COLUMN | Mass Observation: Luke Stephenson
For the second installment of their monthly column, Mass Observation's Theo Simpson interviews photographer Luke Stephenson.
Luke Stephenson’s work blends conceptual thinking with a skilled minimalist approach. It’s unmistakably British and what lies at the core of his work is an exploration of the cultural and social details that make the British who and how they are, from our fascination with unusual competitions to pub sports such as Darts. Luke investigates these eccentricities and social oddities with humor and sarcasm, producing bizarre and often intriguing series of photographs, which really encourage us to reflect on the idea of our national character.
I’m happy to be interviewing Luke after the recent success of publishing his first book, the title of which goes someway to explaining the basis of his praxis. ‘The Incomplete Dictionary of Show Birds’ published in collaboration with YES studio is available for purchase now. His work has also been published in prestigious publications such as Foam and the New York Times magazine.
What do you think it is about the social/cultural make up of Britain that leads to the eccentricities and humorous subjects that your work explores?
I think it’s the island nature of Britain and the fact there are all these little clans such as Geordies, cockneys, scousers. They all have their own rituals and specific characteristics. Then you have counties and their differences, as well as the north south divide. This all adds up to a very condensed culture, which breeds oddities and eccentricities.
I often find your work encourages me to think of my childhood: it reminds me of being a child of suburbia, waiting for the ice-cream van, bird watching with my Granddad, children’s parties etc. How much does nostalgia play a part in your work?
I don’t make a conscious decision to explore these themes and subjects. I just stumbled across them and became drawn to them. I suppose nostalgic thoughts probably contributed to me wanting to turn these ideas into projects. I find ideas that put a smile on my face usually work well, as they make other people happy.
I’m intrigued as to how you select these subjects. How did the dart series come about for example, and how did you get access to these legends of the ‘oche’?
I’m generally quite nosey, which I think is quite important for a photographer, so often I want to see what’s behind a closed door. A lot of the time it isn’t very exciting, but occasionally it can lead you somewhere unexpected.
The darts was a very selfish project. I’ve been a fan of the BDO darts at the Lakeside since I was at school. I love the characters and the theatre of it all, it’s like a pantomime. I tried for years to get a press pass but was always told no. Then I met someone who works in media, and she managed to get me one for a few days so that I could take portraits of the players. I was so excited to be in the same room as all of them. It took me a while to get started, I was a bit starstruck.
With a lot of your work you tend to isolate the subject with a minimal simplicity, none more so striking than ‘The Incomplete Dictionary of Show Birds’. This change of context seems to pay a particular homage to traditional guide/reference books. Can you explain your thoughts on the image making process and the evolution of this following your new series?
I have been drawn to this style of picture taking for a long time. I hate shadows and clutter, especially when photographing similar things. I like the light and background to stay the same, I think this allows you to see the subjects for what they are.
The Bird series uses conventions of show bird photography as its basis. This generally features a bird on a perch, facing sideways, with a contrasting colour for the background so you can see the birds’ shape and form. I simply came at it from another direction.
With Show Birds, aside from being reminded of ornithology, it still seems very much about people and this fascination with the visual aesthetic of birds and studying types as a hobby?
I have a great admiration for people who are very dedicated to one particular thing. I love the way they can speak so enthusiastically about their most beloved subject: it transfers to you, you can feel their excitement. Whilst working on the bird project I met a lot of people who were obsessed by their birds and strived for perfection. I think this is great. Very early on in the project, I decided not to photograph the owners of the birds, as the birds themselves are testament to their achievements.
I suppose it’s the particular science of ornithology that correlates with what your work seems to investigate on a whole, the idea of evolution and behavior that relates to our own cultural/social developments, these tiny details that communicate how we live today?
Working on the Bird project showed me that my work is very much about collections, and collecting stuff by taking pictures of them. I have been a collector since I was a child, and I enjoy making series so you can see the subtle differences and tiny details of things.
What was it like working with a design studio (YES) on your book and how do you feel it added to the eventual resolve of the book in terms of edit and design?
It was great to work with YES. This being my first book, I didn’t really know where to begin, so they held my hand though the process, which was really helpful. I like working with people who aren’t as close to the project as I am, and I appreciate their thoughts and opinions. I think you can miss things and become complacent when you are constantly looking at something.
Do you have more books planned in the future? It seems to be an output that really compliments the subjects you study in your work.
Now that I have made my first book the second one doesn’t seem like such a daunting prospect. I have one idea that I will shoot in spring that I’m excited about, and which I think would work well as a book, so hopefully that won’t take as long as the Birds to bring out.
How much does display play a part in your work, in terms of exhibiting your work? Is this something you’re looking to explore more this year?
I have only had a couple of small exhibitions in the past, but when I do, I try my hardest to show the work in an interesting way. I am hopefully having an exhibition of An Incomplete Dictionary of Birds later in the year, which will be exciting, as the work really comes to life when printed.
Aside from your subjects, what other artists/photographers have inspired/influenced your work?
This is always a difficult question as there is so much good work to choose from, but I am a big fan of the old masters in painting. A wander around the national gallery and the portrait gallery is always wonderful. I also find Stephen Gill, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Dutch photographers very exciting at the moment.
What should we look out for in 2013?
Ice Creams and maybe Moles!
For more information on Luke Stephenson, Mass Observation or YES Studio: