Art can transcend eras and has that timeless visual quality which I really enjoy. – says Rachel Mary Prout who is a British street and social documentary photographer.
by Madalina Dragos
The original language of this article is English. If you read it in another language, it means it is an automatic translation.
She says also that the job of a photographer is to narrate a story of people, place, time or situation and the artistic skill of the photographer lies in finding a unique perspective, learning to view the mundane in a new way and, above all, being inspired by the subject and wanting to tell its story.
I’m sharing with you thru this interview a page from her story
Which photographer has influenced you the most in your art?
Fairly predictably for a street photographer, I have to say Vivian Maier and Robert Frank. Both of them capture exactly the sort of images that I most enjoy, but from fresh and unusual perspectives.
What is the piece of art that changed your life?
There’s not one specific piece of art that transformed my life in a moment of revelation or anything like that, rather there are many works that inspired me in different ways; for example Claude Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge” made me fall in love with the idea of an old, smoky, industrial London, the music of The Doors made me want to break away from 9-5 routine and have the freedom to be more creative, Lord of the Flies (my favourite book) made me want to explore exotic locations, and so on. So my motivations are an amalgamation of all of those things.
Do you think that artists create from their own suffering?
Some artists yes. There’s definitely a connection between suffering and art, be it painting, literature, music, even comedy. I think a lot of artists channel their personal struggle into their art as a way of expressing or releasing it. I would say the opposite is true for me though; I take photos of things that I enjoy looking at and feel inspired by, so by definition my work and the process of creating it is rooted in joy.
If you could travel in time, would you go to the past or future, and why?
I’d go to the 1960s, I love everything about it: the music, the fashion…and I could photograph the political movements of the time!
Which living or dead artist would you like to be your teacher?
Diane Arbus would be a good one; she worked a lot with marginalized groups and people living on the fringe of society so she’d probably have some good advice on how to approach subjects and put them at ease.
Do you have an idol?
Amelia Earhart, I admire her courage and her drive. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for women who didn’t conform to society’s ideals but were successful nonetheless, like Frida Kahlo, Janis Joplin and Cass Elliot.
Do you want to be the muse of an artist whether if he is alive or dead?
No, I would rather be the artist!
Which living or dead artist would like to have dinner with and why?
Frida Kahlo, I think she’d be very interesting to talk to and she could give me some style advice.
When do you feel most connected with Universe?
I’ve been living in Costa Rica for the last few months, near a beautiful beach. I like to go there early in the morning when the beach is almost empty except for the monkeys in the trees, and sit on the sand looking out at the Pacific Ocean with the sound of the monkeys and the birds in the jungle behind me. That makes me feel quite calm and at one with the world.
What would be your heaven or hell look like?
Heaven would be palm trees, cocktails, mint chocolate and the smell of Thai cooking, and Hell would be full of ringing alarm clocks, pneumatic drills and car stereos blasting rap music at maximum volume.
What is it that no one or very few people know about you?
I enrolled in a Nursing degree at university but dropped out after a year.
What is something that everybody loves but you can’t stand?
Cake. It sets my teeth on edge. I get cheese on my birthday instead.
Who would play you in your bio movie, and what be its title?
I don’t mind as long as they cast Joanna Lumley as Old Rachel.
What is your life’s big question?
Should I have another square of this chocolate?
Do you have a pet?
Not of my own, but there’s a family dog called Louise who lives with my parents. I have lots of iguanas in my garden and I’ve started naming them, does that count?
If animals could talk for a day, to what animal would like to talk to?
A giant panda, to find out their thoughts on being an endangered species. Maybe they have a solution that humans haven’t thought of yet?
What was the happiest day in your life?
I like to think it hasn’t happened yet, so I can still look forward to it.
If you had a superpower, what would it be and what would you do with it the most?
Teleportation, because I’m afraid of flying. I’d use it for travelling… because obviously having every particle in your body disassembled and then reassembled elsewhere is a far less intimidating prospect than boarding a plane.
What color do you like?
