desire.
As a result of the meeting, out of interest, I wanted to dig out my unprocessed Girl dreaming for comparison. Here’s an earlier version before I did the processing to the light and dark (unnecessary?) which obscured the atlas to the left and, erm, The Jolly Postman to the right, and also before I cloned out all the crap on the table…
I guess it is all down to a matter of opinion which is better – see my ‘final’ processed one at top of the page. (I definitely could have shifted the stuff on the table before I took the shot – but it was hard given that it wasn’t my own house and I had no idea when someone might walk in!)
I meet another London-based curator shortly, so it will be interesting to put what they say into context with this meeting.
The image of the Michael Hoppen Gallery at the top of the post is from Art Review, here