Studio Visit – John Spinks

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On a February morning with a faint spluttering of wet snow, I visited John Spinks in his North London home, where he has two studio spaces. On the second floor of the terraced house he has an office and archive space. Here two floor-to-ceiling shelves house photobooks and above a desk is an OS map of Nuneaton pinned to wall.

Spinks started his career working on portraiture and fashion features for magazines such as The Face, i-D and Sleaze Nation. His commercial work has included campaigns for Levi’s, Selfridges, Shinola and Richard James and he’s contributed to publications ranging from L’Officiel Hommes Italia and Port Magazine to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Le Monde.

In 2010 Spinks published Factories in collaboration with menswear label Albam. These portraits of workers, the machines they operate and their personalised tools expose the labour and craft behind Albam’s garments. He’s currently working on a second book, The New Village, to be published later this year with Bemojake, which focuses on the people and peripheral spaces of the village where he grew up. In Spinks’ other workspace, a purpose built studio at the end of his garden, we discussed the ideas and working methods behind his photography.

A shelf, full of boxes of film.

How long have you had a studio here?

We’ve been here about five years; we built the studio when we bought the house. It doubles up as a couple of things. It’s a daylight studio, so I do portraits and bits of work in here, and at the moment I’m doing research for doctoral study, so this is where I work on that. There’s no internet and not very good phone signal, which means I can face the wall and try to write.

Where are you a doctoral student?

I’m at Plymouth University. I have a really good supervisory team: David Chandler and Jem Southam are my supervisors. I also have a book coming out in a few months, that Bemojake are publishing. That’s the layout for it at the moment [pinned along one wall]. It’s about a place, a little village in the Midlands. The project’s called The New Village.

Why is it important for you to have a studio?

It’s good to be away from the house. I have a room on the penultimate floor but it’s nice to be out here and have some quiet. There’s a nice atmosphere in here.

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Is it hard to keep the domestic separate, do you have a strict routine?

My routine is based around family stuff. When I’m writing I try to get in here for 9.30, either after my wife or I have dropped our son at school. I’ll have a coffee, come in here and try to work through to 13.00 – then I’ll have a break for lunch and maybe work for another hour. That’s all I can do really, so I try to stick to that.

Are these books related to the research you’re doing at the moment?

Yes, it’s about British photography from the 1930s, but really focusing on new British photography from the 70s and 80s. I’m looking at politics and photography, how photography describes certain times and how well it does it. Starting at Bill Brandt and Mass-Observation and how that developed into the 70s and 80s.

Is this research directly linked to your practice?

The research came out of The New Village. That tries to look at a certain place and describe certain conditions. The PhD project is about expanding on those ideas and looking at a particular place, to see if that can be representative of a country, or a certain set of conditions. I’m trying to make pictures in a different way, finding more obtuse ways of trying to describe.

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You started out working on fashion and magazine editorials, where did your interest in photography begin?

When I was at school there was a dark room that didn’t really work. It was the only place to get away from everyone else. It was a cupboard I could hide in, which was great. Out of that came a curiosity about photography. So I went to Farnham in the early 90s. They had great people teaching there at the time. I encountered people like Chris Killip, Anna Fox, Yve Lomax, David Bate – Martin Parr was my third year tutor. It was a really interesting time.

I didn’t really know what to do after that, so went home, back to the Midlands for a while. Then I moved to London and got a job at a studio. I fell into fashion photography because of the people that came by the studio and the people I assisted. I’m a portrait photographer really, I feel slightly queasy about fashion photography. When it’s done well I think it’s great, but the portrait part is what’s more interesting to me.

I’m trying to make pictures in a different way, finding more obtuse ways of trying to describe.

Is there a big divide between how you approach personal and commercial projects?

It’s very different. Long-term pieces of work tend to be much longer. Like The New Village, which was meant to take a couple of years, but ended up taking 17. You change a lot over that time, but also you’re developing a language for yourself over a long time; that’s really interesting for me.

