Seamus Nicolson: Behind the art

This week Monograph have interviewed renowned photographer and newest addition to the gallery, Seamus Nicolson. See what he has to say about his current work, his inspiration and what’s next for him.

We want to get in your mindset. What inspires you when making your work?

Seamus Nicolson, Heidi
Seamus Nicolson, Heidi

My process of working involves piecing together different elements that have been collected mentally and then put together a bit like a jigsaw puzzle in the constructed image. I am always making notes of locations that interest me, either because they look like ready-made stage sets or I like a certain quality of light in a particular space. I am also interested in spaces and places where there is a lot of visual information. When I make large prints of those images, these details, however incidental, take on a different quality and add to the visual richness of the image.

I love the visual over-load of the city and how photography is capable of capturing every detail  of an environment, no matter how small and insignificant. I am interested in how we inhabit transitory urban “in-between places” and how we sometimes are “framed” by these spaces.

I also make visual notes on people who represent certain generic types. They are either people I know, or people I approach in the street. I photograph these subjects in environments that I have pre-selected. I choose people on the basis that they will “fit” with a particular place I have in mind, or resonate with it visually in an interesting way. I am inspired by the multi-culturalism of the city and seeing people of all cultures and walks of life. I choose subjects that reflect this ethnic diversity. I enjoy seeing and recognising the visual potential of these elements : character and environment,and then seeing what happens when they are combined. I feel like I am creating a new reality, staged solely and fleetingly for my photographs.

Your work uses carefully orchestrated scenes. How do you know when the pose and surroundings are just right?

I never have a completely pre-conceived idea about what is going to happen when I take a subject to a location. I usually have a vague sense of things to try in terms of poses, but this is just a starting point and I often base my ideas on observing the subject’s natural body language. I try to keep the image an objective representation and try not to project too much emotion on to the people I’m photographing. It is more about surfaces and information than emotion. The moments I’m trying to capture are often based on things I have seen or imagined, and it is usually people caught in “nothing moments” of reflection when they are inactive or removed from any sense of “doing”. I usually photograph my subjects in urban locations at night, when I feel there is a sense of transformation, the surreal or sub-conscious about a particular space.

You’re currently exhibiting at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. How does it feel to have your exhibited in such important galleries as Tate and Whitechapel?

It is a great honour to have my work exhibited in public spaces such as the Whitechapel and the Tate. It is good reach to a larger audience. My pictures work well in large white spaces, where they can be seen at a distance as well as up close. In these galleries you know your work will be viewed in optimum conditions.

You have photographed for the legendary Vivienne Westwood. Was shooting a fashion commission different to how you would normally work?

With shooting fashion commissions , I don’t change my working methods too much. I am not a fashion photographer, but an artist shooting fashion. I like the idea of taking elements of fashion and bringing it into my visual world, rather than the other way around. The main difference however between shooting art and fashion is the the pace. You have to produce a larger number of pictures in a shorter space of time, as you only have the models, clothes, stylists etc  on location for a much more restricted time.

I’m told that your drawings are wonderful. What made you want to work in the medium of photography rather than drawing or painting? What defined your style?

Seamus Nicolson, Roberta
Seamus Nicolson, Roberta

I chose photography over other media as my medium of choice because it is the one that best conveys my visual ideas as I see them. My pictures involve a certain amount of objectivity and distance from the people I’m portraying. I think photography is best suited for that kind of image-making. I also like the idea of pausing time and holding it still in the frame of the image. It is all about making the right selection, choosing one moment over others as opposed to the image being created by an accumulation of gestures built up over time as with drawing and painting.My style as been defined by a combination of shooting at night in the city and employing the idea of the staged image. Shooting at night, using long exposures in electric light helps to create saturated, striking colour and that time of day also creates different narrative possibilities. At night there is the sense of things being transformed and the sub-conscious taking over. Staging my work allows me to re-create things in a more conceptual way and I am not enslaved to the idea of photographing things as they happen, like a documentary photographer. I can be more interpretative and play with ambiguity and combine elements that I have seen at different moments in time.

What has been your greatest achievement?

My greatest achievement has been to get my work into a  lot of national public collections, such as the Tate, the Arts Council and the Government Art Collection. My work was hung at Downing Street a few years ago when the Government Art Collection purchased two pieces.

Which other photographers do you admire?

I admire the work of photographers such as William Eggleston, Gary Winogrand, Philip Lorca-di Corcia and Larry Sultan who all find something poignant in the everyday.

What’s next for Seamus Nicolson?

I am in the middle of planning a new series that deals this time with the rural environment. I left London for Somerset and I am also at a different stage in life with a family.  The new series will reflect this change of scene. I am also planning to shoot more images in daylight hours.

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