ROOMS presents: The Decline of Conscience by Nick JS Thompson
Curated by Benjamin Murphy | Hundred Years Gallery
19 - 25 Nov'15
Nick is a photographer with a strong sense of social conscience, and his work is always both beautifully alluring and ethically charged. This duality is what balances his work perfectly in-between honest documentary photography and fine art.
Often his photographs show human-altered landscapes, long after the people charged with their intervention have left them behind. These ghostly but familiar images are both beautiful and almost frightening.
BM – Is photography a nostalgic art form, always documenting the past?
NJST – Not necessarily. For my work yes possibly; it is rooted in nostalgia. I create work that explores events that have happened in the past and what people’s actions have been. Maybe that is a nostalgic act but I still wouldn’t class my work as nostalgic. I think it depends on the type of photography though. Something like still life photography, which is created in the present with a certain purpose in mind, could be anything but nostalgic.
BM – Are photographers creating or recording a reality? And do you think you can do one without doing both?
NJST – That’s a hard one, I think both are true. Obviously if you are a photojournalist and covering a story, you should be recording reality as it happens or as it happened in the past. Photography is such a broad term that it encompasses things such as fashion photography where each situation is carefully controlled and created to evoke a particular emotion or put across an aesthetic which has been chosen by the photographer.
BM – Susan Sontag said that no two photographers can take the same photograph of the same thing, do you agree?
NJST – Yes I do, I think that even if two photographers are photographing the same scene at the same time the images will each be different. Every person has a different take on things, what their views are on the subject matter, and emotional insights, and biases that each person has.
BM – How much control over the final image can the photographer actually claim, due to lighting changes, wind, shutter speed etc.?
NJST – Again this depends on what type of photography you are talking about. The phrase that Henri Cartier-Bresson coined is that of “the decisive moment” which he sums up by saying "the decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression." This is taking the chance events that are happening around you and trying to control them to the best of your ability in one image. This is true of documentary photography, or the street photography that Cartier-Bresson is famous for, but if you are creating a still life in a studio then you obviously have complete control of every aspect of the image.
BM – Should photographs only be viewed in print? As then the artist can control exactly how it is encountered. Screen brightness and quality affect how it is seen, is this a problem?
NJST – I definitely prefer people to see my work in print. Viewing work online also affects your concentration, people flick through thousands of images and don’t give them as much attention as they sometimes deserve. (I know I’m guilty of it.) It is very easy to become desensitized with an endless stream of images from your computer screen or smartphone. The display quality is also definitely an issue, presenting images, which have sometimes been compressed and the resolution reduced. These things can greatly influence and detract from the viewers experience with an image.
The sequencing of pictures in a series is also extremely important for me to tell the story that I want. In the digital world this is often lost; which is why the recent surge in self-published photo books, with people like Self Publish, Be Happy leading the way. I think that is an incredible thing.
BM – Do you think smartphones and the Internet have ruined photography?
NJST – With platforms such as Instagram, where images are presented in an endless list and shown on a small scale, on screen, like I said before I think has definitely affected photography in a negative way. I wouldn’t say that it had ruined it per se but the knock on affect for a new generation of photographers and artists viewing work in this format I’m sure will have repercussions down the line.
Having said that, I think that digital has a place in the world of photography and obviously it is here to stay so we just have to look for ways to use it in different ways; to embrace it and use it in a way that compliments the technology.
BM – You take photos and make videos, what does photography have that video doesn’t?
NJST – They are such different disciplines for me. In my opinion, photography can be more powerful. A still image can be looked at for as long as you want, and is often seared into you brain. The length of time you can look at it and the attention you can give to it mean that it can have more of an impact.
Video for me is more of a whole atmosphere that can be created encompassing sound and images. This is more on par with a photo essay or series of images to make up a whole picture of events or what you want to portray.
BM – You take mainly portraits, but more specifically portraits within landscapes. What are the relationships between the two?
NJST – My work looks at the effect and marks that people have left on a landscape or surrounding. I think it is really interesting to see how people alter things for purposes that maybe no longer matter or aren’t relevant any more. My work on Fanø for example was documenting the huge number of bunkers that cover a small island off the coast of Denmark, built by the Nazi’s during WWII. Their purpose has completely changed, and they are obsolete. Their appeal to the viewer now is at first glance more aesthetic than functional, although they have undertones of what the original purpose was, and this adds a sinister layer of emotion to the work. Or the work that I have shot over the last few years around the Heygate Estate in South London, again is a record of how people have changed the environment in which they live and the constant changing of this for better or worse
BM – Are these the fine art photographs and your Cambodia ones more documentary?
NJST – Yeah, some of the work I shoot when I travel is more based in the traditions of documentary photography. The Fanø series is a lot more calculated and thought out over an extended period, where as the travel documentary photos are usually more off the cuff and going with the flow of what is happening around me at that particular time.
BM – Why do you choose to show the documentary works in a fine art setting?
NJST – Documentary work can definitely be shown in a fine art setting. It depends on what your thought processes are behind the images and work as a whole. For me, my work falls under fine art to an extent because of the ideas behind what I am trying to portray visually to people. I choose to show the work in a fine art setting because it gives me a space to explore the work and display the work exactly how I want it to be viewed instead of handing it over to a picture editor and letting them then edit and govern the work, possibly even changing its intended purpose to fit a particular agenda. I think it is maybe me being a bit of a control freak over the work and over people’s experience of viewing it.
BM – Do you think that once you have taken a photograph of something, that the act of you taking the photograph changes it forever or are you entirely a voyeur?
NJST – I like to think that it doesn’t change it, but I think possibly it does. It’s a question that I constantly ask myself. If you are going to enter a person’s personal space or environment to take a picture then I think that inevitably you are going to effect their behavior in some way. This is why I prefer to spend longer periods of time with people so that they become used to me being around and then almost forget that I am there. This is the ideal.
BM - Often your work is rather bleak, what is it about this kind of photography that attracts you?
NJST – For me it some of the most interesting human emotions are fear or distress. I don’t know what type of person this makes me (Laughs). They are extreme and when people are in these states it sometimes makes them behave in odd and interesting ways. For me putting myself in uncomfortable situations either as they are happening or after the event, pushes me to create work that reflect these extremes.
I also find it interesting to see how viewers engage and react to work when confronted with images that are uncomfortable to look at.
BM – My favourite of your works are the empty rooms, what do you think these can say that a portrait can’t?
NJST – This links back to showing how people have altered their surroundings and the effect that this has on the atmosphere of a space. Vilhelm Hammershøi is a massive influence on my work, with his paintings of rooms with often-muted tones and somber ambiance.
It is documenting everyday life but when you take the people out of the image it slows things down for me, I can concentrate of the finer details of the scene that I think can be extremely telling in what that person is like. And this adds to it being a more complete picture.
19 - 25 November at Hundred Years Gallery
Curated by Benjamin Murphy