Commercial work is about trying to fluently solve problems that are shorter term. From time to time I’ve assisted Stephen Shore, and I once asked him why he does commercial work. He said it’s because you’re using a different part of your brain. It keeps you thinking in different ways and demands a different kind of fluency.

It’s nice to try to solve problems well. With Richard James, who I’ve been working with for a long time, there’s a set of rules we’ve built up over the years. One is that we have to do everything in camera. The only post-production work would be to maybe balance colour and take dust off. Which is a very interesting problem to solve. We end up making almost machines to solve that problem in the studio, which is very different from going out and working with a large format camera and film. Both are thoughtful, but thoughtful in a different way.

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The New Village

Did you use large format film for The New Village?

I used a Canham; it’s a 10×8 plate camera. So that also focuses your attention. It’s so heavy and so expensive, each time I make a picture it costs around £30.00, it’s a completely different way of thinking. You have to fight with the camera. You’re dealing with very practical problems, trying to make the camera work. It’s a different kind of – I’m trying hard not to say consciousness – but that sort of thing.

Is the dynamic between the staged and the documentary something you consider in your work? With The New Village and Factories you’ve made portraits that might be described as staged, but also images of landscapes, environments or objects, which could appear to be documentary shots, but are also choreographed, like the scissors in Factories for example.

In terms of the idea of the staged, they all are. It’s about how much the surface of the photograph reveals that. As you point out, to create the scissors pictures they were stuck in the end of a tube, it was quite brutal. With the landscape pictures, they don’t seem to be staged, but they really, really are, which is the interesting thing.

I don’t enjoy taking portraits. The nice thing about landscapes is they don’t talk back. With the portraits for The New Village, it’s a very different thing to taking a portrait in the studio. For all these portraits the interaction was for a maximum of 10 minutes. I tried to keep it really quick. My hit rate of bad to good is miniscule; I had to take a lot of bad portraits to get 15 good ones. That’s because in a sense you get what you’re given. I won’t tell them how to pose, I just ask them to stand still, and most of the time it doesn’t work.

I think the best portraits are the ones I had to convince – or a better word might be beg – the person to be in the picture. For example, for the guy with the dog it wasn’t an easy sell. People by and large are very pleasant, but I feel terribly self-conscious taking those portraits.

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What was the starting point for The New Village?

It’s not really about the place, it’s about a psychological condition. That’s really important and something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve shown people in the village some of the images and they’re puzzled, they ask: “Where’s this? Where did you find that?” They’re places on the edges, places where people don’t spend a lot of time. I grew up there and then I left. It’s about going back and what you find. It’s about a return. There’s a lot of family stuff mixed in; where you’re from, what that means, all those thoughts. It’s a very complicated thing.

I try to let the work lead me. The village is small; you can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. It’s interesting to spend a long time dissecting a relatively small place. There might have been an idea of what I wanted it to be in the beginning, but the work comes out how it comes out. In some ways it’s nothing to do with me.

I don’t enjoy taking portraits. The nice thing about landscapes is they don’t talk back

Do you feel putting your images in a book will give you control over how they’re read?

I remember seeing Nick Waplington’s Living Room at The Photographers’ Gallery years ago. I found it deeply effecting and heartfelt, but while I was there a couple of people came in and basically just laughed at what they saw as freakish people. Which I thought was horrible, but the point is you can try to control and hold the work tight when you are making it, but as soon as it leaves you, you have no way of controlling how it’s received.

The text for this book is being written by David Chandler, it’s not quite finished but it’s an extraordinary text. The most interesting books for me are ones that use a strong combination of texts and photographs. One of my favourite books is Time in New England by Paul Strand. That uses found text – weather reports, poems, letters – selected and edited by Nancy Newhall. It’s a really fragile web of associations, if you took any of the text or any pictures away it would fall apart.

The bit of text that always comes back to me is what Chris Killip wrote at the beginning of In Flagrante: ‘The book is a fiction about metaphor’. In Flagrante is a very slippery book. I always think that’s the most interesting photography, the stuff that doesn’t quite settle.

