What’s the story behind your first camera?
When I was 14 and my school had a darkroom, I got into developing photos by hand. My teacher recommended I get the Pentax K1000. I was very much into photos of musicians like David Bowie, Patti Smith, The Rolling Stones, iconic music photographers like Kevin Cummins, David Bailey and Terrence Donovan. I loved those old black and white portraits, evidently shot on film.
What is it about the developing process that you love?
I was amazed by the process of reloading the film and treating it like a machine or tool. Its about taking it apart and putting it together. It’s a real process of using your hands and using something mechanical.
I love that you are so loyal to film.
[Laughs] Thanks. I just love film. I work a lot for various record companies and there will be assignments where I have to shoot digital. But whenever possible, I shoot film. I always had an inclination towards 35mm.
That said, film is such an expensive art. I find myself constantly wondering if the benefits outweigh the costs.
Yes, but the way I see it, film creates a classic beauty and depth that you can’t get with digital. I think it’s absolutely worth it. Sure, it costs a bit more money but as with anything in life, if it’s important to you, then you find a way to do it. If you want to have a nice house, you find a way to make money and pay rent. Film is expensive, but that’s the internal struggle that any film photographer will face.
What film photographers do you draw inspiration from?
Nan Goldin was a huge inspiration for balancing beautiful photography and being an anthropological warrior. She created a platform for minorities and people who have been victimized and allowed for them to be shown as human. She also would take photos on disposable cameras and develop them in a drug store, but they exposed personal connections that she had and for that she’s one of my favorites. It’s the same with photographers like Richard Billingham, whose photos dealing with his fathers alcoholism are some of the most truly tender and poetic.
And did you study photography formally at school?
I went straight to Middlesex University and got my BA in photography. I learned a lot about real techniques and how to make good portraits. I learned how to construct beautiful portraits for medium format and large format. And most importantly, I learned how to communicate. It is very important to get people on your side and for people to trust you.
What would you have studied, if not English?
I always loved English. I wanted to be a writer. I still write short stories, though I’m horribly dyslexic. I would always get extra time. [Laughs] I could never quite get it but I loved creative writing. For me, photography is a different form of story telling.
What do you love about LA?
LA is an incredibly misunderstood city. There’s a real stereotype and cliché about the city. You can find people who live up to stereotypes, like you can anywhere, but LA is filled with so many neighborhoods. I know people who lived here their whole lives and they still haven’t been everywhere. Cities like that have to have something for everyone. That’s added to my creativity as well. I mean, the weather is great. The light is amazing. It’s beautiful sure. But more than that I think that there is something kind of beautifully poetic about the city. There have been some fantastic writers who have written great things about LA to attempt to put their finger on what makes LA so magical. I don’t think anyone has fully been able to articulate it. And to me, it’s amazing that in 2016, we can’t quite identify what it is. It’s a perfect mystery.
Have you found any stereotypes of LA to be true?
[Laughs] That every waitress or waiter wants to be an actor and is looking for their big break. To a certain extent that can be true. What’s interesting is that people talk about it like it’s a bad thing. Why is it bad to come to a city to become a successful actor or writer or model?
That’s a fair point. I guess the word ‘stereotype’ just has a negative connotation in itself.
Yes. There’s a lot of bollocks and bullshit in every city. I grew up in London! [Laughs] That said, I’m very pro-LA, in case you couldn’t tell.
In terms of your personal work, what kind of photography do you gravitate towards?
I’ve always been interesting in portraiture and people. When I was younger, to talk to someone meant to photograph them. I like shooting people that I don’t know. I’m making a book at the moment – portraits of people that make up the city of LA. It’s going to be done over the next year.
Give us an example of who you might take a portrait of.
It’s portraits of everyone and anyone that makes up the city. The budding actress in the valley or the guy that runs the liquor store on the corner or the CEO of Wells Fargo.
People often talk about the concept of a struggling artist. Do you find that it is true?
It is true to different degrees. The first difficult part is being able to convince people that this is what you should be doing. If you do something academic and want to work in finance, you could pass several exams to prove your worth at a company. If you’re an artist, you’re often freelance and have to prove your value. Sometimes, without the right people around you to support you, it can be very difficult. It’s hard to tell someone that you are great, especially if you don’t get the support and think that you are. There’s a huge amount of competition in the art world, more so than in the past. At the same time, there are communities of artists, whether people make magazines or zines, who really look out for each other. There’s been a great turning point.
Tell me about your online zine.
It’s called Don’t Get Culty. It was started by me and Joseph Sweeney, a great British artist. We had many friends making art but they weren’t social media-savvy. No one would even know what they are up to. We wanted to offer a platform that is accessible. It’s online so that it’s free to everyone. We simply want to show creative people who are doing strong work and allow them to have a voice. We don’t want advertising or strings attached.
What about the name, Don’t Get Culty? Where did that come from?
The Sopranos, actually! A character, Paulie Walnuts, always says, “Don’t get cunty!” We used to say it to each other all the time and it kind of evolved into cult. The idea is that in the modern art world, people can get very cult-like. You have to know who the newest artist is constantly, and we wanted to bust that concept.
Travel-wise, where are you hoping to head next?
I would like to go to Texas or Portland. I’d love to go to Tokyo because I’ve never been to that side of the world. And of course, Mexico because I want to visit Frida Kahlo’s house, where you can see all her belongings and how they were left.
To date, what has been the best advice you’ve received?
I had a teacher in high school who always told me that when I’m showing my work can be nerve-wracking and heartbreaking if it is misinterpreted. It’s important to listen to people’s advice and ignore the bits you don’t want to hear. Don’t take everything to heart and just listen to people.
Who should everyone follow on Instagram?
@dontgetculty and @carolmcneill.
How do you take your coffee?
I like very cheap instant coffee with a little bit of milk.
In your own words, what is beauty?
Beauty represents pride. It is an unashamed pride in who you are and showing that to the world.
For more of Grace’s work, check out Don’t Get Culty.