If you’ve picked up any one of alternative rock band the Pixies’ studio albums between 1987 and 1991 you’ve seen Simon Larbalestier’s work. Discovering, and being moved by the album art, I was inspired to seek out more. What I found was beautiful and emotive imaginings that through Simon’s lens seem to go from worldly to otherworldly. The English photographer’s art evokes a sense of loneliness and atmosphere of bleakness. It always makes me wonder about the story behind the image. My mind goes into overdrive trying to imagine just how the vision came to be and how the subject got to the point at the moment Simon documents. Compelling stuff (contemplate his work for yourself below).
I’m excited about this interview also because it is the first in a series of collaborative interviews I am doing with my friend Erik Otis, editor-in-chief of LA-based publication Sound Colour Vibration. We put our heads together and came up with the interview questions for Simon. We thought it’d be interesting, challenging and fun to do interviews together—a first for me. It’s exciting after 18 years of interviewing to try something new. No matter how much I think I know about interviewing, there’s always so much more to learn. I like to think of an interview as a collaboration between an interviewer and a subject…I hope you enjoy this collab from me, Erik and the amazing photographer, Simon Larbalestier. Welcome to Simon’s world…
BIANCA: What compels you to record the things that you see and experience in the world via the medium of photography?
SIMON LARBALESTIER: This is an interesting question and often asked of me. When I see something (often out of the corner of one of my eyes) something subconscious is triggered inside of me and if I am carrying a camera I will stop and shoot what I see. Sometimes the reasons for the photos are not immediately known but later I see they relate logically or emotionally to something from before – right now (as in today 24th January) I am tending to work shooting pairs of objects/images – something I saw today relates to a thing or things I already have in my archive and so there is immediately a relationship but it is not always like this.
FreeFall, 2013 © Simon Larbalestier
I am currently writing this whilst shooting new work in the province of Chiaphum, North East Thailand or Isaan as it is more commonly known. Having just net a block of time in South Korea I have stacks of images that I wish to pair or make series of. The wider the geographical location between them the better as it enhances the sense perceived distance and time. Space and Time if you like a concept I am very interested in. I can only make this kind of work using lens-based mediums and right now these are digital capture devices: cameras. I prefer to visualise and represent the world as I see it through the specific choice a camera lens. Each lens has for me a different visual signature although sometimes the nuances are so subtle you would be hard pressed to see them. So I am primarily interested in presenting the viewer with a photographic 2D vision of the world as I see it.
Crocodile & Centipede, 2012, © Simon Larbalestier
LongGun, from the series Alphaville, 2011
© Simon Larbalestier
ERIK: I tend to ask this to every photographer I meet who has some years of experience in them through the art form, did the work and legacy of the Photo League or other organizations like it play a role in how you approached your craft in the beginning or at any other stage of your career?
SL: The legacy of the work of certain photographers certainly influenced me at the outset but it was their lifestyle and the way they saw their world more than the images themselves. I remember reading Edward Weston’s Daybooks cover to cover at a time when I could relate to so much of what he was thinking and feeling especially in terms of his personal life and relationships. I took great stock from this. I was always interested in the photographers who tended to exist on the fringes of the photographic world; people like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Duane Michels and Arthur Tress. Their work was deeply personal and not conventional or commercial and this was important to me. I did also follow others who did well in the commercial world but they did not hold the same fascination for me. Why? Because their work was for a client and I was already busy doing this myself and compromising (read diluting) the final images. There were of course exceptions to this but these appear further down in my answers to your questions.
ERIK: You have been known for much of your career with shooting in black and white and have recently been shooting in digital mediums with lots of color involved. With a long extensive career in analog photography, what were some of the catalysts to using digital mediums?
