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Every Art Producer I know has a wish list. A list of all the photographers, illustrators and set designers they would love to work with. Usually written in January, this list is scrawled in the back of a brand new moleskine diary or written on a post it note and stuck to their computer. It is a list written with a determined attitude and is often accompanied with a title that reads ‘Photographers I must work with this year’. All in capital letters. Luke Stephenson is on my list. In fact Luke has been on my list year in year out since around 2010. It will finally happen this year. The post it note on my computer tells me so.

After circumnavigating the coast of Britain to shoot the iconic British staple, the humble 99 ice cream, and a three year obsession photographing show birds, I was more than a little bit curious about what project Luke would engross himself with next. Lucky for me I had the pleasure of chatting to him recently and heard all about his cold calling bird breeders , the art of repetition, the mysterious origins of the 99, listening to the blues, shooting wigs for The Sunday Times, the excellent For Life Not Landfill fashion story for Jigsaw and his new obsession with pizza takeaway scooters.

So lets start with your latest project. Why were you drawn to documenting takeaway scooters and what is it about the two image format you find so appealing ?
Some time ago I discovered some cigarette cards which had images of jockeys sitting on their horse, the pictures were shot in profile and I really liked them and thought about recreating the drawings by photographing actual jockeys in a similar way. I then started to notice takeaway scooters zooming around and started to think they were similar to jockeys racing around the city delivering their wares. I thought it would be fun to photograph them and see the differences in each scooter and individual rider.

 

Since photographing the 99x99s series I really like the combination of two images that link and give you a better picture of the subject so I thought it would also be nice to document the pizzas that were delivered. I started to order a different pizza from each of the establishments to build up a set of images that show the diverse and sometimes strange selection of pizzas that are available.

Your recent campaign for Jigsaw was hugely successful when it launched back in April this year and you have shot several brilliant editorial fashion stories this year too. Does it come as a surprise to you that your work translates so well in world of fashion ?
It is a little surprising and not something I set out to do. I first started shooting fashion working with Agi & Sam on their look books. It was good to work with them as I was involved from the beginning and they give me a lot of freedom which is the main reason I like shooting fashion. With the Sunday Times Style, Lucy Ewing got in touch with a very loose concept and I tweaked it a little and it worked really well. Since then they give me quite an open brief, basically as long as my ideas incorporate product and it's not too crazy I can pretty much do what ever I like, which is rare, but very nice and I enjoy coming up with the ideas and figuring out how to make them work.

 

I think fashion photography is free from a lot of the constraints that other commercial photography has and they are more willing to take risks so I suppose this is why I’ve been quite busy with fashion lately.

I first came across your work in 2005 when you won the Jerwood prize straight out of university for your series 'Spectacle Wearing Folk'. How did winning an award like that affect your career early on?
Well it was quite a shock when I won the Jerwood award and also I was selected for the Hyeres Festival a few months later. This exposed my work to a lot of art buyers and picture editors so I started to get commissions, mostly for magazines, straight out of Uni, which was wonderful and quite exciting, but looking back I was a little green so I was winging it a little. But it was fun and I learnt so much about how everything worked which helped a lot as you can’t learn that at University.
Even back then your style as a photographer was very honed, your subjects shot in a ‘instructional manual’ style with a strong sense of comedy and the absurd. Can you mark the point at which you were drawn to this style of photography?
I am not sure I can put a finger on the exact thing that lead me that way as I think you are influenced by everything you come into contact with in some small way, but at uni I was a big fan of KesselsKramer’s Useful Photography books and thought that the mundane practical photos were beautiful in their own way. I think early on and to this day I don’t like a lot of clutter in my photographs. I like to see the thing I’m photographing as it is, without to much fuss, so I try and strip the images back to what is essential.
The collecting of images and an enthusiastic, almost obsessive documentation of a subject over and over again is one of the things that defines your work as a photographer now, starting with An Incomplete Dictionary of Showbirds. What is it about this art of collection and repetition that appeals to you so much ?
I have always collected things since I was a child and I think all photographers are collectors in some way as you amass this massive collection of photographs as you work and they all have to be catalogued and filed away. So I think its important to have this slightly obsessive trait as a photographer. Now I use photography to collect things.

 

When I did the bird project it started quite simply, all I wanted to do was photograph a few budgies, then I wanted to capture some canaries and then I started to see lots of different birds and began to want them in my collection. So it became a strange quest to photograph as many different birds as I could. I had a list of birds I’d like to photograph and had to search hard to get them, but this is part of the satisfaction, the hunt and figuring out a way to get what you want.

