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Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones

125 Magazine 2010

Interview: Philip Goodfellow

"I strongly believe that the intent behind a singular-captured image will always survive"

Warren Du Preez


Warren: It’s a funny old time; things are changing so much at the minute. We’re going through a big evolution cycle with the online world finally coming to fruition, with all that technology that was prescribed finally coming out. Until it partially became a reality, it was like ‘Well, how is that going to work?’. The advent of it is becoming a reality.  What’s interesting with technology is where you interact with it, and at what stage you put something out. Every time there’s a technological advancement and every time a new entity comes out,there has to be almost a redesign or refurbishment to accommodate the technology. It’s evolved image making. It’s about who had the vision to interact with it, and to push it and to take it there. Say ten, twelve years ago, when there were only a handful of people working with technology, combining working with photography and computers, you had an aesthetic that was considered to be incredibly new and hyper visual  As technology became affordable and people became less technophobic, and it became more accessible for them to interact with, I think what was created and considered to be innovative bellied out and became homogenised, which is a classic life-cycle to any innovation. I think what’s interesting is when you look at technology and realise, well, that was only hypervisual because of the button you pushed and that you were the first one to push that button; or, whether you took that notion further, where you knew about that button but decided to craft it, to still have that craft-based value and aesthetic to it. Then it has longevity and timelessness; more of a purveyance. There are two very definite schools within that. As technology expanded, you still shot on film, you scanned your film in and had an electronic darkroom instead of an analogue darkroom, or used an analogue darkroom and developed a digital darkroom as such – at least, that’s how myself and Nick looked at it. Or, it allowed you to cross-pollinate and combine disciplines, which is what we did in the early stages as well, where we would take photography and cross-pollinate it into more graphic applications. It really allowed you to make interesting things. Ten years down the line, we live in a technological age and every kid in their bedroom is experimenting; that’s the democracy of the medium now. There’s a real cheapness to what’s created now I think, and as a purveyance it’s bellied out so that the content now has to reign supreme alongside the vision. I remember six, seven years ago, one character got a camera, put some grain structure into it, and overnight he managed to build a career on it and had quite a bit of success for a couple of years.You kind of know that’s going to go nowhere because it was more of a gimmick than a real crafted intent. It was a very ‘now’ look and feel that people bought into because it felt like ‘now’.‘Nowness’ is almost the antithesis of ‘nowness’ now, and the purveyance of craftsmanship is coming back into play, which is great. It’s just a medium at the end of the day, but there’s a purveyance of vision and ideas within that and a craftsmanship attached.

Nick: That’s not to say that everything we do is electronic. A lot of people think it is; a lot of people think there’s a lot of science that goes into things.

W: A massive perception of our work, just because we forged into technology and we are experimentalists by heart, is that it’s all Photoshopped or it’s really heavily digitally manipulated. It is what it is – people will always have their own perceptions. People who know us know that we are the most die-hard craftsmen you’ll come across; most of what we do is created in camera, to then be taken further. That’s the irony, that there’s a huge craftsmanship to what we do.

N: A case in point, we were doing a Boucheron campaign with a really good creative director who was over from Paris. We had a series of prints on display from commercial projects, one of which was the Cartier project we did. He was like ‘I fucking love this guys! I fucking love this! How’d you work it all out?’. We said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘Which plates did you shoot and all that?’. We said ‘There’s no plates mate. That’s it. That’s what we shot’. He was like ‘No, no, no. What work did you do on it?’. We said ‘There was no work; that’s what was on the 5:4 neg’. We didn’t question it, but what was interesting was that he didn’t believe we could make an image like that without the use of a computer. People expect it to be done on computer now. It’s an easy route that people can take, and they take it either because they don’t come from a craft background or because that is their vision or purveyance. Every creative director and art director now probably knows more about Photoshop than most photographers and most retouchers, because it’s their purveyance to construct things. Where it used to be a piece of type, now they can work with images.

W: Most creative directors are more technically adept at Photoshop than 99.9% of photographers.

N: They’re really shit hot these boys. You’ve got to respect what they’re trying to do. It’s a double-edged sword though.

W: They’re bound within binary information. If you’re going to create something on system, it’s going to look like it’s come from system.


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N: Where we’re lucky in a sense – though I believe you create your own luck – is that we try, maybe to our detriment sometimes, to put out the message that this is what we do.We tend to attract the right people.

W: We do attract the right people, but equally you get the phone calls from people expecting the technological blowjob and they don’t realise that it’s an analogue process.

