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THE CJ CROSLAND INTERVIEW


 

Peter Herbert introduces our Artist of the Month


"CJ CROSLAND brings to our gallery a passionate sense of photography as an eye into life. Very timely and welcome, as our gallery opened in 2003 with an exhibition titled Reflections and Light. This ushered in a strong series of photographic exhibitions, though as time unfolded other arts appeared to overtake photography and dominate exhibitions. Why this happened is a mystery and makes a strong case for how sensitive photography is and why it should be nurtured amongst art forms. CJ regularly and first exhibited in LOUDEST WHISPERS in 2016 and over the years has emerged as one of our key photographers who consistently (and with determined focus) welcomes our gallery as a supportive way to share and celebrate this growing body of work. The power of these images of street life - with links to traditions of street photography that merge genres of portraits, sociology and urban landscapes - also question how, for CJ, the camera is a tool that can tap into a personal journey involving gender identity. We asked CJ a set of questions designed to explore and reveal the secrets and influences behind this striking body of work. We did not remember to ask about the attraction for dogs and the technical secrets that result in such beautiful pristine prints, but will leave these and other canine capers as subjects for further research."

 

Self-portrait


There are notable traditions that are established in the field of street photography. Do you have any leanings towards any of these that you can tell us about?

"Since the beginning of 2017, my street photography work has been focused on my project “Fishing with Dynamite” which uses flash. The main 'founding father' in this tradition is Mark Cohen, an American photographer known for his extremely close-up flash photography. He was born in 1943 in the town of Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, where he lived and photographed for most of his life. He likes to focus on tiny details, often getting close to his subject and seeing his pictures almost as abstract compositions.

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


In complete contrast to the world of flash street photography, another of my main influences is Saul Leiter. His pictures are carefully observed, and often with a very gentle feel about them. What inspires me is the sheer beauty of the images which he created in very ordinary day-to-day settings."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


How and why did you become interested in photography?


"I’ve always been fascinated by visual art, my favourite artist being Edvard Munch, and I wanted to create images which made me feel the same intensity as his paintings. I considered learning to paint but never really had the opportunity to pursue it. When I left my job in 2009, I began dabbling in photography, inspired by Aaron Siskind (who was in turn inspired by the abstract expressionists) and by Walker Evans. Their work showed me that interesting and beautiful images can be made in very ordinary, prosaic circumstances. Then, in 2010, I discovered an online project called Street Photography Now and I became hooked; I soon realised that I was in it for the long haul. Photography, especially digital, attracts me because it is such an instant medium and I love the flexibility of that, but also because of the serendipity – there’s always an element of chance because of changing lighting conditions, people moving, for example, and also the physical limitations to what the camera or phone sensor can process."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


Tell us about a street photograph by another photographer and why it is of such importance for you

by Walker Evans


"One of the first photographs which really made an impression on me is a picture of two men in a queue for food from 1937 by Walker Evans, from the era of the Great Depression. Walker Evans was working at a time before the term 'street photography' had been coined but he is considered an influence by many street photographers. The picture is black and white, and it’s a very sparse composition, just showing their coats and their hands holding a plate and a bowl. I love it from a purely aesthetic point of view because it is such a simple but graphic composition - I love the shapes. But it also suggests a story by using a few very simple elements - you can see that there is a line of people in outdoor coats and tell that they are waiting for food. It’s a picture at close range, which makes it seem like it should be very personal but at the same time, because of the lack of faces, it’s quite anonymous and the men become symbolic of the very many people who were affected by hardship at that time. It’s a picture which is simple, carefully composed and observed and speaks volumes."


How do you handle the reaction of people and the subjective view they have of themself with the image that you capture and is there any moral legal or aesthetic concerns for you in relation to these?


"The name of my project “Fishing With Dynamite” is, in part, a reference to the popular notion that flash photography is always intrinsically brash and aggressive - that producing an image with visual punch is the same as actually punching someone in the face. Whilst I love a dramatic image, I’m interested in the subtleties of what flash can do to reveal details."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


"I hate hurting or upsetting people, so I try to read body language carefully and be sensitive with how I use the flash. It’s not that much of an extra effort, seeing as body language is one of the things I’m interested in observing and trying to capture anyway. Inevitably, I do surprise people sometimes but that’s not the purpose or point of what I’m trying to do. I hope to capture a glimpse of someone’s personality, so candidness is really important in order to show people being as natural as possible."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


"Most of all, for me, it’s about energy. People tend to pick up on energy, especially when it is positive or negative. So, when I’m making pictures, I want to project warmth and positive energy, so that, as much as possible, if people notice me they do not feel threatened by my presence. Usually a sincere compliment, not being defensive and explaining that I am making art goes a long way to diffusing most situations."


