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Words Maria Giorgia Lenzi

Photography Tom Pope

Break Shot

Tom Pope is an artist using photographic processes as a tool for performance. Steering away from traditional points of interest in photography Tom turns his focus to his relationship with the camera. With an interest in the performative nature of photography his work combines self portraits with photographic processes, and draws our attention to the element of play in each step of creating an image. Giorgia spoke with Tom on his work Pop(e) featured in our most recent issue 12 on Play. As well as the ambiguity of photography, the creative space for mistakes, and the influence of games as a child and the socio-economic impact on that experience.

How did you encounter photography and what (if anything) were you doing differently when first approaching this medium?

My first encounter with photography happened while I was studying A Levels. One of the art teachers set up a small darkroom in a cupboard. I can’t claim that I was doing anything different at this stage, simply pointing and shooting. Still, I vividly remember using analogue film, developing it, and using negatives to print black and white photographs. This first experience of the chemical reactions involved in a hands-on process was a critical moment.

My interest in photography was present since the first experience in a dark room at school. I always combined it with my love of art. With this, I studied Photography in the Arts Ba (Hons) at Swansea Metropolitan University. Studying on the Ba opened my eyes to the medium’s potential paired with the encouragement to find my style or do things the way I want.

©Tom Pope

It seems that photography is largely used as a tool for experimentation and performativity in your practice. Could you tell us more about your approach to the medium and how it developed over time?

I wouldn’t describe my use of photography as a tool for experimentation in my practice. I have a complex relationship with photography, particularly its relationship with performance.

While on a 4-month residency in Finland in 2007, although there with other residents, I wanted to go exploring independently. I’d carry my camera and tripod to remote locations. At this point, I realised I wasn’t at all interested in photographing the stunning landscapes. With no one else around, it was an opportune time to step in front of the camera; I’d have to model in my photographs. This space and time alone offered a perfect opportunity to get to know my camera, build confidence when stepping in front of the lens, and understand that the camera can be an integral element to my practice and not simply a silent observer.

One pivotal set of images I made in developing my practice was where I would have the camera on a tripod, and I’d be stood in front of the camera holding a cable release and holding up a large empty picture frame. I would hold up the picture frame positioning it between the camera and these picturesque landscapes or tourist attractions, and attempt to frame them within the frame I’m holding. Being stood in front of the camera meant I wouldn’t be able to look through the camera and position myself or understand if I successfully framed the scene. I shot these photos on film; I couldn’t process the film until I arrived back in the UK, so I had no visual idea of what I was creating. It was guesswork; this game of trying to take a photo of framing a picturesque location and not seeing what I had photographed for three months after I had shot it. This project embraced a few processes embedded within traditional photography; the framing of pictures and being unable to assess an image on location and rephotograph it. The aspects of the project; chance, failure, performance and fun, are all present in my practice today. This, in many ways, was the first game I played with the camera.

Upon my return from the residency, my interest in performed photography was nurtured and encouraged by my lecturers at Swansea; I wrote my dissertation on performativity within photography.

I’m inherently interested in photography’s inability to document performance. If a photograph is taken of a performance and it’s shot at 125th of a second, that’s capturing 125th of a second of time. If the performance lasts one minute or ten minutes or half an hour or one day, that photograph records a minute fraction of the performance. The resulting photo should be considered a work in its own right, made using the performance as source material but does not represent and should not stand in for the live performance. Books on performance art are full of photos; these ambiguous images offer narrow insights into the events. I have actively employed this attribute in my practice as a positive. I create performances in front of the camera in public spaces and capture these absurd photos. The image viewer would not necessarily understand how I came to be in that situation I’m pictured in or what I am doing. I am attempting to harness the performing image, where the photograph continues to perform long after it is captured. A perfect example is Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, where Klein is continuing to fly/fall forever.

One could sum up performed photography as transforming the act of taking a photograph into a performative event.

©Tom Pope

What inspires you? I was wondering if you could also tell if there are certain films, music or art that had an impact on your own artistic development.

I am inspired mainly by things outside of art. With play being such a significant element of my practice, I get inspired by sports from playing to watching to the rules of gameplay and structures in which people play sports. I am interested beyond structured sports in a more provocative and disruptive play, play that takes place outside of defined spaces and times. For example, parkour is a practice that devises a different way of traversing and exploring the terrain.

When younger, friends and I would come up with ways to pass the time centred on testing our physical and mental capabilities with an added element of embarrassment or humiliation and humour for the rest of the group, these ideas were playful, silly and very creative. This ideology to pass the time in as fun a way as possible is a potent source of inspiration for the performances I create.

I spent a lot of my time going to a working man’s club as a teenager; the games played at this time have had a lasting impact on my practice. I played a lot of snooker, darts, skittles, and cribbage at the club. These games are synonymous with working-class communities. I didn’t realise the geographical significance concerning the types of games played and the rules until I left the area I grew up in. There are huge variations and differences in the games played by working-class communities in the local pubs in different areas. The socio-economic class we are raised in and our location have a considerable influence over the sports and games we play. This is a significant influence in my practice. I often juxtapose these influences with parlour games and upper-class sports.

©Tom Pope

It seems that most of your projects possess a conceptual feel, whether serious or ironic. Could you share more about your process of finding ideas for a project?

