An artist essentially should only work to please himself, once you start second-guessing other people’s opinion you are in trouble.
Justin Jones is an artist and photographer, living and working in the mountainous Ariege region of South Western France. He’s also the host of a YouTube channel – Still Life: Art & the photographic image – that offers unusually insightful analysis of photographers such as Fay Godwin, Peter Fraser and John Gossage.
Justin has particularly harsh words for ‘boring landscapes‘ and the people who shoot them, so it’s interesting to learn that his private photography focuses on the landscapes around his studio. Although hesitant to draw a distinction between professional and private work, Justin acknowledges that photography tends to form the bulk of his personal work, but still focuses on portraits, revealing the marks of humans in the landscape.
At the moment I’m just finishing a series of large ‘heads’, drawings of soldiers from the first world war. The series is about identity and memory, two of my recurring themes. .
WHY IS PERSONAL WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Because I have never had a ‘career’ as such, I don’t really make a distinction between personal and professional. It’s true that I consider my main occupation to be painting, and photography as a more informal activity. But it’s all very personal.
I think work has to be personal to be any good. It has to come out of one’s obsessions and experiences, otherwise you get illustration. I would use that word for both painting and photography, ‘illustration’ being something superficial, without commitment.
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL PROJECT?
In my painting I generally concentrate on people, faces and heads in particular, whilst in my photography I have zero interest in people and prefer landscape.
I really got into landscape when I was living high in the mountains and going for walks with my dog. We would often go along the same route everyday but it was always somehow different. I must have taken thousands of photographs in a tiny area around where I lived but would never tire of this area because it would always be changing, different light, time of day, each season would transform the landscape utterly, it was always fascinating.
DO THESE PHOTOGRAPHS FORM A PROJECT OR A SUITE OF IMAGES FOR YOU?
I like working in series, whether it’s painting or photography, I like a juxtaposition of images. I think because it develops a sort of narrative.
I am not one of those people who think a photograph has to tell a story, I don’t think it does, but when you have a diptych, triptych or multiple images in a series then obviously there’s going to be connections made in your head, a narrative, although it might be different for every viewer.
So the thousands of photos I took around my house for five years, yes, they all constitute one project. But I would probably argue that all the work I’ve ever done comes down to the same project: Who Am I and What The Hell is Going On?
Yes I think that’s absolutely right. It’s all portraiture. But my painted portraits are not portraits in the normal sense. I am not a portrait painter. That’s why I prefer to call then ‘heads’. My interest is in identity, memory, what are human beings, what constitutes ‘us’ – our memories, thoughts, beliefs? Most spiritual masters would say no, we are not those things. In fact we are what’s left when all those things are taken away.
Hence my big work on ‘mutilated’ soldiers. We identify with our faces, we ‘recognise’ ourselves. But clearly we are not our faces. Our faces and bodies change. The landscape too has identity. I am interested in ‘place’ as identity. I think that’s another reason I dislike those glossy touristy photographs of sunsets and mountains. They seem very generic, superficial. Whereas a Godwin photograph always seems specific and rooted in place.
There is also an area where these two things overlap. I have been critical of Michael Kenna who is an interesting case because his work gives a first impression of being art, but look more closely, and in fact it’s commerce disguised as art. Black and white photographs often give the impression of seriousness, but of course they can be as superficial as a garish postcard.
ONE OF YOUR YOUTUBE ESSAYS IS CALLED ‘BORING LANDSCAPES’ – ARE LANDSCAPES NECESSARILY ʻBORINGʼ ?
My rule of thumb is: Landscape photographs with large passages of green and blue are boring… unless they’re not. What constitutes ‘unless’? What makes the difference? This is the big question, and why I started a YouTube channel in order to figure it out. It’s not simply a question of black and white or colour, both have their place, neither is inherently better.
Much of my work is black and white but this is because often I find colour a needless distraction. I tend towards ‘intimate landscape’, or close-range landscape, where there is no visible horizon and the focus of interest is probably less than 50 meters away.
I like to say, only half-jokingly, any idiot can photograph a person but it takes a master to photograph a tree and make it interesting! I don’t pretend to be a master but I think I can recognise a good photograph when I see it whereas most people can not. Most people are not visually literate, have no education in looking, it’s not taught in school.
Just as most people don’t read Joyce or Shakespeare, so most don’t ‘read’ Picasso or a Stephen Shore photograph. I know intelligent, thoughtful people who look at an Eggleston or Andreas Gursky photograph with utter bemusement, it’s incomprehensible to them.
I live in the Ariège which has a rugged beauty. It’s muscular. Hard. I try to make all my work beautiful, even the disfigered soldiers, but again, it;s a questioning of what we find beautiful and how to make challenging subject matter a thing you want on your wall!
In photography I am eagerly awaiting the onset of autumn and winter when I can start to see structure and bones of the landscape. Here in the Ariège the mountains are strewn with old stone walls, mostly overgrown, a vast network of terracing dating from hundreds of years ago when people had to feed themselves from this harsh land or starve, The amount of sheer effort these stone walls took to build and maintain, many of them a thousand feet up a steep climb, remains unimaginable to me.
WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING (WHAT MOVIE/TV/YOUTUBE?) – LISTENING TO (WHAT MUSIC OR PODCASTS?) – READING
I spend long hours in the studio so I listen to audiobooks compulsively. Thanks to this I have finally ‘read’ ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’. Conrad’s ‘Nostromo’ is just stunning, and Jeremy Irons reading ‘Lolita’ is sublime. Best thing this year has been Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. Fucking hell what a piece of writing! I also love jazz and listen to that often.