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The Image-Maker

When I work with a subject, whether it is landscape or nudes, I’m in a relationship with whatever’s in front of me. I keep an atmosphere in the studio that is conjured for a person to feel whatever they like

One of the first pictures I ever made was of a bluebottle fly, dead on a newspaper. Previously dissatisfied with my camera’s conventional performance, 13-year-old myself bought an extension tube, which distanced the lens from the film plain, so I could photograph the subject very close up. This early decision to customise my camera points to the start of two steadfast factors in my work: the aversion of taking an ordinary picture and my intention to present the subject in a style so exposing that it unsettles and fascinates in equal measure.

It’s just amazing that to this day my work, in a sense, hasn’t changed at all as I look at the dead fly picture in his North London studio. Hanging next to one of the most well-known photographs, the modest print draws me in to a place I’m not entirely sure I want to be. This inexorable pull is found throughout my work, be it the haunting ruins of Soviet nuclear test sites, a triptych of the Thames Estuary or an unforgettable portrait of one of today’s most famous faces. Seeing the work en masse displays the shift from photographer to artist. Producing work that successfully bridges the two mediums may be partly the result of the continual inspiration from painters, including innovators Rothko, L.S. Lowry and Francis Bacon, engaging with and responding to it. I know if I was creating art on a desert island it wouldn’t be satisfying to make the work I do.

The viewer is so incredibly important; they make up the triangle between me and the subject. I don’t feel like I’ve got an allegiance to the Yangtze River, my allegiance is with the people who look at the work. It’s them I want to move, to look at themselves, to wonder, be entertained. Whether it’s an image of an estuary or a portrait, I’m looking for a reaction from the viewer that will encourage them to - even without knowing it sometimes – ask questions and react within their own bodies.

I believe, what attracts patrons to my imagery is its breadth. Never sticking to a single subject or aesthetic, my approach stands apart from most modern photography, making this unpredictability exciting. One book I had growing up was by Edward Weston. I’d look at a picture of a forest, which would be placed next to a photograph of rusty car. A seascape would be printed next an image of cloud, and then perhaps a nude would be on the page after. All these photographs might appear incongruous but they were strung together with a lovely thread, and that thread was Weston. Working in this way seems so natural and normal to me.

My work is in major collections, including the National Portrait Gallery in London and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, and I feel myself blessed to receive prestigious accolades, such as winning the Prix Pictet in 2009 for Yangtze, The Long River and being awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Honorary Fellowship in 2015. Helping to cement my position in photography’s history is my quest: the latest victory being the 2019 recipient of the Sony World Photography Awards’ Outstanding Contribution to Photography.

Much like Weston, I am focused on the bigger picture and what brings my work together is the continual exploration of what it means to be human. Like life, my imagery is full dichotomies, switching from beauty to imperfection, life to death, vulnerability to strength. I’m trying to get to the nakedness of things, trying to address what is underneath what things seem to look like. It’s not a terribly conscious thing, it’s quite intuitive, but when I get it subtly right it’s like hitting a sweet spot on


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