Spencer Murphy / Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize
January 2013 Interviewed by Gemma Padley
Spencer Murphy was shortlisted for this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize (TWPP), which is on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 17 February 2013. His work has been exhibited as part of the National Portrait Gallery Photographic Portrait Prize (now Taylor Wessing) six times and has been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Murphy’s work has also been published in many magazines including The Guardian Weekend, The Telegraph Magazine, Time, Wired, Dazed and Confused and GQ, and he has exhibited throughout Europe and North America. Here, Spencer Murphy talks to Photomonitor contributor Gemma Padley about his shortlisted TWPP entry, the appeal of portraiture and his thoughts on film photography
Gemma Padley: Your image of the actor Mark Rylance commissioned for the cover of The Telegraph Magazine was shortlisted for this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. What did you want to convey in this portrait and how did you set about achieving this?
Spencer Murphy: With the portrait of Mark Rylance, as with much of my portraiture work, I wanted to convey something genuine, a feeling that there is something else going on – whether internal or external – beyond a portrait sitting. I want the sitter to forget who they are for the brief moment that the picture is being taken. From a purely visual perspective I reacted to Mark’s features and wanted to get in close, granting the viewer intimate access to him. I’m a very quiet director and I don’t have a formula to achieving a ‘feeling’ within my portraits. For me it’s really a collaborative experience and about reacting to what works. I tend to give the subject an idea and see where they take it. Working with actors often makes this process easier but it depends on how each person reacts and that’s a really hard thing to control. Mark was of a very similar temperament to me so we fell into things pretty easily.
GP: What for you is the appeal of portrait photography?
SM: Portrait photography makes sense to me. We can read the emotion and understand the subtleties of expression and body language. The portraits that I take are as much about conveying emotion as they are about recording something physical. Portraiture can be a celebration of life, a memorial and a way of stopping the briefest moment in time forever.
GP: Quite often the subjects in your images are looking away from the camera – their gaze is directed just outside of the frame. Why is this and how much do you direct your subjects?
SM: The direction of the subject’s gaze is often an editing choice as much as a decision I make in-camera. Again it’s about creating an open narrative. To me, it’s rare that an image of someone who is staring straight down the lens won’t dictate how you ‘read’ that image but when the subject’s gaze is off-camera I feel it’s possible to look at someone’s eyes without it being confrontational. This says a lot more about me than my subjects; I’m a very quiet person and it’s reflected in my direction and subsequently the pictures I take.
GP: Three of the four shortlisted photographers in this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize (yourself included) are film users, and the last two winners from 2011 and 2010 also used film for their winning portraits. Why do you think photographers and perhaps those who shoot portraits in particular choose to use film?
SM: I should prequel this by saying that there are many available tools and techniques and it’s about what works for individuals. Tools and techniques are secondary to the process and having ‘an eye’ is far more important. When I studied photography, digital systems weren’t really around. I was assisting around the time that professional photographers started to make the move to digital so I saw the process change from photographers shooting on large format film to working completely digitally. Generally, the advertising assignments I do require the work to be shot digitally but for everything else I use medium and large format film.
It’s hard to speak for everyone but speaking personally my choice to shoot film is both about the aesthetic and the process. For me, using film feels closer to making art than recording it. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up looking at film rather than digital but aesthetically there is something more real and tangible about an image shot on film I think. Portraiture especially tends to look inherently ‘digital’ to me unless it’s worked on to look more film-like, in which case I prefer the purist nature of shooting film.
Equally important for me though is the process. With film it’s more about your view through the camera. Shooting digitally and looking at a screen as you go seems disengaging to me. It can also give the sitter the opportunity to judge the picture and try to control how you photograph them. With film I tend to work to a point where I’m happy and then go beyond that. This is often when some of my best images are made. Digital seems more disposable, fast, and there is less room for it to take you into the unknown and create those ‘happy mistakes’. Perhaps it’s for similar reasons that film has seen such successes in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize over the years.
GP: I believe you use hand-printing specialist Labyrinth in East London to process your film. How and when did you become involved with Labyrinth?
SM: I met Cos from Labyrinth some years ago, just after Primary Colour photographic lab merged with Genesis Imaging Limited and moved out of East London. Prior to setting up Labyrinth, Cos and Jon worked from a shared photographic lab and have since handled all my film processing and hand printing. I’ve used Labyrinth since they set up shop and watched them grow and celebrate film photography while other labs have stopped processing film. The guys at Labyrinth have been great and are a really important part of my creative process.
GP: The ‘demise of film’ has been much lamented and talked about by members of the photographic community, photography commentators, photographers and so on. Is this reaction justified and what in your view is the future of film?
SM: I think this reaction is justified. We’ve seen Polaroid [cease production] and Fuji stop producing large format instant film so we’re already losing the ability to make judgments through shooting instant film on 5×4 and 10×8 cameras. Film lines are constantly being narrowed and there have been a few occasions where people are panic-buying stock such as Kodak Portra film, so it is worrying. I don’t want film photography to become a dying art. That said, film is still appreciated by many and there are publications that have held firm for a long time using only film photographers. I hope that as long as there are people who appreciate the value of film there will be a business for the likes of Kodak and Fuji. On another note, the constant changes to [advertising and editorial] deadlines and budgets seem to favour photographers who shoot digitally. However, digital cameras and digital backs don’t come cheap and with the right team of people you can turn around a film shoot from camera to high res file in less than 24 hours. So using film is still competitive but it does rely to a degree on photographers who shoot digitally not to undervalue their investment in equipment and equally on film photographers celebrating the medium and standing by their decision to use it.