Laurence Watts is a Photographic Artist living and working in Sydney, Australia.
You originally studied Philosophy & English. What was the pull towards moving on to completing your honours in Photography at RMIT?
I've been involved with photography since I was around 15. I was an on-and-off casual shooter up till the final year of my undergrad degree when I started to take it more seriously. I think the real turn here was in starting to think not just about 'capturing images', but making images that could express, communicate or encapsulate certain ideas. All the theory from my undergrad degree became this conceptual reference pool; I just switched harvard-referenced essays for photo sequences and series. After graduating I travelled and continued working on developing my practice. I made a few small series in this time, but really wanted to work intensively on a longer-term project. I decided to enroll at RMIT for their Honours course in 2018, where I made my first major work, Looking West.
How does having a background in the written word inform your photographic practice?
I think any artistic practice produces works as conceptual or affective expressions, formed through the formal bounds of whichever medium an artist uses. The photographer has a different set of tools to the writer, or the sculptor, or the performance artist; but they all strive in some way to speak their truth aesthetically. So in moving from the written word to photography, I think that a lot of what i'm doing, my conceptual interests or thematic concerns etc, have remained the same; the challenge has just been in developing an image-making practice that realises those ideas and feels true to me. In any case, I think my background in writing has really informed my interest in making work with a strong conceptual structure, and in particular in the form of the photobook; the physical act of flipping through a photobook shares a lot of similarities with the way one consumes and interprets written texts. This has also been a bit of a problem for me, though. I think the first few series I made after my undergrad degree drew too much on that desire in academic writing to really explain your ideas explicitly. It's taken me a while to let go of that didacticism, and to situate myself within a creative space that is much more intuitive and interpretive.
You work with medium and large format photography. What importance does film specifically hold in your practice?
I'm an overthinker. Digital photography stresses me out as I end up just constantly shooting and reviewing, and getting hung up on minor visual changes. Film has always helped me in this respect in that there is this in-built gap between making and seeing the image. Conversely, film also indulges that propensity to think alot about what I'm doing; with every frame costing money the film shooter needs to consider a lot more what goes into each image. When I was in the early stages of learning how to make photographs, the timeline of shooting, waiting while the negs got processed and then viewing them, inadvertently became this really helpful process with distinct spaces for production and critique. Almost all of the creative anxiety is still there, so I still very much rely on film to keep me sane. Also, film just looks better to be honest.
In your body of work Looking West, you explore performative masculinity in the Australian Rodeo subculture. Why did this subject matter spark your interest, and what takeaways do you have from the experience of making this work?
My experience making Looking West actually taught me a lot about what my interests are. It's weird. So often we think we know what we want to say through a creative project, but then it will just take on a life of its own and what comes out is completely different from what you expected, but is 100 times more honest to yourself and your experience of the world. I think when you get into that space, that's a sign that you're onto something.
With Looking West, I started out just wanting to explore the rodeo scene as it's a unique and visually strong subculture. I always liked documentary or fictional work that treats insular social/cultural spheres as a contained space in which to think about wider ideas and social dynamics. With the rodeo, I went out and shot a few times, not really knowing what I wanted to focus on, but pretty quickly the idea of the Cowboy, with a capital 'C', appealed to me. It's such an iconic image and laden with so many associations and connotations for gender identity. I think an interesting takeaway was that in making a work on performative masculinity, I had to put on a gender performance myself. I don't identify much with that traditional, stoic, harden-the-fuck up mode of masculinity that you encounter a lot in the rodeo, so going in there to meet people and make photographs, I found myself really having to exaggerate this masc. identity in order to ingratiate myself. I remember after one shoot I was driving home and recalled having used the word 'sheila' unironically during conversation with this bull rider, and really wondering who i'd become.
If you could give new photographers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Just go out and shoot loads. Think about what you're doing, but also don't think too much. Allow yourself to be drawn naturally to things. Make images that feel true to you. Ask yourself, "how do I see this subject?" and shoot to capture that. Look at the photos that you've made and ask yourself what worked and what didn't; try again, drawing out those formal choices that worked for you. Refer to the work of photographers you like and try to work out how their images communicate something well; go out and try that. Remember that a photograph is always an image, a representation, not the real thing. Take time away from shooting to read, watch movies and experience things not through a viewfinder. Then come back and see how you can imbue your work with your feelings, experiences and ideas. Have fun. :)