Matthew Askey What led you to first pick up a camera and consider it as a tool for serious artistic investigation?
MA What about a photographer like Cindy Sherman?
JF Apart from the ‘untitled film stills’ I’ve not seen anything by her which particularly interests me. I’ve never been keen on the ‘dressing-up’ approach to photography though Irving Penn’s fashion work is always worth looking at.
MA The picture where one can see your shadow cast upon a motorway seems different from the rest. Were you referencing Lee Friedlander in that one?
MA Have you followed up these possibilities at all?
JF Not systematically. Friedlander would be too hard an act to follow!
MA The self-portrait photographs form no more than a significant minority of your output – how would you characterise your ‘non-self-portrait’ work, and how does it relate to the self-portraits?
JF Formalist, in the tradition of Atget, Frank and Friedlander. The subject matter just happens to be whatever moves me by the way it looks, the way the scene before me works visually. I like to surprise myself with new ways of seeing. Many of the characteristics of this photography have developed from my love of Poetry.
Superficially these two bodies of work seem very different from one another. However, they express similar sensibilities, are explorations of different aspects of the same world. My outdoor work usually has quite a de-populated feel to it. If figures appear they are usually small, anonymous cyphers, interlopers of sorts. Maybe what you see in the self-portraits are the real inhabitants of my photographic world.
MA The people on the bus, that small Neapolitan boy with those neat little boots, & the little blond girl looking up at the camera – they all give out an intensity, a feeling of expectation, fear, or loneliness. Are these ‘interlopers’ in your photographic world or do they, in a sense, correspond to what’s going on in the self portraits?
JF They belong in that world of the self-portraits. I’m so glad when I get that level of intensity in a ‘straight’ portrait. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. A lot depends on serendipity, making the most of the circumstances. The little girl, she was a pupil in class of mine, the best class I've taught. I took that photo on the last day I was at that school. There was an intense feeling in the classroom that day which the photo communicates.
MA What values associated with Poetry do you see as influencing your photography?
JF Subject matter in poetry is merely the camouflage by which the poet smuggles in the true meaning; likewise I prefer un-remarkable subject matter for my photographs as this allows the viewer to pass on rapidly from concern with subject matter to a deeper engagement. A good poem has many layers which gradually reveal themselves each time one visits it – the best poems can be incomprehensible at a first reading but something draws us back to them. One has to develop a certain literacy in order to really appreciate poetry. Unfortunately the visual literacy that makes us good readers of advertisements and celebrity photo-shoots is not the same one that allows us to appreciate serious photography.
MA I find these images quite uncompromising, and pervaded with tragic-comic undertones . However what strikes me first is the element of grotesquerie. Where does this come from, what does it signify?
JF They’re not snapshots of me emoting, nor am I trying to button-hole the viewer with any concepts or personal issues. Rather I’m interested in the stiller, deeper existential world which underlies all the human noise. A successful self-portrait has a sort of silence about it – a silence one finds in Goya’s etchings.
I sometimes find myself feeling a kind of pity for the creatures I’ve depicted – as if having been dragged out from their reality, where they belong, into our reality, where they don’t, they have become scary and hard to comprehend – like some deep-sea fish brought to the surface.
MA Occasionally, I get the feeling that you’ve gone ‘over the top’ as it were –gone for straight horror. This one in the broken mirror, for example.
JF I agree. If there isn’t a sufficiently powerful opposing sense of Poetry such images can tip over into being tasteless. They can also be very funny, in a dark way, and I think that’s why I saw some such images through the printing stage. However, such images are weeded out before coming before the public as I think that this humour is not a sufficient justification.
Some of my favourite self portraits have this horrific side to them – the one where I'm a figure eaten away by a bright light coming from behind me & the ‘lamprey’, for example. But these both have that opposing complexity and richness which the broken mirror self-portrait hasn’t.
MA What roles do the ideas of physical Beauty, or its opposite, play in these self-portraits?
JF Physical beauty’s banal and two-a-penny, and so strongly socially determined that at any one time 'beautiful people' all end up looking like each other – you’ve only to watch the shopping-crowds on a Saturday to see this. But its opposite is much more interesting – heredity, experience and personality speak through such faces. I find photos of beautiful people boring, slightly offensive and suggestive of a lack of imagination on the part of the photographer. Likewise I can’t see any point in making self-portraits in order to simply look ‘good’.
MA So what responses have you had from viewers of this body of work?
