Al Thomas Palmer is an artist who lives in Northern England. He’s a landscape photographer who creates pictures that capture a sense of loneliness and desolation www.alpalmer.co.uk, but that doesn’t mean Al is a lonely guy. His work is cool and I wanted to find out what inspires it.
MICHAEL: Hey Al, Glad to be chatting with you. First of all, you're a photographer. Isn't it amazing how photography has really taken off in the past few years? I just attended Expo Chicago today and it's everywhere.
AL: Photography is really hitting its stride currently. I was discussing it with some friends recently and we all agreed photography seems to be in a Golden Age. Anyone can do it and everyone is. The sheer amount of photographs out there means pretty much every single thing has been photographed. That leaves photographers free to concentrate on series, collaborations, books and long-term, in-depth projects that are truly interesting and unique. Work can develop. I've noticed with the rise of Instagram with people who consider themselves photographers enjoying taking photos and crucially, taking interesting ones. Walk along the street, you see people taking photos from different angles, it's great watching people looking and seeing.
MICHAEL: The photos that I've seen on your personal website seem to depict empty, abandoned sites or spaces. What's your inspiration behind them?
AL: I'm from the north of England and was born in the early 80s. It was around this time the Conservative government began dismantling nationalised heavy industry - much employment in the north was industrial. So, all these old sites of industry now lay derelict after they were sold to private companies who then stripped them for parts, closed them down and then relocated the work out of the area. There's a deep feeling of melancholy and emptiness in the landscape of the north, it never really recovered from this. I think this is reflected in the work that I make. There's a political and social anger to my work that's maybe not totally obvious on the surface, but look a little deeper and my photographs seethe with discontent. The dead industrial atmosphere. On a simply aesthetic note, I like sparse design and art ... so those values carry over to the composition of my photos. Less is more.
MICHAEL: Yes, I do see the discontent. Discontent seems to be 'in' all over the world. And so, do you see your work as art or documentary? Surely you do other work. Otherwise, wouldn't it be depressing?
AL: I think people have a right to be unhappy with the system. For once, I think the discontent all synchronized somewhat, from the Occupy movement to the Arab spring. It's certainly going to be interesting watching art that comes out of the next decade that is informed (in whatever way) by this. I don't really think too heavily about whether my work is 'art' or 'documentary'. It's both and neither. All art documents something. It's straightforward, conceptually and aesthetically, enough that it could be considered documentary photography in the traditional sense of the word. I exhibit in art galleries and have a fine art degree so there's a minimalism to my work that I think appeals to the art crowd. Whatever the 'art crowd' may be. I take some commercial work, photograph some live music and do the occasional bit of retouching or design work. I've been working on a series of projects recently, but they are too uninformed currently to show or to talk about. It all keeps my eye and brain sharp. The people of the north are noted for having quite a wry, cynical, sense of humour. I think that's what stops it all from being depressing. That, and the fact the landscape of the north is truly beautiful. Dark Satanic mills, as William Blake once mentioned.
MICHAEL: Many if not most Americans don't understand contemporary art and are even somewhat suspicious of it for whatever reason. How would you say folks in the UK see contemporary art?
AL: I think the general British public is relatively open to contemporary art. Lots of public sculpture has been warmly received in this country - Antony Gormley being probably the highest profile sculptor in the country. Many of his public sculptures are regarded as part of the local landscape. There's still a healthy skepticism about heavily conceptual work especially installation pieces. Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst are British shorthand for "art for art’s sake.” The fact that these people are household names shows the British public is at least open to experience their work. The past decade has also seen a lot of very accessible art galleries and museums built. And the public flocks to them in huge numbers. The Turner Art Prize is the most notable exhibition and it gets broad media coverage every year which certainly helps. I work in a more recognizable form than some artists - I'm ostensibly a landscape photographer, but I've had people who don't give much thought to contemporary art engage with my photographs and discuss their thoughts on them (positive and negative) without being dismissive. People look for a common language in the work.
MICHAEL: I think you've just hit on the function of contemporary art; helping us all find common language. Yet you're an artist and not just some “Joe Shmoe,” who merely takes photos of nature to show friends and family. At what point does photography become true art?
AL: I don't think my photographs are any more or less valid that Joe Shmoe's. He's possibly easier to Google! In all seriousness though, I think the intention behind the work helps. A photographic record of one's kids aren't meant to convey any hidden truth, they're just a set of photos of the kids to remember them by. The element of the 'third photo' - the bits you can't see in series between the ones you can - possibly comes into play. Also, every part of my photograph is planned and carefully composed. It's showing my truth, not the truth. Much is intentionally omitted.
MICHAEL: How do you determine whether to use color or black and white?
AL: I prefer colour photography. Subtle, nuanced colour makes up the majority of my work. The only time I really use black and white is if I'm shooting square format, there's something that gets me about square-format black and white photographs.
MICHAEL: Tell me about our blog, Shouting to Communicate. I don't see much of your work on it, but I see other photographers displayed.
AL: Shouting To Communicate started four years ago. I'm quite apprehensive about showing anything from a project I'm working on until the bulk of the project is where I want it to be. So I was aware that I would appear to be mute for long periods of time. Having a blog seemed somewhere that I could show what I like, what's inspiring me and just simply show I am still alive. The vague idea was it would be 25% my work and 75% other stuff. It isn't a ratio I try to stick to religiously, it's just whatever is on my mind. My influences are from a variety of sources - be it musical, painting, photography, design - so I suppose my blog is equally disparate in what it shows. I'm quite pleased that I've managed to keep updating it for four years!
MICHAEL: Are you a full-time artist? How do you support yourself ... Especially in this economy where people don't consider art so important?
AL: Sadly, art doesn't provide a full-time income. I take commercial photography work and various non-creative part-time jobs. Hopefully within the next few years, I'll be able to just about support myself completely through my work. I think my current situation is typical of many artists of my age. The balancing of a job, creating art and having an actual life has certainly made me manage my time much better and use my time more productively.
MICHAEL: I think your situation is typical of most artists. You still have time to go to law school, med school or get your MBA. Why not just screw this art thing and go for the money?
AL: I think your question really cuts to the heart of why I photograph. I'd do this even if there were no money involved. Gerhard Richter talks about "the daily practice of painting.” I think photography is a genuine impulse of mine, rather than something I have to consciously decide to do. I continually think about my work, I look at the world as I'd see it through my viewfinder. So in a way, I'm working even when I'm not making work. This is what I do. I'd be half-hearted if I worked towards something else. The world doesn't need someone putting the bare minimum of effort in - especially when I put so much effort and care into what I do currently. The money is not really important to me.
MICHAEL: Thanks Al, this has been great.
Check out Al’s website at www.alpalmer.co.uk