In the studio with Theo Simpson

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Reading Time: 4 minutes
Photography by David Severn.

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Humanity & Technology, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The artist invites us to Lincolnshire’s sparsely populated Wolds, where he has converted a 20th century stable into a workshop, printing studio and makeshift gallery

Standing in a converted 20th century stable on the edge of a rural road in north Lincolnshire, Theo Simpson is citing Leo Tolstoy. “In the midst of his depression, after a lifetime of contemplation, Tolstoy concluded that the only way to derive satisfaction from life was to stop questioning it.” It’s ironic, because Simpson strives to do the exact opposite. “You have a responsibility when you’re working in any artistic medium to question the conventions,” he says. “In the subconscious background of my work, that’s what I’m doing.”

The stable, which once belonged to a pub, was in disrepair until Simpson renovated the building in 2018. The Doncaster-born artist happened upon it by chance, a few years after he moved from London’s lively Peckham to Lincolnshire’s sparsely populated Wolds. Simpson’s departure from the capital was motivated by a desire to escape its spatial and economic confines, but also to focus on his craft more seriously. “There comes a point in an artists career when they have to decide if they’re all in or not. Here, I’m afforded more time and space than in London,” he says.

The space does not look like a typical photography studio. There are no light stands, no backdrops, nowhere to develop film. Split into two parts, one side functions as a workshop and printing studio, and the other as a makeshift exhibition space to experiment with arrangements of prints and sculptures. Simpson is currently preparing for an exhibition at Webber Gallery, London, later this year. 

In his studio hang three black-and-white images of a beach in Wales, where the low tide has revealed the fossilised tree stumps of an ancient forest. The images are a cross-reference to Doggerland, a submerged body of land in the North Sea that, 8000 years ago, connected the UK to mainland Europe. Illustrating the geomorphic conditions that resulted in the country’s status as an island, they are placed next to an older piece, Drift (2019): a reworked archival photograph of a 1971 protest against Britain joining the European Economic Community (a precursor to the EU). Drift’s power comes from using old material to reference new debates – namely Brexit – but here, its positioning next to images of geological interest serves to highlight the variety of forces that influence our day-to-day lives. We are still experiencing the consequences of these forces, be they recent political events or the sinking of landmass thousands of years ago. 

This process of reiteration is a key element of Simpson’s work. That and a resistance to drawing an arbitrary line of ‘done’ beneath it. “Once I’ve shown a piece, something becomes apparent and I take it apart and rethink it, so that pieces are constantly evolving,” he explains. Like his subjects, Simpson’s work will never be fully exhausted of meaning, constantly inviting reassessments and reinterpretations.

“I want to make people think about why an event was looked at the way it was. I want them to think about how it was spoken about and disseminated in a broader context. Photography can’t look into the future, but it can make people think about it.” 

We move into the adjacent workshop, which Simpson describes as “a place to bring things together”. The space is chaotically organised, centred around a large screen-printing press that doubles up as a desk, and is littered with newspaper clippings, magazines and old adverts. Simpson opens the door to a cast-iron wood burner – a feature he installed to counteract the stable’s lack of insulation – and fills it with a large log. A cloud of oak-tinged smoke fills our nostrils and the studio, with its ad hoc arrangement of scrap metal, paint-strewn furniture, tools and books. 

Simpson’s background is in landscape photography, he explains, but his current work pushes the boundaries of the medium. “I learned early on that it isn’t just photography that has language,” he says. “In fact, the photography on its own has very little because it lacks context. The things around a photograph give context and reveal something which the photograph can’t do on its own.” In recent years, his work has grown to incorporate metals, both for framing and for printing onto, and natural materials such as limestone and sediment. These elements have pushed his practice in the direction of sculpture, incorporating techniques such as laser-cutting, welding and fabrication. Where possible, Simpson performs these himself, but for larger works he outsources to local specialists. “It’s been a good way to connect with the people around me,” he says. He describes how, due to his stint in London, some of them jovially call him a “city slicker”.

Another core part of Simpson’s practice is appropriating archival imagery. Sometimes the new images have little resemblance to the original. For example, he might take a subtle sliver of colour from an old car advert, then enlarge it. These details often go unnoticed by viewers, who may not appreciate the history of the colour tones. “By introducing more elements, as well as expanding on the language of photographs, I’m introducing a wider field of discovery and scope of opportunity,” says Simpson, pausing to consider his words. “In a way, a lot of these nuances are for me.”

Later, we sift through some of Simpson’s older works, which are stored individually in flat wooden boxes. He reflects on the different materials he has incorporated over time. Each new addition functions as a timestamp; a snapshot of where his mind was at a certain moment. He touches an image of a miners’ strike, printed onto enamelled metal, and gets excited by the arrival of rust on a piece of steel inches above it. “The material gives a narrative of development – something you don’t get from hiding a picture in a glass frame,” he says. 

In this sense, Simpson’s approach is one of accepting ambiguity, of appreciating how things change and will continue to do so. By not trying to control the future, the artist is free to contemplate the past. Like Tolstoy, who he consistently references, Simpson is dissatisfied with the way in which history has been recorded. “I want to make people think about why an event was looked at the way it was. I want them to think about how it was spoken about and disseminated in a broader context,” he says. “Photography can’t look into the future, but it can make people think about it.” 

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In the studio with Theo Simpson

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Jacob Negus-Hill

Jacob Negus-Hill is the senior writer at Sabukaru Online. He studied Philosophy at the University of Leeds and achieved an MSc in Environmental Policy from the University of Bristol. He specialises in ethical and environmental topics within art and fashion. His words have appeared in The Face, Proper Mag, and BAB Mag among others.