N: I take my hat off to the ones who put their neck on the line and say ‘We’re going to get the client to trust in this’.When you’ve got a strong vision as well within a commercial sort of field, it takes a lot of handholding because the client is having to take that leap of faith. From an artistic point of view, when we’re taking on special projects, it’s like a gift for us because then there’s no questioning of it.When we worked with Bjork, she never once changed the role of the creative handshake – it was ‘You do what you do and I’ll tell you whether I like it’.

W: It’s very easy to ascertain the ingredients of a project; there’s always a process of commissioning protocol that goes on where you can rationalise the project.There’s always a conference call, there’s always a meeting, there’s always a discussion of creative intent, there’s always a budget. Generally, you can start to pick the gist up just by the questions you pose or the intention of what they actually want to do.

N: It depends sometimes how strong you want to be about your vision within the reality of a commercial playing field. I remember we were working on the BMW commercial, and at the end we had these concentric circles of light coming into the circular emblem. At the last minute, the German head office said ‘No, the emblem needs to be in a square, like it sits on the ads’. I remember losing sleep over the concept of trying to explain to the account holder that a circle doesn’t really fit when it goes into a square. It’s just part of the process though. At that point, you’re not going to win the battle; you need to move on from it. You’ve already been given a shitload of freedom – more freedom than anybody else has got – because you haven’t got a guy driving a car around a bend in the Spanish hills or in Cape Town. You’ve got an ethereal, emotive sort of light-charged journey that is hopefully going to touch someone, and you think ‘Fuck me, that client’s been brave’. In the heat of the moment though, these things can catch you out. 

W: Cartier saw our exhibition at Colette, when we took over the whole of Colette for its fifth birthday, and they just commissioned us. They said ‘There’s a budget, we want you to rebrand the five fragrances. Go.You can do whatever you want’.We had a meeting and we said we’d like to creatively direct it, we’ll do a film and we’ll repackage it, and they said ‘Fine’. That was a very good example of the good times, when creativity flowed and art flowed, and ideas were allowed to have an emotion and a metaphor and to have resonance. With Cartier, you’ve got a product and you’ve got a bottle there, but you have an emotion that reigns supreme. The emotion and the resonance visually touches you and is special. If you take a product and shoot it the way that 95% of products are being shot at the minute, which is very homogenised, unemotional, where the clarity of the product is the hero, then there’s a very distinct end result. I think it’s based on fear, on lack of budget and on lack of imagination. Technology, for all its greatness, has brought about too much involvement with the process. Where before you were left alone to create, now there’s an accountability to every step of the process. It’s designed by committee, it’s validated by committee, there’s no mystery or evolution of creative process. That’s dangerous.

N: All of a sudden, whereas before people had a part-understanding technically, they now assume they have a full understanding.

W: We only know what we know and we can only fight for what we know, and that is to have the freedom to make beautiful images. There’s no right or wrong within this process, that’s the democracy within the process. It’s not wrong for a marketing director to discern a certain look and feel, it’s just that I believe the climate is really quite boring and homogenised. It will evolve, because nothing ever stands still and we are always in a shapeshifting, ever-evolving scenario. Nothing ever stands still. There will be a revolution – a few will be brave and others will  follow. It’s just very fucking boring right now.

N: As image makers, we’re very lucky that when we work commercially we earn a lot of money, which means that we have a lot of freedom within ourselves as people to be quite selfish with our time. The irony behind a passive creative market – a lot of people say it’s not passive, it’s creative, we’re all doing great stuff, but if you look back to different decades and different time periods, it seemed to be a lot more colourful – the irony is, that pushes us towards more personal projects. Like working on the UNKLE project; we’ve been working on that for over a year now and have just shot the next album, which is a follow on from this album (Where Did The Night Fall). It forces us to be less selfish with our time for those kinds of things. We don’t need to be jobbing photographers.

W: Myself and Nick have always had a very healthy balance between personal and commissioned commercial work. We’ve always done a huge amount of personal work; it’s not attached to any given end result, it’s just with the intent of wanting to scratch, to dig, to create, to evolve, to shape, to form, to find things, to make things. That’s the premise of it for me and Nick. 

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W: We’ve always worked in a very three-dimensional way. Traditionally,I’m photographic – 21 years behind a lens. Traditionally,  Nick is graphic/art direction. Our intent to combine our disciplines was based on vision. Myself and Nick were of the first wave of people to get together, and I still think today probably the only photographer and art director that have successfully married their disciplines. We have a very singular passion for the same thing – to make great images.

