The work of London-based photographer Steph Wilson is reaching an ever-growing audience. Her ability to balance and integrate oxymoronic concepts – seriousness and humour, serendipity and design – makes the work she produces feel sardonically straightforward, yet complex. Ever poised between this and that, her images hint that any fixed meaning gleaned from them could, and will, unravel if probed too deeply. Here we discuss the power of images and those who take them, ponder the theatricality of the everyday life, and are reminded of the inherent weirdness of fashion.
It’s been suggested that you play with imagery and the concept of the body-as-subject in a very political way, especially in your Emoji series. Can you tell us a little more about this? Are images of the body always politicised, and should they be?
I think whether or not the body is politicised depends on the interpretation of the person viewing it. To me, a body is a body. It's a beautiful if not completely normal thing, which we all use as a machine. I often tire of my body's constant upkeep: pissing and eating, shitting and watering... yawn. Whereas to a person from a different generation or from a different culture, a naked body is an emblem of taboo. I guess I like the flexibility of its interpretation. I also just like tits.
In much of your work, parts of other people's bodies enter the frame and interact with the main subject in unexpected ways. Does photography allow you to explore different modes of interaction, and perhaps portray difficult concepts in a more immediate, visceral way?
I think photography can allow the exploration of a subject to a certain extent, but when compared to my other practice of painting, it's actually fairly limiting. We recognise objects and people in a photograph pretty immediately, and in this we find familiarity. People like to understand shit, so most tend to prefer photography as a medium compared to painting (especially abstract painting). With abstract art, it’s all about interpretation: finding emotion and meaning within a puzzle of new, deformed and unrecognisable shapes and shades. So, compared to painting, photography for me is actually quite safe. It is, perhaps, quicker to portray a message within photography, but painting allows for that message to become far more transcendent.
Is it more important to find some form of beauty in the mundane, or to highlight the mundanity of beauty itself?
If you mean beauty as a social construct, engineered by capitalism, then there is definitely mundanity in that. Beauty in its truest form, by default, can't be mundane. Saying that, I think I do tend to lean towards finding beauty in the mundane. I think most photographers seek to do that, as it's seeing the unseen and bringing attention to what most people pass by that we enjoy. It’s nothing new: finding beauty in ugliness, or humour in the darker parts of humanity. It'll never dry up as a creative source; there will always be a plastic bag caught in the wind that causes a photographer to have an American Beauty moment. There are probably eight dudes with a camera totally transfixed by a Lidl bag as I type.
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You’ve spoken previously about the male gaze in fashion and your cynicism in the face of its prevalence. Do you try to make your presence felt within your images as a female gaze and voice, and how do you react against the concept of female subject as ‘silent muse’?
I like being present in my images sometimes. The fact that I am of a similar age and the same sex as the models I shoot is also a positive thing for me. I think it’s nice to remind people of that important element of empathy by using my shadow, or a toe creeping into frame. The taker of an image can dictate how it’s viewed by an audience. Knowing a photographer is a sex offender or simply a straight cis male can totally alter the perception of a sixteen-year-old girl's portrait. Whereas if that same image was shot by a woman, or perhaps a friend, that uncomfortable intimacy becomes innocent and real. There can still be sexuality to it, but knowing the subject is comfortable and in a non-compromising position gives it a sexiness I can feel good about. Her comfort and confidence is so much sexier to me.
Following from this, how does fashion as a culture and concept feature in your work?
Fashion is so weird. Everyone is such a freak in fashion and, albeit full of contradictions and faults, it's a world I enjoy exploring. The platform it gives my work is ideal. To put it bluntly, fashion photography allows me to make a career out of shooting shit with a degree of artistry and politics on a consumable level. I'd feel I was preaching to the converted if I just shot fine art photography for obscure art galleries, and in the interim complained about working three bar jobs to pay the rent.
Do you have a favourite thing to photograph?
Tomato, my parrot.
“If you mean beauty as a social construct, engineered by capitalism, then there is definitely mundanity in that. Beauty in its truest form, by default, can't be mundane.”
Gesture and props also seem to be an important feature of the work you produce, giving a strong sense of theatricality. Are you interested in theatre? What makes you create carefully composed images that could be taken as moments from a dreamlike performance?
I've never really thought of it like that. I guess if you consider theatre as everyday life (meaning ‘all the world's a stage’), then yes. I like to imagine that what is going on in front of the camera would be happening regardless of my presence. The aim usually is to create something as ‘uncomposedly composed’ as possible. I'm a bit fed up with morosely static fashion shots of bent over girls looking down the camera lens.
What or who currently inspires you most?
I am very into Chris Killip and Nick Waplington at the moment. Their by-chance compositions and the real life moments in their images is something I'd like to reinterpret and use in my work. People stepping out of frame as if bored with the image entirely and anti-photography rule breaking makes me very happy.
Finally, for you, what is the most important thing about creating art?
Getting to know yourself by interpreting what's around you.
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