“I also thought how memory can be funny, boring, strange, important and confusing. From there, I tore up hundreds of pictures and composed them on top of others, while trying to keep those ideas in mind.”
Bill Lytton talking about his project ‘Reconstructive Memory’
Bill Lytton (born in 1993) currently resides in Rotherhithe, London. He got an A-Level in photography at College before going onto study psychology at Goldsmiths College, University. Among his recent photographic projects is one called “Reconstructive Memory” which has also been turned into a blurb photo book: “Reconstructive Memory” (2013).
“My name’s Bill and I try to incorporate psychological concepts into photography. I also take a lot of street photographs.”
Interview with Bill Lytton
Bill, why did you become a photographer?
I’m not sure at one point you can class yourself at a photographer. But, I’ve always been interested in taking pictures as well pictures themselves, so I guess it came from there. I also like that a set of pictures can illustrate a concept and that’s something I hope to do.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
I was taking some pictures around Kings Cross station before meeting a friend. I was standing near a busy crossing and saw this pretty sassy looking woman trying to hail a cab. Her and her partner stood in front of a man leaning on an electrics box and I thought it looked like a good picture. As I looked through the viewfinder, I see her staring at me; it was an incredible death-stare. I thought the stare was going to end me. Then she turned back around and got in a cab. It was both hilarious and scary.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
I like to take pictures of people, and the implied presence of people, because it interests me. It’s probably why I’m doing a psychology degree. I also like to wander around, so taking pictures on the street lets me do both of those things. I just like seeing what people do, how and why they do it and their relation to the environment they’re in. That’s what I hope to show, if I can.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Garry Winogrand or Saul Leiter, but for the same reason. Sometimes, I’m more interested in the personality of the photographer than the photographs themselves. Neither of them are pretentious about their photography which I like; they just like taking pictures of what interests them and they both seem comfortable with that. I think a lot of photographers think they must have an agenda, but these guys do what they want and do it well and I like that.
You study psychology. In what way does that affect and influence your work as a photographer?
The two sort of go hand-in-hand for me; they’re both concerned with people and their behaviour. I also spend way too much time analyzing things and I think that’s where the two combine. Whether it’s just looking how people act, or trying to look at a theory, I find it interesting. Facial expressions are my favourite thing to photograph; you get some pretty funny results if you can find them or predict them.
Your most recent project is called “Reconstructive Memory”. What’s the idea behind that project and how did you come up with it?
The process came before the actual idea. I’d entered a photography competition and got a £30 blurb book voucher with my entry. I also had a year’s worth of pictures and didn’t know what to do with them. So I thought, fuck it I’ll make a book of some sort, no point in wasting the voucher. I was in my living room with a bunch of printed pictures listening to Captain Beefheart and feeling pretty strange. I tore up one of the pictures and laid it on another and noticed how it had some sort of coherence. That’s when I likened it to the concept of reconstructive memory. In my head, it was a combination of the William Burrough’s cut-up method and the human psyche.
Can you please describe the process of “Reconstructive Memory”?
The concept dictated the process. The concept itself was based on the psychological research into memory, as well as my own experiences of memory. Research and experience shows how memory can be extremely fallible, reconstructive and prone to error (Elizabeth Loftus is the big name in this area of research). This sort of research is used a lot in law and eye-witness testimony. I also thought how memory can be funny, boring, strange, important and confusing. From there, I tore up hundreds of pictures and composed them on top of others, while trying to keep those ideas in mind. The tearing was done randomly, because memory can be random. Once I thought a composition worked, I taped it together and scanned it in for a little post-processing. I converted it to black and white and went full-on with the contrast.
Essentially, the pictures were the memories, and the tearing and recomposing was the reconstruction.
At the beginning of each project one has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
I scanned in the first few experiments to see if this idea was worth carrying on with. I thought they looked like a distorted take on Daido Moriyama and thought that looked pretty cool. I then continued in a trial-and-error fashion to get compositions that, I thought, were representative of the nature of memory. I didn’t change my idea after it’s conception, I just tried to make sure it looked memory. If memory can look like anything?