Is there any reason why your photography uses urban and cities as settings rather than the natural landscapes of wide open nature? "My philosophy for life is to squeeze every opportunity out of my circumstances, to appreciate what I have, rather than focusing on what I’m lacking. I always ask the question: “What picture can I make with what I have right now?”. So I find the idea of being able to make art anywhere very appealing, rather than having to go to an exotic or conventionally 'interesting' or beautiful location. I love people and cities are full of human life, in all its everyday banality and wonderful richness."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


On the South Bank


How has the pandemic challenged you and has this changed or impacted on your creative eye?


"For the three years prior to the pandemic “Fishing With Dynamite” was my main project and, since it involves using flash, it necessitated getting close to people. Since the pandemic getting close to people is precisely what we need to avoid, so I have put my flash aside for the moment and returned to my original style of taking a wider view and literally trying to see the bigger picture. Through the winter, due to more lockdowns and poor weather, my options have been even more limited - I have not really been in any urban environments. So my attention has turned to what I do still have access to, which is the birdlife on a nearby lake. This is not 'wildlife photography' though, but more of a study of light and form in black and white, shot on my phone. This is the complete opposite of what I had been doing previously, and I am enjoying being refreshed by the contrast."

Swanography, a study of light and form in black and white


Are there any secrets or can you shed light on how you achieve the lighting effects and colour intensity of your image?


"I’m drawn to colour, energy and extreme or beautiful lighting conditions. Using flash has provided me with a new way to create pictures expressing the intensity with which I experience the world. It’s a tool which allows me to shed light on things both metaphorically and literally; it’s a way of highlighting not only details, colours and textures but also the gestures and interactions which grab my attention. I use it as a way to point at something and say, 'Look at this!' I love the creative possibilities, the freshness and the potential for making images which are vivid, cinematic and dramatic."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


Is there any relevance as to how your gender impacts on what you see and photograph?


"I’ve always made pictures that come out of my life experiences and emotions - who I am as a person - and it’s not by chance that I started using flash at a key time in my non-binary gender transition. Making changes to my body and appearance finally allowed me to feel comfortable and confident in myself and to feel confident with being close to people - and comfortable with being seen by people. After taking control of my life by legally changing my name - and finally gaining a sense of ownership over my life, picking up a flash enabled me to take control artistically, by allowing me to go out and pro-actively make pictures in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.


Something I’m very interested in is how people express themselves through what they wear, in their expressions, body language and interactions. As I wrestled with discovering and accepting my non-binary identity, I have often thought about the question of what it means to 'pass' - in other words what it means to be perceived as a man or a woman. The concept of 'passing' bothers me because it has connotations of 'pass or fail' and 'does society think I'm good enough?' Like most people, I’m just trying to 'pass' as myself - I want to express on the outside who I am on the inside.

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'

I became aware that this question is not limited to gender expression: everyone is trying to 'pass' in life, in one way or another. It's human nature to present different faces to the world at different times and we all play roles in life to different degrees. It’s a natural part of life to present different facets of ourselves in different circumstances; sometimes this is a conscious thing but very often it’s automatic and unconscious. The awareness which I now have combines with the curiosity of my inner child and it is this that drives me to seek out people who seem to be particularly expressive in their appearance and manner. If nothing else, I'm a little in awe of people who seem to be going about ordinary life looking amazing."

From the series 'Fishing with Dynamite'


What is the worst and best story to tell us about in relation to taking a photograph that has happened to you?


"My most wonderful photography experience so far has been a trip to New York. There are so many depictions of New York on screen, in photographs and in songs that I wanted to see what it looked and felt like through my eyes and from own my personal experience. I loved the energy of the place and I would love to go back when circumstances allow. The worst experience I have had involved a guy who chased me and kicked me from behind. I could hear his heavy footsteps as he rushed up behind me. I apologised for offending him and kept walking as fast as I could. Thankfully, he gave up. I could tell that this person was not wanting to talk or listen, so getting away as fast as possible was the best solution for that situation."

CJ at Work


Can you tell us one book or film that has inspired and impacted on you the most during the last year of the pandemic?


"My favourite book from this last year is 'Sidewalk' by Frank Horvat, published in October 2020. It’s a book of street photographs of New York taken between 1979 - 1986. I love the grittiness of his subjects, combined with the aesthetic beauty of the colour tones and compositions which he achieves. Some pictures have an almost peaceful or lonely quality whilst others depict the hustle and bustle of the city. The book also includes diary entries, which shed light on Horvat’s thoughts and the significance behind the images."

Sidewalk by Frank Horvat

 

You can follow CJ Crosland at"


Facebook

Instagram

Website


You can also see photography by CJ Crosland at 2021 Loudest Whispers exhibition

2021 Loudest Whispers


CJ, thank you for being our Artist of the Month.


#cjcrosland


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