Alfie White: Influences
Interview / July 2021
Aflie White: Influences
By Jacob Barnes
Jacob Barnes: I think the difference between a good photographer and a great photographer is understanding your history and your lineage; where your practice and style comes from. With that in mind, what's your own perceived lineage, and how have you placed yourself within it?
Alfie White: For a long while I just sort of took photos – I was very out of touch when it came to photography [history]. I guess it's also the natural mindset of a photographer, always what's next – to keep taking photos and not to look back at your archive. I think my [lack of knowledge] perhaps stemmed from where I was at in my practice: I still hadn't found my footing and my style, and I didn't want to start looking at other photographers and be too easily influenced.
I think I really started becoming more aware of other photographers – especially older photographers – at the beginning of 2020. I had the privilege to get to know an amazing documentary photographer named Joseph Rodriguez, and he's put me onto a lot of photographers. Originally, he'd say something like "Oh, you know, Larry Clark," and I'd be like, "Uh...no?" and then he would put me on. I started watching more documentaries and made more of an effort to learn, and through Joseph's help, understand what I was looking at. There's also a good BBC documentary which showed me a lot of the other photographers.
Jacob Barnes: It's funny that you mentioned Larry Clark; my own background is in the history of photography and Larry Clark was a photographer that first led me to that. You've spoken to me off the record about Garry Winogrand's work – do you see his work as being in dialogue with his?
Alfie White: In recent months, yeah, and increasingly in a weird way. I'm inspired a lot by how Garry operated – I'm more interested in hearing him talk about all those images because of his approach: he photographed in so many different environments. I find it relatable in that sense, because I find myself photographing environments that are deeply disparate, creating juxtapositions which you encounter as the viewer. So I like learning how [Winogrand] operated in that, but also how to make good images from those situations. Most obviously, I've been experimenting more with crooked horizons, not making a straight image, and maybe looking longer and being more ambitious with my subjects, and thinking about what he would photograph. Not that he's always in the back of my head, just that he had a unique approach to photography.
Jacob Barnes: I also want to talk about some of the books that I noticed were in your darkroom – I noticed that you had a William Eggleston book, which I thought was interesting. You know, when I think about the pioneers of colour, I think about William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, but obviously, you're working from a different tradition. However, contemporary photography couldn't be the same without those practitioners, so I'm wondering how you see your own work intersecting with theirs?
Alfie White: I suppose the question touches on the relationship I have with colour work, which is something I'm figuring out. I shot a lot of colour this year, more than I usually would. I find colour is almost like a bad food or a drug; something to indulge in. But I can be a bit all or nothing; I'll shoot lots of colour and go through 10 rolls shooting a brilliant, beautiful colour, like "This is it – colour!" Then I develop and scan it and something's missing. I'm still in the process of trying to figure out what that is. You know, I hate saying it like this because it sounds very abstract, but it feels like black and white has a colour which colour itself doesn't have. Maybe it's better to say that it has a depth. But when I shoot colour, I just feel like it's missing something. I'm at this point now where I reserve [colour] for specific scenarios. If someone's asked me to do it, I will, because then I can really just enjoy myself.
But, in terms of contemporary influence, there is a new wave of New York street photographers who shoot on colour film. I say "new wave" because it feels like there's nothing really like that here in the same sense. And, you know, they're very much following these historical footsteps: they shoot on Leicas and on 28mm [lenses]. The two main photographers I follow are Sara Messinger and Jonathan Walker, and they're both Brooklyn-based. I get this sense of playfulness from them, I guess. But also, there aren't many photographers – none that immediately come to mind – that have made the equivalent of Winogrand's or a Meyerowitz's work in London, which is something to consider. You feed off the energy in the city and, quite frankly, London just doesn't have that energy which New York has.
Jacob Barnes: To switch tacks – you have resisted the contemporary swing into portraiture in your own work, identifying pretty firmly as a street photographer. But what is your relationship to portraiture? What do you see as its pros and cons?
Alfie White: I love portraiture, and I've done a lot of it. It's what I started on, and it seems like most people usually start there – because you take photos of your friends. But when I was taking portraits, I found myself eliciting a candid response [from sitters] by making them laugh, or just waiting. Then I had this moment where I was like, "Wait, instead of just asking for a photo, and then trying to get the camera right, why not just take a photo?" And now portraits are kind of similar to colour for me: when I do get the opportunity to make portraits, I feel like I've just being given access to a sweet store or something. Because you're so used to working with all these uncontrollable elements, I have control over all the elements, and every photo can look more or less pleasing to me. So in that sense, again, it's kind of like an indulgence. It's also a moment to really just appreciate how beautiful people are, and I love making beautiful images of people.
Jacob Barnes: In that case, do you find that there are any contemporary [portrait photographers] you take inspiration from?
Alfie White: Not really – and that's not me discrediting any of it. In my work I'm always trying to remove layers from people, and there will always be a layer in a [staged] portrait; I just get this nagging feeling with portraits where I'm just like, "I'd love to see that without the layers," in the way you do with candid photography. I think the fact that there are not many portraits which excite me means that I don't go looking for it, and so I just don't know very many portrait photographers.
Jacob Barnes: Ok, more broadly then: which of your London contemporaries excite you? Who are you working in dialogue with?
Alfie White: Firstly, my good friend (and incredible photographer) Aliyah Otchere. I've had the happiness of going to school with her, and it's just been by coincidence that we've been working in similar fields. She's the same age as me and she's an incredible photographer and director. She makes me hesitate with regard to the last question [on portrait photographers]: she does portraits, but other stuff as well; she's more than that. But in London, it's hard – I'm definitely going to miss someone. Perhaps its best to say that I'm more drawn to photographers whose work may not be crazy, but is very authentic; it's real. I'd rather see some shitty iPhone or disposable camera picture of someone – friends in a natural environment which I could never know – than some very structured, technically perfect image. So many of the people I like are young people I've met on courses. Their images may not be incredibly remarkable, because they're learning, they're new to this. But I love them because they're real.
1. Courtesy of Grove Collective