Jack Davison – an interview from the BJP archives

Walking down the street with Jack Davison can be time-consuming. A sharp-suited bloke talking on the phone, a pretty young girl in a hurry, a bored construction worker seated by the side of the road, a balding old soak nursing a pint; Davison approaches each without a moment’s hesitation.

After introducing himself and chatting for a few seconds he’s circling round them, or leaning over them, or down on his knees, with his camera often inches from their face. He keeps talking to them throughout, framing quickly and firing off a few shots. He’s relaxed, composed in the moment, then gives a short thanks and he’s gone, walking down the street, briefly checking his new portrait.

Davison turned up at BJP’s offices on a road bike that had seen much better days, sweating under the sun, wearing a baggy white t-shirt, denim shorts and a cycling helmet. He didn’t look like a fast-emerging photographer and, like any 24-year-old, is still trying to work stuff out, to get his head around the complexities of making a career out of photography

“I have no idea how to use this thing, really,” he says, gesturing to his camera. “I just press random buttons.”

But though he’s self-deprecating to a fault, Davison is making it, fast. He’s already been commissioned by magazines such as the New York Times Magazine, AnOther and Garage, among many others, and has more than 10,000 followers on Instagram and Flickr. As I buy a round of drinks he pulls out his camera, plays briefly with an image he’s just taken, and then posts it to his social media. Later that day, his portrait of the smiling guy in the high-vis jacket has hundreds of likes and scores of comments.

Some photographers might be tempted to hoard their images; for Davison, sharing online is entirely natural, because that’s where he learnt his trade. He grew up in Essex hoping to become a marine biologist, but started taking photographs when he was 15 with the family’s Canon IXUS, and got interested enough to buy a “dodgy” Nikon D50 on eBay. It was Flickr that really gave him the bug, though, allowing him to share his work and get what he calls his photographic education.

He’s never formally studied photography or art, choosing instead to read English literature at the University of Warwick; one of the first images in his portfolio was taken in Warwick’s fantastically brutalist student accommodation, and shows a girl standing naked by a window, the curtains drawn, shafts of light streaming in.

“I think it helps that I also never got ‘taught’ in an official sense,” he says. “I was never told how to do things, and never given any set boundaries, so I’ve never had a problem with experimenting.”

After university Davison set off on a six-month tour of the US, but rather than taking time out, he decided to create “a body of work that encapsulated my philosophy as a photographer”. “We did 10,000 miles on the road,” he says. “I’d head out and wander through the streets looking for people to speak to and photograph. I’m reliant on moments of spontaneity with my subjects.”

The resulting series, 26 States, was mentioned in BJP’s Ones to Watch issue in January 2014, and helped launch his career in London. It’s a heady mix of portraits, almost all in monochrome, ranging from starkly lit, strongly featured women to kindly old men, from young kids trying to look tough to street-dwelling guys who really are.

“I consider myself a documentary photographer but I am more interested in the beauty or strangeness of a moment than I am with finding facts, or trying to make an argument,” says Davison.

Davison “values spontaneity, the unplanned moment” above all else, he says, yet he’s also happy to mess with his images before or after the event. He might take a portrait in shadow, in a reflection or deliberately blurred, or he might scratch the negative, or rip the shot after it’s printed.

Jessica © Jack Davison
Jessica © Jack Davison

And as he’s a portrait photographer these interventions often end up obscuring the face, though he says it’s not something he’s consciously thought about until I bring it up. In one image, a woman holds a shard of glass, for example, staring obliquely through its reflection; in another the model’s face is shrouded in a blue light, or half her face fades away in soft focus.

“I’m always experimenting when shooting,” says Davison. “I’m always trying to keep things playful, to keeps things from going stale. There is a certain joy in seeing a discarded bit of perspex on the street and picking it up and shooting through it.”

Another image sees the subject stare out through curling smoke; Davison, who was “obsessed with [Salvador] Dalí as a kid”, and is “thinking a lot now about Man Ray, Lisette Model, Alfred Stieglitz”, worked on the smoke until it resembled brush strokes, all smudges and swirling curlicues.

“There is a ton of very simple, straight out of the camera work being made at the moment,” he says. “A lot of it is excellent, but there’s a glut of it. I think it’s got to the extent where people aren’t pushing themselves – they’ve become too precious about the image, about sticking to the rules. I’m not afraid of cropping or editing or messing with the image.”

He talks passionately about John Deakin, the postwar British photographer who grew up in relative poverty in the outer reaches of Liverpool and lived for most of his early adulthood in Berwick Street, Soho, spending too much time drinking in The Colony Room. Deakin photographed the other artists and writers who hung out there – Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas, Daniel Farson and Jeffrey Bernard – but was always a little ashamed of his medium.

“He didn’t like photography and yearned to be a painter,” Davison says. “Yet he took these brilliant portraits, which he left lying around his studio getting stood on, battered, covered in layers of dust.

“The prints are so special because he really didn’t seem to give a shit about them,” Davison continues. “They are all dog-eared and ripped, corners missing. But it gives them even more presence, this sense of discarded moments, the photographs forgotten and left to rot.”

Davison has been able to translate his love of shooting people into fashion stories, and his commissions have often taken advantage of his off-centre approach to images; his work for Garage allowed him to show off his admiration for Deakin, via portraits ripped in half then matched with other half images. “Anything that might cause me to be uncertain as to what I’m expecting to see in the lens,” he says.

He suddenly breaks off and looks up, and stares intently at a middle-aged guy smoking a cigarette and nursing a drink on the other side of the window. He picks up his camera, walks outside, and takes the man’s portrait. What did he see there, I ask when he comes back inside.

“It was the way the light was catching him, I guess,” he says. “A look in his eyes, the intricacies of the face.”

He recalls approaching an interesting girl on the tube, and photographing her on the platform at Bank station. Doesn’t he ever get nervous about doing something like that, I wonder. “I did yeah, but you develop a confidence in yourself,” he says.

“Sometimes you get turned down, or you scare someone off. But the thing you realise is a lot of people want their picture taken now. Facebook has been great for portrait photographers like me, because suddenly everyone wants a profile picture.

“As soon as I meet someone, I start to work out how I would portray them,” he says. “I can’t help it. I do it without thinking. And the way someone reacts in front of the lens, the pressure to get it right in the time you have with them – I never fail to find that exciting, I live for that.”

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.