Photographer Simon Weldon talks to Hatch'd about his Format 13 award and his passion for capturing overlooked industries
HM: Simon, congratulations on receiving a Format 13 Award from the curators of the Format International Photography Festival- can you tell us more about it?
SW: Thank you! The award was given to me and five other photographers at the University of Derby for work produced during our final year of study. The best bit about receiving the award was that I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of being a part of the Format 13 Festival as a result of the project I undertook. I remember walking into our gallery space and there were three people, who I was told were from Format, photographing my work. The next evening was the opening event and there was a sticker under my work saying that I had won an award, and that it would be a part of next years Format Festival. I was over the moon to say the least!
The theme of the 2013 Format Festival is 'Factory'. My Degree Show project focused on two quarries in Derbyshire and was a sort of follow up to a series I had done for a University brief the year before, where I had photographed Tunstead Quarry in Buxton from a distance at twilight. I had not been allowed access into the quarry whilst creating this work, so for my final project at University I really wanted to give it another go.
The resulting project was split into three different sections, Blast, Day and Night. The Blast section was intended to be a real eye-catcher in the show. I wanted to stand out and show people coming to the exhibition something different, not only to stand out from my peers, but also show possible clients that I was employable – the course I undertook was BA Commercial Photography, and had a focus on employability. The Day section was a series of portraits of the different sorts of people working at the quarry, and Night was a series depicting the quarry at night. I made these images into a book that accompanied the photographs on the wall. The project was really fun to make as I got to see a lot of things others wouldn’t have a chance to.
HM: How did you first get into photography?
SW: My Dad was the one who got me into photography. He has been an amateur photographer for years. I remember as a kid walking around looking through the viewfinder of his Canon AE1. For some reason, I was amazed by the way a frame works.
I never knew what I wanted to do at school- I just messed about. I didn’t take art at GCSE, I thought it too aloof for me. Whilst I was getting into trouble at school, my head of year took time out to talk to me and pinpoint something that really engaged me. Photography eventually became that thing. I spent a year after school not really doing much apart from making sure I got a decent grade in Maths, and working part time at Morrisons. During this time I came to the realisation that no one was going to hand me a decent life on a plate. I decided to start taking Photography seriously, and enrolled at Batley School of Art & Design studying BTEC Photography.
HM: Are there any particular photographers or artists who influence your work?
SW: I’ve been told that my style of work comes across as really traditional. I really like the photo montages of Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield. I love the experimentation of Man Ray. Who can forget the future thinking of Alexander Rodchenko? In college I was first introduced to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who I don't need to say any more on, but this also opened the doors up for me to be influenced by other photographers following a similar theme. Bill Brandt's dark, high contrast moody photographs of places I used to go as a kid, like Halifax - and then his portraits of nudes! I went through a phase of using a 17mm lens and getting up close to everything. Finnish photographer Sirkka Liisa Konttinen and her project Byker - what an amazing story!
Throughout university I was heavily influenced by photographers Arnold Newman and Irving Penn, who are absolute masters in their field of work.
Finally, and probably my favourite photographer, is Francesca Woodman. Her photographs are so playful, and to me show a sense of innocence, yet they are brutally honest. Whenever I look at the photographs I’m reminded of her tragic story.
HM: What are your preferred tools of the trade?
SW: I don’t really give much thought to tools of the trade, yet I should probably think about it more. I don’t like the idea of getting bogged down with what tools to use. What I think of is, what tools fit the job best. If it works and makes sense, then use it. I’m pretty skint at the moment, so I’m using all the old film equipment I have at hand. I have my own darkroom too, so it makes sense for me to use it whenever I can. I’ve always held the belief that film makes you plan more in advance partly because it forces you to slow down. I think it encourages creativity more. Don't get me wrong though, I’m all for embracing new technology!
HM: Your new project Small Trades Revisited sounds interesting- what made you want to revisit the Irving Penn series which influenced this body of work? And how is your new project different from that original series? Who have you photographed so far for the project?
SW: In all honesty, I started out with the project just looking for something to keep me going creatively, I cant stand not moving forward creatively, and I was getting sick of seeing my Quarry work!
I'm working with the equipment I have at hand, that being a Bronica ETRS and natural light. I wanted to start something that I could use this equipment for, and for the equipment to fit the subject.
Originally I wanted to do a project on young apprentices who are overshadowed by the University system, focusing on a number of dying trades, but I decided that would have to wait as I think this would look better using digital equipment and flash.
Irving Penn's Small Trades has been a project I have always referenced and admired over my five years of study in photography. The images were created between 1950 and 1951 and illustrate the trades of the day - many of which no longer exist. This body of work specifically documents (in retrospect) the way in which industry, the workplace, and society has immensely changed in the western world in little over 60 years.
Through revisiting Irving Penn’s seminal work, and thorough research into it, I intend to recreate similar composition, lighting conditions and character to Penn’s photographs. My own artistic approach will be to find as many trades that are still left and photographing the people involved in them. The resulting images will become a study and contemplation of what has changed, and what has stayed the same. What makes my project different to Penn's is that I will be photographing individuals who are involved in modern 21st Century trades. Initial ideas have involved employees in varied roles, from computer based creative industries to tanning salons. This will be extensively explored.
Most importantly to me, and my burgeoning interest in industries of all types, is that this project allows me to really learn about what has changed. I may be really surprised about what still exists. Hopefully this project will be a fitting modern response to Penn's work.
I have just recently started this project, and so far I have only completed some lighting tests and compositions. However, I’ve had two of my friends agree to pose for the images. One is an unemployed plumber and the other is an illustrator who doing really well for himself after a year being out of university.
HM: I see from your past work that you've photographed quarries, mills, factories etc. What is it that draws you to the subject of industry?
SW: I have always been interested in the visuals, and history of industry in this country. Living and growing up in the post-industrial city of Leeds, I have always felt connected with the regions’ past. Everyone of my parents’ age and older had worked in some sort of manual trade. Now that all these industries had disappeared, I found it strange that I had no experience of this way of life myself. When I started photography at Batley School of Art in 2007, I learnt that Batley and its close neighbour Dewsbury used to be a large centre of the wool trade. Evidence of this trade lined the rail journey I took to college everyday. Throughout my study here I became increasingly aware of how much of my work was concentrating on the landscape around me. This is how I came to focus my work on ‘industry’ as a reoccurring theme throughout university – it gave me an excuse to explore industry in a way that I am not personally connected to, but that my family’s and region’s history is.
Additionally to this, a few years back I became heavily involved in Socialism at the start of the recession. Although I do not align myself with something so radical now, the ideas still intrigue me. The heroic nature of the manual worker still persists within my creative works.
HM: Tell us about the Brian Griffin Commission and your involvement with it.
SW: I got involved with the commission through Derby University during the opening night of the Degree Show when one of my tutors asked me if I'd be interested in assisting, and of course I said yes!
The Brian Griffin Commission is a project commissioned by Format Festival (of which Brian Griffin is a patron). I’m afraid I can’t release any details of the commission to you as I’ve been sworn to secrecy! It was a great experience working with Brian, and seeing how he works. I’d had a review with him about the ideas behind my Degree Show project after a talk I attended by him. This talk probably helped me secure the Format Award as he gave some great feedback, and he was really enthusiastic about my ideas.
HM: What's next for you now that you've finished your degree?
SW: I’m currently working in a bar to get by, but I really want to start making some real money out of what I enjoy doing. Its early days yet, and I’m sure by this time next year everything will have changed. I’m always looking for assistant work. So if anyone needs someone and you’re reading this - contact me!
You can find out more about Simon and his work on his website.