Christopher Thomas poetically portrays the city of Los Angeles deprived of noise, people, and colour in a new show opening at Hamiltons Gallery, London.
In this interview, German photographer reveals his "peaceful" approach, defines "city portraiture" and expands on his personal motivations behind the series "Lost in L.A." that captures the city with long exposures by using a large-format camera. Meet the photographer who is focusing on the essence of things while incorporating distinctive photographic methods.
Christopher Thomas, (b. 1961 Munich, Germany) graduated from the Bavarian State Teaching Institute for Photography. He has exhibited internationally at Hamiltons Gallery, London, Kallmann-Museum Ismaning, Flo Peters Gallery, Hamburg, Bernheimer Fine Art, Lucerne, amongst others. He was awarded the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis (German Photobook Prize), the Silver Medal of the Art Directors Club of Germany (2011) and the German Design Award (2013). He currently lives and works in Germany.
Vanessa Murrell: How, why, and when did you start taking an interest in photography?
Christopher Thomas: When I was a boy, my family lived in the countryside, in a little village. I remember a fair with a lottery booth passing through our village, and apart from many desirable items, they had this beautiful plastic camera announced as a prize along with the purchase of lottery tickets, which immediately struck me.
Since my best friend and I didn’t have any money for lottery tickets, we decided to crawl into their tent from behind- deciding to become owners of some of their items- and that was how I came across my first camera.
It was a medium format plastic camera with a roll film included. I clearly remember the first images I shot with it, and how this beautiful camera looked, felt, and sounded. I remember every single click being precious, developing took time, and it was magical. The fascination of this ‘magic’ has never left me.
"The fascination of this ‘magic’ has never left me"
VM: Coming from an advertising background, could you tell us why you decided to move from such a commercial photographic approach to a more artistic inclined photography?
CT: When you decide to start a profession after finishing school, I believe everybody would vote for having a situation where he or she has a certain freedom of work - over one where you are being told what to do. That applies for photographers as well. Most people need to earn money, so they work for someone who tells them what to do, and in the meantime try to build a freedom of some sort in the course of their career. This applies to my decision of executing car shoots, which I have been working on for many years in parallel to working on my unrestricted series. Fortunately, at this point I am free to decide what I want do.
Christopher Thomas, McDonalds I, Downey, 2017
"Lost in L.A." exhibition at Hamiltons Gallery
VM: Could you describe the term ‘City Portraiture’ which often characterizes your work? Are your city portraits an on-going series or do you consider all of your work as single images, which compliment the whole?
CT: Both. The city portraits, on one hand, form a group within my work, as they are consistent in technique, style, and appearance. On the other hand, I think every photographer’s work is connected by his or her personal way of seeing, and working. I believe artists’ work should always be seen in the context of their whole body of work.
Of course, the nature of photography is to shoot single pictures, and therefore each image should be strong enough to stand for itself.
VM: Do you have any preferences regarding cameras and format?
CT: No. I work with all kinds of cameras, from large format to small frame, and every camera has its own charm, advantages, and disadvantages. I choose the type of camera depending on the project.
Christopher Thomas, Getty Center I, Brentwood, 2017
VM: Could you expand on your new work ‘Lost in LA’ on view at Hamiltons Gallery, London? What drew you to document Los Angeles? How long were you there?
CT: I have been travelling over the course of many years to Los Angeles, as I did many car shoots there. Every time we were driving around for location scouting, I thought to myself how challenging and interesting it would be to portray this city, which has no obvious architectural face like other cities I have made books about – such as Venice, New York, or Paris - and to reveal it’s hidden beauty, which is not apparent at a first glance. I did this over the course of three years, and spent several months working out of a motorhome.
"To reveal LA's hidden beauty, which is not apparent at a first glance"
VM: How much preparation and research did you put into these photographs? Do you select special days or hours to shoot?
CT: Before I start a series, I often prepare an extensive research, including location scouting. I have a lot of experience in researching locations due to my work in the car industry. Additionally, I would also dig into possible times of day, best times of the year, or weather, position of the sun, when parking is not permitted, and so forth. To be able to get a shot without people in a city, for most places, you need to get up very early or use the nighttime. Early Sunday mornings are the most precious times for me to shoot a series, and once I am shooting, I often wish that half of the days would be Sundays - It would be nice for everybody else too.
Christopher Thomas, Randys Donuts, Inglewood, 2017
VM: ‘Lost in LA’ captures the Hollywood Sign, Randy’s Donuts, Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland, Santa Monica Beach, along with oil pumps, solitary piers, and the nucleus and center of Los Angeles - Why did you choose to capture such varied locations?
CT: Similarly as when you portrait a person, I try to reveal the character, and the soul of the city- as mentioned before, I think Los Angeles has it’s hidden treasures, and is not a beauty that reveals itself on first sight. It has an extensive variety of ‘faces’. Through this vast diversity of locations, I try to display the huge diversity of this city.
VM: Poetic stillness is achieved with your photographs of this constantly moving city. Do you attempt to make time visible? What is time for you?
CT: I think time is an illusion in a certain way. Humans have invented it as a measurement tool in order to arrange society, and to have something to hold on to. I try to exclude time as much as possible in my city portraits. Of course, this is only partially possible.
Christopher Thomas, Bay Street, Santa Monica, 2015
VM: Why are you inclined towards shooting these locations in black and white in comparison to color?
CT: Eliminating colour helps to exclude “time” slightly, because many images could be seen as shot today, 20, 60, or 100 years ago. Secondly, I believe dismissing colour makes the images quieter, and enhances the focus on the essence I want to show. Thirdly, the Polaroid film Type 55 which I shot all city portraits on is black and white.
VM: What do you want your images to capture? What atmosphere and emotions do you strive for?
CT: Photographs of cities from over one hundred years ago almost always have a certain clearness, structure, and peacefulness to them which doesn’t exist in images of modern cities. Of course, in those times there were no cars, less signs, and hardly any billboards obstructing the view onto the city, but they were definitely not as peaceful as they appeared to be in those historic photographs. By using long exposures in my work, most of the life then appears to disappear. That disadvantage in this context is an advantage from my point of view, because it removes the city of it’s noise, and starts revealing its structure, and character. In my city portraits, I try to achieve this view, and therefore, I use long exposures for places that I could never shoot without people.
VM: Which artists or photographers have influenced your practise?
CT: There are many artists and photographers who I admire and who have influenced me, but I would say, in terms of shooting Los Angeles, Julius Schulman is the one to name here.
Christopher Thomas, Venice Sign, Venice, 2017
VM: Photography now is a tool at everyone’s disposal, with upcoming social media platforms, and easily accessible new technologies; still, you prefer to collapse time by using traditional techniques. What excites you about being a photographer in 2017?
CT: We live in very interesting times in which technology is changing in a rate as never before. This might be threatening in some ways, but it also constantly creates new possibilities. The term of photography– as a clearly segregated profession – does not exist any more. It has shifted from a chemical to an electronic process; it is interlocked with all kinds of new techniques, and for sure will continue to move into further unknown dimensions. Therefore, the horizon of photography is widening. I would define it as very exciting times.
VM: Do you have future projects in mind that you can share with us?
CT: At the moment I am experimenting in combining the very classical photographic process with painting, digital imaging, and all kinds of printing techniques – I am also trying to widen my horizon, and moving on from solely taking a shot and printing it.