Secret desires

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Brighton-based photographer Matt Henry draws most of his photographic inspiration from America of the 1960s and ’70s. Using props sourced from both the UK and the United States, Henry construct elaborates sets for his staged scenes.

His work plays with memory fragments of American photography, cinema and literature, he explains, to “explore underlying ideological concerns”. The result is images of small town, semi-rural life where dramas of love, sex, family and death are played out.

Henry’s series, Blue River Falls, which was two years in the making, is currently on show at his gallery, One Eyed Jacks, in Brighton. Gemma Padley caught up with him to find out more about his photographic approach and vision.

BJP: How and why did Blue River Falls come about?

MH: It’s personal work so it was self-driven, rather than commissioned, but it’s difficult to isolate the seed as it’s two years since I started it. From memory, I think it was a combination of failed relationships and bingeing on American neo-noir movies like Blood Simple, Blue Velvet, Cape Fear, and recently Drive, as well as the darker elements of the television series Twin Peaks [that sparked the series].


BJP: What is the work about? What do you want to convey through these images?

MH: At heart I suppose the work’s about the inner conflict that we face as human beings in terms of our rationality as set against our base drives and desires. There’s a strong urge we have as human beings to find this person, this partner, with which to journey through life. And the urge is so strong that it can lead us into hugely destructive relationships that defy common sense, and yet we persist like moths to the flame. But there’s also a slightly masochistic side of humanity that invites this suffering. I find some beauty in that. There’s romance, a radiance in that darkness, which sits at the core of the project.

BJP: Why the use of diptychs? What does this approach allow you to achieve?

MH: Cinema and literature are my main influences, rather than photographic history, and at heart I’m a story-teller. There’s something about the single image that I find stultifying. It arrests the conversation. A pair of images somehow opens things up like a sentence or a moving sequence. It feels like there’s movement there as the brain works to associate the two images and fills in the missing middle. And unlike a series, it can be immediately consumed with a glance. And if you’re not too literal, and leave questions between the pair, it can really spark the imagination of the viewer in a way the single image can’t.

BJP: Tell us a little about the process of producing the work, from the initial idea to storyboarding and planning the shots, casting, logistics, building the sets, styling, and so on. What hurdles did you face, and how did you overcome these challenges?

MH: It always starts with a list of ideas on a piece of paper, and these ideas then get drawn up as storyboards. This is my favourite part of the process. I break each shot down into a list of props, sets and materials required, and start pulling them all in from eBay and elsewhere. The sets can take some time to build so it’s a very slow process. At the same time I’ll be contacting actors on database websites like Casting Call Pro and Spotlight. Once I have cast the shoot, I start sourcing outfits for my subjects. I do all the styling myself, both for the props and clothing. This is a major creative and fun element so I wouldn’t want to relinquish control! The actual shooting doesn’t take too long as I’m not one to hang around. I’ve normally got what I want within half an hour or so. Hurdles are usually money-based for a self-funded project, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Blue River Falls is at One Eyed Jacks until 3 September

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