This interview also appears on The Freeman View.
Jesse Alexander has been working professionally with photography since 2004, after graduating from the Surrey Institute of Art & Design in Farnham (now know as the University for the Creative Arts). As well as a photographic practice, Jesse has written for several magazines, including Source and HotShoe Magazine and teaches photography within Further and Higher Education. His photographic practice is mainly concerned with landscape, but also often explores the photographic medium itself as a subject.
MF: How did you get started in photography?
JA: I have always been surrounded by domestic photography and my father was in the television industry so it was something I was exposed to from early on. But I didn’t really begin to take it seriously until I was doing Art A-Level, at which point I started using an SLR, mainly to make images as references to draw and paint from. With a bit of help from a friend, I taught myself how to process film and work in the darkroom. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I was mesmerized by the alchemy of the processes. (I love working with novice students making prints in the darkroom for the first time, and seeing that same thrill when the latent image emerges from the exposed piece of paper.) Art was always my strongest subject at school although I never considered studying it until I left. I went to a fantastic school although it was quite academically oriented. After I left that environment I thought about going to art college and people close to me were candid enough to let me know my drawing wasn’t very good, my painting was ok, but there was potentially something happening with my photography. I took a gap year, spending most of it working in a restaurant, and botched together a portfolio, which, amazingly, got me onto one of the best photography courses in the country. So, like I suppose quite a lot of people of my generation, I’ve followed quite a well-trodden, ‘academic’ path into the world of photography. Within a couple of years after graduating from Farnham I was longing to go back to college, and was accepted onto the Documentary Photography MA programme at the University of Wales, Newport.
MF: How important is writing for you?
JA: I enjoyed reading and writing about photography immensely when I was doing my BA. Probably my most successful, certainly my most cherished, body of work from my BA programme was my dissertation. Of course I left with a portfolio of photographs that to some extent got me some commercial work, but I was able to show that text to a few people too. At least one of them was nice enough to read it, and that’s how I began writing for Source, which led to other commissions as well. In a way there is something perverse about writing about images; both are forms of communication, but the photograph and the written word are essentially so polarised. But I also find a great satisfaction in being able to clearly document something, a discussion on a body of work, or aspect of photography, in the written form, which I suppose isn’t always the case with a photograph: there is always the viewer’s subjective reading of the image, which, for all your efforts to construct or present something visually with an intended message or meaning, might easily get overlooked, or misinterpreted. I’m actually really bad at writing about my own work, although it’s something we all have to do from time to time. But I think there is a real value in getting someone to critically look at your work. In a way, once you have presented a photographic image, you’ve done your part, and its up to the viewer, previewer or reviewer, to describe what it’s really communicating to an audience. Sometimes ‘successful’ interpretation might need a little nudge in the form of a title, caption or juxtaposition, but in general, the image or collection of images should be able to carry the message without a lengthy introduction. It is easy to get ‘bogged-down’ in your own images, sometime losing sight of what it is you are actually trying to communicate or discuss.
MF: But what about reportage photography in which the context can only be fully explained by text? Put another way, do you think that images and words can share the task of storytelling?
JA: Yes, I agree that the context needs to be set for a lot of images to be read in the way the photographer/editor intends or to give a faithful impression of an event, but as I think John Berger points out somewhere, it’s very easy for photographs to become purely illustrative of a story, rather than narrate it, as soon as a line of text enters on the scene, because, like I was saying before, text has such a narrow margin for interpretation compared to the photograph. But I’m edging too far away from practicalities. What I don’t really like is more conceptual photographic work which is dependent upon a heavy, often esoteric contextualization. Text can be used a lot as a formal element within reportage images, and I like that when it’s done well.
MF: Taking my last question a little further, do you distinguish between reportage and fine-art photography?
