Interview by Mark Tamer
Sid White-Jones is a photographic artist who graduated in 2018. We caught up with him to see how he’s faring post-graduation, and what he's been up to during the pandemic.
Pre-interview warning; your love for photography may greatly increase after reading.
You graduated from the Norwich University of Arts recently. How was your student experience and what did the course give you?
Norwich is a wonderful city and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking at university options. It’s fairly small, so you can really get to know it well in the three years or so that you are studying. I would also suggest checking out NUA as they are an art-only university, so the staff and students are all creatively minded, which is a huge plus.
The BA (Hons) Photography course provided me with access to industry-standard equipment, a library full of creative resources, weekly workshops, group feedback sessions and guest lectures. Of course, all of these resources were a great benefit but, in the end, it was my first-year tutor Juneko that shaped my university experience the most. Her love for photography and her knowledge of the medium is unparalleled and she taught me how to truly analyse a photograph. It might sound incredibly simple, but it’s the one skill that totally changed my perspective on photography. Previously, I would have been happy as long as my photographs were visually appealing, but this is something that absolutely changed for me during my first year.
Our class was scheduled to take part in weekly sessions where we were shown a selection of different photographers, projects, exhibitions and books before being asked to think about how each of these might influence the projects we were working on at the time. I will never forget the day that I was shown Lee Friedlander’s Route 9W, New York. Whilst I’m rather embarrassed to admit it now, I remember thinking that the photograph was bland and rather amateurish for someone so well-known.
Instead of reeling off details about Friedlander’s career and personal life, my tutor chose to share with us why she personally liked the photograph and the different elements that helped to form her final decision on the image. As I listened to her rationale, I realised that a good photograph is about far much more than immediate visual appeal. It’s unfair to just look at a photograph and make a snap judgment on it. You have to spend time with it. Dissect it. You have to consider the intention the artist had whilst creating it, the cultural impact it had at the time as well as any that it may still have in the present.
There’s actually a section in David Campany’s recent book 'On Photographs' which I believe demonstrates this point perfectly. Campany uses the image Peter Exline, Spokane Washington to illustrate why Friedlander’s seemingly amateur façade is actually a very carefully orchestrated operation and not just a simple case of naivety. It’s easy to forget but at the end of the day, the photograph is an object just like anything else. Upon visiting the Rosetta Stone for the first time no one’s initial response is that “it’s ugly”, as we don’t typically assess the worth of a historical object on its appearance. So, I try to think in the same way about photographs.
Route 9W, New York 1969 © 2021 Lee Friedlander
You are currently part of the Babylon Young Curators programme at Babylon Arts, can you tell us how this came about and what you’ve been working on?
I initially came across the opportunity online via Instagram in September. Babylon ARTS (link below) were advertising for two creatives between the age of 16-25 to join the Babylon Young Curators programme, which offered those involved the opportunity to produce a new creative project for the Babylon Gallery in Ely. I had been looking at getting some form of curatorial experience since graduating and had been regularly volunteering at both Kettles Yard and The Motion Sickness Project Space at the beginning of the year. These roles were unfortunately put on hold in March, due to the pandemic, so it’s fair to say that I was rather excited to see the Babylon Young Curators programme going ahead. I applied with a statement of interest which detailed my reasons for applying, my personal artistic interests and the project that I would like to produce should I be awarded a place on the programme. Shortly after applying, I was invited for an online interview with the Babylon ARTS team, where I discussed my proposed project in greater detail.
At the time, I knew only that I wanted to bring together contemporary art and local history by sourcing a piece of archival material that artists and creative practitioners could produce work in response to. Much to my excitement, my proposal was successful and in September I began working with the team to make it a reality. Fast-forward a few months and we now have the artists Amber Lawrence, Eleanor Wood, Mari French, Mark Tamer and Simon Nunn each working on a new commission for No Frost at Night, a contemporary art exhibition inspired by the 1963 weather diary of lifelong Soham resident, Betty Mann.
It has been such a rewarding process thus far and I’m so grateful to Babylon ARTS for providing me with the opportunity to make the exhibition possible, especially given the current climate where opportunities seem so few and far between. Of course, there’s still a lot more work to be done and now that the artists are busy working on their respective pieces, I’m spending my time researching Soham and The Fens in the 1960s. Visitors to the exhibition can expect to see the history of this Cambridgeshire village reflected not only within the final artworks but also within a range of original photographs, articles, and ephemera that will be on display within 'No Frost at Night' when the exhibition opens on the 17th May.
Your photography concerns many themes, including memory, transience, visual perception and also shows the tension that photography can create in its presentation. Can you expand more on what your interests are and what you might be working on next?
