alchemists main image


Creative Review Annual 2007

Interview: Paula Carson

"It’s all captured in-camera: it’s pure, and that’s what makes it special"

Nick Thornton Jones

At the time of our meeting, Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones are in fine fettle. Fresh-faced after a couple of weeks’ holiday, they’re back and ready to do battle with their latest commission: visuals for the Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2008 show, scheduled to take place in Paris this month. When Creative Review first profiled the duo seven years ago, they were embarking on their quest to take image manipulation in the digital domain to increasingly new and heightened levels in pursuit of what they term “hypervisuality”. “In a way not much has changed since then,” says du Preez. “We still search for the same elements in our work. Every time we go into a job, we’re trying to create something you’ve never seen before, something pure, that inspires or excites us. Our [visual] language is evolving, like any creative journey evolves, but the premise remains the same.”

They started out with a handful of clients: YSL, Boss, The Sunday Times… seven years on du Preez and Thornton Jones’s portfolio includes fashion and beauty, advertising, portraiture and music. They’ve developed imagery and film for the likes of Issey Miyake, Cartier, Shu Uemura, Nike, Levis and BMW. They count Big magazine, I-D, Visionaire, Numero and The New York Times among their editorial clients, and have worked with musicians such as Björk (on press campaigns and artwork for her last three albums), Massive Attack, Unkle and Kasabian. They’ve exhibited their work internationally, brought it brought to life in fashion shows for Hamish Morrow and immortalised it in print, through books such as Fashioning the Future and Gas Book 14. Suffice to say, things have panned out pretty well for du Preez and Thornton Jones.

alchemists image 3

alchemists image 5

They’ve had to exercise a degree of patience to get there. Frequently referring to “the two year rule”, they estimate it takes that long for their innovations in image-making and light manipulation to be digested and commissioned. “Our preoccupation with light and our output is of a very heightened level. We dig and we scratch and push to [reach that],” states du Preez. “Sometimes it takes people in the industry a while to buy into our visual language,” adds Thornton Jones. They’re not being arrogant when they talk in this way – they’re simply aware that their desire to innovate and explore makes them the “curveball option” for some clients. Being original is a mixed blessing: “I like being the curveball, but it’s also a pain in the arse, because nothing ever comes simply to us – everything has to be over-explained, digested and broken down,” says Thornton Jones. “But it’s who we are,” adds du Preez, “and we do like it, even if it’s mildly frustrating.”

While clients may not be entirely sure what the end product will be, when they take the plunge and work with Warren & Nick, they’re guaranteed something special. “Individuality in communication doesn’t often exist, because people only really trust what’s copied or followed,” says du Preez. “A lot of communication out there is just fodder. It doesn’t penetrate [the market] in the way that something with greater resonance can.” He and Thornton Jones proudly show off a new series of images for a Shu Uemura global campaign that they’re confident will resonate. The commission, from agency Publicis 133, Paris promotes a new professional hair care range. “We’ve got something through that is pure,” they say of the elegant head shots they’ve created to accompany strapline “The Art of Hair”. “The graphic shapes we’ve built up [in the image] are all created using light,” explains Thornton Jones. “It’s all captured in-camera: it’s pure, and that’s what makes it special. It touches you because the capture of light and emotion is not a distorted reality.”


alchemists image 2

Thornton Jones goes on to talk about how their work has evolved over the years: “We always like to dip right into the unconscious. We try to not let people know where to settle within the image: that’s what makes it intriguing enough to want to stop and look. What’s interesting at the moment for us that there’s this move back to clarity, to a conscious world, in our work.” He pulls up a new story for Big magazine featuring McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 collection to illustrate his point. “A big reason for working on this story was that if offered us the opportunity to use light as a metaphor for what McQueen’s whole collection was about,” explains Du Preez. “It dealt with the occult… the conscious and the unconscious. With still image it’s very hard to realise that.” Adds Thornton Jones: “This story really made us see where we wanted our work to go. It’s one thing having a visceral sense, but to actually mix the conscious and the unconscious in an environmental sense was quite a big thing for us, and I think we’ll be coming back to that.” He points to a vivid, painterly image of what appears to be a tree in flames (below). “This is a photograph, but it looks and feels like a painting. This tree isn’t on fire, this has all been created on-set, in-camera using light to create this pure fantasy moment.”

They recently brought their light painting skills to the screen in BMW spot See How it Feels (through agency WCRS and production company Wanted Films). Du Preez and Thornton Jones have since switched to production company Stink, with the aim of developing their moving image skills further: “I think that the still image will diminish on a communication level and if we aim to survive and continue the way we are, balancing art and commerce, then it’s inevitable that the motion side of things will pick up,” says du Preez. “It’s part of the evolution process. It’s also a domain that we’re very interested in.”



Judging by the endless sparring and banter that flows between them, the spark that initially drove Thornton Jones and Du Preez to collaborate is still going strong. Having switched to digital two years ago, their working process is even more integrated. Du Preez still takes the photographs, but they believe that the refinement process is faster and more streamlined: “I’ll click and as it comes to screen Nick will be at the computer, telling me it needs to be half a stop lighter, or darker, and I’ll be wanting to know why… so there’s lots of debate, we have a whole process of refinement that I believe is unique.” They clearly get a kick out of working together, and, when appropriate, bringing other explorative talent to the table, including teams such as UVA and light artist Chris Levine [to be profiled here in subsequent weeks]: “Chris is obsessed with light, as we are. He brings a heightened state to the creative platform, where we can integrate and create together,” comments du Preez.

Asked about their preoccupation with light, and its impact on their work, Du Preez admits it holds an attraction he can’t quite define: “It’s not a conscious thing. It’s almost as though light found me and it’s what I work with and it’s what Nick works with and that’s a given. Light shapes and forms everything – it’s the beginning and essence of how you see – from a technical point of view I find that really interesting, particularly if you can then manipulate it and experiment with it.” The duo is still famously tight-lipped about the different processes they use to create their melting, painterly images. Du Preez talks vaguely about experiments with electronic and continuous light, then smiles before finally adding: “It’s alchemy.”