I generate ideas for projects from everywhere. It could be a newspaper article, a common saying, or an item found in the street. Ideas might be reactionary to a situation I’m in; they sometimes come directly from playing around, and sometimes it’s something I have seen or done that stays with me and comes back to the surface as an idea for an artwork. They are a mix of seriousness, irony and satire. For the most part, the concepts often take the form of challenges. I do not always promote the source of inspiration within the work; I find it more effective to let the viewer search for their own meaning. For example; The Last Portage is a film made during a performance where we pushed a boat from the East coast to the West coast of Jersey and out to the Atlantic; the work stems from the phrase “pushing the boat out”, and the performance is a challenge to see whether I could do it. One Square Club is inspired by a news article about the London housing market that stated the price per square meter of property in London at the time was roughly £12,000. My thought process was; could I create an artwork that is representative of 1 square meter, and could its value fluctuate with regard to where it travelled and when. One Square Club is the world’s most exclusive private members club; it has a floor space of 1 square meter and is a fully functioning private members club built as a wooden shipping crate with the ability to travel the world. It has one member at any given time, and membership lasts for one day. The membership cost is relative to the average price of 1 square meter of property where the member requests the club to go to.

©Tom Pope

Performing with photography, do you like leaving space for improvisation and mistakes or do you prefer to plan things out?

When I’m working with photography and performance, nothing is thoroughly planned out. I always allow for improvisation. I wouldn’t term the unforeseen happenings as mistakes; I use to think of them as failures, but it’s the unexpected occurrences that often provide fruitful. If I were to plan out a shoot and think of every possible scenario that could occur, then while out on the shoot and it’s not going as I had planned or storyboarded, I might have seen it as a failure. In contrast, I embrace chance and the situation I’m presented with, thus allowing the unknown to be embraced. It can still be a frustrating process to work in this way, particularly if I’m not in the mood to shoot, sometimes i need to dig deep to draw out creativity from the blandest of circumstances.

I frequently think up ideas that are on the limit of working and not working. For example, could I load a snowball with photographic solution and throw it at paper to sensitise paper stock? Would the snowball absorb the photographic solution? Would the chemicals get corrupted by the snow? What would happen to the paper with that amount of liquid on it? Would the chemicals still react to light? I tend not to overthink any of these questions but rather get on, carry out the work, and see what happens. This idea worked!

©Tom Pope

I was wondering if you could tell us more about your self-portrait experience. How does it make you feel to photograph yourself and what challenges, if any, do you find in this?

Because I have been photographing myself within my work for so long, I tend not to consider it when photographing myself. In the early days, the challenge would be to understand where I am in relation to the camera’s framing. Nowadays, I have a much better perceptual understanding of where I am within the camera frame, and if I end up half out the frame, I tend to accept that’s how it goes.

With many of the ideas I develop involving potential physical risk and silliness; I couldn’t ask others to model for me. Performing these activities myself so consistently over many years has, to some degree, added an autobiographical element to work, but it’s not one that I actively develop. I’m excited by the relationship between myself and the camera during a performance and the relationship of the photographic record with the viewer.

©Tom Pope

What are you holding in the image Pop(e)? What attracts you about making an image like this one?

I’m holding two items: a water pistol and the second is a cable release. The initial idea is; can I coat paper stock in cyanotype solution using a water pistol? Could I photograph myself while firing the water pistol to sensitise the paper stock? Could I then print that photograph onto the coated paper stock?

You see in the image a self-portrait of the artist firing a Super Soaker Floodinator filled with cyanotype solution to coat a piece of paper. The resulting photograph was then printed onto the same piece of paper coated while the photo was taken.

For me, this is a closed-loop work; I’m performing the act of coating paper stock in cyanotype solution while in precisely the same instance making a photograph. The paper that the photograph is printed onto is directly linked to the photograph. This is most certainly the result of me being in the studio for a prolonged amount of time. When there’s less daylight, and the weather is terrible in the winter, I retreat to the studio and spend more time playing around. I have a collection of toys and things to play with to pass the time.

I love to bring outside influences into my practice, but a portion of my thinking concerns the photographic process. I want to push it, twist it and play with its limitations. I worked with transforming the act of making a photograph into a performative event, but what about transforming the act of coating paper stock into a performance, or the act of washing a print, or developing a print into a performative act? These questions and challenges lead me to such works.

©Tom Pope

Your website suggests the impressive quantity (and quality) of your work, numerous different projects, a world of play and ideas. In your opinion, what would you say is an important prerogative for being creative consistently?

Time. I have worked hard to ensure I have enough time to be creative. From the very beginning, time was the most crucial factor when practising as an artist. If I have time to think, make, do nothing, research and write applications, I can continually develop. Having time, space and funds are essential factors to making; that said, I create almost all my work due to grants and external funding, and when I don’t have a budget, I progress with smaller scale studio works. Space-wise, I often find myself without a studio or dedicated workspace, so I make work within my circumstances. What I have found is that time is the most integral element of my practice. Time to research, develop thinking, waste, read, play and ponder facilitates consistent creativity.

Maria Giorgia Lenzi

Maria Giorgia is a documentary photographer with an interest in telling stories through an intimate approach. Her work also focuses on writing, poetry and book making.

Tom Pope

Tom Pope is an artist that uses photography and performance to explore play in the broadest possible sense. Pope has exhibited and performed internationally including with The Photographers gallery, Frieze Los Angeles, Frieze New York, Photo Oxford, Gazelli Art House, Photofusion and Brighton Photo Fringe. Pope has work in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of Wales as well as various private collections.


In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores Play through playful processes of photography, play therapy, nightlife, performance and identity, collaboration, virtual realities, and war play.

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