SL: I held off from working with digital cameras right up to late in 2008. I had taken a compact (Sigma DP1) to Cambodia along with a larger kit of film cameras 120 and 35mm panoramic. I wasn’t too impressed with the results of the Sigma although it did present a color world I had not visualized before and I think this was subconsciously an important trigger/catalyst. Later in the year I began what was to be a long series of book jacket covers for the works of Charles Dickens (I think I did 14 in all you can check on Amazon!) the first 3 were shot with film cameras – an Xpan and a Leica – dutifully hand processed, printed, toned and then scanned by me. But costs in materials and the time it took outweighed the budget and I realized that this analog approach for this project was not financially viable. So I purchased a small Ricoh GRD 11 and shot the rest digitally using the Sigma for long views and the Ricoh for close up/macro work.
Glove, Minotaur series 2008-9 © Simon Larbalestier
Cuban, Minotaur series 2008-9 © Simon Larbalestier
This critically coincided with me also landing the Minotaur Project who would have thought that 22 years later Vaughan and I would be asked to revisit the Pixies legacy! By this time I had returned to Asia and knowing that I had already achieved what I felt to be the best of what I could have done using film cameras already for the original Pixies’ sleeves I decided to use the project to explore the potential of compact digital cameras. I travelled around SE Asia using Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia as location sources for the Minotaur work. Because I was shooting in RAW color was always the first option but I still enjoyed converting files to monochrome and working on them much as I would have in a conventional wet darkroom. And I still do this today although software and cameras have moved on a lot since 2008. Some of the last shots for Minotaur were made with the Leica M8.2, Leica’s first foray into the professional digital market. The Leica M9 followed later the first full frame digital rangefinder camera. Had this been available at the time I started the Minotaur project I think the images would have been quite different as the file rending of the M9 images is second to none in my opinion (I am of course curious to see what Leica’s latest offering can produce). You will have noticed how in these answers I always refer specially to the type of camera this is because I like to match certain cameras and lens combinations to certain types of subject matter and their rendering. I was exactly the same when working with film. The advent of digital photography finally opened my eyes to being able to work in color although I has always admired and loved the 120 film work of Richard Misrach and Wim Wenders’ color work.
Mosquito, from the series Ishan, 2011, © Simon Larbalestier
Minotaur, Minotaur series 2008-9 © Simon Larbalestier
ERIK: With the industry changing a great deal since you began shooting photos, what type of advice can you give someone looking to shoot in analog formats who has little or no experience in that domain yet?
SL: I think this is an extremely hard question to answer in a helpful and positive way. It depends very much on what the perceived outcome of the imagery is to be, who will see it and how it is to be presented. I have a whole stock of film cameras back in the UK and a fully equipped darkroom but both need maintenance and for the darkroom easy access to the constant supply of chemicals and papers. Sadly I am never back in the UK long enough to set up print run and then when I do the chemical left soon become out of date. But that’s my situation! My advice would be buy cameras that you know can still be repaired and serviced and decide how you want to output the final images. Does one want control over the entire process and do everything oneself. I did! If so then the investment in quality darkroom kit and hi res scanning equipment is certainly not cheap.
Sahara Desert #1, Morocco, 2010 from the series “The 5th Quadrant”. Selenium Split-toned Silver Gelatin Print. Image Size: 18x46cm. Paper Size: 34x50cm. Printed on the very rare Sterling Premium F Grade 3
BIANCA: I’ve noticed that in most of your current online galleries – Sepium, Direction of Last Things, Odyssey and PIXIES – on your site that there is reoccurring subject matter of religious and/or spiritual iconography in shots; is there something in particular that attracts you to these kinds of shots; is there something in particular that attracts you to these kinds of symbols?
SL: Yes there is always a strong link on the spiritual iconography it continues to fascinate me even on the current trip now. Part of the fascination is hard to explain I am just drawn to it but a logical part of me would say that it’s the human belief in FAITH – that makes me want to a capture such iconography and this dates right back to the mid 80’s when I was documenting Catholic Churches in Italy and Greece. That single human element of faith is the connection between man and landscape (at least for me). Recently I have been reading much around the subject of Pychogeography and I can see how my work has always subconsciously fitted into this niche. Much if what I shot back in the 80/90’s was as relevant to this subject as to what I am shooting right now.
I also like to cycle between projects, themes and subject matter and then preset works that cover a longer distance of time and space.
