SELF-RELIANT / PHOTOPOEMS / SLOWLY / EMOTIONALIST / EXPLORE
Theo is a 3rd Year Fine Art Photography student studying at GSA. In this In-studio interview, he shares with us his photopoems; reflecting on documentation, the symbolism of Christianity and his role as an 'emotionalist’.
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you're based.
I’m a bit all over the place! Literally and figuratively. I was born in Egypt to American
parents, and then grew up on the east coast of Scotland. My parents moved around Scotland a lot when I was younger, so I don’t have a hometown, which was a big issue for me growing up, but in hindsight it’s the perfect upbringing for a photographer.
Despite growing up in and around rural Fife, I’m a Yankee through and through. I’m committed to pragmatism, freedom, local civic duty, and nature. That attitude really comes from my mother, who home-schooled me, and always taught me to be self-reliant, spiritual, an environmentalist – she’s a proper Transcendentalist, so I grew up having Thoreau read to me all the time. She gave me a copy of Thoreau’s Walden (where he recounts the year he spent living alone in the woods in a house he built himself) when I was 15, and it changed my life – in an odd way I suppose my home darkroom is dedicated to him!
What do you make & how do you make it?
I make hand-printed black and white photographs. I look at each print as an individual work
of art, so I guess the way I present my work is closer to a painter. When it comes to my
methods and materials, I’m about as traditional as you get. I take the working attitude of an
old-school documentary photographer, and apply it to poetic subjects: I call my prints
‘photopoems’, as their representative function is poetic as opposed to a photographic
documentation of ontological reality. All of my work grows out of this dialectic of
documentary/poetry. I live like a documentary photographer, I just don’t ‘document’
Right now I’m working on a body of images that utilize the visual language of Christianity.
I’ve always been fascinated with the symbolism of Christianity, but I reject the moral and
metaphysical absolutes of religion. What I’m left with is the emotional, visceral, visual. The
whole tradition revolves around a body – the crucified body of Christ – in emotional and
physical agony. But on the other hand, this ecstasy of love is also central to the crucifixion.
So the work I’m making now is fixated on the body, scarring, but also light, empathy, that
sort of thing.
What has been your biggest challenge to navigate?
Probably finishing things. I get so excited by making pictures that I leave huge amounts of my work unprinted: I think I have at least a hundred negatives that could make interesting pieces of work, but they’re just sitting in my archive, untouched. I’m also too much of a perfectionist – I can only really make one print a day, because it takes me so long! But I guess that’s not really a bad thing, and I just need to work more. I also think there’s a beauty in working slowly.
How do you think your practice sits in today's context?
This is the toughest one for me, as a photographer – because everyone uses cameras now.
This hypermodern context we live in really excludes the contextual necessity for artists like
me who work exclusively with the image. So I have to focus on other, more philosophical or
poetic subjects. I also don’t like to preface my work – I’m more interested in what the viewer thinks of it. Someone said recently that I only have one theme, and that’s emotions, which I thought was pretty accurate. If I was to contextualise my work in any way, I’d call myself an
Emotionalist Photographer and leave it at that.
What's next on your practice-agenda? Goals, projects or any upcoming shows perhaps?
I’m working on a website, so hopefully that will be finished soon. My sister is a folk singer
and we’re working on an EP together, which is exciting. Now I’ve handed in for the year I
have a lot more free time, so I really just want to keep trying ideas, and explore new methods
of making art. Other than that, I don’t have anything specific coming up in terms of
publishing or exhibiting work. I make pictures constantly, without pre-determined projects.
Photography is essentially tied to my identity, so my only real plan is to photograph.
Favourite studio food?
Coffee, cigarettes, and a simple ring donut. That’s three stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, sugar),
and it takes less than 3 minutes to consume all three.
Something interesting you have seen this week?
I’ve become obsessed with John Prine’s first album, John Prine. It’s completely melancholy,
I’ve been listening to it while I print. He’s an amazing poet, and that album is the ultimate
depression album – the “flies in the kitchen” verse from Angel From Montgomery is the most honest description of despondency I’ve ever seen. It’s political, emotional, and funny. Bob Dylan called him a sort of Proustian, midwestern existentialist, so it’s not just me. And how often do you come across existentialist country singers from Illinois?
Final words of advice for your peers?
Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Always listen, always learn, always make. Art’s a
serious business, so take it seriously!
Keep up to date on Theo's work by following him on Instagram at @theo.wilkinslang.photography & keep your eyes peeled for his new website coming soon!