N: It’s never been ‘Oh, we’ve had a bad year, we didn’t really gel this year’. That just doesn’t happen. It’s always just gone the way we wanted it to; it’s never really been questioned.

W: If you break it down in a lateral sense, one of the biggest driving forces behind my picking up a camera was graphics, people like Rodchenko and Brodovitch, and various other applications. I just didn’t study; probably if I’d have studied I would have fallen into it at some point within that process, but I fell more into theatre, stage and lighting, and then picked a camera up and started taking pictures. The common ground comes from us being part of the magazine generation, and as far back as I can remember, and probably Nick as well, comics, magazines and annuals were probably our biggest influences. I was collecting fashion magazines at the age of seven, eight years old, and so was Nick.That’s where it sort of begins. We have a very intrinsic and deep passion for fashion as well, which is perhaps unusual for two straight boys, but we love clothes and we love the process of theatre, fashion, photography, hair, make-up – the whole creative process of it. At the time, us cross-pollinating our disciplines was about recognising where things were going and I think both of us realised very early on that the cross-pollination between the mediums would be better if there were two of us rather than a singular, because we wanted to contain that and bring it all in-house and operate it all ourselves. We’ve never worked with operators, and that’s one of the distinctive differences.

N: We’ve been asked by assistants ‘What should I do?’. They’ve got it all worked out in their heads – they want to be driving flash cars and living the dream – but they want to know the route to that.  They say ‘Do I need to be developing a style, do I need to be doing this, do I need to do a bit of this’, and we’re like ‘No, fuck that’. When they speak of developing a style, they mean it as a functional thing rather than coming up with a core sort of expression of who they are as people. I say ‘Throw all of that away, that’s all bollocks because anybody can do anything now. You need to be doing something which is true to yourself. ’Whether that has any remuneration value is not really the point; the point is that you need to be doing what your soul is speaking to you about. That’s what we do; we don’t come here and go ‘What do we need to be doing?’ or ‘Shit, what are we not doing right?’. We’re coming in and going ‘This is what we want to do’. It’s more a metaphorical thing that I try to get across to these guys, and some of them will get it but then they’ll go into a depression, or they won’t get it and they’ll still think ‘Well, I need to copy that person’ and it becomes very functional. I try and say to people ‘You need to be you’, and if as a by-product of that there comes success on some level then great; otherwise, at least you’ve been true to yourself and done what’s right. That’s what’s missing. In decades gone by, when you weren’t fed a thousand things every day, there was sometimes no other route than doing what you needed to do because you didn’t know any better. You went down your own path because you weren’t distracted by everybody else’s path.

W: You have to commit to something and it becomes about what it is you want to achieve – that’s the first thing you have to ascertain. Beyond that, it’s about recognising your talents and what your driven disposition is. Within that, it’s nurturing those talents. You have to be aware of popular culture, you have to be aware of psychology, sociology, all of these elements, and combine them to form a point of view. If you don’t have a point of view, how are you going to visually create something arresting or poignant? Our intent is the purveyance of originality; we’ll do a thousand images to end up with three that we like. To me, the mother of invention is to go in and take light and technology and be a contemporary craftsman, to make things and create things and then evaluate them and think ‘OK, wow, we’ve found something’ and get excited and put it out there.We have our influences,but they’re not in any way, shape or form there to be directly reappropriated. One of my biggest influences photographically is Francis Giacobetti – I love his work, it’s genius. I just love his application and his mindset, more so than I would blatantly copy his work.



W: The last four or five years became like being in a Formula One team, and you had to have a certain amount of infrastructure and professional clout around you to even be considered to play in the game – it was really weird. Technology has sort of tipped it again though. The advent of, say, the Canon 5D MK2 has caused a lot of havoc on an emotion/ stills capacity and evolved the medium. The notion of that elitist club has been broken down again, which is a good thing. A lot of people – including us – were holding on to accounts and work just based on the fact of being a Formula One team, not necessarily based on vision and talent.

The American’s caused it primarily, because they want everything now and at a pace, and as you’re shooting they want to be editing – it just got quicker and quicker and quicker. I remember us getting to a point where it was just like ‘No, we have to put the brakes on’.You get to a point where, yeah, you can throw five retouchers at it and you can be on a plane editing and getting off and going to the next job, all rock and roll, but it was just getting ridiculous. I think it’s a metaphor for the world to be frank.  The world crashing 18 months, two years ago has probably been the best thing that has happened. Even though now is quite painful, now is really necessary because the correction towards mindfulness and away from this excess for everything has to take place.