I like strong colors, which is weird seeing as I mainly work in black and white. My favorite color is yellow, but I also like orange and turquoise.
Looking back in art’s history do you believe that it is hard to be an artist or not and why!?
It’s easy to be an artist, but very difficult to get recognition for it. I wonder what we’re missing out on, from all those artists that went undiscovered?
When did you know you want to be a photographer, and what was your first subject?
My first subject was a border collie called Roy, the family dog when I was a child. He was a very patient model. I got my first camera when I was about 9 or 10 and I always enjoyed using it, but didn’t think seriously about photography until much later, and it took even longer to find a genre that suited me.
I was interested in travel photography as a teenager, although back then I’d never traveled further than France. I used to go to the travel agent in town every Saturday and collect brochures, take them home and pore over photographs of the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China and dream that one day I’d be able to photograph those places too.
When I finally started travelling as an adult, I quickly learned that the best way to tell the story of a place or a culture is by photographing the local people, and I started experimenting with street photography. That’s when it started to take off and when I started getting positive feedback, and I’ve been pursuing photography seriously ever since.
Do you think that image processing with the help of technology makes you less of an artist or not and why?
This is a tough question to answer! I try to keep processing to a minimum and to get it right “in camera”, but I’m extremely grateful for the help of Lightroom or whatever to make the final picture as impactful as possible. I’m not a fan of manipulating images to the point that it doesn’t resemble what was there in the first place, I think that part of a photographer’s skill is to capture a situation without relying on technology to fix any problems later…although I’m sure that thousands of graphic artists would be ready to argue with me about that!
What style do you think that represents you?
What I aspire to and how it usually turns out are two very different things!
What is inspiring you during the creative process and to create?
It starts with an idea in my mind, actually it’s more of a mood or a feeling. That mood or feeling can be inspired by anything, it doesn’t necessarily have to be visual. It could be a piece of music or song lyrics, a newspaper headline, someone’s hairstyle, a beer label, the color of paint on a wall and so on, and that will trigger an idea in my mind’s eye of a photo that I’d like to make, based on that.
A lot of the inspiration comes from the past, 1950s American beat literature is a big one – that conjures up black and white images of men leaning against a wall smoking cigarettes – but also from different cultures and traditions, and the way that people look and behave around the world.
I like photos that seem timeless, where you don’t know if the photo was taken in 2020, or 1992, or 1977 and I often aim for that in my own work. I’m also interested in politics, particularly political discord and protest movements; I spent a lot of time before the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic photographing people’s reactions to Brexit and to Donald Trump’s government, and it was very satisfying and exciting to be able to record those moments in history.
I know that light is vital to your compositions, what is your favorite time of day?
Any photographer will tell you that dawn and dusk are the “golden hours”, when the light is at its best for photography. My personal favourite is early morning, really early, before anyone else is around. I’m always awake by 6 am, even at weekends, and I make some coffee and think about what I’m going to do that day. It’s peaceful and relaxing.
Mornings are also a great time of day for street photography – the market traders will be setting up their stalls, there are usually some good characters on the buses and the subways, and the city is starting to come to life.
How do you see the world in black, white and shades of gray? Is the camera set to black and white or, after taking the color photo, invert it to monochrome?
The camera is always set to colour, I like to compare colour with monochrome when I process the images. That said, I tend to see my subjects in black and white, I can be walking along a street and see a potential image and already my mind will be registering it as black and white.
It’s a useful way to approach black and white photography as you learn what will work and what won’t before you even take the photo; green trees for example tend to make a distracting background in a black and white photo, and blue sky always ends up looking flat and grey – it’s important to have some clouds to add drama to a black and white photo of sky.
On the other hand, strong angles, billboards and lettering, and graffiti work really well in monochrome. So I’m seeing in black and white, and registering every aspect of the potential image.
You have a category of photos called Fine art, in painting there are different methods and working techniques to get fine art, how do you get there in photography?