You called the book An Incomplete Dictionary. Is this because you still don’t feel sated that you captured it all?
When I started I wanted to just photograph budgies but as I got more and more into the project I started to realise it was a massive undertaking as there are so many birds out there and within each breed there are endless variations of colour combinations so it would literally be a life’s work to capture all the wonderful variations, so I surrendered to this fact. I like the title as it’s a little strange to have a dictionary that is incomplete so I’m accepting its weakness as a factual thing.
As well as a clear focus on all things British, there is a lovely humour to your work. Do you think this is a very British way of documenting the world?
I think British people do have a great sense of humour and although we are slightly reserved in some aspects of life we do have the ability to not take ourselves too seriously. As a photographer I just try and show the little things which are not really that important but make up this wonderful island.
In the introduction to your second book, 99 x 99’s, you are quoted as saying the trip showed you the ‘Measure of England’. What does that mean for you?
It really means when I drove around the coast of England and Wales (I missed out a lot of Scotland) you really get a idea of the scale of the country and the little differences that make up the country, from the accents to the landscape. It really is wonderful that on such a small island there can be so much diversity.
Mysteriously not that much is known about the history of the most iconic of all British things, the humble 99. Did you make any discoveries on your journey?
It is one of the great things about the 99 that no one knows for sure where it got its name from, not even Cadbury. Whenever I got a chatty ice cream vendor I would always ask them if they knew the origins of its name and I got so many stories that it becomes very hard to filter them and work out which one is true.

 

The one I like and sounds as if it could be true is that there was a ice cream shop in Portobello near Edinburgh which was on 99 Portobello high street. The owner would take a flake, snap it half, and put one half in the ice cream and call it a 99 and then the Cadbury rep saw this and they started to make smaller flakes just for ice creams. I visited the location of this myth on my travels, it's now a hairdressers, but the numbers for the property look quite old and does look quite like the graphics for the 99 flake... but it could all be nonsense and I like the fact that it is so full of mystery.

The 99 is a fairly tricky subject to shoot. Can you explain the workings of the make shift studio you set up to capture this great British culinary staple ?
Well the obvious problem when photographing ice cream is it starts to melt quite quickly so I had to overcome this problem before I did anything else. So I set out to make a box that would contain everything I need to photograph the ice creams. It needed to be mobile so I could get right up close to the ice cream vans and shops, so I put wheels on the box. It had lights in the top of the box so the lighting would stay consistent throughout the trip and the camera was attached to the front panel and this was the exact distance so the ice cream would always be in focus. After a bit of trial and error it worked perfectly and captured ice creams around the country without fail. I did get a few funny looks pushing a big white box around the seaside but the seaside is full of strange goings on.
This trip around the coast is the British version of the iconic American road trip. What music did you find yourself listening to while driving and what happened to the Bedford Nipper you used to drive around the coastline?
I did spend a lot of time driving in my van on this trip and I was generally listening to blues music or radio 4 which I think a very happy marriage between Britain and the USA. It’s quite a sad story what happened to the van. I kept the van over the winter and used it as my run around. It wasn’t the most practical vehicle in the world so I planned to sell it in the summer but last march it was broken into outside my flat and set on fire. Thankfully no one was hurt but the van was a write off. Its a sad end as it had many more miles to travel.
Your work was exhibited last year with John Hinde, Simon Roberts and Martin Parr at the Photographers gallery for the Didn’t We Have A Lovely Time exhibition. It seems a lot of British photographers are drawn to capturing this part of British life. What is it about the seaside for you that was so intriguing to document?
I think the seaside is such a draw for photographers because its a condensed version of Britain. It has all the elements that make this island great and also not so great, it draws people from all walks of life and has a brashness that is rarely found in other parts of the UK that just makes it very interesting to photograph.
Finally Kickstarter has had an enormous impact on the creative industry over the last few years. How was your experience kick starting the 99 x 99 book?
Kickstarter was a really great experience. It was a lot of work getting everything ready for the campaign and also keeping up with press and enquiries throughout the thirty days but it was well worth it and the feed back from everyone was really positive. It's such an amazing tool as other wise I would have had to fund the book myself which financially I wouldn’t have been able to do. but Kickstarter allowed me to fund the book and make it exactly how I wanted it without any compromise. I would definitely use it again.
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