In the midst of social changes, twisted values and unstable economy playing tricks on the current state of the culture, artists like Mike Sutton find ways to observe and portray the world around us by carefully exploring existentialism, capturing moments of essence through his camera lens and upgrading their value with segments of written and spoken language. This young and incredibly gifted artist is an award winning and internationally exhibited British fine art photographer whose voice is actively gaining popularity and whose vision is, for the lack of a better word – startling.
Currently based in the UK, Sutton has so far published two photography books, Leather Jacket in 2012 and Stanley in 2015. We’re getting keyed up about his next project called Octopus, which the artist feels may take a few years to complete. 2018 is an estimated time for the project to come to life and be shown to the wider audience – and we’re more than excited for the grand opening.
“The new project is an attempt to look at personal identity in a new way and I think the final result will be a sort of scrapbook of new photos, old photos, other things, all wrapped up in a kind of manifesto; the project is a self-portrait”, said the artist and casually added that his art isn’t really linked too much in the way of social media. To us, this echoed with a particular freshness, given that too many an artist these days finds inspiration in social media critique and the absence of human-to-human dialogue.
With a keen eye for detail and a sense of appreciation for all things that a life makes, Sutton caught our attention very quickly and sparked curiosity that is unlikely to fade any time soon.
And then, we talked…
You are still too young to be sure you’ve found your artistic voice. Do you think your style will change/evolve over time?
It definitely changes over time, but I think what happens is just a change that comes with practise, it will always be an ongoing process. Evolution in my work from project to project happens in the concepts being developed, my newer work is always informed by developing on earlier ideas, with the intention that each project is a conceptual stepping stone gradually working towards making richer work. In Stanley I wanted to discover what elements we need to really ‘know’ a person, especially when we’re discussing and learning about someone we never knew, in this case my grandfather who died before I was born, a morally ambiguous man who my family never spoke of. I’m taking that idea now and applying it to myself in Octopus, in an attempt to make a very abstract and different kind of self-portrait, I want it to be more meaningful than ‘this is about my identity and it is special or unique because I specifically made it’. I want to encourage people to take the ideas and look at themselves, and I want to create new foundations for artists to make new work. New factors come up in Octopus, like the kind of truth you encounter when you’re faced with being honest with yourself, and for me how much I’m willing to share with a public audience. While Stanley is understood through a series of transcribed conversations with people who knew him, paired with photographs I took along the way, a different approach will be taken in Octopus, and I’m still figuring out what that will be, though I know a lot of the writing will take the form of a manifesto, likely considering all the factors of a person which form an identity.
What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to try photography?
I was pursuing a career in journalism at the time, when I first started taking pictures in 2007, the reason I got a camera in the first place was to go along with studying English and Media, to take pictures for my projects and I’d already enjoyed taking pictures for a few years when the UK had a pretty bad recession and I decided to take the opportunity to give education another go while things were so uncertain. I studied Photography as a college course and my parents were as supportive as any parent should be. I’m grateful to have parents that didn’t have a predetermined plan for the sort of career they’d like me to have, which could have led to disappointment in pursuing anything else. They support what I want to do with my life even when I’ve made difficult decisions or ended up in unfortunate situations pursuing my dream, and I feel very lucky about that, especially when it’s something very difficult to find success in like art. I really wouldn’t be where I am without their lasting support, and the faith they seem to have in what I do.
What pointed you in the direction of the arts?
It’s something that’s always been a part of my life, I remember going to a primary school where being creative was really encouraged, and I could draw and paint pretty well at a young age, I remember they took us to the Tate in Liverpool and seeing all the contemporary art. I will never forget the way certain teachers really gave value to art for what it is and how it can be enjoyed, it had a lasting effect and I really feel fortunate to have been introduced to that sort of understanding from such a young age, as opposed to perhaps the British tabloid view of ‘look at this unmade bed that’s worth millions’ which unfortunately reflects the attitude a lot of people in Britain have towards modern art. It wasn’t until I studied photography in college that I started making my own consistent work, and it wasn’t until university that I felt comfortable really calling it art, and calling myself an artist.
Are there any deeper issues you’d like to communicate through your art or are you simply embracing the beauty of things as the ultimate inspiration?
I think aesthetic beauty is an unavoidable contributing factor in the success of a lot of images, though there’s always exceptions. There’s pictures that are successful when they are bad on a technical level, because of the significance of what is being photographed or the story behind it, while there’s pictures with no depth at all, which can however be enjoyed simply for what they are. I’d like to think that some thought is given to the concepts and ideas I introduce in my work, it can be disheartening to know the statistics of how long people spend actually looking at individual artworks – it’s commonly understood to be about three seconds per picture. Part of my reasoning for printing images with the conversations underneath on the same sheet for exhibition, was to forcibly increase the time the audience looks at the picture, when they invest time into reading the text, they take more time to consider the picture accompanying it. I don’t feel like I’m ever trying to express a specific message, my pictures don’t hold that kind of meaning, the pictures themselves are more something to be experienced, because they’re just pictures of experiences, direct and unbiased screenshots from my memories.
Who were your major inspirations?
In particular, the work of a few social documentary photographers has been an inspiration pretty much from the time I worked on Leather Jacket, discovering very little work since, the work of both Leonie Hampton and Colin Gray, who both did amazing documentaries about family. While the work they make is in the documentary discipline, which is bound by certain methodologies and ideas of veracity and ethics, the resulting images to me are fine art, and go much deeper than capturing likenesses and events. I think more recently Philip Toledano’s Days with My Father is the most wonderful and moving work I’ve seen in a very long time, this work is enhanced by Toledano’s account of his feelings, and stories about his father, in text that accompanies the images. I’ve been inspired also by artists of other disciplines, in particular the clever nature of René Magritte’s work, he used language to change and challenge meaning, Magritte was an incredible thinker. I’ve always enjoyed the work of surrealist painters generally.
Do you have a mentor and if no, would you find one distracting or inspiring?
I’ve never had someone I’d call a real mentor, one of my first photography tutors Jonathan Purcell was definitely an important figure in noticing the direction my pictures were taking, the style of my pictures, and encouraged me to develop it further, he was one of the first people to recognise potential in my pictures. I certainly wouldn’t find mentors distracting, there’s nothing I love more than talking about art and photography with people who are equally enthusiastic. Most of my inspiration is found in everyday conversation.
What do you see your art doing for the world?
I actually don’t know, I make art because I feel like I have to, it’s a very personal endeavour and the pictures are sentimental to me as evidence of a life lived, I have a fear of forgetting everything I’ve done one day. In terms of the world and people who enjoy art, I’d like to think I’ve explored ideas in ways that haven’t been done before, I’d love if these ideas were noticed one day.
What is your favorite technique to work with?
I use the one digital camera and the same 50mm lens for everything.
What do your friends and family think of your art? Are they supportive?
I think they like it, I think they support it in the same way you support a friend who makes music that isn’t really the sort of music you like listening to, and I know my pictures aren’t for everyone. When I haven’t seen a person for a while, it’s nice when they mention my pictures, it really means a lot to me.
Who would be the artists of today you admire the most?
At the moment I really just like to see a variety of different things from different artists, I’m really having trouble naming just one artist. Since I graduated last year I’ve definitely focused less attention on individuals and enjoyed art more passively now I’m a bit freer from having to research things. The last exhibition I really enjoyed was Banky’s Dismaland last year, there was a lot of really great contemporary work there and I felt lucky to see it, it was nice to be reminded that art doesn’t have to be taken so seriously.
In five years time, do you think we’ll meet in the same café? Where do you see yourself showing?
Of course! My plan is to show Stanley in a few more places, I want more exhibitions across Europe, and in particular I would feel a great sense of personal achievement if my pictures were shown in Berlin. That’s my plan for the next few years while I work on Octopus.