So the first question I have, for people that aren’t familiar with you or your work…
That’s 99.9% of the planet mate!
Just tell us a bit about yourself and what you do...
Well I spent 25 years in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. I worked in Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Jakarta, Auckland and New York. And so because it’s an ageist industry, you can’t really get a job and you kind of get sidelined when you reach the age of 50. So I taught advertising for about 5 or 6 years after that in a tertiary college, and then I thought ‘I’ve always made my living with ideas and creativity, I’ve got to find a way back to doing that somehow…’
In advertising I’d always had ideas in pictures more or less, and then the words kind of flowed from that, so it wasn’t a big decision for me to move into photography.
Zorro - Lynn Smith
So you took up photography later in life?
Oh yeah I’ve only been doing it for about 10, 12 years seriously.
Wherever I lived I was doing snaps, but there was no kind of ideas, no kind of thought process... just snapping. I suppose I started to focus in about 2002 or 2003 on ‘urban irony’. That was my first compass point.
What I teach students is that one of the first decisions you need to make is what you are not going to photograph, because it’s a big world. You walk outside the front door and you can see 180 degrees. Nobody gets any good unless they decide to eliminate the things that don’t really work for them. So irony was my first kind of benchmark… I was looking for urban irony. My earlier work you can see from my Flickr stream was black and white and was all on the street.
Then I decided I’d do a degree in photography because I thought maybe it would give me a marketing credential. When I had shows people could see ‘ok he’s a Master of Fine Arts, he must know what he’s doing’. I didn’t do the degree in order to learn how to take pictures, I did it as a marketing credential but it turned out to be much more than that. I did two degrees after the age of 65, the first was a coursework Masters and the second was a research Masters. And my subject for the second degree was street photography. The title of my Masters paper is ‘Longing in the City: The Emergence of Street Noir’ and my contention was that street photography and film noir have interacted and have influenced each other for about 80 or 90 years. My work really comes out of that interaction between street photography and film noir.
That’s really interesting and I’d like to talk more about your academic background a bit later. Interestingly, you said to me that one of the questions you won’t answer is ‘why do you take pictures?’…
You can figure it out, but don’t ask me! It’s like asking ‘why are you in love with someone?’… I mean it’s undefinable.
So I’d like to read some quotes of yours and see how you react to those quotes:
“I shoot what I’m driven to shoot by emotional forces operating in my life. I’m not out hunting pictures.”
“My schtick is a beautiful anxiety”, which is the title of one of your upcoming exhibitions…
Yes, that’s the title of my show in Canberra
Also, looking at the stuff you’ve posted in various groups, you’re very focused on people producing images that aren’t just snapshots. You want people to think about the pictures they create and for there to be something in their images that rewards the viewer willing to spend time with them...
So, how do you align the emotional impulses that drive your image-making with the thoughtfulness that you want to see in your work. How do you bring those two things together?
There’s an english writer called Clive Scott who wrote a book called ‘Street Photography from Atget to Cartier-Bresson’ and he just deals with French street photography. One of the things he says in the book is the conventional wisdom is that a street photographer is out there hunting pictures but the best photographers allow pictures to hunt them.
So that’s what I do… I’ll wander round for hours and not shoot anything if nothing gets hold of me. What gets hold of me is what connects with my subconscious if I allow it to. I think if you go round looking for specific things you'll find them or you will make images conform to some mental image.
One of the great things about street photography and one of the things that attracts me about it as opposed to conceptual work - not that I’m against that, but I’m not interested in doing it - is that the world is full of metaphors… the world is full of us… if only we allow it to speak to us. Wandering around with a camera is an enormous privilege because if you’ve got a blank mind and you really let the world speak to you, you’ll be stopped in your tracks by something that actually connects with your subconscious and you won’t know what it is ‘cause that will vary from day to day you see, depending on the situation, your mood, your relationships, whatever’s going on.
It’s like a water diviner… you walk around with your rod and then suddenly something within the earth pulls it down and then there’s water there. That’s how I see photography. If something pulls me I shoot it, if it doesn’t I shoot nothing. And I don’t mind because I’ve learned about my city and I’ve exercised, so what’s the big deal! And my standards have gone up… the less I shoot, the better the stuff is.
Quadrants of Light - Lynn Smith
That’s a really interesting idea. So thinking about when you first started shooting having transitioned from advertising, through to now, how would you say your photographic style or vision has changed?
Well I began by emulating my heroes, as I think everybody does. My heroes were the black and white photographers, some of the Magnum stars, particularly some of the Americans. Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander… Friedlander because he broke all the rules, he put phoneboxes in the middle of pictures and stuff like this, so that was really interesting. All sorts of things you don’t do, he did, and I like that. I don’t accept there are any rules whatsoever. I don’t accept any rules of composition, anything. I don’t accept the rule of thirds, nothing! The question is being able to capture this thing, when the world reaches out and grabs you by the throat, you’ve got to capture it however you capture it. I don’t think you can force it into some kind of geometric mould.
