Michael Langan talks to writer and photographer Justin David about his photographic series Night Work, which features queer artists in the alternative after-hours world of night …
The writer and artist Justin David has been taking pictures for as long as he can remember – ever since his dad gave him a snapshot camera when he was very young. He would photograph airshows and the coloured plumes of the Red Arrows, carrying on at school and Art College, and has a personal relationship with the form, seeing the camera as an extension of himself.
David doesn’t consider himself a technician, being more interested in what’s going on in front of the lens. He’s an artist who uses photography to capture the images in his head and the results have more than a hint of sexy Gothic and Victorian melodrama. I spoke to him about his show, Night Work.
How would you describe the style/aesthetic of your work?
It’s high drama, atmospheric settings and saturated colours. It’s not ‘Surrealism’, and ‘Fantasy’ has the wrong connotations, but I’m definitely trying to create a dream-like quality. When I was young I used to watch a lot of black and white B-movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s and that noir-ish quality has spilled over into my work. It’s surprising how things that interested me years ago are now speaking back to me through my own work. I really liked Peter Greenaway’s films when I was a teenager as well, with their very strong sense of composition and colour. They have a baroque feel to them and in the portrait of the painter Matthew Stradling we very consciously tried to recreate something like that. I wanted it to look like a still life.
They also look very Pre-Raphaelite in style – in the use of colour and composition.
It’s funny you should say that because I spent a lot of time in Birmingham City Art Gallery when I was a kid, and I was in there every weekend and that’s full of Pre-Raphaelite artwork and they’re very gaudy. It’s not something I would have volunteered myself but it must have had an influence on my work – that hyper-real quality. I’ve always felt that the world is a little bit dull. My mum and dad were always complaining to me when I was a child for turning up the colour on the tv, so the screen was always filled with really saturated colours.
And there’s a reference to Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World in your portrait of David Hoyle.
The picture of David Hoyle is a pastiche of The Light of the World, or an ironic take on it, with David being Christ returning to shed light, though he’s actually shining the torch on himself. We tried to get it as close to the original as possible, mirroring the composition exactly.
How do you choose your subjects?
I used to photograph my friends, based on ideas that came out of my writing, and I would get my friends to help me recreate the images. It was very much me imposing my ideas and then I started doing publicity stuff for Nathan Evans and his shows, that also involved people like David Hoyle and Timberlina, and I got addicted to photographing performers and they brought a different energy because they know how to work the camera. I consciously started to seek out those people to take part in this project so this has involved in me wanting to photograph these sorts of characters and the idea of them being night time characters came out of that.
I guess all of my subjects are elements of myself really. I was bullied at school – like a lot of gay boys I guess – and I couldn’t wait to get away from home and run off to the city. And then even when I got to the gay scene I didn’t feel accepted, I didn’t fit in. I’d come all the way here and they didn’t look like me – they were all muscle boys and tanned with sunglasses so I was in the wrong place. So I’ve always felt more welcome in a queer setting, amongst these sort of characters, as opposed to a gay mainstream.
Does your process follow a particular form or routine?
I’m learning all the time and changing the way I do things but, usually, a lot of discussion takes place between my subjects and me – it’s total collaboration – and the idea for the shot emerges out of this. Sometimes email conversations span months until we’re both really comfortable with what we want to achieve. Then I’ll do some drawings and we start to style the image by thinking about settings and costumes. It all feels like play, like kids playing in the dressing-up box. A lot of improvisation takes place on the day – I like the models to feel their way into a shoot, reacting and responding to the surroundings they’re in, using London as a film set.
The picture of Nathan Evans, ‘Where Have All the Music Halls Gone’ is very much to do with his politics and the city having concreted over all the amazing things that were there before. If you go to that part of London there are all these nooks and crannies and bits of Victoriana, with skyscrapers flying up around it and we wanted to make a comment about that. With the picture of Jonathan Kemp, it emerged between us that we would use a graveyard as a setting because of the story he’d told in his novel, London Tryptich. We had an idea of what we wanted to do and what he’d be wearing and then I started taking photos and it’s posed but we felt our way into the shoot and when I started taking pictures I think he felt a bit stiff and we had to relax and then half an hour in, after I’d taken lots of photos he started to play up to the camera. They’re not portraits as much as they are improvisations, there’s an organic element there. There’s room to play around if need be but the most successful ones tend to be where I’ve put in a lot of planning. Benjamin Louche and I had a very clear idea of what the photograph was going to look like – that’s my favourite actually – and it was very synchronized, like we were hearing the same music.
The show’s called Night Work – did you have that theme in mind early on, or is it something that came later?
If you are to sustain yourself as an artist in this city you almost have to work after everyone else has put their lights out. I spend a lot of time doing a day job but day jobs can be dull and I’ve always had other callings. It’s no surprise that people who want to be involved in creative pursuits do so after dark, it’s escapism. My creative work usually happens after the working day and, similarly, the subjects I want to photograph are nocturnal. So I suppose what was once practical and necessary has become an obsession.
Do you think that’s a particularly queer thing?
Yes, I think anything queer, subversive or creative tends to happen at night, but that’s not really my agenda, I’m not necessarily making a queer statement. Some of these characters identify as gay or queer, or as outsiders, or ‘other.’ If you want to feel part of an alternative world, that world tends to come alive at night, but some of the characters I want to photograph may be straight or more mainstream.
You also write, and a lot of your pictures seem to suggest stories to me.
My writing and my photography nourish each other – ideas for stories come out of the photographs. I’ve just written a novel which is about gangs and teenagers and knife crime, about a generation that has been let down by several governments and that fed into the image of David, who’s wearing a hoodie. So they’re speaking to each other, the photography and the writing, there’s a conversation going on.
At the same time, there’s a sense for me of these images being like film stills – something has happened just before and something will happen straight afterwards. I even considered doing them in landscape format so they’d look like widescreen. I’ve been very influenced by film makers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I loved Steve McQueen’s Shame and Tom Ford’s A Single Man – I know that film was criticized as style over substance but I loved the meticulous attention to detail and that’s what I’ve been aiming for. The images are posed but there’s a naturalness to that pose. It’s similar to how Brecht left some of the mechanism of theatre on stage so that people could contemplate that – there’s a realness to them but they’re artificial at the same time. I want people to be consciously aware of them as artworks. There’s a definite narrative to them and some of them could have more scenes added – I see this collection growing and many of these performers have offered to pose for me again. I’ve also approached Penny Arcade and have a number of performers penciled in for the next round. I’m not going to stop until I get to Debbie Harry!