Collectionair Conversations: Alexandra Lethbridge, Jessica Thalmann & Will Thomson

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Alexandra Lethbridge, Jessica Thalmann and Will Thomson are three young artists who use their thorough knowledge of image-making to deconstruct traditional photographic concepts. Currently on view in the exhibition Procedures & Materials, their work uses printing, folding, cutting, re-appropriation and fate to experiment with new art-making processes. Collectionair interviewed the three artists about their personal backgrounds, the ideas they try to challenge through their practice and their thoughts on being an emerging artist today.


Alexandra portrait

Can you tell us a bit about your personal, educational and professional background?

Alexandra Lethbridge: Sure, I’m a photographer based in Hampshire but born in Hong Kong. I lived there with my family till I was 10 years old before moving back to the UK. I have a B.A. from the Winchester School of Art in Graphic Design specializing in Photography.

After my B.A., I moved to New York for two years where I worked for photographer Joel Meyerowitz and also studied at The International Center of Photography.

After I graduated from ICP, I moved back to London and began assisting, firstly for fashion photographer, Tim Walker, and then for documentary photographer, Venetia Dearden. After two years, I decided to go back to University and obtained a Masters in Photography at the University of Brighton. I graduated from that course in 2014 and have been running my own studio and working for Photoworks, a development agency based in Brighton, ever since.

I’m very grateful to have won some awards and prizes in that time, which have included The Denton’s Art Prize, my first publication was shortlisted for the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation First Photobook award and is also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s book collection.


When was your first contact with the photographic realm?

A.L.: I first came to photography when I was given a box of old cameras from my Grandfather when he passed away. This was the first time I remember being intrigued by a camera. They were old film cameras and they seemed really alien to me at the time. Even to this day, I still have an affinity with the object of a camera. After this, I didn’t pick up my interest seriously again until I was in college. I had a lecturer who really understood and shared my particular interest in photography. He helped introduce me to the idea of being a photographer myself and I’ve been working towards that aim ever since.

Matchstick, from the series Other Ways of Knowing, 2016
© Alexandra Lethbridge

What are the key ideas/concepts related to the photographic medium that you try to deconstruct in your work?

A.L.: My practice is based around an interest in perception, particularly in how we see and how the context of imagery affects our understanding of that. My work is very experimental and I really enjoy creating narratives within images that are heavily informed by the research I do for each series.

I produced a series in 2014 titled ‘The Meteorite Hunter’ which was a fictional archive based on Meteorites and the places they come from. The series was presented as a mirror of the process the hunter went through, encouraging audiences to participate. All the artifacts from the hunt are presented in equal weighting – no information is immediately given about which of the objects are deemed valuable or exotic and which are ‘ordinary’ rocks. The resulting impression is that all the images and rocks presented are of some value and in turn, people’s perceptions are momentarily widened.

My most recent work, ‘Other Ways of Knowing’ is a series exploring magic and misdirection in comparison to ideas of hoax, deceit and trickery. My aim is to visually examine how our perceptions interpret and inform our understanding of information in different contexts. I’m using the magic act metaphorically as I’m interested in how to visually recreate the trickery experienced during the act using deceptive clues and false emphasis.

A large part of my process is in the installation of works, which I now consider to be an extension of the image making. An important part of my practice is thinking of imagery as objects and as a collective experience. My works are best viewed as a whole, with all the pieces helping to build a wider understanding of the ideas I’m exploring.


Where are the found photographs and archival imagery used in your projects sourced from?

A.L.: I get them from a variety of places depending on which project I’m working on at the time. For The Meteorite Hunter, I worked with NASA’s online archive, combined with images I took myself and images I bought from Ebay and car boot sales.

I’m collecting found images continuously – I love them as objects in themselves – so sometimes I go back to that collection when working on a new project. If I can work with an archive connected to the subject matter I’m interested in, then I try to do that wherever possible.


Which scientific theories do you channel in work?

A.L.: They really vary but I’d like to take this chance to say I don’t consider myself a scientist. If there was something I would be if I wasn’t a photographer, it would be that, but currently, I use scientific theories and borrow them to apply to my work to consider art in new ways.

For example, in Other Ways of Knowing, I did a lot of research into the way your brain can be manipulated when watching a magic act and the more I researched, the more I realized the human brain is hackable and magician’s understand the ways in which to hack it. Their power is in their ability to understand how people act, preempt reactions and then use that to their own means.

One way this happens is by manipulating a brain process called inattentional blindness. The quick version is, if you don’t attend not only your sight but your attention to something, you won’t see it. And this is one of the most obvious ways that magicians can fool us.