JA: I think the maker’s purpose or intent is what really answers this. Most of the photographic images that end up within a fine-art context (typically intended for a gallery exhibition space or collection) have been made for that purpose. ‘Reportage’ images, which could potentially be anything from an image from a war zone to a “reportage-style” advertising image made to sell bottled water, generally aren’t made for that fine art context, but their primary function is to supply information. There are always exceptions of course; Walid Raad for example who appropriates reportage and other vernacular images and other ‘found image’ workers like Joachim Schmid, putting these images in a fine art context. Whatever one might think of practitioners like these, they facilitate and enrich these kinds of discussions. I think there is certainly an art to reportage (and by that I refer to photojournalism, and editorial documentary work) but the portfolio of skills needed to do it successfully are way beyond simply being able to master control of the photographic craft. You can’t really teach resourcefulness and determination and great inter-personal skills. Conversely, fine-art photography, whilst the name might imply absolute mastery of the craft, doesn’t always involve a great deal of technical skill, but unless it’s underpinned by a credible rationale or concept which ultimately says something at least, it doesn’t belong in a fine art context either.
There are dozens of these kinds of anxieties within photography today, perhaps because it’s a relatively young creative medium, and also because the apparatuses are typically based on technology. There are countless ways to describe what you do: photographer? image maker? fine-art photographer? photographic artist? artist using photography? There are massive grey areas too, most interesting to me is where Documentary Photography fits into the debate. It certainly sits quite precariously on the fence between reportage and fine art, being able to ally itself to either one when it needs to. But I wonder whether ceramicists, for example, have the same anxieties about whether they’ve thrown a pot or an objet d’art? I think people should just try to get on and make the work they want to without worrying too much about where it belongs.
MF: I think in that wider context, craft and design do have anxieties about where they fit in relation to less ambiguous fine art. You’ll see that separation and conflict at Basel this month! How did you become an OCA tutor? Do you find that teaching adds to your photography and writing, or is it a separate activity?
JA: When I was doing my BA I think I probably had an idea about teaching in the future at the back of mind, but it wasn’t something I really looked into until I was doing my MA. I think I saw an advertisement for tutors and saw that it could be a great opportunity, and a practical one, being able to fit it around other freelance photography and writing. That was about four years ago. Since then I’ve worked with a huge range of students, within different educational contexts. I’d by lying if I said I didn’t do it partly for the relative stability it offers between photography jobs, which can be anything but. With that said, there isn’t much stability in teaching at the moment, especially in the Higher Education and Lifelong Learning sector. It is also fiercely competitive. However, you can’t do well at teaching unless you love doing it, and love spending time talking about the subject and getting others’ viewpoints on something I’m passionate about.
Teaching can also provide something of a community, which can be absent to many different sorts of freelancers, predominantly working from home, or with a client, rather than a ‘colleague’. It keeps you fresh, in touch with what’s going on, and sharp – you have to be on the ball; some students, especially younger ones, don’t miss a thing. You can’t get away with, how can I put it politely…embellishing the truth when you don’t know the real answers yourself! It’s also just nice to be close to people who are so enthusiastic about the subject and have the motivation to really fulfill their potential. But I find it helps consolidate my points of view, in the same way that writing does.
MF: Is the rôle of education in photography changing, given the broadening of its appeal and its democratisation?
JA: I think there is pressure on all aspects of education to vocationalise subjects, putting an emphasis on transferable skills and employability. Whilst I think that is important, people opt to study a subject because they want to really get to grips with what it is about, not just to get a certificate or add a few lines to their CV. The idea of ‘learning for the sake of it’ I suppose might seem frivolous to some, but I’m a believer in it, for many different reasons.
Some of the practicalities have changed drastically, even in the relatively short time I have been in/around photography education, as work is more and more outputted in some digital form or another. The use of social networking and virtual communities is changing the way students stay in touch and organize themselves too. But the actual content of the teaching, and the promotion of a rigorous work ethic and so on, hasn’t altered. The focus is still very much on the development of the student’s individuality, helping them to make work that is unique and will stand out amongst the more generic work. In that respect I don’t think very much has changed. There continues to be a great demand to study photography though. Digital cameras have certainly played a part here: people are making work from a younger age, and doing something with it on a computer. With film, you had to be pretty keen on the subject to invest the energy on learning how to use the darkroom and master the camera controls. I’ve been shocked by the lack of really basic camera skills (e.g. appreciation of depth-of-field, exposure) by students who might have been learning photography for several years. So there are more students, who might have a good-looking portfolio, but they don’t necessarily know how they’ve made their work!
