Alexander James on underwater sculpture and photographyAlexander James creates installations using plants, butterflies and handmade props and photographs them in a water tank. As his work goes on show at the Studio Rooms, he tells us about his unique process…
I don’t think of them as photographs.
They’re sculptural works. Ultimately there’s a photograph on the wall but it’s merely a document, recording a process that took place.
I started working with underwater sculpture and photography about 10 years ago in an effort to make my works look more like paintings. If you’re going to have any resonance with the viewer, it’s important to make them feel a little unsettled so they’re not sure what they’re looking at.
The process is extremely pure. There’s no post-production, no trickery. I’m in a rooftop studio and have a lot of space. I photograph the sculptures in a 20-tonne tank in the studio, filled with purified water. The tanks I use are all custom-made and lined with black velvet. The filtration system is important for removing any particulates. If there’s the slightest speck in the water, I won’t even look at the camera.
I can’t tell you exactly how it’s done but it’s all about the movement of light. I’m actually painting directly onto the surface of the water, sometimes splashing. It’s like when you’re on holiday looking down at the water and see the sun dancing on your feet.
Grace [above] was made in 2011 and it nearly bankrupted the studio. As a working artist, all my work is personally funded. We bred quite a few of the parrot tulips ourselves and it took about six months to make because we had a few false starts. It’s a personal favourite of mine because it was a technical turning point.
The butterflies I work with are all South American species and at night they have a chemical switch-off system. They can’t function in the cold so they shut down their heart and respiratory system. I play with this switch by bringing their body temperature down, which puts them in a sustained sleep. Afterwards we reheat them in a very specific way and they come back to life. The butterfly is unaware of the process and unharmed.
I only work with a Hasselblad and I only shoot film, which I process myself. I feel strongly that too many people are more dependent on editing than they are on the imagery. Sometimes I only take one shot; sometimes, when there are lots of different flavours in the mix, I shoot two films – but never any more.
Grace was one shot. I was with a gallery at the time. We had a publicist come in and we had to prove what we were doing was bona fide. The piece was already created so we finished the set build when they came in, hit the button and went out to lunch. We did it once and I will never do it again. I felt like I was in a circus.
Alexander’s advice for young fine art photographers:
You can’t go and get drunk and dance until six in the morning if you have to be in the studio at eight in the morning. Work. Work. Work. Develop ideas.
Exhibit regularly. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Closure is very important for an artist. If you work on a project, even if you’re not sure it’s good enough, hang it to see what the reaction is. I’ve shown twice a year religiously for 30 years no matter what. I find it difficult to move onto something new when there’s something that hasn’t been hung.