Cape Town-based photographer, filmmaker and die-hard analog photography supporter, Gordon Clark, recently sat down with us to discuss his reasons for still working within the confines of our favourite art form, analog photography. Gordon’s latest exhibition, The Outcome Of Turner Adams, will be opening tomorrow at Commune1 in Wale Street.
One of the first points Gordon made is that film is a craft. If you know your craft then you feel secure within what you are doing and you’re confident with your media. This means you don’t need to shoot a polaroid first or test in any other way before you shoot – you should be able to pick up your camera and know exactly what aperture/shutter speed combination will be perfect for the particular light you are shooting in.
Most professionals still working with film use fill-in flashes of some kind. Gordon prefers to work with natural light only, and this shows in his work. It leads us back to the origins of photography, it is all about capturing the light, and if you master the light you master the art form. We truly believe that by limiting himself within the confines of natural light, Gordon has become a master of it. That said, natural light works for Gordon’s particular subjects and shooting style, and might not work for all photographers and styles.
The more we speak to analog lovers, the more it comes back to the same thing: The process of making a picture. You have an idea in your head. You think about it and you visualise what you want before you shoot. You know what you are after. You craft it and plan it. Then you take the shot. It is simple, yet complicated at the same time.
To understand Gordon’s work and the themes that run through it, it helps to understand his background. Gordon grew up in Johannesburg, and at age of 12 he ran away from home. He ended up being arrested in Hillbrow for possession of weed and was sent to reform school in Potchefstroom for a year, where he witnessed a fellow student setting fire to a teacher! After reform school, Gordon was sent back to live with his mom until he left school at age 15, his dyslexia playing a major role in his lack of success within the school system at the time.
Gordon’s turning point came perhaps when he started working as a sweeper at a hair salon. The owner of the salon, Michael O’Rourke, was the first role model that Gordon had encountered in his short and troubled life. He used to gym, eat healthily, and didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs. This impacted on Gordon in a massive way as he realised you could be successful at life by not being destructive. Michael moved to the USA and a few years later sponsored Gordon’s green card and hired him to work at his successful salon. This is when Gordon first picked up a camera, and started shooting hairstyles for Michael.
Living in LA in the 80’s was an exciting time. Moving from South Africa’s conservative culture to the bustling hub of the film industry was massively inspiring. At the time, Gordon was influenced immensely by live music. He started shooting music videos for up-and-coming bands and also studied film. His commercial career took off when an art director noticed his work and asked him to shoot a commercial for him. Gordon’s first commercial was for Taco Bell, followed shortly by Coca Cola, AT&T and Packard-Bell. He eventually became completely immersed in the Hollywood lifestyle, even marrying a supermodel. After a while, all of this turned out to be too much for him, and he left the US to seek a more relaxed lifestyle in South Africa.
This is where Gordon met Leon Botha, who was the complete opposite of Hollywood and where his change of direction began. Gordon’s current artist statement elaborates on this:
“My self-image and intent as a photographer has shifted dramatically during the past decade; at this juncture in my personal evolution my mission is to identify those rare individuals within society who jar and challenge our deepest beliefs and aesthetic aspirations.”
His work analyses and explores people who were the same as him but did not have “that someone” to change their path and guide them in the right direction. He forms close bonds with these people and therefore the work is not about exploiting them but more about educating the viewer. He blurs the lines that exist between viewer and subject, and challenges people whilst doing so. It is not sensationalistic – there is deep meaning behind it and after spending time with him we can see that. In his own words: “I don’t give a fuck about what people say about my work, it speaks about me and it is me”.
In his latest body of work titled The Outcome of Turner Adams, Gordon explores all of these topics.
“Most recently, my focus has been to explore the life-details of Turner Adams, an alter-boy turned convict. Twenty-four years of hard prison life has cluttered every square centimetre of Turner’s skin with a rash of tattoos and hardened his glare. Turner is a perfect canvas through which I explore the weave and path of an individual’s unfortunate circumstances in a society in turmoil. Specifically, I journey the viewer back to District Six; the place of Turner’s happy childhood; posing his naked tattooed frame against the still tumbled-down ruins of his old home.
In some scenarios, he deliberately assumes a ferocious glare, locking eyes with the viewer with the objective of stoking a somewhat uncomfortable tension for the viewer in holding it. Other images are a mirroring between the taboo of the hand-scrawled jail-chop across his body, and the almost apocalyptic decay of the landscape in which he is thrust. The echo of each amplifying the power of the other intends to evoke a sense of something valuable that is deeply lost through needless neglect.”
Currently Gordon only shoots in 4×5 large format. Opting for a Sinar 4×5 with either a 90mm (35mm equivalent on 35mm format) or a 140mm (50mm on 35mm format) lens. Pictured below.
Some advice Gordon has for us:
“Don’t try write a hit song, write the music that comes out of you. It is the same with an image, you can’t shoot what people tell you to…”
Tip to film users:
“Know why are shooting it. Know your craft and understand why you are using it. It’s a process. The way you behave, the way you think, everything is influenced by it. The process of learning the craft is one of the biggest lessons for any photographer even if you shoot digitally at the end. Film makes you think!”