01.(Mis)Direction, from the series Other Ways Of Knowing 2016, © Alexandra Lethbridge
(Mis)Direction, from the series Other Ways of Knowing, 2016
© Alexandra Lethbridge

How do fact and fiction coexist in your constructed images?

A.L.: I enjoy working with the idea of fact and fiction harmoniously. I try to source images that are originally based in fact such as using images from NASA’s online archive and then intervening with them to adapt their meaning in a playful and experimental way, with the aim to make fictional narratives from factual images.

For me, I enjoy being in a state where fact and fiction become blurred and begin to – as you put it – coexist, as it creates a sense of confusion and in this state, things tend to be reconsidered.

When you’re unsure if what you’re looking at is real, in the act of changing the context, it becomes easier to let go of any preconceptions. I find this combination creates circumstances where you can generate new readings on familiar objects, effectively creating circumstances where the familiar appears unfamiliar. This is my main interest in combining these two aspects.


What do you think are the major challenges emerging artists are currently facing when trying to operate in the art world?

A.L.: I think there are a number of challenges that stop emerging artists being able to make work and sustain a practice. Speaking from my own experience, I’ve found the balance of creating work that furthers my career in contrast to work that brings me regular income to support myself to be the hardest one to navigate. Being able to support yourself and also find the time and the energy to carry on after a working day takes a lot of dedication and commitment and can be hard to sustain over long periods of time.

Another issue is getting your work out there and seen. Exhibitions are a great way to do that but they are time sensitive which makes the virtual exhibitions like Collectionair’s all the more important. Each artist needs to find their own way of showing their work that’s true to them but that can be tricky at first and can become a bit of a hurdle.


Jessica portrait
Photo © Kat Shannon

Can you tell us a bit about your personal, educational and professional background?

Jessica Thalmann: I grew up in a small suburb of Toronto filled with the best sesame style bagels and dim sum in town. I graduated with a Visual Arts degree from York University and started to exhibit and work as a curator at a few museums including TIFF Cinemateque, AGYU and the Doris McCarthy Gallery. I then moved to New York to pursue an MFA in Photography at ICP-Bard College. After my graduation, I started teaching, curating and working as an artist assistant for one of my favorite artists in Brooklyn for a few years. Now I travel back and forth between Toronto and New York doing a combination of all of the above.

When was your first contact with the photographic realm?

J.T.: I fell in love with photography later in life, but was always a practicing artist. I started out as a painter and moved to performance, and finally photography in my final year of undergrad. I always had my dad’s broken Olympus OM-10 35mm camera at the back of my closet but it felt so elusive and too mechanical for me. But I really came to think deeply about photographs as I flipped through family albums and carousels of my family slides. I loved digging through an archive of forgotten memories of my parents and grandparents. I felt like I was uncovering their secret lives that only existed on these small pieces of paper. Since my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, family albums are often all they have left. But then, I started noticing the rips and tear in each photograph as I flipped through each page. And I realized, these were mortal objects at the mercy of sunlight, oxygen and water much like us.

Ross Building, 2016
Archival Pigment Print, 20 x 30 inches, Edition of 10
© Jessica Thalmann
Star Charts, 2017
Archival Pigment Print, 11 x 14 inches, Edition of 10
© Jessica Thalmann

What are the key ideas/concepts related to the photographic medium that you try to deconstruct in your work?

J.T.: One of the most important epiphanies in my practice was the realization that a photograph is a piece of paper. A photograph isn’t a window into the world, a document of unequivocal truth or a fleeting ‘decisive moment’. Instead an image is a two-dimensional flat piece of paper made of chemicals and light that can, and often does, lie to you. And for me and my work, I am interested in the slipperiness of truth in an image. And the ways destructive practices like folding, cutting, puncturing and degrading a photograph can help illuminate the inherent dichotomies of the medium.


How do you channel your personal history into your work?

J.T.: My practice is deeply rooted in memories, images and experiences from my own or my family’s life. And while I resist reducing my work to a singular issue, I am interested in the ways traumatic experiences inform and distort memory. The work examines the relationship between Brutalist architecture (with its predominance in postsecondary educational institutions in Canada and America) and traumatic histories involving protest, shootings and violence. The recent work began by focusing on a shooting that occurred in 1992 at Concordia University in Montreal where my uncle, Phoivos Ziogas, was a professor killed during the massacre. To work through the emotional implications of his death and its reverberations throughout the family, the images of cold monolithic Brutalist buildings became distorted, organic and malleable.

Ithaca (V-Pleat), 2017
Folded Archival Pigment Print, 22 x 24  inches, Unique
© Jessica Thalmann
Cast-In-Place I, 2017
Folded Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 38 inches, Unique
© Jessica Thalmann

Brutality, destruction and violence are themes that seem to play a prominent role in your projects. What techniques and processes do you use to visually translate these themes?