I wanted to ask about your inspirations or influences.

It used to be photographers, but it’s not so much anymore, it tends to be what I read now. Peter Fraser is doing a workshop about how to escape your interior library of photographs, which is a really interesting thing to try to deal with. I haven’t stopped altogether, but I find it easier not to look at a lot of photography.

A big part of this project was Herbert Read’s Green Child. I read it seven or eight years ago and it completely changed the way I approached the work. It introduced a way of thinking about it that wasn’t about photography. There are common themes and concerns that could be in the photographs without them being explicitly about the Green Child.

My early influences haven’t changed over the years, people like Josef Koudelka, Chris Killip, Guido Guidi, John Gossage, Paul Graham, Jem Southam… fascinating people that are making work and moving photography forwards. Graham Smith – not many people have heard of him now, but he did really interesting stuff.

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In Factories and The New Village you present portraits of people and the environments they inhabit, perhaps encouraging the viewer to read their faces alongside the surfaces of these places, making a link between the two.

There’s a quote along the lines of, we shape our environments and they shape us?

Yes, is that a current running through your work?

If you go to the village people look a certain way, that’s partly what’s interesting to me about them. That kid with the shirt on, I knew his dad when I was a kid and he’s “the spit out of his dad’s mouth”. There’s a way that the place represents the people and the people represent the place.

There’s a sense of oppression about certain places. I grew up feeling a sort of sense that something wasn’t quite right. And then felt guilty about wanting to get away. That’s one of the themes of the book. The irony being that in trying to think about that I’ve been returning.

I showed it to an art teacher in the village, he asked if I hated the place. But that’s the thing, I don’t. We have complicated relationships with the places that we’re from. I’ve always been drawn back there, now that it’s coming to an end, I don’t know how I feel about it.

In the photographs of the woods, there’s definitely that sense of unease or something not being quite right.

That’s something David has written about in his text. The way that as a child if you get lost in the woods, obviously there’s this huge folk memory to that, but there’s also this sense of unease about what could happen, and what could happen to you.

There were these two sets of kids in their early teens, maybe five or six years ago. One set went about making these structures that are in the pictures, the other would go round destroying them. The kids making them had to move further out of the village, so the other kids couldn’t find and destroy them.

In the images with things sticking out of the water, they are craters from bombs from the Second World War. It’s very near Coventry, so if bombers had anything left after bombing the city they would drop it randomly on their way back. So these craters are where the kids went to exercise their imagination, which I found fascinating.

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There’s a space for freedom in these kinds of spaces that don’t belong to anybody. You make them yours while you are there, but then when you leave they become ownerless again or open for someone else to occupy.

Exactly. The other thing was, I was photographing in those woods for ten years before someone gave me Green Child to read. I read the book and then I went back and I found these things. In an oak tree that had grown close to the ground, with the branches straight out, I noticed that someone had constructed a spiral staircase, in the most basic way possible. I went into another part and noticed that somebody had constructed a network of tree houses. I’d never noticed them before. Reading something engenders a certain way of thinking, which means you have a heightened sense. Your imagination fills that space in a way that it didn’t before.

I think it’s really interesting this idea of the countryside and freedom, public and private land, and what behaviour is allowed in certain places because of ownership.

There are so many things that go on in those spaces, some that you are dimly aware of, and some that are obvious. The way that the imagination takes over in those places, especially when you are between the ages of seven and twelve; they become places of possibility, particularly in those extended times away from school. There’s that cliché of going off in the morning and coming back for dinner, we were told to bugger off basically. Those places become resonant. David writes about being there with other boys; the fragile allegiances that are made and disappear, and what that means. Being in this place alone, without feeling that you could escape, and what other boys would do. As a child you don’t know where things will stop, or if they will stop. As you get older this becomes an existential dread. There’s this sense of the gothic about it, which is fascinating and a rich area to look at.