Claire Atkinson: Exploring the Isolation in Public Places, Part 2

As the end of the year nears, the air is rife with reflection and goal making. As one of our last posts for 2010, we have the chance to catch up with one of our favorite interviewees and young photographers, Claire Atkinson. Judging by your feedback to our last post about Claire, you share our enthusiasm for her work. Here Claire reflects on her influences, her career to date and her plans for the future.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught. Was there a photographer or a type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: As I was getting into photography, I was working in a supermarket with very little direction. So the following year I enrolled in a Photography Diploma course. There I forgot all about the landscapes I once loved and spent a lot of time making silver prints. Tom Wood’s book ‘All Zones Off Peak’ was a huge inspiration for me. My teachers supported me and encouraged me to go to university. When I got there I found that street photography was generally dismissed as ‘snapshots’ like it was a bad thing! It was disheartening, but I stuck it out because I had constant access to a darkroom and a library full of wonderful books at my fingertips. So I consider myself self-taught in that respect; nobody was helping me. As for inspiration, Henri Cartier-Bresson was the first photographer whose photos made my heart flutter. Then I discovered Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Constantine Manos and Jeff Mermelstein. My first introduction to more contemporary street photography was online. Blogs by guys like Chris Weeks and Severin Koller really inspired me and still do. The photographers at In-Public also opened up my eyes to new possibilities.

Q: Can you say something more about how you were influenced by the Tom Woods book ‘All Zones Off Peak’ and also how your work (content or approach) was inspired by the blogs of Chris Weeks and Severin Koller?

A: Living where I lived, I had to catch buses to get almost anywhere. For those who don’t know, Tom Woods took photos on his bus journey to work every day for years, resulting in the wonderful book ‘All Zones Off Peak’. So of course his pictures made me take notice of what was around me when I was in transit. When I got more confident I started taking my camera on the bus too. Chris and Severin, as well as the photographers of In-Public, were the first taste I really had of contemporary street photography. There were no modern street photography books in the local library. It was interesting to see modern life in black-and-white.

Q: You mentioned that you used to work in a supermarket. Do you think that had any influence on your decision to shoot some of your “street photography” in supermarkets? And what exactly is it about supermarkets that you feel is revealing about modern society and the “human condition”?

A: Working there probably did influence me. I mean I was bored. Excruciatingly bored. Looking back I can see I always had a creative streak that went unrecognized for a long time and it was exposed in a raw manner when I started working there. Shops are definitely weird places. Everyone has to go to the supermarket — some people don’t even buy anything, they just go for the company or to get out of the house. The £1 store is my favorite; I almost have to pinch myself when I’m in there. This is a strange little man-made environment with fluorescent lights, people moving around together like zombies buying anything from pregnancy tests to milkshakes while they blast ‘I Need A Hero’ or ‘The Power of Love’ through the speakers. I always had these kinds of observations, but they usually just came out in stories I’d tell to family and friends. So it was around this time that I began to capture them on film.

Q: Traditional street photography is done in public places where your subjects have no expectation of privacy. However, supermarkets and stores are private property. Have you ever run into problems with management while shooting in supermarkets or had issues about publishing pictures of people taken in supermarkets?

A: No, I’ve never had any problems at all. I work quickly and over time I have learnt certain tricks and ways to work. I am aware of security with nothing better to do than give people a hard time so I avoid working openly in front of them.

Q: You say that sincerity (which is another word for heartfelt truth) is very important to you and that your images are drawn from your subconscious. In going over your work in retrospect what feelings do you think you have communicated to the viewer and why do you think your pictures are “like being hugged and slapped at the same time”?

A: My project ‘Grey Areas’ was done at a time when I felt I was starting to outgrow my surroundings. I was 19 or 20 years old and fed up. I was travelling across wintery Northwest England every day spending my time in these small towns to study or work or whatever else. I’ve never been one for glitz and glamour, but it can get really bleak. The small towns were so full of weary faces and loneliness. I don’t know if people are not moving forward or if they are being left behind. Both I suppose. But governments will cut away at funding for choices and opportunities until the only roads ahead of us are straight and narrow. I think my photos were an affectionate take on the things around me that I felt this warm familiarity for, yet at the same time made me want to run away screaming. It was a friend of mine who said my photos were “like being hugged and slapped at the same time” and I hoped she was right.

Q: How do you see your images evolving going forward, both in terms of your approach and your subject matter? If you decided to gather some of your images into a book, what would be the visual and emotional thrust of the book and what might be the working title?

A: I feel I have exhausted the streets of where I live now. The only way forward for me as a street photographer is in London. Wherever I am in the world, I take the same kinds of pictures. In London I am sure my photography will turn to more generic street work, as opposed to such personal projects. But isolation in public places is a theme I will continue to explore. It is hard to say. I rarely go out with a project in mind, the ideas are born and identified in the pictures themselves.

Thank you again to Claire for her contribution and to Chris Weeks for sending her our way.

-Leica Internet Team

You can learn more about Claire on her website: http://claireatkinson.net/.