I’d like to think I come at those issues obliquely. In most cases I attempt to illustrate the aftermath of a violent event or a troubled history through architecture, objects, light and atmosphere rather than narrative or didactic images. So, in many ways, I actively refuse the glorification or re-inscription of trauma and instead circle around an event. I favor a minimalist monochromatic aesthetic combined with a more documentary approach to photographing reality. I often make work in black and white, because it is only representations – in stories and pictures that we step outside of color and perhaps the reason why there are so many images where color is missing from the world.  And I am drawn to the ways in which color and grays, cohabit and sustain one another in an often-unacknowledged relationship of interdependence.

Folding is also another technique I incorporate into my work to disrupt or damage an image. A rip, a fold or a puncture are stand-ins violence or suffering. In a lot of ways, the visual interruption is actually more charged and unrelenting because it interrupts the illusion that photographs depict an objective. I can distort space and time by making a simple accordion fold in an architectural image, where you can’t immediately recognize where you are.


What do you think are the major challenges emerging artists are currently facing when trying to operate in the art world?

J.T.: Navigating the art world and surviving as an artist is difficult, and requires a huge amount of sacrifice and determination along with sheer luck to make it work. There is so much competition and a lack of resources or attention that can lead artists to feel isolated, unwanted and without value. But the best wisdom that I can offer is the advice I was given by the Chair of my MFA program, Nayland Blake, when I first entered the program. He told to me rethink, remake and reshape the art world that you want to be a part of; and not to wait to be heralded into one or strive to be a part of an art world that isn’t a good fit. Once he made it clear that we could shape our own careers and that we were active agents influencing our own lives, I felt in control and at ease.


Will portrait

Can you tell us a bit about your personal, educational and professional background?

Will Thomson: Having had an interest in art from a very young age, I selected mostly creative subjects to study at school and then solely focused on photography, fine art and Art history at A-level. Deliberately narrowing my potential career paths, as “being an artist” was never something my teachers/anyone I knew would recommend.

After leaving school, I chose against university, partly because the fees had just been increased and partly because I had been offered a studio space. I didn’t want to immediately get a huge loan out to pay for my education in something that did not guarantee the money to pay the same loan back. So I decided to gain some self practice experience and spent the next few years working in my own space.


When was your first contact with the photographic realm?

W.T.: My first real experience with photography was at sixth form. I studied fine photography where we were only allowed to work with black and white film and analog cameras. I studied for two years in which we learned to do everything ourselves.

Will Thomson - Untitled (2)
Untitled, 2014, 76cmx57cm, Ink on paper
© Will Thomson
Will Thomson - Untitled
Untitled, 2014, 76cmx57cm, Ink on paper
© Will Thomson

What are the key ideas/concepts related to the photographic medium that you try to deconstruct in your work?

W.T.: I thought it would be interesting to experiment with aspects of photography as a concept, and try to transfer them to painting. For example, I like the immediacy of a photograph, both freezing a moment in time, and the experience of a photograph developing within a matter of seconds, in fluid. Also how photography trains you to use your eyes and see things in a more thoughtful way.

To achieve this in painting, I have layered paint and tape to mask a pattern. When the tape pattern has been laid, and the final colour is down, I peel the tape off to instantly reveal the pattern beneath. Like the process of a photo revealing itself in developing fluid. The pattern created by the tape produces an optical effect in the eyes of the viewer. Touching on the idea of having to use your eyes to finish an image. It is the very experience of the optical effect that renders the work complete. Referencing how photography was originally used as a tool to document and capture information that the naked eye couldn’t process – like an optical effect.

There is also something interesting in not knowing exactly what you have until the work is complete. Similar to how a photo journalist may have an idea of what is in their photo, but not every detail. I have used techniques like marbling, that freezes a pattern (created on water) the second you apply paper to the ink, producing intricate detail that I could not control or predict.


What is your relationship to the darkroom?

W.T.: I don’t make any work in the darkroom any more, but spent hours in dark rooms at school and it is mainly processes that take place in them that have inspired my painting practise.

Velvet, 2015, 112cmx81cm, Acrylic on wooden panel
© Will Thomson

What roles do control and fate play in your creative process?

W.T.: I deliberately leave aspects of the creative process as variables. I control color and general composition, but pattern is never pre-determined. I don’t think too much about how the colors interact either, so once the pattern is revealed, the work jumps out and either looks alive, or dead. I like this as a process, it allows satisfaction to play a big part.


What do you think are the major challenges emerging artists are currently facing when trying to operate in the art world?

W.T.: Living in London, for me its money. I’m lucky enough to have MTArt as an agency that helps me with material and exhibition costs. Without them I would struggle with exposure and ultimately confidence.


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