The photographer talks us through new Americana heavy show, Q&A.
‘Experience | Acquire | Collect’, so concludes the Francesca Maffeo Gallery’s compact biography on Instagram (the similarly dense clarification of “a photography gallery showcasing the work of emerging & established talent” precedes it, for those not exactly au fait with Essex’s art scene). It’s those latter three words though that could similarly be assigned to the process undertaken by Alexander Missen, the space’s latest occupant.
Inspired by Bruce Springsteen, Ed Ruscha and John Steinbeck – the creative people who surround him every day too – the London-based photographer first took on the pursuit as “a way of making images without being able to draw”. “I remember using a lot of disposable cameras when I was younger,” he offers, “getting the prints back from the chemist and being really amazed that sometimes a picture would be more than just what it was a record of.”
Q&A then, his Francesca Maffeo showcase, introduces over 70 images from a four-year project exploring America and the country’s associated cultural symbols, the relationship of its residents to said symbols and Alexander’s own pre-conceived ideas of a land previously unknown. Comprised of bleached light, pensive portraiture and nods to the American Dream, going by Insta highlights alone it’s a must see. Below Missen further confirms it.
What was your first memory of America / an American stereotype?
I remember my mum going to Texas when I was a kid and coming back and talking about the vastness of it all, how different everything was. I must have been about six at the time and I think some of that stuck with me.
And what initially attracted you to America, as a photographic subject?
Initially, I think it was a bit of a stupid, slightly naive idea that there was some rite of passage to photographing America. Most of the photographers whose work I really love have at one point or another done a big ‘America’ project, travelling from place to place.
When I graduated I remember thinking “Okay, well if I want to progress I’m gonna go and do that too”. Looking back on it now – that was a really dumb decision and could have left me skint and with very little to show for it because at that point I just hadn’t thought about it enough. Fortunately, that first trip really shifted my perceptions and formed the basis of the project as it is today.
Q&A covers four years. Were you initially shooting to form a project with the intention to exhibit? And assuming you weren’t, at what point did you realise the images you were taking could form something bigger?
A little while after I came back from the first trip I made, I was going through the contact sheets with a couple of friends who are also photographers, and I realised just how much it wasn’t a fully formed body of work. It was then I realised that I either had to scrap the whole project or I had to actually put in the time to research properly. Fortunately, I chose the latter, but it was about a year before I went back to make work there. From then on it felt a lot simpler because I was more sure of what I was trying to communicate, both in terms of the individual images and as a body of work. I don’t think I ever really conceived it as a finished ‘thing’ – a book, a show. There was just a point where I felt like it was going in the right direction and a point where I felt it had reached a natural end.
And the title, Q&A, where did this come from?
I tend to think of the title as being about the nature of photographing as a way of gaining or expressing knowledge. When you’re photographing anything you’re often trying to gain some sort of insight or express something about a subject to other people; there are questions and there are answers and the two are not mutually exclusive. Often you will end up photographing something hoping to get an answer, and all you really do is make the questions that you had about that something in the first place more nuanced. To me that’s the real appeal of photography as a medium – the ability to enrich your understanding of a topic without stripping it of its wonder.
You shoot on analogue right? How did this affect the project? I saw something on Instagram about a woman leaving halfway through as she got bored…
Haha, yes that has happened a few times but it is understandable. I work with a medium format film camera and always on a tripod so the whole process is pretty slow by nature. With portraits, I don’t really talk or give too much direction, so I do wonder if sometimes it just looks like I have no idea what I’m doing. Photographing on film doesn’t change too much beyond practical concerns like lugging a load of highly light and heat sensitive material across a country with a really variable climate. Mostly it’s just a case of using a tool that causes as little separation as possible between me and the image making process. I’ve used the same equipment for a while now so it’s just one less thing to think about.
How forthcoming were the people you approached to photograph?
People are pretty nice in my experience. I tell people what I’m doing and ask if I can take their picture and usually we chat for a bit. For most people it’s an unusual request, but I think most people are quite flattered when you ask them. Usually, they’ll say something to the effect of “you want to photograph me?!” and once that initial oddness goes away I try and stay quiet and let people drift into their own headspace.
The project is a mix of portraits and landscapes. Do you have a preference?
I don’t really have a preference but I think they operate slightly differently to each other. I usually find good portraits to be quite immediate and I enjoy that about them. Landscapes or interiors are a much more careful arrangement of symbols. As a result, when I’m photographing a person I think I operate more on instinct, as opposed to when I’m making a landscape image I’ll often step back from it and think for a few minutes about what I’m really trying to do with it.
Best / worst moment of the four years?
Best – going to the deserts in the south west and really feeling like there was seemingly unlimited physical space to travel into. Worst – accidentally hitting a raccoon while driving. I still think about it on a regular basis and it makes me feel genuinely sad.
And do you have a favourite / least favourite state?
It’d have to be the south west: New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming. Most of the west is just incredible for its undeniable physical beauty. It’s a bit of a cop-out answer but I can’t really say I have a least favourite. It’s possible to find redeeming qualities in most places I reckon.
So Q&A opens at the Francesca Maffeo Gallery this weekend. How did you become involved with the gallery?
I first met Francesca through Christina Santa-Ana who’s a talented curator and a friend. She introduced us and it all went from there. I went down to the space – which was a building site at the time – and I was really impressed with the plan and its aims. Since then the gallery has gone on to represent me which has been really great. It often feels like a working relationship that I’ve had for years because it feels like we’ve done so much; talks, shows, Photo London and now Q&A – in a relatively short space of time.
In terms of visitors, who do you hope sees the exhibition?
Anyone who feels like they can get something out of it really. In a dream world, I’d love someone like Gerhard Steidl to see it. I knew about Steidl as a publisher, but after hearing him talk at the Photographer’s Gallery last year I have so much respect for him and his approach to bookmaking.
And what do you hope people take away from the exhibition?
The best thing is always when people understand what I’m trying to convey with the images. It makes me, as a photographer, feel like I’ve done my job properly and the whole thing has been worth it. It’s always been quite interesting to see how people react to the pictures and see how their assumptions change how they view the work. I’d like people to understand that there is an element of self-parody to some of the pictures but that doesn’t extend ever to mockery. I did this project because a large proportion of the imagery that I love comes from the USA, whether that is art, photography or cinema. I wanted to attempt to unpick some of those relationships that I have with American culture and hopefully, other people understand that and it resonates with them too.
Q&A opens at Francesca Maffeo Gallery 8 September until 28 October.