Alexander Williamson is a London-based poet, blogger and photographer. He has an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. His poems have appeared in a number of online journals and he writes regularly on contemporary culture in his blog. Alex is currently completing a PhD in Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck.
Shooting solely with analog, his prime area of photography is documentation of everyday commonplace and banal. He has completed a number of projects in the UK, Europe, United States, Canada, China, and Japan and some of his projects are available for purchase at Blurb. Here’s a short discussion with Alex about his photography and influences:
Please tell me about yourself and your relationship with photography. You’re also a profuse writer, as evident from entries of your blog. How does the writer or the poet in you communicate with the photographer within?
I came to photography late, in my mid-20s. I always had a strong interest in photography without really understanding the technical or compositional elements that make a good - aesthetically strong - photograph. Three things happened to change that: my father, who was an amateur photographer when younger, gifted me his old Canon A-1; I met my wife, who studied photography at Brighton, who encouraged me early on; and I read Geoff Dyer’s book, The Ongoing Moment, which gave me a historical-canonical appreciation of the form. This led me to discover Berger, Sontag, Barthes - and key photographers fell into view: Arbus, Evans, Cartier Bresson, Kertesz, Davison, Shore, Eggleston, Di Corcia, Winogrand. Then I started looking properly at photography. I try to imbue my photographs with a poetic quality, but then doesn’t every photographer?
Do you have an artist statement as a photographer? What is your idea of a photograph?
I don’t have an artist statement as such. I see photography as a highly subjective medium, aesthetically and philosophically. It’s a pretty solitary, solipsistic pursuit, narcissistic almost: even the most ambiguous photograph is the artist saying ‘This is how I see things’. I often feel like I’m making it up as I go along, and because I came to it late, I’m playing catch up with the canon. My work is fairly low key, muted, attempting to affect an equilibrium, a reconciliation, between the banal and the beautiful.
How would you explain your current body of work? How did it evolve?
As a self-taught novice you have to get all the bad landscapes, seascapes and sunsets out of your system. After reading the Dyer book I focused on street stuff in an Anglo-American vernacular. Martin Parr/Tony Ray Jones with Winogrand/Meyerowitz. (William Klein on the side.) Then I found Field Studies by Stephen Gill, which became a gateway to his work and got me into walking around unpopulated scrubland taking photos of rubbish. After him Struth and Gursky. I think I’ve now got a better balance between street and landscape. A kind of equanimity. I can go somewhere and be confident that I won’t come away with a several rolls of unparalleled dross. Versatility and variety. I went to New York for a week in 2009 and shot 15-20 rolls. None of those shots really cut it anymore.
Most recently I shot two rolls over four days in Albania, which I visited for the first time last September. My brother met and married an Albanian girl, so my family was out there for the wedding. We had a bit of time before the nuptials so explored Tirana, the capital. It is the most fascinating, beguiling country I’ve visited, this odd, neoliberal communist amalgam, a bit like China: less chaotic, overcrowded and polluted, but with the same dichotomy between extreme poverty and extreme affluence. And everywhere you go there are concrete bunkers, built by the paranoid, isolationist dictator Enver Hoxa. They’re literally everywhere: in parks, hotel gardens, in the middle of fields, beaches. Imagine the Atlantic Wall across an entire country. I’m desperate to go back because visually it’s so rich, and relatively undiscovered by the photography community.
What are the things that you like shooting most? What is your method into shooting? Is there any kind of photography (theme) that you’ve been thinking of attempting for long?
European edgelands mainly. The dislocations of travel. Fringe environments where things are slightly out of kilter, where you are out of your element, seeing things as if for the first time. In terms of method, I just walk, look and shoot, walk, look and shoot.
What photography equipment (camera, lenses, software) do you use and why? What is the reason behind shooting solely with film and what are the challenges involved?
Much of my early photography was taken with a Canon A-1, a robust, heavy camera that never seems to break down. There’s an Olympus OM-1N which I take overseas as its light, though a bit antiquated and unreliable. Takes good shots, when it works, so worth persevering with. For portraits I have a Mamiya 645 which I bought second hand in Shanghai for 2000 Yuan. I recently had it serviced and use it sparingly. The costs of buying and developing colour film are getting prohibitively high but I’ll stick with it as film, even 35mm, is simply more pleasing to look at than digital. It implies more care has been taken to produce the photograph.
Do you have a favorite photo or a significant memory related to photography?
Not a favourite photo but Stephen Gill’s Hackney Wick series is simply brilliant. Taken on a crappy second hand plastic camera (possibly a Holga or Diana) that he bought at the Hackney Wick market, it taps into the lomography aesthetic while affecting a wonderfully evocative record of an east London ecosystem subsequently dispersed by Olympics-led regeneration. Taken only a decade ago, the scenes depicted in the Hackney Wick series now only exist in Gill’s photographs. No better elegy I’d say.
You’re offering some photobooks through ‘Blurb’. While publishing books of one’s work is no longer a lifelong career dream, how do you view the current trend of self-publishing? Any plans of making a photobook of your images paraphrased with your poems?
I’ve only dipped a toe into the self publishing world. There are some incredibly innovative hand-crafted photobooks out there. Blurb is a fairly limiting platform by comparison, so I’d like to look at making my own books by hand in the future. I’ve also considered a book of photographs and poems but I think the work has to stand on its own. I’d like to pen a series of ekphrastic poems focused on portraits and self-portraits by photographers and visual artists.
What do you think about contemporary photography?
Phenomenal. There are so many quality photographers out there, pursuing unique and visionary projects, pushing boundaries and reshaping the form. If I can play a small part in that, I’ll be very happy.
What are your future plans/projects, ambitions, aspirations etc.?
I’m planning a couple of portrait series in and around south London. Sticking to what - and who - you know. I want to return to Albania and stay for longer. I’d like to do a series with a larger format camera. And of course completing my literature PhD later this year.
Please share your influences and/or favorite stuff (within and outside of photography):
Too many to possibly list here. I’m an absorbent sponge for most genres and cultural forms. I can’t help but soak things up, like a fly in milk.
My favourite quote by a photographer:
“I am at war with the obvious” ~ William Eggleston
My favourite quote by a non photographer:
“I’m just a guitar player” ~ Bob Dylan
Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers:
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