Nimrod’s Son, 1986 (Pixies: Come on Pilgrim, 1987)
© Simon Larbalestier
RedAngel, 2010 from the series Alphaville
© Simon Larbalestier
“room 25″ from the series “tempus” 2012© Simon Larbalestier
“room 27″ from the series “tempus” 2012© Simon Larbalestier
Madonna, from the series Narrow exit, Chungju-si, Korea, 2012 © Simon Larbalestier
BIANCA: In an interview with you back in 2004 you commented that “Angkor Wat still remains singularly the most significant place for me”. Do you still feel this way? Why is it so significant to you?
It certainly was then and I often think about it now but sadly the last time I was able to visit was back in 2008 and I would guess much has changed since then based on the rate of change I was recording between 2001-2008. Cambodia still represents the most significant country for me. But in present circumstances and my family within Thailand such a move there would not be appropriate. Why was it significant? Hard to say because it was an overall feeling – the light, the sense of slow rebirth from the genocide regime of the late 70’s, the air, the color of the earth and the people. Much of this was located around the Angkor Wat Temple Complex. I guess it represented a kind of microcosm to me. And I still think and dream about it now especially these last few days up in Isaan which reminds me so much of Cambodia.
Leah Heng@ Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2004 © Simon Larbalestier
Boys in the Rain, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2001 © Simon Larbalestier
Documentary work for the Cambodia Trust, Kampot Province Cambodia, 2006 © Simon Larbalestier
BIANCA: You’ve also mentioned previously too, that “Shooting is always a very intense time for me” could you elaborate on this a little for us please? In what way is it intense for you? Is it a positive intensity or not-so positive, or a little of both maybe?
SL: Yes always intense – I get lost in the moments or moment of capturing what I see and feel. Often I find myself shooting at difficult emotional times, I could sit down and probably map them all to personal events. Maybe one drives the other maybe I subconsciously drive myself into a personally difficult situation to then be able to go and make my work – perhaps that’s sounds too self indulgent or too reflective but I think it’s how I tick looking back on it. I am driven emotionally not logically – I tend to feel first and think later – not always the best course of action when living one’s life.
Elephant, from the ongoing series Relic House, begun in 2012 © Simon Larbalestier
ERIK: You had the pleasure of working on the box set reissue for the Pixies collection Minotaur. What types of emotions or feelings did this experience draw from you and what were some of the most memorable experiences with compiling that project with Vaughan Oliver?
SL: Most of the answers to this have been addressed in the answers above but to add to this I felt at the time back in 2008 that I wanted to embrace, capture the rawer rough essence of available light photography and in 95% of cases shoot things exactly as I found them. The Pixies’ work from the 80/90’s was always shot in studios using controlled lighting, maximum sharpness, and an almost surgical precision. Situations were built in front of the camera lens. Even the portrait images (Surfer Rosa, Spike and Nimrod’s Son) were essentially setup as still lives and recorded photographically the traditional way. Minotaur was the opposite of this and there was a darker humor in the imagery and I liked the fact that all of it came from South East Asia. Because I was using smaller camera and everything was hand held I had much more freedom to snoop and scope my dark material. I put out of my mind the work I had shot before I looked at everything with new eyes but was careful to make sure that the subject matter matched with the earlier work.
Walking with the Crustaceans, from the series Doolittle 1988, © Simon Larbalestier
Walking with the Crustaceans II, from the series Minotaur 2008-9, © Simon Larbalestier
The nature of the fact that I was in SE Asia and Vaughan was in the UK set up a different kind of working relationship in that I shot everything before showing Vaughan and in the days of the early work, back in the late 80’s, I would wander in for a lunch of Guinness and show Vaughan the contact sheets. This time the material being digital meant that, that particular aspect was lost to us (this is what I miss the most about working digitally – the physical sense of leafing through contact sheets and being able to smell their chemical makeup). I think the most memorable experience for me was when we were putting up the photos for the Secret Gig at the Village Underground back in 2009. My children were with me at the time helping and so was Terry Dowling. Terry was both tutor and mentor to both Vaughan and myself still we burn bright candle for him in our respective works. My kids grew up with the me printing the Pixies images the props from the shoots were in the house and the images so they were well acquainted with the Pixies but to meet them as young adults was as amazing for them, as it was for me. There we were, Vaughan, Charles Thompson (aka Frank Black), myself and Jack and Lucy all laughing about some joke. I made an image of them all laughing and it represented perhaps the most significant moment in the pixies legacy – a moment in time when we were all united.
