Jack Davison worked on a building site to fund his first project. Six years later and he’s shooting Hollywood stars. As the young talent releases his debut book, Davison looks back on his career so far
As 29-year-old Jack Davison opens his front door, he has to hold back an onward-rushing Radish. Running behind him, egging him on, is Dali, also a Bedlington Whippet, named after Davison’s favourite childhood artist. The photographer smiles a hello while admonishing the canine duo as they try to run between my legs and out into the streets of east London. Once inside, the dogs rush in circles around his legs, barking in wonder at the excitement of life. It’s a beautiful, bright evening, and Davison has the sort of flat that most Londoners of his age can only dream of, set within a Victorian townhouse, boasting large rooms and high ceilings. Two bay windows bookend the flat at so that the spring light passes through from the street to the garden. Two large sofas are placed facing each other, with books, plants and framed prints dotted around them.
It’s from here that his burgeoning photographic operations are planned, while downstairs, a room is in the process of being turned into a studio. But as we settle down for the interview, he’s feeling “a little flustered”. Shortly before my arrival, he got a call. He has a big shoot in two days’ time, and a stylist is being flown in from New York especially. The model he was due to photograph has pulled out, so he’ll have to scramble to sort it out. He’s not yet sure what to do. “I don’t want to work with someone who is going to be uncomfortable,” he says, thinking aloud. “It’ll become something else. It might even become better. at’s always how it works.” My presence is clearly a bit of an inconvenience, but Davison is too polite to show it. “Right, let’s have a bottle of wine,” he pronounces, as Dali starts climbing all over me, resting her paws on my chest so she can look majestically out through the window. Davison orders her down, and remarkably quickly, the dogs curl up on top of each other and fall into a deep slumber.
“If my pictures are weird, I’m quite tame. The photographers I learned from came with this incredible baggage and history and all these amazing stories. In comparison, I felt like I’d had this lovely childhood growing up in the middle of nowhere. There’s not any darkness to me.”
He lives here with his wife, Agnes Lloyd-Platt, also a photographer, who is from the same corner of rural Essex as Davison, and who he has known since secondary school. She was in the year above him, and he spent much of his time at school looking at her from afar. They got married 18 months ago, and he credits his new wife as fundamental to the things he’s achieved in his career. “She listens to me while I work things through. Having that sounding-board is so important, particularly when it’s someone who you love, and who makes you laugh, and who you can trust.” Committing to a marriage at the age of 27 is rare, I suggest, particularly so in the creative industries. Davison’s answer is instructive. “I’ve always been quite grounded,” he says. “If my pictures are weird, I’m quite tame. The photographers I learned from came with this incredible baggage and history and all these amazing stories. In comparison, I felt like I’d had this lovely childhood growing up in the middle of nowhere. There’s not any darkness to me.”
I first met Davison four years ago. He was living in Mile End, having just arrived in London after spending his early twenties at home with his parents. He had recently signed with Mini Title, the agency that still represents him, and was beginning to get regular commissions with Port magazine – a breakthrough gig for him. Davison grew up hoping to become a marine biologist, but had started taking photographs when he was 14 using the family’s digital snap camera, and when he joined Flickr, and started showing his pictures to others, he got hooked. That’s where he got his first education, and where he got to know Brett Walker, the photographer who would be such an early influence on Davison, becoming his mentor, and challenging him to shoot fast and be prolific, honing his senses and intuition. He never formally studied photography, instead reading English literature at the University of Warwick. One of the first images in the portfolio he used to introduce himself to clients was taken in the very ordinary rooms of Warwick’s brutalist student campus. It’s a tightly cropped and very sensual portrait of a young woman standing naked by a curtained window, shafts of light streaming in.
His first project was shot in 2013. Titled 26 States, it was the result of a six-month road trip across America covering 10,000 miles. Davison would shoot portraits with his now signature style of chiaroscuro and tight framing. Almost all were monochrome, showing off his eye for oblique angles and his ability to integrate interior elements to create instant alchemy out of reflections or cascading patterns of light, adding props and masks or using double-exposures to noirish effect. He’d worked as a labourer for six months on a building site in order to fund the trip, not seeing it as a holiday so much as an attempt to develop a serious first body of photographs. “It’s where I learned film photography. It’s where I met a lot of other photographers. And it’s where I met Agnes.” I query this – wasn’t she a friend from home? “She was in the year above me at school, and she would ignore me. I added her on Facebook, and she ignored me. I asked to take her picture, and she ignored me. After three or four years, we started to talk through a friend, and then I drunkenly asked her to come to America with me for a week.” And she did, teaching him photography along the way.
Once home, Davison packaged the resulting series into what might be called a maquette – a portfolio including 26 States, alongside the street portraiture that formed the genesis of his personal work, and early commissions for musicians – and set about hustling for assignments in London. His work got some instant attention (the curator Zelda Cheatle met him and recommended Davison for BJP’s 2014 Ones To Watch edition, in which he appeared alongside newcomers such as Ren Hang and Jamie Hawkesworth), but getting his foot through the door to editorial and commercial commissions took hard graft. “Whenever I took my book to an agency or a magazine, I didn’t really feel like people understood what I was trying to do, or how they could apply me,” he recalls. “It often takes quite a strong person to say to their colleagues, ‘Let’s take a risk on this kid’.” His parents pushed him in this regard. “My mum and dad raised me in a particular way. They told me to go and show people my work. They would say, ‘Engage with people. Don’t expect stuff. Make it work for you’. I literally canvassed with my book. I knew that the people I wanted to speak to would have an inbox full of other photographers, and I knew they wouldn’t have much time. I decided to do it physically and in person, and that was very important.”
