Andrew Brooks – BeesBlogs Talks to Manchester’s Award Winning Photographer
Andrew Brooks is an acclaimed North West photographer, artist, and filmmaker and winner of the GM Arts Prize 2016. Originally from Cambridgeshire, Andrew came to Manchester more than 20 years ago, via Stockport College where he studied Documentary Photography. His photography, taking inspiration from the likes of JMW Turner and the Romantic era, produces works of immense depth engineered with multi-layered masques of digital manipulation to re-imagine the his images from around the world.
BeesBlogs – When did you know you wanted to be a photographer, what was the inspiration behind it?
Andrew: I’ve always had an interest in the visual arts. As a child I enjoyed the cinema, visiting galleries, comics and science fiction books, all of which fed my young imagination and made me want to build a creative career of some kind. I also traveled a lot with my family during holidays, taking long road trips across Europe and the USA. I wanted to have a working life that combined these two areas. To develop the skills to capture the world in vivid ways and use that as a way of exploring my surroundings and the wider world.
After school I studied on a wide-ranging art course which is when I had the chance to learn about film photography and darkroom work. Right away I had confidence in the images I took and felt that photography fitted with the way I wanted to explore the world. This lead me to specialise in photography and eventually head up from Essex to Stockport to study documentary photography. This brought me to Manchester where I’ve now been based for over twenty years.
A few years after my studies I brought my first reasonable quality digital camera. This was a changing point in my work. I felt really inspired by the idea that so much can be done to an image. That the click of the camera is just a starting point and using digital processing I can build images that show the world in the way I want. From this point I’ve had a real energy to keep exploring the possibilities of digital photography and video making.
BeesBlogs – Which camera equipment do you use most?
Andrew: My main camera is a Nikon Digital SLR, I try not to obsess about the technology too much. I just get the camera I can afford that produces the cleanest, sharpest images. So I have really strong components to work with.
Over the last five years I’ve also put lots of time into smart phone photography. I enjoy working with the restrictions of a simple phone camera. It takes me back to when I first started photography and all I had was a fixed lens, a single image and a little control of the feel of the image in the dark room. I think creating these simple images to share on Instagram has really honed my sense of composition and reminded me of the power of a perfect captured moment.
BeesBlogs – You have a fascination with land and cityscapes. – Why this particular type of photography?
Andrew: I think it’s about the experience of being alone in these spaces in the urban and natural environment. Looking at these views then thinking about how I can show how it felt for me to be here. I work with the way the light falls and my position on the view to find the best way of sharing how it felt. Then when the pictures are shot I work into them back in my studio to create heightened, enhanced pictures. Really emphasising the aspects of the landscape or cityscape that I want to share.
My work has shown me some real adventure, from watching sunset from the top of the towers of Manchester, to flying over the snow-covered landscape of Iceland to photograph a volcano. It’s given me access to amazing experiences which pushes me to work hard to keep these strands of my photography going and explore more extraordinary places.
BeesBlogs – I found your Secret Cities work absolutely fascinating – It’s a thread that has continued over a several years, with some really atmospheric shots evoking past times, decay and abandonment – How did this opportunity come about and where would you like to photograph next for the series?
Andrew: My first Secret Cites exhibition happened at URBIS in 2008. I was invited by curator Andy Brydon to visit the forgotten parts of Manchester, from the tunnels beneath to the towers above. My work fitted with this exhibition because of the way I photograph more than just a small part of the environment. I show wide expansive areas in a way that really immerses the viewer.
Since then I’ve been invited to create similar exhibitions in the Netherlands, Edinburg, Aberdeen and Iceland. All of which have been amazing experiences. It is my job to visit all the strangest parts of cities, including such sites as uncovered graveyards, abandoned cement works and burnt out nuclear bunker complexes.
One Manchester based location that I’ve wanted to visit and photograph is the Guardian Tunnels, a cold war era tunnel that carries lots of the fibre optic communications beneath the city. Access is very hard, I’ve only heard of a handful of people visiting as it’s still very much in use.
BeesBlogs – You’ve had some really interesting collaborations, such as the BBC Philharmonic in 2014, and for the recent ‘The Library and the Mountain’ at Manchester’s Portico Library for the Manifest Arts Festival 2017.and Red-Eye’s ‘Summer of Northern Photography. Do collaborations impinge on your personal creativity? How do you manage sometimes, conflicting expectations?
