Michael Langan talks to photographer Lee Baxter. It’s a candid insight of an artist at work, and he learns that a good photograph takes far more than simply an eye for a good-looking man…
The Manchester-based photographer Lee Baxter has developed a style of image-making that is distinctive and appealing. He combines an interest in architecture with an eye for a good-looking man to create photographs that are thoughtful, intimate, and subtly sexy. The treatment of his subjects – whether buildings, the sky, urban landscapes or people – always conveys a sense of character, and while they are very real they are never mundane. I met up with him to talk about his work.
When did you start taking photographs?
I’ve been working with a camera since about 1998. I’d been doing computer-based graphics up until that point, quite commercial stuff, and spent my twenties going out clubbing before finally deciding I wanted to do a degree. I asked myself, what is it that I really like? Photography was the thing.
Whose work inspires you? Who do you admire?
One of the first photographers I had a thing for was Joel Peter Witkin. A friend gave me a book of his work many years ago and I was transfixed by every page. He uses cadavers and dead bodies to create beautifully crafted images and that, along with his very dark themes, really struck a chord with me.
I also love the sexy, quirky quality of the work of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. I don’t try to reproduce what these photographers are doing but I just really like looking at them and they give me energy. The painter Francis Bacon has also been a great influence on me – I adore the visceral quality of his work.
Where do you find the guys you photograph?
Most of the recent ones have been friends, and Facebook is a good source. Some good-looking men are often quite shy and I have to convince them that they’re going to look good in the photos and I’m not going to make them look pornographic. That’s quite interesting, that engagement with somebody. I try to keep the shoot very conversational, as if I’m not really taking photographs. I usually try to do the shoots quite quickly, even though I’ve thought a lot about what I’m going to do beforehand. If it’s not working I just try something else, to make the process as organic as possible. The longer you take the more fake people’s smiles can become, though these days you can show people how it’s looking during the shoot and if they like the images they’ll relax more.
And you don’t manipulate or alter your images?
No, I use Photoshop as sparingly as possible and just try to capture what is there. I also crop within the frame as I take a shot, staying true to the image at its origin. Obviously, I’m trying to find something that is interesting to look at but I really want to let images speak for themselves. I like to work with natural light and also keep a natural feel to the imagery, using flash very sparingly. Some people make their photos look very unrealistic – David LaChapelle does this brilliantly – but that’s not really where I see myself, though I do love that kind of work.
You’ve taken a lot of pictures of David Hoyle – have you known him a long time?
Yes, going back to when I was seventeen. We just get on really well and we trust each other. He allows me to photograph in his dressing room, so nowhere’s out of bounds. Because he’s a performer he knows how the camera works so it can be quite easy for me to capture something amazing.
One of the characteristics of your work is the way that you place people in the frame. You’re not frightened of having a lot of space around a subject or putting them in interesting spaces.
In terms of composition I think that comes from my graphics background. I try to think about what lines up really nicely. I’ve always really loved Mark Farrow’s work with The Pet Shop Boys and I love the idea of the tiny image with lots of white space around it. It’s not so fashionable any more but if you use it well it still works. I like the idea of a lot of texture in the background.
Is there a link between your work and your sexuality? It’s more common these days to see men presented as things to look at but did you have to work through that at all?
It’s never really been an issue to be honest. At the same time I do want to capture the fact that these guys have a personality. Obviously, some of them are more decorative than others and I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t want them just to be lumps of meat to look at.
Trying to connect through their eyes, or through a little gesture, can be enough to make the pictures more intimate. I’ve already created some kind of trust with these guys so the last thing I want to do is present a set of images that totally objectifies them and turns them into something else.
You also take a lot of pictures of architecture. Where does your interest in cityscapes come from?
When I first started photography I was more comfortable taking pictures of buildings than people, so it’s just carried on from there. Having said that, I don’t want to focus on just obvious, famous buildings.
Is it possible to describe what Manchester, as a city, brings to your work?
Without wanting to be cliché, there’s a gritty realism to Manchester, it being an industrial town. I try to find areas where there’s a sense of beauty that maybe not everyone sees. It’s got a really good arts community as well. It’s quite small, but everyone helps each other out.
You’ve taken some images of the sky in Ancoats that are really striking.
I used to work in an office there and some of the skies were immense. That area is really being developed at the moment but there’s still a touch of Lowry in that industrial landscape. There was a really stormy sky that day. By including some of the buildings I wanted to keep an essence of the city in there as well.
And you have an exhibition coming up in Manchester this autumn?
Yeah, it’s called Splendid and is going to be about structure – of men and of buildings, the two things integrated. There’ll be lots of images of Manchester, some of Berlin and maybe a few of London.
What direction is your work going in?
I want to challenge myself and maybe do more images where I’ve created a set or something staged, with more people involved. I’d love to do something with dancers, maybe something outside, with a real sense of movement. I’d like to work with people who are very aware of their bodies.
How do you feel about what’s happening to photography as an art form, with the influence of new technologies and equipment?
There are still people who never use digital and keep it quite analogue, but I like the instant results that digital gives you. If I’m out on a shoot I know exactly what I’m going to get at that moment in time. I see people Photoshopping beautiful images to death and with Instagram you can add a filter to a photo of a bowl of fruit or a coffee cup and it looks nostalgic, but it’s still just a coffee cup. I like Instagram but it’s not something I’d use in my work – I feel like it’s cheating. But who knows, in a few years I might do something that is completely about the unreality of an image, but I would want to make it look as if that was definitely what I was doing.
You can see more of Lee’s work in our featured gallery this month: Eyes & Skies