photographer grace pickering talks patti smith, identity politics, and her first solo show
Ahead of opening her first exhibition, 'Whisky Hour,' in L.A. this week, we speak with one of our favorite ex-pats about California sunshine and shooting strong women.
British photographer Grace Pickering has spent her entire career standing apart from the crowd. The daughter of a painter and musician, Grace was brought up on a diet of Egon Schiele and acid house. At the age of seven, her family moved from Manchester to North London, where her thick northern accent made her stick out from the rest. Nearly a decade later, she's moved again, this time to the sunny climes of L.A. But it's not just about where she's from that makes her different; it's where she's going.
Grace has the kind of magnetism that attracts people from all walks of life. It is this alluring quality that she looks for in her subjects. Honing her craft both inside the classroom and out (she'd often shoot her friends in their own intimate environments), Grace is steadily carving out a reputation for herself on both sides of the pond. Honest, raw, and bathed in that quintessential golden sunlight that's so synonymous with L.A., her portraits capture something unique about their subjects. Ahead of her first solo show, Whiskey Hour, we talk to Grace about identity politics, strong women, and what it takes to make it in the creative industries.
How has your background affected your identity as an artist?
I think being British, we are famous for having a very dry and often dark sense of humor, which is present when formulating ideas for images I want to take. Moving to America, it's been interesting finding the ways to capture people in an environment that is really quite foreign to me still. You sort of have an idea of who the subject is by their aesthetic and then place them in a setting that feels comfortable to look at them in. Painting that picture often requires being able to feel at ease delving into darker places and finding comedy in it. It's always a funny thing moving to a country where you speak the same language because the culture is undoubtedly different.
What is it about the photography that appeals to you most?
I love music but was never a great musician, and I used to be a quite good painter but I always felt more able to express how I was feeling through photography. It's this sort of unmistakable medium I find to be quite stark and brave. Initially when I began taking photographs it was mostly about capturing memories. Photographs are sort of like time travel; they can teleport you to a very complex and particular emotion, which is an important thing.
Do you need a degree to make it in the creative industries?
I have a BA in photography from Middlesex University, and don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful for that. It was wonderful to have access to facilities, different cameras, and an endless amount of film to test out ideas and experiment with. I'm sure there are a lot of technical camera skills I learned there as well. But that being said: no, I absolutely do not think you need a degree in order to be successful in the creative industries. I remember having friends model for projects of mine; we'd have so much fun dressing each other up and making these hand-printed portraits of teenage girls in their true environments. I think youth have always lead the way in fashion and culture then the industries follow suit. You've got to stick to your guns, really. It's more important than a certificate.
Who or what inspires you?
Strong accomplished women inspire me, people who find a way to survive in society doing exactly what it is in life that brings them joy. Patti Smith, Nan Goldin, and Simone De Beauvoir.
What do you hope to convey with your work?
In a way I'd like to think I tell a short story in my work about who this person is, where they are, and how that makes an impact on their life. The photos I take are very dependent on who I'm shooting, and I think my relationship with the subject often changes the vibe of the image, too. For this show in particular I shot everyone with the same natural light, same film, same camera. So it was really more about me and that person in the moment having a conversation with one another through the lens, and their relationships with themselves in a reflective second.
How do you keep creatively fresh?
I think it's important to just keep that side of your mind stimulated. When I don't feel like taking photos, I like to write poems and stories and draw. It's not always about being great at each medium, it's just good to do things for the sake of enjoyment sometimes, which is hard to forget when you do your creative craft for a living.
Who would you most like to shoot?
I'd love to shoot Patti Smith; I have been in love with her since I was 13. It sounds so cheesy but she truly taught me so much about life and the person that I am through her music. I still to this day pour over old photographs of her in my bedroom listening to Horses. As a child I always felt like such a weirdo, seeing her play made me feel included in something and I can't imagine how an artist could ever touch me in that same way.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming show?
Whiskey Hour is a collection of 12 portraits taken in Southern California this past year, of a variety of its inhabitants. I tried to shoot everyone in an environment that felt most natural around them, allowing them to show me a side of themselves they'd like captured.
The title refers to the golden hour — that time of day when the sun is at its lowest, right before it sets, creating a beautiful golden glow. When it hits you at the right angle it creates this sort of whiskey-colored gleam, which is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. For me that is the most exciting feeling, being with a small group of people, or just one other person, and seeing that moment when the glow begins.
What else are you working on at the moment?
The portraits featured in Whiskey Hour are actually part of a much larger project called Locals — people photographed in the environments where they were born and continue to live all over the world, which I would eventually like to make into a book.
What are your hopes for 2017?
That the world doesn't end, and marginalized members of society are given a real voice that the world is forced to listen to and understand.
Whiskey Hour opens Friday, January 13 at the Junior High Gallery, L.A.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Grace Pickering