Commissioned by Leica and 1854, James’ new body of work – Witnesses of: Individuality – celebrates difference and commonality amongst the people of England, captured with the Leica SL2-S and a range of SL-Lenses. His “way of seeing” is at the crux of his philosophy of the medium. Where previous work has led him to Las Vegas, Nevada and California in pursuit of the “visual language and semiotics… of escapism and wanderlust,” this particular brief brought James home. Armed with Leica equipment and a £5,000 creative grant, he spent three weeks driving around England, from London to the Southwest and Manchester to the Midlands, catching small glimpses of lives lived. We caught up with James to find out more about his inspirations, creative processes and his experience with Leica.
Click into some of the images to find out more about his subjects.
Have you always been drawn to narrative portraiture and landscape? How did this journey begin?
I really came to it through drawing. That was the first thing I was any good at. At school, I realised that using a camera is very close to the same process of really seeing when you draw.
Later I had a transformative experience whilst looking at a photobook in my university library. I had such a strong visceral feeling that I knew exactly what the photographer meant with the work I was looking at. It felt almost like mind reading and I felt so powerfully connected to the pictures I was looking at. It was such a dense feeling of clarity and understanding of another person. If my work can ever just do that for one person, then I’ve achieved my goal.
The desire to do that for another person, and the deeper feeling of being connected to the universe through looking at and producing photography has been rocket fuel ever since. In some way, it has become the way in which I process the world.
Tell us about your creative process…
Generally, I look to painting and film. I like to see things that make me feel something. That is what art is for, to make us feel. I also love to collect Photobooks. However, I sometimes think too much exposure to contemporaries is not always a good thing. I want to make work that is true to the place from within us, and I feel if I look at too much other contemporary work, there is a danger that it gets influenced.
In terms of making work. I love to drive. That feeling of being a bit disconnected from your thoughts after a long drive can be great for letting images come to the surface. I do a lot of research beforehand and write lists. Then, I sort of forget it all and let my feelings take over. I really try to listen to that unexplainable place inside us that creative work comes from. My best pictures, and the ones I find that resonate most with others, are the ones that I felt a strong urge to take at the time, even if I didn’t really ‘see’ it in the scene.
How did you find working with the Leica SL2-S?
I loved working with this camera and the Summicron-SL 28mm, APO-Summilux-SL 50mm, and APO- Summicron-SL 90mm prime lenses. I like to work slowly, with a tripod, so the ability to select focus areas without moving the tripod was great. The optics are really sharp, with beautiful soft tones in the out of focus areas.
Also, the ability to change the aspect ratio of the viewfinder to the crop I want to see is huge for me. My eye is much closer to 5×4 than the standard 35mm 3×2 crop. So, to be able to adjust what I see in the viewfinder meant for a more intuitive picture making process.
The SL2-S was intuitive and easy to use. Leica’s minimal design and inclusion of only the essentials meant that nothing got in the way of my process. Also, I loved the ability to choose what you see in the viewfinder; I chose to remove everything in the display, to avoid distraction and just see the subject. I loved the SL-System so much so that I actually purchased my own SL2 after the project was finished. The reason for this was the combination of the way the lenses rendered space and editing capacity of the file. Previously, I felt that digital had quite a way to go to catch up with100 years of film science. But it’s starting to feel closer to me now.
Do you have any plans for the future?
I’m working on a project around Las Vegas with the working title of ‘What makes grass grow in the desert.’ It’s an investigation into the carrot in front of our nose, and the feeling that if we always do a little better, or achieve a little more, then we will be happy. (And what we are willing to discard on the way to get there.) I am excited to get back to shooting it in the coming months. It will be published as a Photobook and a show once it’s done. After that I’m looking forward to producing more Photobooks and shows, and working on more great commissions such as this one.
To view more of James’ work, click here: