Publikum – Thanks Mark for being involved in this series, it’s a real pleasure being able to discuss your work and the creative processes involved.
So, let’s get started – who is Mark Massey and what’s in your camera bag?
Mark – I was born and brought up in Southend in Essex, and I still live there with my young family. I’m in my forties, studied graphic design at college, and now work in London as an art editor / magazine designer.
I generally use a DSLR and natural light but in the last couple of years I’ve been experimenting more with medium format film – it is a bit of learning curve as everything is manual and I’m not naturally a very technical person.
P. – At first glance, it’s hard to fully deconstruct your photography portfolio, you have an eclectic body of work, exploring genres covering- documentary, street, and portrait photography – to name a few.
What made you want to pick up a camera to begin with? Additionally, what has been your favourite project to work on to-date?
M. – Well, I’ve always been interested in photography, since I studied it in photography modules at college. When I went into employment I concentrated more on the design side of things but picked up a camera again when digital arrived around about 2007.
At that time my daughters were very young so time was very limited. My only free time was my lunch hour at work so I would spend it exploring the streets of London and re-training myself to use the camera, via street photography – I found it quite therapeutic too. From there I became more and more interested in documentary and then portrait, and those are my main focus today. I think my street photography and background as a magazine designer have both influenced my compositions and approach.
My favourite project is actually a new one, so I won’t say too much about it here. It’s a purely portrait project, though, and I’ll be challenging myself by shooting it on film.
P. – I recall discovering your work through Fishing Quarter Gallery, noticeably, the work that Chloe Juno was curating on British seaside towns.
Perhaps, I’m biased, but being from Essex the project that stands out to me most is your Essex Chronicles work. Would you mind talking a bit more about that? How did this project come about?
M. – For ages I was trying to think of a ‘clever’ project idea that would document the area near where I lived. Eventually I realised that procrastinating was not productive and that sometimes you just need to go with the simple idea.
I was intrigued how the estuary seemed to be such an eclectic mix of so many different things – wildlife, residential, entertainment, industry etc – so I decided to document it as best I could. It was also a project that I could dip in and out of, and take my time over.
London is obviously well documented, but Essex less so, even though it is so close and has its own identity. I worked on this for a couple of years and put together a newsprint publication towards the end of last year – I really like newsprint as a medium, and it’s much more affordable than a book. I’ve kind of moved on to other subjects now but I am sure it is something I will return to in the future.
P. – Regarding this project, an aspect that strikes me, is your ability to highlight the beauty in the mundanity. Specifically, you emphasise its highlights through pinpoint composition and clear structuring and in-turn create your own narrative.
Can you explain your creative process further? Do you adopt a specific approach to documenting the subjects and topics of your work?
M. – I do like the idea of looking for beauty in the mundane, and also human interaction with the everyday environment. I am drawn to photographers who do this well, such as Iain Sarjeant. About the pinpoint composition – I don’t like to include anything unnecessary in the frame, avoiding mess and keeping it simple.
Regarding my practical approach, I made sure I covered the entire length of the estuary, breaking it down into small chunks when I had a spare hour or two, or longer day walks when I had more time. I think it’s important to also spend a lot of time just observing, and not be too ‘snap happy’.
P. – When exploring the relationship between North-East Essex and London, in Essex Chronicles, as cemented through the Thames Estuary, you mention identity as being an influencing force throughout this project.
In hindsight, would you say that social change and the acclaimed ‘death of the British seaside’ have shaped this sense of identity and project’s narrative?
M. – That’s quite a hard one to answer – Essex and particularly, the Thames estuary definitely used to be London’s dumping ground, but a lot of this has stopped now and in the last few years I have also noticed a quite a cultural revival in the area. So some of that is probably a response to the death of the British seaside.
More generally, there does seem to be a lot of varied photographic work focusing on the British seaside in recent years, and I am looking forward to hopefully seeing the new seaside exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate.
P. – A particular focus in your portfolio that I most appreciate is your portraiture work; sharing both moments of intimacy with family members, whilst also portraying yourself as a spectator with members of the public.
What do you find most appealing about portraiture photography? Would you say there are particular themes that you look to highlight in this style of work?
M. – I like your phrase about portraying myself as a spectator with members of the public – I think I have learnt a technique from street photography whereby I can make myself ‘invisible’ and non-threatening even though I am standing openly with a large camera at my eye.
I don’t like ‘sneaky’ shots so I’m always quite open about what I am doing. The balloon seller and funfair attendant were shot in this way, candidly. Other times I approached people for a more formal, posed portrait (such as the trawlermen and sea angler).
Over the past couple of years I have become much more interested in portraiture. It’s one of the main reasons I got into medium format as I just love the feel of those portraits and also the way it slows things down and allows more of a connection. I’ve been practicing a lot on friends and family and now I’ve gained the confidence with it I am shooting people I don’t actually know for my latest project.
I am a very shy person and have suffered with anxiety, so approaching people and making portraits of them has really helped push me in that respect.
P. – A large portion of your photography embodies a seemingly observational critique – pointing to your projects surveillance and consumer society. Would you say that there is a particular social or even political critique associated to these projects? Are these principles that you consciously look to integrate into your work?
M. – There’s definitely a cultural and sociological aspect (and to a lesser extent, political) to some of my work, especially more recently.
I am from a working class background and I am quite interested in the role social class plays. So I suppose projects like the surveillance one are influenced by the idea of Big Brother versus the people.
More recently I have definitely tried to integrate these principles more – projects have focused more on my community, such as the role the local football stadium plays in it, and ‘The Soup’, which is a about a local community movement. The new project will focus on cultural and sociological issues.
P. – Regarding the influence of digital exposure and the rise of Instagram as a social-tool for photographers, how influential do you think using Instagram has been in providing exposure to your work and in supporting artists to develop their own? Do you believe that Instagram can be a positive or negative change in the future?
M. – I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with social media. I don’t use Facebook, but as a photographer I do think it’s necessary to have an Instagram presence.
Photographers use Instagram in different ways, and I tend to use it as a form of secondary portfolio. My dedicated website will always remain my main way of maintaining an online presence, but far fewer people would visit that than they would Instagram.
I definitely think that Instagram can have a positive effect for photographers (and even more so for illustrators) – I know art editors and commissioners that use it as a search tool. Even though I don’t have a large following, nearly all the sales of my Essex Chronicles newsprint publication came via Instagram and Twitter.
P. – Lastly, which photographers, creatives, and the like do more people need to be aware of? Are there any particular pieces of work or projects that have you are loving lately?
M. – The two photographers whose work I have admired for the longest time are George Georgiou and Simon Roberts. I also like following UK-based work with a social and/or political angle, such as Nicola Muirhead’s “In Brutal Presence” – she started the project before Grenfell but it has taking on even more significance since the fire.
I spend a lot of time looking at other photographers online, and in photobooks when I can afford them. A couple of favourites that spring to mind are Jon Tonks‘ ‘Empire‘ and Antonio Olmos’ ‘The Landscape of Murder’.
You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to get your photography fix though – there are lots of free resources out there, such as Photo Forum if you’re in London (monthly talks by predominantly documentary photographers), and Ben Smith’s ‘A Small Voice’ podcast (interviews with photographers).
To keep up-to-date on the work that Mark is producing and for more information on his current projects, you can discover more using the following links: