From the series 'Going Coastal'

From the series ‘Going Coastal’

How did you discover your interest in landscape and documentary work?

Photography can convey a huge array of subject matters, and it is this that attracts so many people to it as a practice to interact and analyse the world. Whilst making great images, photographers can pursue many other facets of life through the medium. Tim Hetherington was a humanitarian; Fay Godwin a conservationist; Martin Parr a sociologist. I have always been a wanderer, and very little gives me as much pleasure as exploring a new place. Photography gives me a reason to keep exploring; keep moving; keep watching.

My father handed me a 35mm camera and several rolls of film one day when I was fifteen, and I naturally followed in his footsteps, taking classically influenced landscape photographs. My hero was Ansel Adams. However, the turning point was upon learning of the 1975 exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape’, and the huge numbers of photographers it influenced. All of a sudden, classical landscapes seemed so static, so boring. What was really interesting was how we interacted with the landscape, how it influenced us, and we it. I realised that as a term, ‘landscape’ tends to be very restrictive, but is in fact hugely encompassing. Once you interpret it differently, as documenting spaces – and how we utilise them – suddenly landscape photography becomes greatly open and exciting.

Why have you chosen photography as your medium?

I never really sought out a means of artistic expression; but the act of making photographs eventually turned into a means of doing so. I rarely photograph with a specific artistic concept in mind, but rather find one forming through the act of photography.

I have flirted with other forms of artistic expression throughout my life. I was rather good with a pencil whilst at school, but didn’t have the imagination to do anything other than draw objects that were in front of me. When photography came into my life, it just fit. I enjoyed watching people and analysing the things we do, and photography gave me a more meaningful way of doing it.

From the series 'Going Coastal'

From the series ‘Going Coastal’

Why do you choose to shoot on film as opposed to digital? How does it affect the way you work?

Shooting film involves a completely different process to that of shooting digital. It’s more thoughtful, more considered. If you make a mistake with a digital camera, you tend to quickly check the results and adjust before shooting again. It makes you think less about what you’re doing. If an image doesn’t come out as you expected on film, the disappointment is a huge lesson. Others may see that as an argument for working in digital, as you can review and correct at the time. However, how do you do that in a fast-paced environment? If you were used to being able to review and correct using digital, you probably just missed the moment. But had you been working with film, having learnt from past mistakes, that moment is captured forever.

A lot of what I enjoy about working with film is the level of constraint you develop. I love exploring places with a camera, but don’t really enjoy sitting at a computer working on images. This makes me more selective about what I shoot, knowing that if I shoot more frames, it requires more time cooped up inside, sat in front of a computer. Think of everything that is happening in the world while you’re staring at Photoshop.

I shoot primarily with a Mamiya 645 camera, as it gives me the extra image quality of medium format, but with the portability of a handheld camera. The most important factor for why I shoot film is my love for this camera. It requires me to do very little – all I need is aperture priority and spot metering. The viewfinder is huge, and it very clearly tells me what I need to know – the shutter speed – and nothing else. A lot of digital cameras have tiny viewfinders, or none at all. When you make images, you are choosing what elements of the world to frame, and a good viewfinder is absolutely imperative to achieve this successfully.

Finally, whilst the cost of film isn’t exactly cheap, it is nothing compared to cost of digital cameras. There is an ideal that permeates our society, that you need to have the latest product, and the photography world is a particular slave to it. Are digital cameras that much better than older film cameras? No. So to people who are picking up photography, or looking to improve their work, don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money on the latest kit. The digital camera I had when I got my medium format would be frowned upon now, but that Mamiya is still producing amazing images, and will do for a long, long time.

From the series 'Fog'

From the series ‘Fog’

What moments do you look for when you’re shooting?

I believe that photographers have two main roles. To capture the extraordinary, but also to capture the ordinary. I tend to lean towards the latter, mainly because it’s more commonplace, but also because it tells us about people and the way we live.

I tend to look for ways in which people interact with their surroundings, and with each other. We (Brits) tend to do quite boring things, wherever we are. I doubt if it’s actually something specific to Britain, but we are very reserved, and as such don’t take advantage of our surroundings. We go to the beach, where the landscape is usually incredible, and there are so many activities we could take part in, and we usually just sit down. We actually make a lot of effort to go places so that we can sit down. I find this interesting, but it makes those occasions when people do take advantage of their surroundings more interesting also.

It’s similar with landscapes. We take so many photographs of sunsets, cliffs and mountains. I used to term the landscapes I enjoy viewing, and enjoy making, as ‘boring landscapes’, because they do away with these dramatic conventions. But now I realise it’s the sunsets that are boring, and it’s more infinitely more interesting to analyse those spaces that have previously been disregarded.