At present, one of my biggest interests is found-photographs. I particularly enjoy working with older photographs that have previously gone unnoticed and giving them a new context through the use of contemporary interventions that wouldn’t have been possible at the time they were photographed. My recent project Residues is a great example of this, having been created from a collection of negatives that I came across in a skip. I worked on top of these images using various chemical manipulations and photomontage techniques before exhibiting them last March as part of The Cambridge Wide Open. It was really wonderful to be able to share these images with a new audience and I hope that the original owner would have been pleased to see them still being enjoyed all this time later, even in their rather contemporary state.
This particular interest actually carries over into what I am working on next, which is a publishing project that will bring together writers and found-photography collectors. Should all go well with my project grant, I will work closely with one collector per-issue to select a number of photographs that will inspire the imaginations of various authors, who will then each produce a new piece of writing in response to one of the selected images. I think found-photographs will be a wonderful prompt for writers as they often have no identifiable creator and don’t come with any accompanying images, so require a lot from the viewer’s imagination to piece together what’s depicted. I hope that the project provides a new space where the ‘stories’ of found-photographs can be studied and explored through text; fiction, non-fiction and everything in-between.
© Sid White-Jones - ‘Residues’ (2020) Installation view
How have you found the whole Covid/Lockdown experience?
On a personal level, I’ve had a very subdued year; one that I would be perfectly happy to never repeat. It’s been nice to get outside more and watch the seasons pass but I wouldn’t say that’s made up for missing out on seeing friends and family. Creatively though, it couldn’t have been more of a contrast. I did initially struggle with cancellations back in March, but since then I’ve been really lucky to find local opportunities to keep myself busy. I think that one of the real positives to come from the last year is that creative events have become far more accessible because they are now widely available online. Before the pandemic, I always missed out on things like workshops and artists talks because of their location, so it’s great that this alternative is now available. I think I’ve attended more talks in the past year than I ever have before, so I would love to see this continue in the future.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for artists in the near future?
I think artists are going to find it increasingly hard to get exposure for their work in-person, particularly those that are emerging or early-career. The cost of renting space is now so extortionate that it’s hard to justify taking the risk of putting on an event. If an artist is working with, say, an unusual display size or with a particularly intricate practice or medium, then it is vital for them to have their work viewed in person, as these more minute details can often be lost in translation when viewed online. For example, I had never understood the hype around the paintings of Agnes Martin until I came across a selection of them by chance at The Guggenheim. After seeing these works in person, I became totally intrigued by her practice and suddenly many things that I had read about her in the past made total sense.
Once the pandemic has passed, I really hope that we will see more local authorities and landlords offering up their unused spaces to artistic initiatives, as they can be of such great benefit to the local community. The Motion Sickness Project Space in Cambridge is a great example of what can come from a partnership such as this. About every six months or so, they take up residence in a new (and unused) space within the Lion Yard Shopping Centre and provide a range of exhibitions, events and opportunities for the community. The physical presence of the project space within the city has really revived the younger artistic community within the city and has provided many emerging artists (myself included) with the opportunity to share their work with the public at no cost. Ellie, Denise and Ary, the team behind the project space, are always recommending that people reach out to their local authorities to see if there are any opportunities available in relation to unused spaces; so hopefully, once the dust has settled, we will continue to see far more artist-led spaces pop up around the country.
Finally, what is the one thing that you wished you knew when you started out?
I wish I had been made aware of more places that I could discover photographers, particularly those that are working today. I would have really benefited from knowing about websites like Phases Magazine, Photoworks and Shutter Hub; or from having access to books such as 'The Photography Book' by Ian Jeffrey, 'Why it does not have to be in Focus' by Jackie Higgins, and any of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art series. There are also a lot of magazines out there like Aesthetica, Uncertain States and Foam Magazine, which all feature the work of present-day photographers.
I have found that bookshops tend to have a far better selection of magazines that newsagents do these days, so would try looking there. I also massively recommend the bookshop Artwords and if you’re ever in London then I would definitely make time to check out their Shoreditch store. They have an incredible selection of unusual magazines, as well as tons of wonderful photo-books and reference books. I could spend hours in there…
Thank you Sid for taking the time to talk with us.
re-IMAgining the art world
Find Out More:
Babylon Arts - website
There hasn't been a shake-up to every industry quite like the pandemic. The arts; from education to practice has been greatly affected. Often the first thought might go to those who are in arts education right now - not having access to studios, or in person teaching and critiques. The next might then go to those graduating without a degree show (a cornerstone of an institutional arts education). But with galleries closed, residencies on pause, pop-ups and fair's not yet starting up, the next thought goes to those who graduated a few years before the pandemic hit. The group who often use those initial few years to start their career, and rely on public arts activity to get their work seen.
The Interview may give a bittersweet reminder of what is being lost in these times, but ultimately it is also a reminder of the resilience of the the arts. And of the positive aspects to come out of the pandemic; talks and events are much more accessible because they have moved online! Whilst we are all still figuring it out, it's nice to know that whilst the world may be on pause, creativity doesn't really ever take a break.