“I pretty much immersed myself in looking at photography books, and I felt I had found a whole world of people making work which was important and I could really relate to it.”
Alison Gibson (born in 1983) is a contemporary photographer from the UK currently residing in Edinburgh, Scotland.
She studied B.A. (Hons) Photography at Edinburgh College of Art. Alison Gibson also spent one exchange semester at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver, Canada, B.A. (Hons) Fine Art Photography.
For Alison Gibson photography means “a way to catch a glimpse of worlds you wouldn’t normally gain access to.” For more information, please have a look at the feature about Alison Gibson’s series “The Castle”.
“I live and work in Edinburgh, and for the last few years I have been working commercially as well as on my own projects. I’m always interested in collaborating with other artists, writers and musicians.”
Interview with Alison Gibson
Alison, why did you become a photographer? And what does photography mean to you?
I’ve always studied art generally, and I always knew I wanted to get an art school education, but the decision to specialize in photography came on quite gradually. I wasn’t ever someone who religiously carried a camera around with me before, but I started to involve photography more and more in the work I was making, until I realised I wanted to concentrate on that alone.
And once I started to look properly at the work of other photographers, I knew it was definitely the way I wanted to work – I pretty much immersed myself in looking at photography books, and I felt I had found a whole world of people making work which was important and I could really relate to it. I suppose that’s what photography means to me, it’s a way to catch a glimpse of worlds you wouldn’t normally gain access to.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
Nowadays I only use digital cameras, I have two Nikon DSLRs. I only ever use a prime lens; I’m useless with any sort of zoom! For my own work I prefer a 50mm lens, as it provides me with more of a sense of space I think, but when I’m portrait-type jobs I use an 85mm. I don’t use any artificial lighting or flash anymore, natural light is really my most important focus, whether I’m shooting my own project work, or shooting a wedding or portrait. I used to only use film cameras; my general carry-around camera was a Yashica-mat medium format, a Rolleiflex copy. But once I got out of college and into the real world it was just impossible to continue shooting on film. I hated having to buy a digital camera – but like all cameras you have to bond with it, and I eventually did. Now I’m very happy using digital.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I’m a fan of flakphoto.com, where you’ll find plenty of good contemporary photography. “Featureshoot.com” is also good. But one of my all time favorite sites is thisisnthappiness.com – it’s not strictly just a photography site, but I love the collections of imagery and words that turn up on it.
What book about photography would you recommend?
There are a few photo books which have stood out to me and that I go back to again and again. One of my favorites is “Look At Me, I Look At Water” by Boris Mikhailov – his way of combining social documentary, creative photography, and writing was a big inspiration to me when I was first learning what it was that I liked. I’ve also always loved ‘Girl Culture’ by Lauren Greenfield – while her photographic style maybe isn’t what I aim for myself, I love her subject matter, and she’s a great filmmaker too. Also I’ll never tire of looking at Martin Parr’s ‘Parrworld’.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
“I would keep looking at other people’s work, keep an eye for anything which interests you visually, and keep a record of it.”
I think in terms of getting to the level of technical knowledge and speed you need to actually start working on paid jobs, the most important thing you can do is assist another photographer. I worked with a wedding and commercial photographer for a year after graduating from college, and it was a really important experience. More than anything it showed me what’s actually involved from the start of a job until its completion. Assisting honed my knowledge in shooting in all sorts of settings and situations, using flash (something which you need to be able to do even if you don’t like it, like me!), and using Photoshop to a professional standard. It also improved my confidence in shooting to someone else’s specifications.
Knowing what you’re interested in, both photographically and generally, is important. So I would keep looking at other people’s work, keep an eye for anything which interests you visually, and keep a record of it.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I probably couldn’t pick one, but there are a few that have inspired me over the years. When I started to get seriously interested in photography I quickly became interested in constructed scenes, so the work of Hannah Starkey and particularly Philip-Lorca diCorcia made a big impression on me.
I still love the work of Francesca Woodman, and one of long-standing favorites is Helen Van Meene – her use of light is beautiful and her portraits are so unsettling. I still constantly look at work – the fact that anyone can put anything online is actually great I think, a photographer no longer has to have a published book in order to show their work.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process? How do you plan and execute a project? Both technically and conceptually?
“I used to be an avid sketchbook keeper, but now my blog is my workbook, in fact that’s what it’s called!”
I tend to work quite slowly with my own project work. I’ll photograph the same thing several different times over a prolonged period – then if I want to involve a portrait or a figure I usually know exactly where I want to place them, and at what time of day I need to shoot. I’m drawn to clean composition, I think I pay attention to lines in an image. I like to make small cheap prints of the things that I think are going somewhere, and I also find that posting on my blog is a useful way to see connections between things I’ve been shooting. I used to be an avid sketchbook keeper, but now my blog is my workbook, in fact that’s what it’s called!
I like to plan things – if I’m taking a portrait in a certain location I look around beforehand and make sure I have at least 4 or 5 portraits ready to take. Of course you have to be spontaneous as well, and sometimes you get the best results from doing something completely unplanned.