So I started out by emulating my heroes. And in fact, one of the photographers who’s working in England at the moment who had an influence on me shifting to night photography, is a German woman who teaches at the Royal College of Art in London, called Rut Blees Luxemburg. She shoots everything on 5x4, she only photographs at night and she never photographs people. I actually went to London and shot there in September a couple of years back and I made a point of having a discussion with her at the Royal College of Art, we spent an hour or two together. I think if you look at her work, certainly back a little bit, you’ll see how closely my work emulated hers.
So we all have our influences. I think that’s something we need to be perfectly willing to admit. I don’t think anyone steps out of nothing.
I agree with that. You've also mentioned William Eggleston as one of your influences, whose work I hadn't come across until you mentioned him…
Eggleston is really complicated! He's probably the only man without a style!
It’s interesting that in trying to create images that people will want to spend time with, you chose night photography for your canvas. Did you always shoot at night or did that develop later?
Well I’ve been shooting at night for about 8 years I guess. My first degree was a coursework Masters and my major work was shooting in abandoned factories at night… that’s all I did. There was only available light, I didn’t do any light painting, and some of the exposures were like 1 or 2 hours long.
The thing about film noir - and I read and watch a lot of film noir - the whole noir genre has been a way of turning Hollywood inside out, in the sense that Hollywood peddled illusions about the American way of life. Hollywood was all about the sentimental good-guy, bad-guy, happy ending bullshit! Like nothing that actually happens on the planet! It’s that dystopian underbelly of society, which noir has captured, that I think is much more honest than all this sentimental shit!
I think an artist’s job in some respects is to try and reflect the period in which he or she lives. I think If you put your head into the philosophic sand and just make images based on some kind of concept of beauty or whatever, abstracted from society, you're not very useful. I think the artist that is allowing society to speak to them and move them is gonna be the more useful artist. I don’t mean propaganda…I think my work is political but it’s not overtly political. Because I think if you're feeling comfortable right now in history you’re either rich or mad! The rest of us have got… you know, there’s big struggles… there’s racism, there’s attacks on refugees, there’s global warming, there’s clerical fascism…these things are huge issues! And I think if we pretend that everything’s fine, we’re kidding ourselves. So this stuff, this societal melancholia in a sense, has to be evident in the work. I’m not saying one has to become paralysed by melancholy, because I believe my work has a certain beauty as well - I try for it anyway - and the beauty for me is the belief that we can solve problems, but the dour dystopian side is a reflection of society’s problems refracted in my work. It’s not direct, its a refraction, as opposed to a reflection.
They’re the two elements. Anything I want to photograph I test it in two ways, put two thermometers into it. It’s got to be beautiful, but it has to be unsettling. If its beautiful and comfortable I don’t shoot it, if it’s ugly and unsettling I don’t shoot it. It has to have those two elements.
London Canal - Lynn Smith
What stands out is how very clear you are about what you are doing and what you’re trying to achieve as an artist. A lot of artists aren’t able to articulate their goals as clearly as you do. I’m interested to know whether you were always so clear about what you wanted to shoot or did that develop over time?
No, that only evolved over 10 to 12 years. I started out by looking for irony, but you know irony’s not enough. I mean irony is relatively easy to find, so one has to go beyond irony I think, and one should go beyond beauty.
One of the things you’ve spoken about is ‘representational photography’. That isn’t a term I’d come across before and I wonder if you can define what it is?
Well I invented it. I am classified I suppose as a documentary photographer, that’s how gallerists view my stuff, but I don’t see myself as a documentary photographer at all. I run street photography classes, so a lot of stuff that I work on myself is because I have worked with students, have looked at their work and talked to them about their work. So that process has helped me to clear my own thinking up as well.
What I say to students is that documentary photography is where you are out to get the story. Street photography isn’t like that, you’re not out to get the story. You aren’t being evaluated on whether you’ve captured the essence of Berlin, or London, or Tokyo… that’s documentary photography. You’re a street photographer, you’re capturing life on the streets as you see it. So that’s why I don’t call myself documentary… I’m not trying to get the story.
Lynn's work is currently showcased in a solo exhibition at the PhotoAccess Huw Davies Gallery at Manuka Arts Centre, in Canberra. The show runs till September 4th 2016. More details here
You can see a superb short movie that accompanies his exhibition here
To see more of his work or to contact him for print or exhibition enquiries you can find him on Flickr
In the next part of this fascinating interview Lynn explains how an academic grounding pushed his work forward, so stay tuned for the next instalment coming soon.
Till then, as always, keep it interesting!