Andrew: I’ve always enjoyed collaborations. It really pushes my work forward, and presents challenges that just wouldn’t happen if I was the only creative voice involved. You do have to be diplomatic and build up good relations with those you’re working with. You also develop a thick skin, because for it to be a proper collaboration its important that people are not worried about saying how they feel about an idea or an image. It’s this process that takes the work to new places.
BeesBlogs – American documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt said ” To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in a n ordinary place….I’ve found it little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them” Do you agree with him? How would you describe the reasoning behind your photography?
Andrew: Without wanting to sound too overblown photography for me is about the process of seeing and what it is to be alive. Being alert to the world and noticing all of its complexities. From the subtle fall of light, to slight changes in texture and colour, right through to the perfectly pleasing natural composition of a large valley. At all scales there is fascination and in my work I aim to capture this and share what I see in the world.
I think of photography as a way of looking and a way of exploring. When I stand in front of a view that really catches my eye I try to work out why, what it was that makes this view special. It might be the light, the natural composition, the positions of people or a hundred other things. So then it’s my job to explore this and show why it caught my eye. Each shoot I do involves many images to find just the right angle, sometimes I take hundreds of shots to slowly explore what’s going on in front of me. A lot goes unused, but then some shots jump out.
I found that if you put energy and thought into how you see the world, interesting things appear and experiences happen. If you approach the world in an open way and have a kind of hope then the perfect moment does tend to happen.
BeesBlogs – You’ve used digital manipulation techniques for a awhile. How do you answer the purist who criticise the use of manipulation, those who believe you should only see the original photograph without embellishment?
Andrew: I think every photograph shows a subjective view of the word, even if it’s just one click of the camera. The lens you choose to the place you point your camera and the edit of shots you choose to show present your version of what happened.
I do push this subjective approach a lot further than most in my photography. I think in a way there are different types of truth that you can look at in images. Through using many shots and lots of post production I find I can show the things I saw in a view more precisely, and present my experience in a clearer way.
I do think it’s important that I’m open about this process and let people know that I work this way so they understand what they are looking at. This leads to lots of interesting conversations about truth and what that might mean in art. Often I talk about painters and how they might combine many field studies to create a finished piece when they are back in their studio. This finished artwork might not show an exact copy of a view but a slight reworking. Combining images from a span of time and slightly reworking the position of things to enhance the composition. I see lots of parallels with this way of working in my photography. Painters such as Turner, John Martin, Joseph Write and Caspar David Friedrich are more of a direct influence on my work then any photographers.
BeesBlogs – Your work over the last decade shows an ever more surrealist content. It must take many hours of input to produce these amazing, re-imagined images. Is this a conscious decision to explore the boundaries of photography, or move further into photography as art?
Andrew: I think that as soon as I started working in digital I wanted to push the boundaries of image making in many directions. Sometimes my images have fairly subtle post production work that you can’t really spot. But then there is the New World strand where I come up with quite surreal, almost science fiction ideas and then set about working out how to use my camera and photoshop to bring these images to life.
I only create one or two of these images a year but they are good fun to work on and I think sharpen my skills and imagination. Also the idea that I can sit in my studio in Manchester, and with time, creativity and the world around me make images that almost feel like they could be from a sci-fi film is really exciting.
BeesBlogs – What are you currently working on?
Andrew: I’m in the early stages of planning a film project based in Manchester that will show 24 hours of the city moving and changing. Can’t reveal too much more at the moment but it’s good to be spending some time working on a video project.
BeesBlogs – I know you teach and give talks on photography – What advice would you give to someone starting out with photography as their chosen career?
Andrew: I’ve always felt that with so many people being interested in photography and owning good quality cameras, that to survive and earn a living from image making you have to specialise in some way. You have to be able to create images that others can’t.
This might be down to the technique, perhaps the post production that goes into the pictures. But it can also be to do with the part of the world you can reach.
Most people have access to fairly unique bits of the world. That might be a music scene, a view from up high in a tower block, a part of the natural landscape that they know really well and can visit many times. Develop your own speciality amongst photography, even if it’s a small niche. Then they can build things from there, slowly reaching out and broadening what they specialise in from a strong positive.
BeesBlogs – Many thanks Andrew for your time and for sharing a fascinating insight into your work.
Why not follow Andrew on his Social Media and see more of his fantastic photography on his website. Just click the links below:
Twitter : https://mobile.twitter.com/AndrewPBrooks