Village Underground Pixies Secret Gig (Soundcheck), Minotaur, July 2009 © Simon Larbalestier
Village Underground Pixies Secret Gig (Soundcheck), Minotaur, July 2009 © Simon Larbalestier
ERIK: Your contributions to the 4AD family in the 80’s along with the design companies 23 Envelope and v23 really put your legacy on the map in the musical arena. What type of working atmosphere was present in the studios 23 Envelope and v23? What was your favorite project when working on 4AD materials?
SL: To be honest I kept outside of the 4AD/v23 social and work loop. We had a young family and I was busy trying to straddle and juggle commissions of all kinds, teaching work, developing my own work and managing a family. Sometimes I was working all-night and teaching the next day. Working with Vaughan on our projects was always liberating something I could not really have when workout on more conventional commissions which required much compromise (there were executions of course – one being working with Chris Jones at New Scientist Magazine we always had a great time making images for science stories). So my trips into the v23 office were often brief and we would retire to the local pub. I always appreciated that Vaughan and Chris Bigg (and others who joined the duo for periods of time) were always busy and tightly bound to music deadlines. There was a big social network as there always is with the music industry but I kept to the outside of it perhaps in the same way that my heroes and mentors Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Edward Western did in their own way.
“Sentinel”, from the series Narrow Exit, Chungju-si, Korea 2012 © Simon Larbalestier
ERIK: What are some projects that you have out, are working on right now or will start working on soon that you’d like to mention and let the people who read this know about?
SL: There are several new projects some of which will probably interlace or fuse into each other. They are all psychogeographic in their nature. Some have unusual working titles that may change by the time the works become more finalized. Here are a few:
“Something Seen Whilst On The Way To Somewhere Else”
“Something That Happened Whilst On The Way To Somewhere Else”
“HOUSE RELIC” or “Relic of a House destroyed by Fire”
“Parallel Monoliths” or “Parallel Dialectics”
Room 225 from the ongoing series tempus, begun in 2012, © Simon Larbalestier
The recent work I exhibited in Seoul, South Korea was based on this concept
“I Can Be Here While Somewhere Else” whose working title was: Supplanta (dis | place | ment)
“A series of photographs which represent evidential documents of places I have momentarily inhabited whilst experiencing a strong sense of personal displacement both physically and psychologically. The combination of an aesthetic that utilises an analogue retro-framing of digitally captured imagery further enhances this state of displacement. The very fact that the reading of photographs is always retrospective, acknowledges the notion that the passing of time is always referenced in the present moment. The content of the photographs record fragmented details of unfamiliar texts, abandoned objects of sedentary interior comforts, disintegrating,distorted, disembodied or malformed vegetation, foggy landscapes or habitats that are in a state of decay. Evidence of modes of transport (a boat by a stone jetty, a railway track and cycle signage) have also been documented to elicit a desire to escape from this sense of displacement. ”
Visitors can see the exhibition details at this link on my Addenda Blog.
There is also the big project Cyphers which I begun last year and now have a lot of new material to update it with in the coming months. This is all housed on its own blog; Cyphers and will consist of a large number of images that inter-relate or provide background info to past projects.
Also just out is an interview with me about the Repository series. The magazine is called Photo Art Contemporary and Fine Art Photography Magazine and is just recently out – I haven’t seen a copy yet until I get back to Bangkok. I don’t know if it’s a Thai magazine or International but from what I read of the initial interview it raised and asked some interesting questions of me, which might further inform readers/viewers of my work.
Repository, IXX, 2011 © Simon Larbalestier
Repository, IIX, 2011 © Simon Larbalestier
A documentary on Simon:
For more Simon Larbalestier.
*All images courtesy of Simon Larbalestier.