JF At the work’s first showing I spent some time watching peoples’ reactions. The most interesting was that of a couple – the man was shaking his head whilst saying ‘extraordinary, extraordinary’ to himself, whilst his partner was protesting that she couldn’t bear to look at them! The man’s reaction was the more flattering, but the woman’s showed that something had still hit home.
However, I’d much rather move people than shock them. There’s only a value to ‘shock’ if you’ve something worth being shocking about – as in Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’, Don McCullin’s war photographs and such like. But as a youngish artist with a happy childhood behind me, living comfortably in a prosperous society, I really don’t have that much to be shocking about.
But the response I liked best was that of a friend of my parents, who has no special interest in art, who remarked about my self-portraits that there was something intensely ‘sad’ in them.
MA These images don’t conform to what one would expect from a portrait. How much have they to do with you as a person?
JF I’m not aware of any autobiographical intentions underlying these photographs, though something inevitably sneaks in. One could, quite reasonably, ask ‘what sort of person would do this work?’, and be able to make appropriate deductions. There are good reasons for using oneself as a model in this way, though these are largely pragmatic. And, of course, your model is the most intriguing and puzzling person in the whole world.
MA What are these pragmatic reasons for using yourself as a model?
JF You’re always available; you’re cheap; no explanations are needed as to what needs doing; you don’t have to keep the model happy; and the model gets tired, and wants to stop, at exactly the same moment as you do.
MA The titles you give your self-portraits represent where and when the negative was made. Why have you chosen to do this?
JF It gives nothing away. The viewer is left free to see what’s there.
MA Would you like to talk about the techniques you have developed to make these prints? The Cyclops, for example, was that all done while the shutter was open?
JF I felt free to mess about with ‘apparent reality’ in a way that I don’t with my non-self-portrait work. However, I developed certain parameters as to what I could allow myself to do: I wanted to keep a close relation to what was ‘real’ while at the same time seeing how far I could take the recognisable human form.
The prints essentially represent ‘what the film saw whilst the shutter was open’. This limitation focused my creativity whilst still permitting me to get away with a lot more than might at first seem possible.
In the darkroom I never used any ‘trick’ techniques such as Sabattier’s effect or multiple printing, though I did make some prints as negatives rather than positives. I aimed for prints which are open and don’t ‘shout’ at the viewer. Someone once suggested that if I’d printed them more contrasty they’d have more impact; he was puzzled when I replied that I didn’t want them to have much impact – I didn’t want it to become a freak-show.
The ‘Cyclops’, was very simple. I did it in my living room with two table-lamps and some dark curtains as a backdrop. It involved me moving during a ½ second exposure. There are 3 or 4 early self-portraits made like this - just me moving against a dark background. These, to me, are the purest expression of my self-portraiture. They could have been done by a photographer working in the 1850s – an idea which I like.
MA Why do you like this idea?
JF Because it means that what I’ve created is not dependent on significant advances in technology – it’s based on what might be called ‘raw photography’.
MA So what does this say about your attitude to digital photography? It strikes me that if your self-portraits had emerged a decade or two earlier they would have had a greater impact because nowadays similar effects are somewhat taken for granted in digital technology.
JF I agree. But there’s a certain air of reality which pervades them which wouldn’t exist if they had been done digitally. Digital work looks ‘digital’. It’s analogous to synthesisers and pianos – you don’t perform Bach on a synth because Reality, and the intimacy of relationship between the pianist and his instrument, is tidied out of the process.
I’m not into chasing technology. My cameras are all second-hand, and pre-date the 1980s. Being a pioneer Victorian photographer is a favourite fantasy of mine.
MA What are you working on at the moment?
JF I’ve had about 30 life-casts made – mostly fragments, partial casts or casts made from distorted moulds. I’m photographing these onto sheet film. It’s fascinating being able to see myself in the viewfinder for the first time. I’m going to print these using techniques similar to those employed by Irving Penn in his ‘49-50 nudes.
In my non-self portrait work, whilst still just photographing whatever moves me, I’ve also been pretty preoccupied, over the past year or two, by the motif of steps and stairs.
MA The life-casts seem to represent quite a departure from what we have already seen in your self-portraits. Do you ever intend to return to the pre-2000 style’?
JF Yes, if I can find a way of not re-treading old ground. I do still occasionally do some like that.
MA What plans have you for the future?
JF The life-casts should keep me occupied for a year or two. I’m also exploring what can be done through combining photos, making multiples and grids and such like – though I’ve yet to produce a finished work along these lines. Maybe, someday, I might see if I can do anything interesting with the ‘straight’ self portrait.