N: What’s interesting also within the game of visually making work is how the mediums are changing on a monthly basis – it’s like ‘What’s hot this month?’ – and that brings a lot of confusion into the image making process,because one’s vision doesn’t necessarily fit with the ultimate perceived outcome. We had a job in six months ago, a 26 page document. Two pages were relative to the execution and the other 24 pages were based on where that was going to fall and how it was going to be displayed and which social networking event it needed to be applied to. It got so confused that we decided we just didn’t want to be part of it.

W: It came from a very reputable ad agency, not in this country, one of the major players, and it was a global campaign. It was a wake-up call to the media strategy and the evolution of what you create and what that is applicable to. One of the big things that I think should be debated and really put out there on a global capacity is how people are taking still images from a motion piece. The industry as we know it has no safeguard or protection, or any idea of how to manage or broker it. We’ve heard from the absurd to the ridiculous, where someone will go ‘There’s a lump sum to the production company, you make the film and we’ll just spread it across the media’. Everyone knows that a director doesn’t necessarily earn the same kind of revenue that a still photographer earns because it’s structured in a different way – you’ll have profit share on the production and you’ll have points on certain things; it’s structured in a different financial way. All of a sudden you’ve got a still image which would have a media buy on it and a usage and a media spend on it just being extracted and having no financial payment on it whatsoever. We potentially face a lot of problems in the future.

N: It’s a threatening aspect to the existence of the stills industry and to the industry of photography. We talk about the industry but the industry funds the art. We balance art and commerce, as a lot of our contemporaries do, and we like that because within that balance we get to meet, integrate, converse with people in a way that’s much more productive for the likes of me andWarren. We’re quite content to go from one to the other. Again, I come back to the fact that we’re lucky. A lot of what we class as the professional side within an industry, it’s very close to what we do.

W: It’s going to really affect the creative process, because you can’t create with nothing. If you make films or you’re a photographer or both, you have to earn. You don’t have to earn stupid money but you need to earn enough to buy equipment and invest in your vision and craftsmanship so you can offer up something new, and be able to earn a living from it. If that’s all taken away, you will not exist. If a production company only pays a fee to the creatives but they take a lot of the profit from the production, they’re not nurturing or feeding the creative industry. What you’re going to have is just a lot of functional entities out there producing a load of shit, because there’ll be no funding to invent or create or nurture creation.

N: It’s a reality relative to budgets as well. We’ve done a treatment in the last two weeks for a client and the agency really wants us to do it, we’ve scripted the whole thing in the craft, so we shoot it in the craft – the whole thing is based around the concept of light – and our production company and the agency have already said ‘We know we can do this all on computer, and the client has had it all done on computer before’, but we don’t want to do that. We’re passionate about it because it’s what we come in every day to do and we want to protect it as much as possible. It’s like you’re protecting your core almost. It’s not because we want to be millionaires – if we wanted to do that, we’d just shoot catalogues all the time.

W: The client will ultimately decide; the marketing director will make that decision. It’s whether craftsmanship is more validated than a computer digital route, and the outcome will be very different. That’s the reality. We’ve made films and we’ve combined the two mediums very successfully in the past, we’ve done many projects of that nature, so we’re not part of that bandwagon right now where everyone’s trying to jump onto the film gig. The point I want to make is that you can shoot something in motion, it has its application and intent, and you can take still images from that if you have an understanding of that application and you can direct it in that capacity, but it still has a very definitive look and feel. I still strongly believe that the intent behind a singular-captured image will always survive and will always be part of the game, because it’s a different way of working, of applying yourself and capturing something. What’s exciting now, since the Kindle and now the iPad, is that finally we have RGB real-time space, which is really quite interesting because when I look at an image on an iPad, I see it as I’ve seen it for the last 10 years on a computer. It has a depth and a dimension and a space to it.

N: Another twist on the technological revolution is that, as we’ve all fought for the bigger chips, the bigger memory, the heightened levels of ‘Oh, let’s get 65 megapixel cameras’,the mediums that we’re now providing to need one tenth of that. You probably don’t need anything more than what you can buy on the high street now for about £400.

W: There’s almost a new democratic league taking place. I think vision has to be paramount; we’re just crippled within a very dire economic curve right now, which is very important because mindfulness needs to come back and there is an evolution process. We’re entering a new era and it’s up to us, how we take hold of that new era, visually, ethically, emotion- ally, physically, culturally. Image makers have a huge part to play in that.