Simon Edward Johns: Interview

This exhibition runs from Saturday, 2nd May – Friday, 16 May

SIMON

Simon Edward Johns is a photographer giving a lingering look to the ephemeral, capturing with gentle precision the spirit of a moment. Below, I speak to him about his work, his past and his inspirations. (To read the exhibition review, go here.)

How long have you been a photographer?
Since I can remember. When I was little, I went on holiday with my parents, and my dad bought me a Vivitar camera. That was my first camera, so I suppose you can say “Were you a photographer when you first started using a camera?” or “Were you a photographer when you first had a camera of your own?” If that’s the case, I was four or five. When I was growing up, my dad had a darkroom in the house, so I knew about it from a young age.

Your dad is a photographer as well?
Yeah, but a different kind. He doesn’t really do it now, but he had a very involved set-up. I was about six when I was going into the dark room. The first time I saw a completely white piece of paper turn into a photograph, it was magic – absolute magic.

Did your dad influence you a lot?
Possibly. Not really. I think I just sort of came across that on my own, although to say it was all on my own would be arrogant. All the people you know in your life that you’ve ever spoken to influence you. I’ve met lots of really nice people. The main influences have been the musicians I’ve photographed – not because I had to do it, but out of passion. I had to represent the band properly.

Do you play an instrument yourself?
I try. I do love music. I love singing – not in everyone’s company, because I’m not very good at it, but I do play the guitar – but not very well. I wish I could play music, and I think one of the reasons I spend a lot of time trying to capture the energy of musicians with my camera is partly, at least, due to an envy about their art. I take pictures of it, and I’ve got the vision, but that’s not as good as producing this vibe, you know?

Do you really think that?
Well, I think I’ve recognised something and, luckily, we’ve been born in the right era for it. We’ve got the right technology to quickly share a moment we’ve witnessed, appreciated. Photography is a unique perspective of beauty, yes – and I think that’s just something you have. It’s an example of the way you’ve seen reality.

On your poster [above], you mentioned something about seeing reality in a different way?
Ah, yes! The funny thing about that sentence is that I threw it in for fun. I made it up just to see what the poster would like with text on it, and then I thought, “I need to put a version of the poster on Facebook,” and then I thought, “To hell with it, I’ll use it for fun.”

You’ve got another quote on there as well, about our desire to identify with rock ‘n’ roll?
Yes – ‘Our very desire to identify with the ephemera of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle reveals our underlying innocence.’ I just realised last night more the meaning of it, too. Me and my friend Don made it up in conversation about two years ago, before I did these pictures. It was sort of like an exhibition, but I just put the photos up on the wall in The Revelry.

Ah, The Revelry!
Did you go to see The Big V?

I didn’t, but people kept telling me to.
You should have done, because it’s all over now! But it’s okay, because you can look at the pictures. No, seriously, it’s like when you look at someone’s holiday pictures – it’s almost like being there. It transcends linear time perspective. I think that answers the question about photography – that’s the quality of it.

Do you title your work?
No, I don’t – I don’t know if it’s pretentious to say the image speaks for itself, but I believe that. I do like words. I really like words, in fact – I do a lot of writing. But I don’t have titles for the pictures.

Do you think titles would restrict your pictures?
People might read titles and not perceive them in the way you intended, or make connotations that you could never account for, because you don’t know what their life’s been like. Having a title probably wouldn’t affect anyone more than the image does, and might even exclude some. I want to make it as vague as possible to invite in as many varieties of people as possible. I don’t want to make it some sort of clique by accident, where only some people can appreciate it – and again, is it arrogant to say that?

No. Maybe we put too much pressure on the word ‘artist’.
Maybe.

Does music influence your photography?
It does. When I was taking pictures of it, I really liked psychedelic rock music, like The Big V – which wasn’t necessarily psychedelic rock, but was very much like something from the 70’s. It was quite a new thing, a unique sound which was exciting, and I had to take pictures of it. That wasn’t just an influence, though – I was almost a part of it. I had a camera and I was seeing Emily’s face, and her dancing on stage, and I was doing it without knowing what I was doing.

Do you think it’s more about the process of taking the picture than the end product?
Much more. To the point where it’s almost the whole thing. The magic can all be done behind the scenes, more magic than just photographic cinema. It could be going to an alien planet and back through satellite, and we don’t even know how. Can you imagine an alien civilisation that can do the whole dark room process instantly? A one-hour photo, but like a one-second photo – and from that moment, it’s sent from your camera to a satellite, over the internet to a thing and back again, all in less than a second, and it just develops the photograph for you. We’re that evolved. We used to think the one-hour photo was a revelation – that was in our lifetime. Imagine twenty years, thirty years from now – what will we have?

Are you looking forward to it?
Yeah. We’ve been born at a really good time, I think. Take the black and white image of Emily in the exhibition – when it’s blown up, it looks ridiculously grainy, like a sort of rock-star image. I’m only risking it on one picture. I could go all-out and say “David Bowie’s my idol, I’m going to do all things grainy and like a 60’s photograph.” It’s part of my process, this mix of different things.

What did the camera you used for the exhibition bring to your work?
It’s the camera my father bought me when I was fifteen or sixteen – I took it to all these places and it got wrecked. It’s not like it was a waste of a camera, because it’s got these pictures to show for it. It lasted me a few years, and I got some good pictures from the situations which broke the camera in the end. Well, not broken – more like an old man with arthritis and bad eye-sight.

How did you pick which pictures to use in the exhibition?
It might sound pretentious to say “Oh, it just came about, I did what was available at the time,” but that’s actually true. I’ll be honest about it – some of the pictures I printed are smaller than the others because the originals are in a hard-drive somewhere in my room, and I don’t know where. That kind of factor dictated it more than my own choice, and it’s cool! I like entropy.

Why do you pick the subjects that you do? You seem very interested in human behaviour.
Thank you for realising that. Somehow, you got that. Somehow, that’s coming across in the images. I think I’m just naturally drawn to them. There’s no selection process – at least not rationally. I find myself making friends with people who have something about them to be photographed, and all the pictures in the exhibition come from completely unplanned moments. They’re definitely the best pictures. The universe accidentally comes about that way. It’s out of your control – and that’s the beauty of it.

Keep up with Simon’s work here.

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