No other photographic discipline is more directly linked to its historical traditions – in painting and drawing – than still life photography. Not only is the camera, in its ability to accurately reproduce the object placed in front of it, an extension of the painter’s quest for verisimilitude but, unlike any other form of photography, the slow and often solitary process of composing each shot echoes the painstaking act of painting.
This sense of tradition – both in style and process – is particularly evident in the work of Joss McKinley, one of the most accomplished still life photographers working today (even if, as he makes clear, his painterly preoccupation with light is as influenced by early 20th century photography and cinema as it is by the moody ochre tones of Dutch still lifes).
Though he was born in Britain, and studied in London, when I speak to McKinley he is in his studio in New York where he has lived and worked for the past three years. Fresh from a bracing walk through the snow that descended on the city the week before, we discussed his introduction to photography, working within the long tradition of still life and the crucial differences between the genre and other forms of photography.
What was your introduction to photography?
There were always cameras around the house when I was growing up – I had a compact from the age of 7 and my Dad had an 80s SLR kicking around that I remember playing with on school trips to London, shooting pictures of my friends.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a photographer?
I studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins, but it was really a course that allowed you to experiment, it wasn’t very specific. Towards my last year I was assisting on shoots – some quite big fashion shoots, some portraits – and I really liked the environment. One of the photographers I was working for was producing very cinematic work, with sets built in his studio and chiaroscuro, film noir-inspired lighting. I loved it, and it taught me a lot, even if I don’t shoot in that style. Around the same time someone I knew was going on a photography course, so I went with them one day and it spiralled from there.
What was the first assignment after your MA in Fine Art Photography that you were proud of?
I think the first substantial shoot I did, where things got interesting for me creatively, was for Port magazine. Working with the stylist, we decided to take influence from the work of René Magritte. We didn’t reference him directly on the day but experimented with these Surrealist props and the products. Before that I mostly did portraits – I flew up to Glasgow to photograph the artist David Shrigley and spent a nice day in his studio, shooting on large format. The photograph is in the National Portrait Gallery now.
The genre of still life has a long tradition, both in painting and in photography. How much do you borrow from that tradition and how much do you innovate?
Light is the main thing. I work a lot with daylight, and play with how I can then place the object against a background or environment. It’s through light that I can really connect with paintings, purely because light is such a vital part of painting – not just in Dutch still lifes but with Caravaggio and Goya. Then, more recently, I’ve been looking to photography from the 30s and 40s, and at a lot of cinema. Strangely, despite being passionate about doing it, still life as genre doesn’t interest me so much.
What is it about still life that appeals to you as a photographer?
Well it can be really restrictive, especially when you’re working with a commercial client. Compared to the fashion shoots I’ve been on it’s a lot less free flowing, but in another sense fashion and portrait photography can be restrictive precisely because things are moving, and there are more elements that you need to worry about.
With still life you can work simply and quietly. You have to take time to make the image look how you want it to. It’s quite similar to painting in that way – it’s very meditative, especially when you’re shooting on film and you have to slow down and be more precise. There’s time to sit and breathe, and think about what you’re composing.
How do you think your style has developed over time?
Initially it was very classic, very simple – just working with daylight and large format cameras. I think it has come to mature into something more interesting; more cinematic and surreal as a result of being more experimental. I’m also opening up a lot to digital, which I had always been quite negative about, but you can now get an effect that looks quite close to film.
Will you keep working in still life, or do you have plans to move into other areas?
I do find the restrictive nature of the genre difficult, especially working in America where the market is a lot more commercial than the UK. It’s often a case of me pushing myself through a lot of things – subject matter, lighting, equipment, cameras, different effects. Now that I’m more comfortable I’m looking at experimenting more and I’ve been opening myself up to the idea of fashion. I did some test shots with models that were really successful and in a style that harked back to what I was doing before I came to America – darker, more gothic, and more where my heart is with photography.