I use different techniques in camera. One of my favourite things to do is to photograph a reflection in water and then invert the image, it’s simple but effective and gives the impression of a watercolour or an oil painting.
I also experiment with shutter speeds and intentional camera movement; the photo of the girl in the yellow hat was taking by zooming out at the same time as pressing the shutter release.
I think that your photographs are refined, sophisticated, visibly dynamic or in unstable balance, metamorphoses of exact representations in timeless artistic images, aiming even at “abstraction of time”.
Do you believe that: Art travels through time or the artist travels through art?
I think it’s a bit of both. Art can be the by-product of a specific era or event, as is the case with photojournalism and a lot of literature and cinema, but it can also transcend eras and have that timeless visual quality which I really enjoy. Inspiration comes from both places, so the art endures and the artist visits and revisits it.
Rachel says also:
For me, photography exists to capture moments, moods, expressions and emotions: a lasting record of a fleeting second in time. That moment can be beautiful and happy or bleak and ugly – the important thing is recording it as accurately as possible, and scenes of anger and misery can be as compelling as scenes of colour and joy.
Some of Rachel’s works have been published in the BAV’s Street Photography 2021 book:
Rachel is also a Global hourly winner in CBRE Urban Photographer of the Year competition 2018, and a runner-up in CBRE Urban Photographer of the Year competition 2018, 2017.
Visual analysis by Madalina Dragos
Rachel’s compositions always talk about people, whether they are works, events, spaces, environments or feelings!
Rachel’s favorite subject as a photographer is “the human being” and the main way to talk about it is through monochrome. Whether it’s about portraits, street photos, crowds against each other, street architectures, Rachel through her artistic approach gives them a dramatic atmosphere and captures the viewer through a content transformed from something transient into something spectacular.
Rachel’s portraits force the viewer to focus on facial features, the visual element mainly used by her in compositions being form.
She makes an analysis of the atmosphere, imagines the content, uses light (as a key I could say) to highlight the subject. This way creates remarkable compositions, true artistic images that make us wonder if we are now or in the Victorian era.
The compositions of Rachel are dynamic. Where the dynamism is not obvious, there is an inner tension that creates an unstable balance that makes us feel an inner dynamism (the potency of the next moment) in a seemingly static composition.
In her compositions, the visual elements move in depth on different force vectors, in a continuous movement.
Here the well-defined shape of the human body (pattern) in connection with light obtains a new dimension, in the most subtle ways.
The color, where it is, replaces the gray tones just to become the center of interest of the composition. After that the eyes see the neutral gray tones, which makes us think we are dreaming with opened eyes.
Without the distracting colors, the images made by Rachel in refined shades of gray, communicate directly with the viewer. This way the photographer achieves nonverbal communication between viewer and the characters immortalized, thru the essence of pure aesthetics.
She uses a high light-dark contrast, in which some elements are strongly illuminated opposite the deep shadows, in addition to the low contrast with a soft representation, delicate lighting, obtaining in this manner intense artistic expressiveness.
From light to dark tones, Rachel also uses light to accentuate the textures of surfaces. Increasing the tactile dimensions and the depths, to highlight the characteristics of the subject.
The harmonies between tonality and intensity achieve the unity of Rachel’s compositions. The transcendence of color and time being their evocative result. The people met and photographed by Rachel become fascinating subjects in her compositions.
The portrait has new values, by sweetening the skin tones and emphasizing the facial features. More sensual shapes and tones appear, obtaining airy and bright images in some cases or mystery maybe even sinister in others.
The expressiveness of the characters is given by the dynamism, by the even dramatic theatrical movements we could say, caught in the full action, the inertia of their states is caught.
By enlarging the details and by moving the lens, Rachel realizes new abstractions and configurations. Thanks to it, structure and color are combined in a way that leads to images worthy of the name Fine art.
The compositions of Rachel impress with movement, strength, joy, drama, mystery or tension. They being true time capsules that, depending on the eye of the beholder, can be attributed on the time axis of any time event.
“Be nice to other people” – Rachel Mary Prout
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