James A. Hudson: Anecdotal Street Photography In The Museum

Born in Doncaster, England, James A. Hudson is an accomplished commercial photographer who uses the income derived primarily from documenting construction, building, and editorial projects to finance his passion for personal expression. In the late ’80s – early ’90s he worked as a BMX rider, appearing on the Paul Daniels Magic Show and regularly in the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome and Blackpool Tower circuses, and Circus Krone in Germany. He subsequently worked as a skateboard and BMX photographer, moving into magazine publishing and then new-media production in the late 1990s. Hudson relocated to Oslo in 2001 and became a full-time freelance photographer, working on editorial and commercial assignments around the world. He returned to the UK in 2006, developed his personal practice, and now splits his time between London and South Wales.

Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?

A. For this particular series I used the black paint version of the Leica MP with 0.85X range/viewfinder, a Summicron 35 mm f/2.0 and Voigtlander 35 mm f/1.4 lenses, and Kodak T-Max 400 pushed two stops. I have had various other Leica cameras including M7s and an M9-P, but the Leica MP is the definitive Leica camera for me. And of course it will work without batteries.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Based in documentary but not concerned with truth.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?

A: I moved to Oxford in 2010 just as the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology was reopening after a massive re-build. I went exploring it with my camera and when I had a small body of work I showed it to the museum people, and they offered me a residency there. I then continued to shoot in the museum for another year or so, returning once or twice a week, and sometimes shooting several rolls of film but other times not taking a single shot. I then spent about two years making prints and editing and sequencing the images into a book maquette. I recently found a publisher and ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise awareness of the project and to raise funds towards the printing. I was only ever interested in making a really high quality photo book of the work, (i.e. 96 pages, hard bound and printed in duotone black) so it has taken a while to get to this stage.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: To be honest, it started out like anecdotal street photography, just inside a museum rather than out on the street. At the beginning I was just looking for humorous moments and juxtapositions, but it then developed to be a wider project about the human form and how visitors react, emulate and respond to the museum environment. I read some of Ovid’s stories of metamorphoses and they seemed to reflect some of the imagery in the photographs I was producing in the museum.  As a result, I started to use that text as a guide when it came to editing and sequencing the project.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: The approach I take now with my personal work is that the images should be spontaneous, original and not staged. If there is another photographer next to me then I’m in the wrong place. The subject must be of real personal interest and connection to me, and the influence for the editing/sequencing is usually derived from literary fiction rather than journalism or a cause. The imagery I am attracted to is often just as likely to be inspired by illustration as from other photography. I am not particularly interested in single images anymore and aim to make sequences of B&W images that sometimes talk to each other and suggest a narrative rather than trying to explain or show something specific.

I don’t purposely take shots that are out of focus, but I don’t worry anymore if they are not sharp. Better to press the button and get something than lose time getting perfect focus and composition but have missed a moment.

Photography means a lot to me these days. It is my livelihood but also my hobby, my indulgence and my excuse. It’s also a kind of therapy. The difficult bit is managing the balance between all the things it can be. Too much compromised commercial work and your enthusiasm can suffer, not enough paid work and other things suffer. There was an intense period at the end of last year where I was spending all day shooting color digital landscapes and architecture for a bank client and then as soon as the sun went down I would go out (whatever the weather) and attempt to illustrate a William Blake poem shooting on ISO 3200 B&W film. They were both photography but polar opposites in many ways. But it kind of worked for me, like Yin and Yang or something. It was a productive time.

© James Hudson

Q: I like your description of the initial phase of your Ashmolean Museum project as “anecdotal street photography just inside a museum.” At what point did it evolve into something else, and how did the stories in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” structure your coverage when it came to “editing and sequencing the project”?

A: Once you have got the street photography bug, and can see funny juxtapositions, moments and interesting structures then it is difficult to stop seeing them. So that approach did continue right to the end. What happened about a third of the way through was that I loosened up a bit, started to get closer to some of the visitors and objects. I also started to take more of an interest in the actual history and background of some of the exhibits rather than just seeing the whole museum as merely a visual background. I have always had an interest in history – I am certainly not an academic – and had read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” some years ago. I can’t remember exactly the moment when I got the connection between some of those stories and my images, but once I had then it really started to guide me. There is a brilliant line about a woman being turned into a tree and her legs becoming roots and “fascinating the rocks”. The shot of the two women walking towards the camera in silhouette with their reflection in the glass cabinet at the side always reminds me of that line because in the picture the reflection of the women’s torsos has become the backs of wooden chairs. The inability to speak is a recurring theme in Ovid as well – some of the images have this kind of trapped voice in them I think.

Q: How do you think the images in your museum portfolio “talk to each other or suggest a narrative” and how do you go about arranging them in a sequence that accomplished this?

A: The sequencing and editing of a large project is something fascinating and almost like a black art rather than an exact science. Narratives are often suggested by the pace of images presented in a sequence, and by recurring themes. Images talk to each other when two or more are placed opposite each other and there are elements in the shots that complement or jar with each other. It’s difficult to explain and do, and I still have a lot more to learn about it, but it seems that you just know when it’s wrong rather than exactly when it’s right.

Q: Overall, I think the images in this portfolio, taken as a whole, create a strong visceral impression of “being in the museum” and explore many fascinating visual juxtapositions in this multi-textural environment. However, I cannot discern an overarching theme such as illustrating the stories of Ovid. Do you understand this assessment and can you give us some guidance in appreciating the narrative structure you refer to?

A: Yes, I agree completely. It was never intended as an illustration of Ovid. The links I gave earlier between a couple of the shots and Ovid’s stories are tenuous. It is a feeling and inspiration for the editing and sequence; at the end of the day, the project is still a straightforward documentation of some of the things that happened in the museum during those years.

Q: There is something very emotional about this image showing a bearded young man with his hands held in a Namaste gesture in front of what look like two ancient religious icons on display. Was this a grab shot, what does it mean to you personally, and why did you include it in this portfolio?

A: I did not include this shot in some of the earlier edits because it is of someone I knew and was walking around the museum with. I thought it looked staged even though it wasn’t. At some point I realized it was a good, true moment I had captured and the fact that I know it was not staged made it good enough for me to include it.

Q: What is it that attracts you to the black-and-white film medium and why did you choose it to execute this project? And why, other than its lack of battery dependency, to you consider the Leica MP to be “the definitive Leica camera for me”? Also, since you did shoot with an M9-P why did you switch back to the analog medium, and have you ever considered using a Leica M Monochrom in your work?

A: I have always been interested in B&W line drawing and illustrations. Aubrey Beardsley is probably my biggest artistic influence from all media. I do shoot in color, but the color has to be a vital and interesting part of the project. In the Ashmolean project, the color was not particularly interesting to me and I was never attempting an objective or journalistic view of what happens in the museum, and there was no pressing deadline so B&W film seemed the way to go. Monochrome actually closes the gap visually between the visitors and the exhibits.

I did not switch back to analogue; the MP was around all the time! The M9-P was something I actually used mainly for commercial documentary work and events. Yes, I would certainly consider using a Leica M Monochrom.

Q: How do you see your personal creative photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so?

A: I am still influenced by literature I think, but I am just getting even more personal with respect to the subjects I shoot. I am getting closer to people and more intimate situations. Visually I am moving even more towards B&W line drawing and illustration.

Thank you for your time, James!

– Leica Internet Team

Connect with James on his website, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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