Tell me a little about your artistic beginnings. You studied Stage Design and then became active in the worlds of both painting and poetry. How did you come to focus on photography and develop that as your primary practice?
I started out working in the theatre but as time went on I found myself using my skills in many different ways. I directed and designed a one-man production of The Portrait of Dorian Grey, soon after college, in East London’s Whitechapel before it was trendy back when it was edgy and a little dangerous. To give a feel of the time, we used to have to dodge around some quite strange people to get into the venue. But, I still have fond memories of the Nags Head and the 2 4 1 deals on tasty brews like Old Bat.
I was fortunate enough to work as a design assistant at Elstree Studios on a pop video for the Goth band the Mission (‘Butterfly on a Wheel’) in the early 90’s. I was actively engaged in the London poetry scene in the 90’s which is how I met the spoken word poet and friend Russell Thompson. Later I was employed as a museum artist educator and workshop leader running artist residencies and working with gifted but underprivileged kids in North London.
Photography had always been part of my practice and in 2004 I decided to focus on it, partly due to the physical restrictions of the larger scale work I had been doing, and because this was the beginning of the digital revolution. The immediacy and accessibility of this new type of photography seemed to be the perfect vehicle to explore and experiment with new ideas.
One particular highlight was in 2012 when I was invited to Georgia for a cultural exchange sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. I stayed there for the duration of the exhibition in Tbilisi with a mixture of international artists. It was a fascinating experience both artistically and culturally as I was able to see, at first hand, a country in transition.
What are the thematic links in your photography, whether explicit or underlying? Are there common moods, recurring motifs or concerns? Do you find that you are particularly responsive to certain people, places or atmospheres?
Thematically I tend to explore loss, identity, death, memento mori, class division, environmental decay and sunshine! I am conscious of the limitations placed upon our existence; “we are born to die” and use Vanitas symbolism in my work. I am aware of how humans misuse their time and exploit both the environment and one another. Alternatively, the sunshine is a celebration of hope and of one of the most abundant natural resources that makes me particularly happy. That is in terms of the light and its refraction. I also enjoy photographing people with character and a strong sense of identity.
As a noted landscape photographer would you say that your South Coast/Sussex environs have a specific influence upon your work? Although you originate from London, you‘re very much not a ‘London-style’ photographer.
What’s a ‘London style ‘photographer? Obviously, I am affected by my environment and Sussex has plenty of landscapes so in that sense it influences my work. Specific to Sussex, I draw upon some of its pagan history, Saxon history and the many lives and stories weaved into the landscape.
A more general question; what, to you, constitutes having a ‘photographic eye’? To non-practitioners, it can seem a very mysterious, almost precarious, art form. There is, to elucidate, no representational or abstract re-assembling technique present, as in painting. Or, what is virtually a parallel emotional language to be used, as in music? It’s ‘see and capture’? Tell me what you can.
I think the artists ‘eye’ is involved in all forms of artistic practice. However, due to the immediacy of photography, I think it is the emotional and intellectual response to a real situation or person and the ability to create structure and form through the viewfinder of a camera.
Turning to Maiden Publishing, setting up and running a publishing company is no small undertaking. What was your impetus?
I first published Industrial Coastline in 2009 as a personal project and was often asked if I was going to publish the work seriously by sending a copy to the British library, allocating an ISBN number and so forth. So when I was awarded a place on the Lewes enterprise scheme I decided to pull together the photography with the book and fulfil my secret ambition to be a publishing based arts business. It was a big step and has involved moving out of my comfort zone considerably.
Considering the books that you have published, so far, is there any common denominator emerging between the artists or their work that makes you think ‘I want to do that’, or are they entirely independent entities?
I think the common link is seeking something that is offbeat, I like any work that stirs my senses.
Returning to locality; is there any element of the South Coast/Sussex ‘vibe’ informing what you do in Maiden? Either in business terms or as part of an artistic community? St. Leonards, for example, has now become ‘artist-central’ and other of the coastal towns seems set to follow. Or do you stand apart from that?
Yes, there is a part of the South Coast arts scene that affects what I do. I was a member of the exhibitions committee for Photohastings and organised group shows in the Hastings and St. Leonards area such as Any Colour as Long as it’s Orange which was based on the perceptual experience of the cyborg Neil Harbisson who only sees skin tone in shades of orange. Regarding Maiden, I am part of the artistic community who I work with collaboratively, while working on individual projects. To me, creating art is a very personal and hence private act, a form of escapism if you like, from the everyday world. Seaford is a close-knit community with an artistic element who I am involved with.
How do you hope to see Maiden develop over the next few years? What’s the plan?
I would like to increase the size of the business increasing its reach. The blogs are proving popular this is an area I would like to develop.
A personal question, of the kind that all artists hate. What is the best photographic image that you have ever captured? Please print the image below this interview and explain why you think it is your best.
The image I have chosen is Classical Bowl which was taken in a Sussex Saxon church I like it because of the light or maybe lack of light. It has a deep atmosphere with a sense of the profound. It is a straightforward simple image, yet it contains an ambiguity and a sense of timelessness.
About the Author
Keiron Phelan is a musician, writer and producer.