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I usually just take street photographs. Sometimes I try to look at different ways of using pictures, such as in this project. I’d love to be able to try and explore more psychological concepts, or even base a project on a theory. I think the music of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits and the cut-up experiments of William Burroughs has influenced me a lot. I like to see how different elements can be used to create something, usually something a bit strange.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
I think there’s a fine line between influence and imitation, so I think you have to be careful you’re not just copying someone. It’s something I think of all the time. I also think non-photographic influences are pretty important. Most importantly, you should take pictures of stuff that interests you. I’m interested in people, but I don’t think I could be a good portrait photographer. Maybe your voice is shaped by what you can and can’t do and what you do and don’t like. But that’s just my guesswork.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
The concept or idea is probably the most important thing. Once you have that, then you can tackle how to do it. You don’t have to necessarily be shooting a project though. Lee Friedlander used to take pictures and sort the prints into different boxes which had different ideas and focuses. I now have a little bit of paper with a list of things I’d like to take pictures of and possible concepts. Whether I’ll actually get do them or not, I don’t know.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
Persistence and endurance in lots of aspects I guess. I reckon those two characteristics are the difference between someone who wants to be a photographer and someone who wants to have the image of being a photographer. I only say that through experience. At College, the best photographers weren’t the ones who thought dressing crazy, having a Diana Mini and DSLR meant your pictures were good.
I watched this Q&A with Saul Leiter and he was asked if he had any advice for young photographers and he replied:
“You should have a father or family with quite a bit of money.”
I thought that was pretty funny and also pretty apt.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
That’s a hard one. I think it’s pretty individual. Some of the “greatest” pictures of all time I find pretty great and some pretty boring. I guess you’ve got to find it interesting for whatever reason that may be. I don’t think the quality of serious photographers (professional, amateur or hobbyist) has changed; it’s just that now, it’s buried under a lot of other shit. There’s a lot of photography on sites like Flickr that I think are better than the stuff that’s praised in magazines and galleries. I think the internet is helping people in terms of costs though; you could get your work noticed without having to spend hundreds on printing.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Lots of different stuff. Sometimes it’s photography; sometimes it’s the personality of the photographer. In terms of photography/art I like the work of Garry Winogrand, Daido Moriyama, Saul Leiter, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Sophie Calle, John Baldessari and probably a lot more. I think music, films, books and psychology theory have an impact too. For example, while I was tearing up pictures for Reconstructive Memory I was listening to “Daylight” by the rapper Aesop Rock and he has this lyric:
“All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day and put the pieces back together my way.”
It was pretty coincidental given the project; maybe it influenced the way I tore the pictures up.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
For about a year I used a Canon 500d with their cheap 50mm lens. The shutter was like firing a shotgun in a crowd of people, but I couldn’t afford anything else. All of the pictures on this project were shot with that. I also printed the pictures with whatever was in the University’s printer. It made it look kind of gritty when scanned in, but I liked it. Now I’ve got a Fujifilm X10 which is a tad more subtle than Canon fire.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
There are a couple I really like. I’d always like PetaPixel, it has a lot of news and features that are interesting to read. I was recently listed as a columnist on there which made me happy. Eric Kim’s street photography blog is good; there’s so much on it for anyone in street photography. That guy deserves an honorary doctorate. I like this website as well. It had a lot of stuff I haven’t seen. You showed Richard Koci Hernandez’ film noir style stuff and it’s fucking great.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
“Uhh, I just like taking pictures.”
What photography book would you recommend?
“Early Color” by Saul Leiter is tasty. It looks like his photographs were painted by Edward Hopper. It’s not typical street photography, it’s a lot calmer. There’s a documentary about Saul Leiter called “In No Great Hurry” where the title is indicative of him and his artistic approach. It comes across in his pictures and I think that’s pretty cool.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
I have no idea. I’ll let you know if I ever get there.
I’d like to say thank you for featuring this project on the site and I’m glad you like it as well. Also, good luck with your own work and the website.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
I can’t think anything that you haven’t covered. (laughs)
More images from Bill Lytton’s project “Reconstructive Memory”
More about Bill Lytton
Book Publication: “Reconstructive Memory” (2013) by Bill Lytton.