Q&A with John Spinks
John Spinks is a renowned photographer and friend of Albam: he shot our first ever campaign and has continued to work with us across a variety of projects. His body of work includes portraits of royalty, campaigns for commercial clients as diverse as Mr Porter and Esso, and, now, two published books. We sat down with him to discuss his latest publication, The New Village, and the last ten years of Albam…
Hi John, tell us about The New Village:
As the name suggests, the concept centres around a village – the village I grew up in in the west Midlands: it’s an old pit village and my grandfather and cousin both worked in the pit. It developed from an initial two-year project, but has ended up taking 17 years. I’m not very good with deadlines
Oh wow, so it’s quite late…
After the initial two years, it got out of hand: it just became something I thought I could make better. I’d shoot landscapes and wonder how they would look in different light, at a different time of year, or in different weather. It became less a finite project and more a process of improvement, like a working on a painting.
So there was never a final project in mind?
Ten years in I started again. The process has taught me how to be a better photographer: as it developed I got a clearer and clearer idea of what I wanted in to be, how I wanted it to look. Until eventually… we have the finished book.
What is it shot on? How did you maintain the same visual feel over two decades?
It’s shot using a large format camera—a big wooden box--the design of which hasn’t changed since the mid-1800s. It can take 15 minutes to a couple of hours for a shot to be taken so it’s a slow, considered and very involved process. There’s a synergy between the method and personal nature of the work. The shoots have been intermittent since 2000, sometimes every month, sometimes every afternoon; after my son was born I ended up going there almost daily, it felt like bridging generations and linking the past and future.
So the book is an edit of a much larger body of work?
Yeah, I ended up with five or six thousand sheets of film. A lot of which, frankly, isn’t very good.
Alongside the landscapes there are a series of portraits. Are these people you know?
They’re a mix of acquaintances and people I encountered along the way. One guy I photographed ended up serving in Iraq, which was inadvertent but reflects that lots has happened in the last few years. But at the same time, the images aren’t supposed to represent specific snapshots of time, the fact that the project took 17 years isn’t really important. To some extent the time has passed invisibly.
What about the buildings and houses?
The houses reflect post-war architecture, and a certain idea of community and how they are formed and fall and how they splinter and disappear. Tied in with this are the forces are that have shaped England since the 1960s. I think, taken as a whole, these political and cultural changes are implicit in the images: if you look at the people or buildings and if you can understand the background and are aware of the climate, then there is a lot of meaning in that.
You’ve shot a lot of portraits over your career, what do you think makes a good one?
Being quick! Most people don’t like having their photograph taken, only one person has ever said to me that they enjoy it: Val Kilmer, strangely enough. It’s not necessarily a pleasant experience for most people, so I try to be kind and quick.
Factories is the 2010 book you collaborated with Albam on, how did that come about?
Again it was a process over a couple of years, and it didn’t start out as a concept for a book. Albam was a certain size, just Alastair and James [Albam founders], so the business was very agile, and we were able to develop it into a book very organically. As I mentioned, with all portraits I feel there is a responsibility from the photographer: the people in the factory trust you to not make them look silly or misrepresent them. They’re asking you to be kind and authentic.
2017 is Albam’s tenth anniversary, how did your relationship with them start?
It began it late 2007, I’d been in the Beak Street store a couple of times and really liked the clothes and ethos. My wife encouraged me to get in contact with them so I dropped them a note asking if they needed anyone to take some pictures and it developed from there.
How have you seen the company evolve over this time?
I think Albam are almost unique in being able to grow while keeping very close to the original idea of the business. There’s been this ever present, engaging personality which goes back to an idea of Englishness, and strong values of quality and independence.
Any favourite pieces from the last ten years?
There’s been so many over the years! I have an old ventile jacket in burnt orange that I still wear regularly, and some really, really well-worn denim. I’ve picked up a couple of jumpers from the SS17 collection which I’m sure will be on rotation for the next few years.
John will be The Photographers Gallery, W1F 7LW on 20/07/17 for a launch and signing.