British portraiture photographer Alison Gibson has a knack for making images appear self-fulfilled. The emotional yet highly restrained moments look weightless and unburdened, seemingly caught in their natural state, as if taken by the ether. You can see it in the way the people photographed express honestly and gaze unaffectedly to the camera’s presence, while the places are candidly frozen — unhurried, distilled, the focus where it should be.
And though beautiful, her images have a dark and broody edge. They remind me of a mid-to-late 90s movie, those films gnawing with muted angst. Her images are unsentimental and almost never feature any bright color or sharp light. They look like they were made in winter, for those who love winter. But that’s no matter. What they focus on are the soft-hued, less romanced and less charged, moments of being. Moments that require a ghostlike observer ready to capture the unrehearsed expressions of warmth.
In this interview, Gibson talks about how she got her start in photography, explains why she’s drawn to dark imagery, and gives some advice about finding interesting locations and people.
Your portrait and documentary work is impressive. How did you get your start in photography? How would you describe your work?
Thank you. I studied photography at Edinburgh College of Art. I’d always studied art generally, but as I began involving photography more and more in the work I was making, I gradually realised I wanted to concentrate on that subject alone. After graduating, I worked with a commercial and wedding photographer for a year, which gave me some great experience and insight to being a working portraiture photographer, technically and professionally. I now work on my own projects, as well as working commercially and also running a wedding photography business with a friend from college. So I’d describe my work as being eclectic!
I like the understated tone found in many of your photographs. The Castle is a perfect example of these subtle tendencies. Which feelings do you think are most pronounced in this project? Why?
The idea behind the project was to explore the idea of a space which has stood unchanged for many years, a cool observer of its inhabitants and their personal joys and miseries. I wanted to convey an atmosphere of solitude, contemplation, and the idea that the character is perhaps waiting for something. I’m also very interested in the subtle traces that are left behind by people in a space; this is something I’ve continued to explore in my work-in-progress.
Is The Castle #6 a self-portrait? Whether it is or not, it’s still great. I enjoy how conflicted it feels. Compositionally, what drew you to this setup?
It isn’t. That’s a good friend of mine who has kindly modeled for me a few times. I sometimes do model myself in my photographs, but when I do it’s generally just my limbs that are included, rather than actual portraits. I much prefer to photograph other people, especially in set-up portraits like this one, as I usually have a very clear idea of what I want and I like to be able to give direction. I tend to photograph settings that I’m interested in several times over a prolonged period of time, perhaps at different times of the day, and I’d taken this exact photograph, minus the figure, a few times. By the time I was ready to take the portrait I already knew what I wanted it to look like, where she would stand so the light would catch her face, how much window should be visible. It was basically just like inserting a person into an photograph I’d already took! I really enjoy working like that.
Your portraits look like stills from a movie. They’re moody and symbolic. Could you explain your personal philosophy toward taking a portrait?
I’m drawn to quiet, dark imagery generally, and I strive to convey a sort of tension in my portraits. I do pay special attention to composition, to the lines and negative space in an image. But most importantly I work around the natural and ambient light in a space – light is what I think about all the time, and try to use it in the most suitable way.
Housework #2 is one of your most colorful images. Could you explain what went into making this image from start to finish?
That little set of photographs was extremely messy to make! ‘Housework’ is maybe my most staged looking series, as I used studio lighting as well as paying attention to the ambient light. I basically lit the ‘scene’ first, with the camera set on a tripod quite low to the ground – it was shot on a Hasselblad. I knew I wanted to have sauce spilt in the kitchen, and the jar on the ground, and I had an idea that I wanted to involve feet and footsteps. The final image is a result of experimenting really; I wasn’t planning on covering my feet in so much sauce and posing quite so dramatically! ‘Housework’ is one set of photographs that I modelled in myself, so I used a very long shutter-release cable. The idea behind the set is that the character is being overwhelmed and swamped by these little domestic issues and dramas.
Wesley Court is beautiful. I love the connection you make between the people and the objects around them. Could you explain your aims with this project?
Thank you. I love documentary photography, both shooting it myself and looking at the work of others. This was really the first time I made an extended documentary series. It’s set in a sheltered housing complex, which I returned to a few times over a year or more. My aims were to just to create a portrait of the residents, their surroundings, the way they live in this little community yet retain their own private spaces. For me shooting documentary is quite liberating; you have to work quite quickly and instinctively, which is quite a departure from my very controlled portrait work.
Looking at Art is Crime #9, I thought about how creating great photography is sometimes just about exploring what’s around you. What advice could you give to other photographers about exploring their world? Of finding interesting locations and people, capturing portraiture?
Well, I found the setting of ‘Art Is Crime’ quite accidentally and unexpectedly. A musician friend had asked me to take a portrait of him, and he wanted to use this abandoned building as a setting. We just went along to have a look at it and ended up chatting to someone who was actually squatting there at the time, who told me all about this community of people who met there to make art in the space, have impromptu exhibitions, and generally make use of this vast building in a really interesting way. So after asking if he thought it’d be alright for me to turn up with my camera the next time people were meeting there, I went along spoke to people and started taking pictures. I think in those sort of situations it’s really important to actually talk to people, and be genuinely interested in their story – the picture-taking almost becomes secondary to that.
What was the greatest advice you received about making a career in photography?
I’m not sure that I’ve really received any great advice! I suppose anyone who manages to make photography their career has done it through really hard work. But during my time at college I was taught to be very aware of the work of others, to look at as much photography as I can and work out what it is that I like. I’ve carried on with that, always looking for new work, and keeping a record of things that I find visually interesting – I’d recommend that to anyone.
Alison’s take on amalgamating one of the most popular and least popular forms of photography. Experience portraiture like never before.
Be sure to check out Alison’s work on her website!