“It was a lesson. I learned to not necessarily take people at face value.”
In his early years, shooting portraits for musicians, Davison recalls getting “screwed over loads of times”. “But that was useful,” he says. “It was a lesson. I learned to not necessarily take people at face value.” He found other avenues to get paid, and in between shooting portraits for an insurance company, or helping an accountancy firm with some images for their website, Davison would turn up at the offices of an agency or publication he aspired to work with and ask if they allowed people to drop in portfolios. If they demurred, he’d announce that he was in fact outside their office, and maybe he could drop in that very second. “I didn’t know the path,” he says. “I would leave my portfolio at agencies for a week and then come back into London to pick it up and get some feedback.” Via that method, Davison managed to get a meeting with Port’s fashion editor at the time, Alexandra Petsetakis, who in turn took his work to the magazine’s senior editorial team. “That was very fortunate,” he says. “They let me cast the shoot, and I even got to help with layout. I was able to suggest things. It felt very close to what I wanted to do,” he says of that first experience of shooting for them. “I was very lucky, because I subsequently realised that having that sort of input in an editorial shoot is quite a rare thing.”
“I’ve learned to go to the weirdest extreme, but also have some calmer stuff in the middle. And I now know that it’s always a collaboration.”
Soon Davison found his emails were getting answered on a more regular basis, and after more work came from Port, he began a dialogue with Mini Title that would eventually lead to him signing with them. “That made an unbelievably big difference,” he says now. “It made me less of a risk to clients, I think, because now I was being represented.” Work soon started coming his way, and later that year, in 2015, commissions included a portrait of Bradley Wiggins for Mondial, David Byrne for the FT Weekend Magazine, and the first in a series of stories for the fashion brand McQ. The following year only got better, with jobs from further afield, such as Modern Weekly in China, and M, the weekend supplement to French daily, Le Monde, not to mention a first solo exhibition at Foam in Amsterdam.
Perhaps most significantly, Davison began shooting on a regular basis for The New York Times Magazine after coming to the attention of its illustrious photography director, Kathy Ryan. Davison’s first commission, shooting neglected parrots who had formed an unlikely bond with combat veterans suffering from PTSD, was followed by what Ryan describes as a “hard-edged” set of pictures of the labourers constructing the tallest skyscrapers rising up in New York City. Soon after, she assigned him to shoot a portfolio of Hollywood A-listers nominated for Oscars that year – the magazine’s biggest photography gig of the year.
Prior to this commission, Davison had only photographed one actor. Suddenly, he was expected to capture something of the essence of Natalie Portman, Emma Stone, Isabelle Huppert, Kristen Stewart, Casey Affleck, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, in a shoot inspired by the tropes and scenarios of the film noir era. The pressure must have been enormous, I suggest. How did he make it a Jack Davison shoot? “I learned a while ago that you have to give up some control,” he says. “I’ve learned to go to the weirdest extreme, but also have some calmer stuff in the middle. And I now know that it’s always a collaboration,” he says. “For some of my editorial shoots, I’ve felt like I’ve lost them to a stylist or someone else in the process. But with The New York Times, I felt like they developed me and built me up. But they’ve also always said, ‘Do what you want to do’. So that’s what I tried to do. The New York Times love photography, and they want you to try things. I think we’ve developed a really good relationship, and that’s enabled me to take the work as far as I can go.” Ryan was on the shoot throughout, but only got involved to take pictures of Davison on her phone. “That was the most stressful part!” Taking on a job like this must require self-assurance, I say. “Yes, but I have elements of self-doubt,” he replies. “ That’s vital, because otherwise, I’d take the same pictures. I’ve also had strong critics throughout my career, who are happy to call me out and tell me when something is bad. At first, I found that difficult, but it’s important to me now.”
“With me, the least interesting thing about my book, is me.”
We’re meeting today a week before he launches his first photography book, a collection of portraits simply titled Photographs, put out by Loose Joints, an independent publishing company run by Lewis Chaplin and Sarah Piegay Espenon, who have written of their admiration for Davison’s craft and his ability to “excavate the surreal and sensual from the fabric of daily life”. The book doesn’t include an artistic statement, or any introductory text. In an era when narrative, authorship and relational identity are evermore vogue, it’s striking to find a publication that merely presents strong images without a framing storyline. “When I started out, I would always get asked, ‘What’s the story here?’ And there are stories to my pictures. But I decided I didn’t want to offer them up straight away. I sometimes see work with an amazing personal story, but the pictures can’t carry it. With me, the least interesting thing about my book is me. I want people to interpret the work, and read the images. I want to be at the back, mysterious.”
Lloyd-Platt arrives home and starts making dinner. Radish and Dali leap up to her, barking and bumping into each other, and I make myself scarce, leaving the young photographer to spend the evening with his wife and two excitable dogs. It’s a happy scene, one unburdened by darkness.
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.