“I recently did a talk for students and none of them were taking any pictures or trying things out,” says Jack Davison, a self-taught photographer from Essex, and one of BJP‘s Ones To Watch talents in 2016. “They were all writing down ideas and planning projects, but not shooting. I kept telling them, ‘You need to make all your mistakes now, before you start showing people’.”
Growing up, his dream was to become a marine biologist, and when it came to choosing a degree subject, he opted for English literature and the University of Warwick. But he was also interested in photography and, curious about the trend for sharing photographs online, grew his Flickr profile and developed his technique all the way through his studies. “Experimenting is a big part of my work,” he says.
“The photographers who mentored me always focused on single images – it was always about what you are excited about in that moment, it wasn’t about planning a project,” he continues. “My experience was never formal, but it allowed me the space to try things out and experiment. It always had an element of play, and that allowed me to see what worked and what didn’t.”
Davison’s brooding, arresting portraits have established him as one of the most promising photographers of his generation. So far in his short career, he has created cover stories for The New York Times, Dazed and Modern Weekly, as well as shooting campaigns for Hermès and McQ. While his work has become synonymous with trial-and-error, navigating client expectations has proven to be one of the biggest learning curves.
“Usually with jobs, people say to me, ‘We really like this, but can we have it at 10 per cent?’ That took me a little while to get used to – deciphering when people actually want me to try things and be playful, or when they want me to be quite safe,” he says. “All of my favourite pictures have come from situations that I can’t control. It’s never something I have planned or prepped for.”
Davison’s approach is largely instinctive. “I don’t sketch out anything, but I get a set designer to prepare some of what I call visual tricks,” he explains. “We bring those in on the shoot day rather than testing them beforehand, because that is what’s exciting for me. Experimentation runs throughout my entire process. Images can shift a lot in editing, adding and removing layers, dramatic crops, as well as working on the images by hand and rephotographing them.”
A combination of discipline and a genuine passion for image-making has ensured that the last few years have been exceptionally productive for him. “On a job, when I have time off, I always try to go and shoot something for myself,” he says. “It’s always good to come back with something else. Whether it’s a work trip or a family holiday, I try and challenge myself to get something out of it visually.”
Part of the charm of Davison’s work, in fact, is his constant ability to surprise and perplex. “I do enjoy trying to confuse people,” he says. “I want to try and keep people guessing for as long as possible.”