Colin Dodgson's sun-kissed, spontaneous photography
As he opens his new NYC exhibition, 'Private Island', the photographer discusses his aim to make less-digestible art.
In Colin Dodgson’s new exhibition ‘Private Island,’ the eye takes a while to adjust to what it’s looking at. There are portraits. There are still lifes. There are landscapes brushed with colour. But in between these more legible subjects, stranger things appear in his photographs. Fish covered in blue tape eventually reveal themselves to be the back of a chair. A pockmarked landscape becomes, on second glance, a poorly shaven armpit. These are not visual tricks so much as experiments with line and colour, everyday moments rendered surprising when seen close-up or from an unexpected angle.
The Californian photographer has been thinking a lot recently about how digestible photography should be. Too often, he says, it’s a medium that comes complete with captions and immediate context — everything neatly explained and named. “You're showing something, you're telling someone about something… It just keeps leaning on this crutch, [this] safety of explanation,” he says. In his new exhibition, showing at 1 Oliver Street until May 28, the focus is purely visual. Like a painting, these photos aim to provoke an emotional response even if you know nothing about where they were made or what they feature.
What viewers might be able to discern is who made them. Colin’s style is immediately recognisable, even in abstraction. His photographic world is a golden one: illuminated by the yolky between-light that marks the shift of day into night or vice versa, frequently featuring saturated landscapes and sun-kissed skin. This is not to suggest that Colin takes himself too seriously. A vein of humour runs through his work too, an energetic appreciation of the unstudied gesture, the telling detail.
‘Private Island’ is his first exhibition in New York in more than a decade and is named after his studio in California. “It’s a play on words,” he explains. His London darkroom was called ‘Rapid Eye’. At first, he considered naming this studio in his home state ‘The Private Eye’ in homage. Instead, he landed on ‘Private Island’. “I get to go in and do whatever I want… I get lost in there,” he tells us. This space for privacy and deliberation is important for Colin. “As a photographer, you spend a lot of time [doing]… I guess you almost call it fieldwork. You're out, you're working with people or you're in nature,” he explains. “It's good to come back into yourself and spend time thinking about why the work is good, or if it's good. It’s another layer of editing, another step in the process.”
This push-pull between immersion and solitude is an integral part of the creative process. “I was just in Albania for i-D doing a project for five days,” he says. “Every day you wake up before dawn, you're in a car, every second of your day is totally immersed in making work. I think what's great about having that separation and that space… for yourself [after], is that you're allowed to turn off a little bit.” The final step is releasing the images into the world. “A couple of years back, I realised that if photographs don't physically exist in some way, they don't really achieve their final goal,” Colin adds. “[It’s] the ultimate culmination of the entire process, especially when it's something as rigorous as making prints in the darkroom.”
An exhibition is not the only possible destination. Alongside a steady stream of editorial work — Colin shot i-D’s Spring 2022 cover featuring Squid Game star Hoyeon — he was recently the third photographer to contribute to the annual St Moritz Souvenir series. Following in the footsteps of Torbjørn Rødland and Roe Ethridge, Colin turned his lens on the swanky Alpine resort. It’s one of the great pleasures of his job: the chance to step into a place for a condensed period of time, existing in a state of heightened attention.
He likens this to the refined concentration offered by a residency, noting that outside of work, he’s “much more inclined to just go surfing and try to have a normal life. But when I go and do these things, I pick up the camera, I really think about everything for this 10-day period.”
Alongside ‘Private Eye’, Colin also put on a second surprise exhibition last weekend. ‘Vjosa’ is the first show to be held at the new space DAKOTA, located at 110 Bowery in New York. “I don’t know why I do this to myself,” he quips when asked about the challenges of putting on two exhibitions at once. ‘Vjosa’ features 70 photos from that trip to Albania. “It’s totally unedited,” he says, pointing out that this is a departure from his usual way of working. “I was just like, ‘you know what, fuck it!’ We’ll let everyone see and feel and be immersed in that experience with a big, site-specific installation.”
Both exhibitions mark a welcome return to Colin’s old stomping ground. The photographer lived in New York for seven years in the mid-2000s, and still has great affection for the city’s artistic spirit. “During that time, I was doing little exhibitions… I actually wanted this to be like a more grown-up version of those old shows I would have [put on in] an old Bodega,” he says. “To be in Manhattan, and to be an artist, and doing all this stuff — it's just so focused and centralised. It makes it easy to talk with other artists. It's nice to be back doing that.” It’s a salient reminder. An artist might have to retreat into isolation now and then, but they need people and life and dialogue too.
“As separate as I am being in California, it's really important to have a group of peers that you think are making interesting work,” he adds. “I almost wanted to call the show ‘No Man is a Private Island’. You can do certain things by yourself, but you can't actually get to the point where it matters without having help or a community around your work.”
All images courtesy of Colin Dodgson