Despite the vast number of photography graduates each year, I think it can be a great degree to study. The photographic practice aside, learning about how we consume imagery in an ever more screen-based society is extremely important. If we were to consider how many people interact with photographic imagery (still and moving) on a daily basis, compared with, for example writing, one could argue that a photography degree has more relevance today than an English degree. (I’m not, however!)
New courses are springing up, but I think it’s more out of an institution’s desire to become a centre for excellence in the subject (and justify their facilities) rather than to broaden their appeal. The demand for places is so high that no one really needs to do that. But how people choose to study, particularly at HE level certainly is changing. The OCA is a good example of an alternative route to the, now massive, expense of going to a ‘bricks and mortar’ university. Other arts institutions have education programmes that offer modules that are accredited by universities and are potential routes (albeit part time) to working towards a degree. They are also extremely competitive by comparison. The university option will always be better (e.g. lecture programmes, studio facilities, library, access to tutors), but I’m sure the massive increase in tuition fees will lead to more students taking different paths to earn their degrees than they have traditionally.
Whatever the standard of your photography, you need to keep putting it in front of people who will give you honest and fair criticism, not necessarily what you want to hear. I’m part of an artists discussion group in Bristol called Format Network which is formed of other artists, writers and lecturers, and no holds are barred. For those disgruntled students who have ever felt bruised by my feedback, don’t worry: I get a good beasting from time to time too!
MF: Could we talk a bit about your Threshold Project, which I found particularly intriguing. How did that come about?
JA: During my Masters degree I began looking at the underground as part of my broader interest in landscape practice. At first I was interested in the diversity of the types of underground spaces and their uses, concluding that generally, they were utilitarian spaces, treated with much less reverence than we do the rest of the landscape. (As an illustration of this, see Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, a documentary on the construction of an underground storage facility in Finland for nuclear waste.) Since most of these spaces are quite devoid of light, there are certain comparisons with photographic processes. I was shooting on film with a large format camera and, although I tried using a variety of different lighting materials, from torchlight to magnesium ribbon, I settled with working with long exposures alone, something I’d been doing a lot of for some time.
The exposure times were up to one week, and I also saw a parallel between the long exposure (where the image forms gradually on the film into something visible) and naturally-formed underground spaces, which might be sculpted over time by weather and water, which can be decorated with calcite formations which are formed over long periods of time. Although I didn’t actually make any work in any such impressive places, I definitely saw this distinction between surface time and the time frame underground: I revisited most of my locations, which didn’t appear to have altered at all between visits. You can’t truly say that of anywhere above the surface which is affected by the weather and other life forms. I also didn’t feel particularly comfortable underground, and looked into mythology, ancient and modern, surrounding the underground and was struck by how frequently the subterranean is mentioned; usually as a place where bad things happen and where beasts of some form or another reside.
They are also places of adventure and in many cultures, sites of initiation. So the images, which I made into lightboxes and installed in Redcliffe Caves in Bristol, are an attempt to explore some of these dualities: on the threshold between light and dark, fear and intrigue, known and unknown. Another piece I made was based on a visit to the decommissioned nuclear bunker under the outskirts of Bath, which would have been an alternative seat outside of London for the government in the event of a nuclear war. This project, Turnstile, which is obviously quite dark, refers to the underground as a sanctuary as well. I’ve juxtaposed the images with Patrick Allen’s narration of the Protect & Survive public information videos made in the ’70s, to highlight the discord between the level of protection offered to one group of people compared to the rest of the population. It is formally quite different to Threshold Zone, but I think they are complementary in their discussion of uncertainty.
MF: What are you working on at the moment?
JA: I’m not doing anything as specific as my previous ones on the go at the moment, but I am still interested in these innate, primordial fears we have about a particular sort of place. In the same way that the subterranean is an archetype of mythology, I’m exploring different sorts of spaces that are recurring motifs in ancient and contemporary mythology. How and why we feel the way we do towards a particular type of place – our spatial prejudices, if you like – interests me greatly. I’d like to do something that isn’t quite so typological as well: it’s easy, once you’ve discovered a way to make an image which is beginning to say what you want it to, to repeat the process, and I’d like to avoid that approach if I can.