The Big Interview: Johnnie Shand Kydd

As he unveils a series of candid portraits of international art figures at play in 1990s Greece — including Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Grayson Perry – we speak to Johnnie Shand Kydd about responsible image making, “communication incontinence”, his love for the Rolleiflex camera, and which Young British Artist makes the best cocktail…

The Double Negative: So Johnnie, your new solo exhibition is in the reopened Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. What do you think of the new building?

Johnnie Shand Kydd: It’s fantastic. However much Maria [Balshaw, Whitworth director] tried to explain how each bit related to the other, it’s come as a surprise… I couldn’t imagine it. Now is the first time I’ve seen it all opened up and it moves very gracefully from one space to the other I think.

It certainly does. It’s much improved I think — people are going to love it. Your photographs are displayed in a rather unusual hang.

It was interesting because I was working on this edit, and how it should be presented, and I tried to do it in a conventional way, the ‘plonk plonk plonk’ bit – you know, double hang, single hang — and what seemed like very lively images suddenly died in front of me, and I couldn’t get it to work.

“Sometimes the best way to edit is to literally shuffle the images like a pack of cards, and you come up with completely arbitrary clashes of images”

Then I realised that I always much preferred photographs in the book than on the wall, and in a way what I’ve done here is sort of created those random collisions of images that you get when you’re flicking through pages of a book… [Choosing the final edit] I remembered was one of those happy accidents, where just everyone had a glass too many and it started coming together. Sometimes alcohol is the answer.

I’ll quote you on that. Well, that’s actually how a photo album feels, when you’re very familiar with everyone and the order of the images feels very natural.

Well, I spent a lot of time trying to do a thematic hang and it just wasn’t working… Sometimes the best way to edit is to literally shuffle the images like a pack of cards, and you come up with completely arbitrary clashes of images, which are much more interesting than if you thought about it too much.

Your work connects the new glass extension with the Pauline Karpidas-sponsored permanent collection — the Portrait Room — and Karpidas was, of course, the one who invited you and other artists on holiday, to the Greek island of Hydra. 

There was always going to be a connection between the Pauline Karpidas bequest… Collectors are two a penny but a patron is a rare thing indeed and Pauline is really a great patron, a patron of the Whitworth, and she has given a lot of work to the Whitworth… These artists in the photographs: their work is represented in the collection, so that’s how and why the two come together.

So which artists in the Whitworth collection are also featured in your photographs?

So, for example Don Brown is the blue sculpture there [points to the Portrait Room] and he’s the one on the lilo there [points]. Tracey Emin, certainly Paul Noble whose work is over there as well, and Gary Hume who’s also in the collection.

“I quite like to have the evidence that Tracey Emin once had as many vices as the rest of us”

We have just passed Hume’s work in the South Gallery; that is a lovely connection, isn’t it? So you were aware of this when you were selecting these particular photographs.

Yeah, and I mean they span a long time: I started taking them in ’96, so it could have gone on and on and on… I think it makes you want to be in Greece now.

Yes, makes me feel jealous! What’s your favourite image in this selection? Are there any that hold any particularly fond memories?

I quite like Tracy Emin smoking … I mean she’s a lady of strong opinions, and she’s now so anti smoking, and she’s sort of very vocal about it, so I quite like to have the evidence that once she had as many vices as the rest of us.

Did you ask her to do that with her hair? Or was that a complete accident?

No, no, it was probably the Ouzo kicking in [laughs] I’d imagine. CerithWyn Evans, this one here [points], invented the most awful of all drinks which is called Screw-zo, which is a combination of Sprite and Ouzo.

Wow, sounds potent [both laugh].

Here’s a nice one [points] because Ed, who’s Jürgen Teller‘s son, appears in a lot of these images, he marks the passing of time because he’s 10 now, so that gives you some idea of how time marches on.

Johnnie Shand Kydd: Tracey Emin, Hydra, July 1998

How do you think the collection sums up the YBA movement? They all have a sense of a specific moment about them; was that planned when you were actually taking these images?

I was talking about this a little bit earlier, because I do feel like a bit of a fraud. The island had preservation orders slapped onto it in the ’60s so no development has taken place since then, there’s no traffic, so it has this strange, sort of timeless quality, because it doesn’t seem like the modern world. And because I’m using a 1950s/1960s Rolleiflex camera for most of these, it sort of suggests that all these people belong to a previous period, which of course isn’t true — it’s just the romance of the place.

Well, there are aspects of old Hollywood Glamour to it all.

Some of them are looking quite good. But they don’t look quite so good now [laughs].

That’s an unfortunate reflection of time passed. Was the Rolleiflex your camera of choice for this whole period of time?

No, there’s a pleasant combination: a square format and those oblong ones tend to be 35mm. I used the twin lens Rolleiflex because somebody’s mum gave it to me in the mid ’90s, and I kind of learnt to take pictures. Up until then, I’d been using an automatic camera, and then I needed to learn how to kind of manually take pictures. I started learning on a Rolleiflex and I’ve used it ever since.

Whose mum gave you the camera?

Well, you know, people’s mothers say things like: ‘I stopped taking pictures 50 years ago, you have it’. It was just one of those. I love how accidents happen. If it hadn’t have been for my friend Nigel’s mum, I would never have used a Rolleiflex.

“People are so timid at commissioning that they want somehow to see what you are going to give them beforehand”

Thanks Nigel’s mum! So — a bit of a cliché question — is there anyone who has particularly influenced you over the years?

My favourite photographer is John Deakin, who was part of the London School/Soho in the 1940s and ’50s, with Bacon and Freud. He did very stark, no frills, portraits of the artists, and he was, I suppose, the biggest influence on me when I started taking photographs of artists in the ’90s.

And how about now?

I try not to look at too many others, because otherwise you might just end up copying them, and I think you can get ideas from other things like paintings, and things like that.

One of the things I hate about being commissioned now, to do anything, is they always want a mood board: people are so timid at commissioning that they want somehow to see what you are going to give them beforehand, and one way of doing that is creating mood boards. But then you give them pictures that you think they want to see, and you are expected to copy them, and I think that’s a very sort of wrong direction to in.

All those pictures you use as reference, they never had references, they made it up themselves, which I think is much more interesting.

Do you think that’s just the Instagram/Pinterest influence on the way things are viewed now?

You know what, I can’t bear all the social media things, I absolutely hate it.

It’s a major influence.

I kind of think that what you don’t say is sometimes as important as what you do say. And I just think at the moment that there’s a sort of communication incontinence, where everybody is just Instagram, Twitter, and everything, and I just don’t belong to that world. I’m sure it is where everybody else is going but it’s not for me.

Do you not use any social media at all?

No no, and I use film, so I don’t do digital, so…

You don’t DO digital.

I don’t DO digital.

When are you going to come and do a show at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool?

Ahh, you never know, you could twist my arm!

So what are your plans? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you’re working on?

I’m a real wanderer, I’m not sort of a careerist, knowing exactly where I’m going. Things just seem to naturally happen and take me in interesting directions. Last year I was doing a lot of short filmmaking, but that primarily was quite commercial work, and what I like to do is do that commercial work which subsidises my non-commercial work, and keep the two separate.

“I just kind of hold my breath and wait and hope that it works out”

Have you found a good commercial/non-commercial balance?

Yes, but I’m never quite sure. I just kind of hold my breath and wait and hope that it works out. I was very busy last year and I could do with a little bit of breather after this, where I’ll wait and see what the next thing is.

And the filmmaking?

I was working for a website called NOWNESS, and it’s great actually, because I’ve never had any training; I mean I’ve never had any training as a photographer either. They première a short film every day of the year. It’s great because I must have made about nine films for them now, and they have the courage and conviction to allow me to learn how to make films through trial and error, which is great actually, really great. You get a really good editor and a really good sound person and you just sort of stand and let them get on with it [laughs] and then you can go to the editing suite and it’s very fun.

It’s almost like a residency, it sounds freeing.

Well, it is free, except for you know, its run by LVMH, and they know who their demographic is; it’s quite tough.

Do clients ever reject some of your ideas? 

I think I usually am quite simple [to work with] but there are moments when I feel my corners stretched, where I’m quite shocked by my savagery, to be honest [laughs]. I don’t know, I kind of feel that if something really good is being sidelined for something that is really banal — which is what happens in a commercial sector — then I get quite angry.

“One of the great things about the Rolleiflex is that you look down into the camera rather than through it. It’s a wonderfully un-threatening camera to use”

Well, you seem to have captured a real sense of energy and life in this collection. Have you got any methods that you regularly use to capture a particular shot?

I was talking about the Rolleiflex earlier; one of the great things about is that you look down into the camera rather than through it. It’s a wonderfully un-threatening camera to use, because it looks so old, it looks like something out of an old James Bond movie, people are intrigued by it. I was once photographing President Karzai [Afghanistan] and I had one of those cameras, and he said: ‘Ahh I can see you are a serious photographer!’ [laughs]

Well, I suppose one of the hazards, or frictions, of photographing people is that aspect of permission and privacy. It can be threatening to have your picture taken when it’s not expected.

I think you’re not allowed to slip up. Over the years, I’ve taken so many pictures which could be compromising in some way, and you just have to be incredibly tough about controlling those images and not letting them out of your sight.

I think that’s another great thing about the difference between film and digital. All it takes is you sharing an image with a friend by pressing a button on your laptop, and before you know it it’s gone viral, it’s leaked. There’s something about the very nature of film where you have to deliver the negative to the printer, and then have the print made. It’s much more controlling, and you know where it is.

If you slip up you’re not forgiven. I mean it’s so stupid to make a few extra bucks, but, people do it.

I suppose it’s just symptomatic of a whole different attitude to technology.

The other thing with something like this is that there are lots of intimate pictures; you take an intimate picture of Lily Cole on the beach, if you just release that to a magazine, it’s just the wrong thing to do. But when you include it within the context of a whole exhibition, it becomes completely acceptable. So, one just has to consciously and constantly be aware of being respectful to the subject.

Is that a motto that you’ve found yourself working with?

Well, I’ve been doing this since ’95 and haven’t fallen out with anybody.

Maybe you should start.

I think the main thing is that when people are like 80, they don’t care what they were doing when they were cute at 30!

Laura Robertson

See Johnnie Shand Kydd at the reopened Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 21 February 2016. Free entry

Gallery open daily 10am-5pm (until 9pm on Thursday)

Café and restaurant open Monday to Friday 8am-9.30pm, Saturday 9am-9.30pm, and Sunday 10am-7pm

Want more pictures? See our press tour on Instagram

Read We Fell In Love Again: The Whitworth — Reviewed

Read The Big Interview: Cornelia Parker

Posted on 03/03/2015 by thedoublenegative