Author, Harry Hughes

@harry_hughes, Staff Writer

Raw bright colours stand out from the page and alarm the senses. There is no shadow, and many grotesque shapes bulge and form behind the lens and somehow remind you of how things used to be, before we got so caught up in body image and euphoric ways to circumvent what is really happening to us as a society.


Here is horror and alarm and Hitchcockian detailing in an easy, fresh and startling manner, and it comes at the hand of Luke Stephenson, trying his best to epitomise what is weird and wonderful about everything from the human body to dogs, cats and the history of Rule Britannia. Take the 99 ice cream. Such a simple form, with ordinary unabashed colours. But how often do we see one in its pure form, frigid, undaring, floating timidly against a beige background? A canary, yellow and white, simply staring ahead as if bored of flying and even having its picture taken, making a very domestic yet beautiful canvas? A Pee-wee Herman-type model with a high art jumper, his circular glasses grimacing at us, a perfect wave of hair challenging us to laugh with it at life and its sometimes simple propriety.
Sometimes frightening silhouettes and emotionless eyes that glare at you like one of Hitchcock’s icy cool blondes. Luke’s done a lot of big work for a lot of big names, including The New York Times magazine and Dazed and Confused, to name a few, and perhaps it’s the sort of work that’s commissioned that propels him to take such simple chances with use of colour, form, humour, perspective and background. If you can do it easily, and get the point across, what’s the point of making things difficult for yourself and the viewer? I myself was singularly impressed with the emotion and commotion revealed in these simple portraits, spanning fine art, fashion and commercial narrative.
Perhaps the most pressing comes from his ‘Painted Face’ collection, as here lies much of the spirit of the horrible devil-may-care bon hom that pervades his life through the lens. It reminds me of some of the work of Darran Rees, a welsh born photographer that I interviewed here at Sodium Burn, but whereas Darran is obviously trying to startle with his garish pictures of surreal forms in even more surreal backdrops, Luke seems simply to be unveiling who he is, making up the characters from something raw and throbbing that lives in his own being. Let’s find out.

















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The Interview

Your Painted Face composition seems to bring to light something intrinsic in your own personality – a surreal way of looking at the world that is at times quite frightening. Would you say this is correct?

I’m not sure, i try not to over think things, and as a rule shoot things that i find interesting or make me smile, but you are a sum of your interests and experiences so they will obviously show themselves in my work i suppose. When i photographed the painted faces series i never planned for it to be any great body of work i was just a little bored and bought some face paints and me and a few friends would get drunk and paint our faces we started very simply and gradually got a bit more obscure. I started taking the face paints to parties, i think its quite interesting using something thats meant to be for kids and letting drunk adults get creative and as you’ve seen the results are quite interesting and occasionally a little dark ! I found that everyone had there own style when painting a face i personally like to create weird tribal characters that didn’t really relate to anything maybe that says something about me i don’t know!

From your film archive ‘It Takes Two to Make a Pair’, you turn simple things like vegetables into objets d’art. And you do it so effortlessly. What was your thinking behind this film and what were you trying to get across?

Well this film was a commission for NOWNESS who asked me to make a film related to the star sign gemini. When i get asked to do something like this i quite enjoy working with a restrictive frame work and then seeing how much i can get away with within that restriction. I had lots of ideas about twins and pairs of things and then i came up with the idea that i could use 180 things that were the same as each other and showed them for 1/2 a second that would fill up my time limit on the film and i decided to use fruit and vegetables which came from the simple idea playing on the word pair and pear which sounds a bit silly now i say it out loud but i think it worked well.

How would you sum up your photographs?

I don’t really like to label myself to much as I tend to come up with ideas and then use whatever genre of photography best suites the idea which can be a little confusing for people, but i think of my larger projects such as the ice creams and the birds as documents showing a world that isn’t always seen.

Tell us about the ice cream 99 flake – such a delightfully simple idea – and what gave you the inspiration to tell its story?

Well i did a small project on ice cream vans called “Mind that child” and this got me thinking about ice creams and how they were so deeply engrained in British culture so i decided it would be good to do a project on ice creams. I had also wanted to do a project on the British seaside for some time as it seems to be a right of passage for British photographers to do so, the Americans have their long road trips we in Britain have the seaside which seems to connect every element of British society.

Some time before i started this project i photographed every cornflake in a box of cornflakes and there ended up being 7122 cornflakes in the box which is rather a lot. The pictures are ok but i think the best thing about that project is the endeavour the fact that somebody did something like that and took the time to do it so i came up with the idea of doing something similar to that but with a more manageable number, as i mentioned earlier i quite like restricting myself so i came up with the concept of visiting 99 locations and photographing a 99 flake in each place. So i created a portable ice cream studio that allowed me to photograph the ice creams before they melted and i also bought a camper van and basically set off with a very loose idea to stick close to the sea hoping to find ice cream sellers as i went, It took me around a month and i drove 3500 miles and ate a lot of ice creams in the process. It was really nice to see Britain in this way and visit some beautiful places within my own country that i’d never been too before.

Your ‘love him like you love yourself’ work, using very striking dogs and cats, really jumps out at me. There is something both kind and sinister in the pictures. Talk us through your thinking for these shots…

This was a advertising commission so i didn’t have too much to do with the original concept i just had to bring my eye to the project and bring everything to life.

Fashion photography seems to come very naturally to you. It seems like the models you choose and the poses we find them in are, like your ‘Painted Face’ collection, an extension of your own personality. What are you looking for when you photograph these faces?

My Fashion work is interesting as its not something i ever really set out to do seriously but its something that i now really enjoy working on. with fashion shoots you seem to have a lot more freedom and are quite often given quite a bit of creative control so generally i come up with an idea or a character i’d like to explore and thats it really, but with the models and poses i quite like to hold certain things back and let the viewer make up there own assumptions about the ideas i’m trying to get across i think there is something very interesting in not giving everything away and letting peoples minds do the rest.

Obviously you love bright, bold colours and stark silhouettes. There is much of the ‘everyday’ in your work, and yet you seem to pervert it to tell a very sinister story about simple objects. Tell us more about this?

I’ve never thought of my work as sinister to be honest i just think there is a lot of beauty in the things we see and use everyday that we often overlook and i think that when you isolate these things on there own in a photograph you give them a much higher status than they possibly deserve but i think thats quite interesting so maybe thats why i play with this concept so much.

What is the best commission you have ever had…take us through it?

Well i have done a lot of great work and met a lot of great people over the years but i think one of my first jobs was possibly the most exciting mostly because i was only young and i got to travel around the world but i was commissioned to take around 20 portraits for Art Review Magazine power 100 list which they produce every year so back in 2006 i took portraits of some of the most powerful people in the art world. Its funny to look back at as i was very green and didn’t really know what i was doing but i had lots of fun doing it and i learnt so much from the whole process it really set me up for lots of other work and gave me a lot of confidence.

What’s next for you on this inspiring journey?

I always have lots of ideas in the pipe line so i am just trying to work on these and hopefully one of them will work out to be something i’m happy with sharing and i might turn it into another book but we will see.