Proud of living on a sociable street where everyone knows everyone else, and fascinated by the contrasting lives lived by his neighbours behind the seemingly similar facades, Mill+ animation director and photographer Jamie Lancaster decided to hold a exhibition based on intimate images of his neighbours and friends… the residents of Thornbury Road.
Jamie tells us more about how he got into photography and how this exhibition came together…
Tell me about yourself and your role at The Mill.
After working as an illustrator/graphic designer for 5 years, I crossed over into Post Production around 15 years ago. I enjoyed 5 years as a 3D Animator at the BBC, animating a whole range of stuff from Blue Peter opening title sequences to the classic BBC '2' Idents. Since then I've been at The Mill as a 3D Animator/Supervisor, and more recently I've had the exciting opportunity to join Mill+ as Animation Director, working directly with the team in 3D and 2D to create fully CG spots such as the recent Cif 'Sleeping Beauty'.
How long have you been interested in photography?
Quite a while. At school I was always the one with the camera getting the candid snapshots, and again throughout college, but I was never particularly into photography as such. I took photography classes as part of my Illustration Degree, but it all seemed a bit over-complicated and quite a faff. Yet I found that my camera was always the perfect tool to 'goad' people into doing things they wouldn't normally do - which was great fun! (a technique I still use and strongly recommend). I had an old hand-me-down 110 film camera but the only thing I remember about it was the flash would take forever to warm up. This turned out to be great practice for seeing 'moments' in advance; anticipating the shot - getting the flash warmed up (at least five seconds) - then 'gotcha!'
I've had various budget cameras over the years, but it wasn't until I bought a digital camera around 2003 that things really changed for me. I loved the immediacy of it; being able to learn and try out things without wasting film, and knowing exactly what settings were producing a particular shot. I also loved the fact that I could sit on a night bus after an evening out and look through all the photos I'd taken - brilliant for re-living the evening's events on the way home. Upgrading to a DSLR in 2005 opened up a whole new world/can of worms of possibilities - as well as endless pieces of gear, lenses, flashes etc. that I convinced myself I 'needed'. My photography was now becoming quite serious; I was totally absorbed - shooting everything from abstract to landscapes, time-lapse, macro - but it was always the 'people' shots that I was drawn to, which friends and colleagues were beginning to recognize as my photographic style.
Do you have a preferred style of photography and why?
Anything bold and graphic that tells a great story (with a lick of dark humour) is always a good starting point… I love flash photography - and the endless possibilities of using multiple strobes (flashes) with various light modifiers to help control and craft the light.
I also enjoy street photography and people, so it's nice to combine the two - controlled street photography! I personally prefer to engage with my chosen subject/s, rather than 'stealing' unsuspecting shots of random people (I'm certainly not against this - there are some AMAZING photographers out there capturing all sorts of brilliant 'natural' moments - it's just not something I'm comfortable doing).
I prefer to ask people if I can get a photo of them - then enjoy spending time with them while I'm doing it. I did this loads when I was working in LA for a while and met all sorts of amazing characters… Johnny and his 'Flyin' Lion' dog, Billy Zangle and his "Lady magnets", Muscle Beach Bill - who showed me photos of himself and Arnold Schwarzenegger working out together on Venice Beach throughout the 70's, Jeffrey - a prolific sperm donor in the 80's (who since my encounter with him has had a film "Donor Unknown" made about his life), Dr John - a crazy old professor who'd been living in a bush for 20 years! The list goes on. There's no way I'd ever have known anything about these people if I'd just taken a random shot - for me it's just as important to have a personal story to go with each picture - which is what I wanted to achieve with the Thornbury Road portraits.
What made you want to capture the residents of Thornbury Road?
We had the idea around five years ago when my partner Sophie went knocking on doors where we lived on Thornbury Road to float the idea of having a street party (which has since become a hugely successful annual event). She spent much of the day being invited into various people's homes, where she was struck by how radically different each one was: an elderly lady whose house had hardly changed in 50 years would be living next door to a young couple in a completely modern environment - similar houses yet totally contrasting homes. So we thought it would be a great idea to go behind those doors, and try and capture the residents and their lifestyles through a series of portraits…
Five years later - and with the imminent sale of our flat - we knew we only had a few months to realise what we'd been discussing for years. By this time we had got to know many colourful people on Thornbury Road so this made things easier for us to talk our neighbours into - and organise - 30 shoots over a period of 8 weekends. The whole project was quite an 'on-the-spot' learning curve, each portrait with it's own unique set of problems. Just figuring out where to take the photos and getting the lighting set-up was a massive challenge in itself - let alone with pet dogs running around licking my lenses while the owner asks me questions about camera gear, with TV's on full-blast in the background - all quite stressful when the first test shots aren't looking great! In addition to this we shot in the darkest months (between November and January) so there was virtually ZERO natural light to play with (80% of the shots are lit 100% flash only). All of this was fairly 'testing' - especially whilst having our two young children with us playing around our feet - but brilliant fun!
It's fantastic to be exhibiting the collection at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton this month - a great opportunity to celebrate how amazing my neighbours are by showing their portraits in public - and sharing their stories with the wider Brixton community.
Which is your staple camera equipment?
Canon 5D mk2, with various lenses and a bunch of radio-triggered flashes (which means I can pretty much put them anywhere). Plus various light modifiers, stands, bungee cords, gaffer-tape.
Thank you Jamie!