How much fiction do you think its moral to allow within documentary work?

I used to be against fiction within documentary photography, as it seems to go against the very definition of the practice. However, more recently I’ve begun to think differently about it, in terms of the story or idea the image is trying to convey. To use Jeff Wall as an example – as that’s probably the most obvious one – if you see obvious racism in the street, it’s probably not going to come across with as much clarity in a candid image as when observing it in the street. In his image, Mimic, the viewer is instantly aware of the tone of that interaction, and instantly able to reflect on what it is they’re seeing. If it better enables a photographer to illustrate an idea, particularly when it reflects the real world, then I’m all for it.

From the series 'Sheffield'

From the series ‘Sheffield’

What are some other series of work or photographers you admire?

As derided as it sometimes can be, I love Instagram for discovering new work. There’s some great photographers publishing great work on there, that I may not have discovered if it wasn’t for that service. The Irish photographer Shane Lynam is one such photographer whose work I love, and discovered through those means. Charlie Kwai’s intimate street photographs, primarily from around London, have also left an impression on me recently, particularly his series of tourists – showing that perhaps it isn’t just the British that spend our downtime doing questionably boring activities (or maybe they are doing the best they can with what Britain has to offer). Again, I probably wouldn’t know of his work if it wasn’t for Instagram.

My biggest photographic hero would undoubtedly be Martin Parr. His innate wit, and eye for those, perhaps questionable, British customs, has always struck a chord with me. Plus, he lived and photographed in the town I currently live, Hebden Bridge.

How do you think social media has changed photography?

Social media has opened up some great opportunities for practitioners to publish and promote their work to a large audience. These are services which are, for the large part, free and immensely popular. Having a website is, I think, a must for any artist who wants to be taken seriously, but people tend to use apps now rather than visiting websites, so these apps bring that content to a larger and hungrier audience.

However, consider the negative aspects of social media, and online publishing in general, that are, to a degree, hidden. Publishing online cheapens the art, in that the internet is full of images and aspiring image makers. If you purchase a photo book, you spend time really looking at the images, analysing the connection between them, and reflecting upon that. Open up Instagram on your phone and you quickly scroll through numerous images, double tapping on a few, then close it again. You’ve successfully passed a minute or two, what app to click on next? It’s great that we have this service available to us, but the fact that’s it’s made to be convenient and quick impacts on the way we view the images we see on there.

Also, some consideration must be made for the privacy policies these companies operate. To a certain extent, you lose control of your images when you submit them through these means. I can’t see this situation becoming anything but less and less in favour of the photographer, and it will become a sacrifice that to get your work out there, you have to give up your rights to those images.

There is a growing trend that in a society in which most individuals have a camera in their pocket at all times, with an inbuilt method of publication, and a large international readership always reachable, that suddenly anyone can be a (published) photographer. Why pay for an expensive print, or hire a photographer, when you can so easily do it yourself?

What’s most important, with these concerns in mind, is how the photographic world reacts. There have been numerous times throughout history where technological advances were deemed to have doomed various art forms, but they adapted and prevailed. Photography itself was once dubbed to be “the end of painting”, but the resulting change in the painting world was incredible. We could be on the verge of something equally incredible within photography, as a result of these concerns.

From the series 'Scunthorpe'

From the series ‘Scunthorpe’

Finally, what do you think the future holds for photography?

That’s a difficult one to answer, as I think there will be some big changes to how photographers work and to subject matter. But what this change will be, I’m not really sure.
I think we will see a two-fold reaction to the issue of privacy, which is being becoming more and more of an issue. There is certainly a growing negative feeling concerning street photography, in particular. It’s easy enough, mostly, to put people’s minds at rest by just speaking to them, but some photographers seem to have a quite aggressive method of practice, which is only going to make matters worse. I think this will become more commonplace, this aggressive style of street photography, as a reaction to the way photographers are, at times, treated. However, I also think other photographers will move away from shooting in intimate situations, making images from afar, or moving further towards staged situations. None of these practices are particularly new, and can be found quite regularly, but I think making images in public spaces may become more polarised – either very close, or from afar.

My worry is that the growing concern people hold over being photographed will manifest itself via a change in legislation, but luckily we have so much CCTV in this country [the UK], that it would make that quite difficult.

There are more and more photographers turning back to film, which is great. There is a growing interest in older processes too, like tin types. I think this will become more commonplace, and even more creative. As a photographer who uses film, this is great, as I do worry about how long it will be before companies cease to produce film, and with a growing market, that will be less likely. Maybe one of the big manufacturers will produce a new analogue camera; that will be a huge sign that film is here to stay, but I doubt they could justify the price tag when used cameras are so easy to come by.

See more of Jonathan’s work at:

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