Grace Pickering, Photographer
INTERVIEW BY : RANA TOOFANIAN | WORDS BY : LIZ RAISS | PHOTO BY : GRACE PICKERING s
Manchester-born, Los Angeles-based photographer Grace Pickering has a kind of visionary outsiderness in her blood: her dad booked some of The Smiths first gigs, DJed at Hacienda in Manchester, masterminded M People, and worked A&R at Factory Records. Her mom is an artist whose approach to painting has influenced the cohesion and vision with which Grace approaches her own artistic practice.
Pickering, whose dyslexia and artistic inclinations alienated her from her strict high school’s curriculum, found her voice in the the darkroom. She went on to work and print at Rapid Eye, the legendary photography darkroom in London alongside Jamie Hawkesworth and Tim Walker, who often offered the young photographer advice.
Pickering developed an affinity for portrait work, which allowed her to connect with strangers and friends, capturing their world “through their eyes.” Today, Pickering identifies as a “fashion photographer,” albeit one who isn’t “too into fashion.” Pickering has a diverse portfolio of commercial and fashion work, but every image she makes bears the same raw vulnerability as her portrait work. We spoke to her about growing up on a diet of art and music, navigating the institutions where she never felt at home, and being a “weirdo alien” with a preternatural ability to get her subjects’ truest selves on film.
Grace documented the backstage happenings of WestwoodWestwood’s latest production “Ugotme” by Omar Apollo.
What lead you to pick up a camera for the first time?
My parents always exposed me to a lot of art and photography and music which provided a lot of inspiration. I used to look at a lot of Mick Rock, Kevin Cummins, old music photography. A lot of punk photographers. From there I got into moreNan Goldin, not street but documentary style photography, more of the candid point and shoot. I started taking pictures of my friends at house parties.
In high school I went to a school that had an amazing photography teacher. He taught me how to use the dark room and I became obsessed with it. I was dyslexic as a kid and went to a quite strict all girls school where they were not understanding of that or creative kids. I thought I was completely stupid until I was a teenager. Once I was in the dark room it was this process of physically being able to do things with my hands that was logical. It all just clicked.
Do you remember what your first camera was?
Yeah, it was a Pentax K1000 and I still have it and still use it.
Who gave it to you?
My dad bought it for me. It was 50 lbs. from this old camera shop. I always shot black and white 35mm when I first started because that’s what I could develop. And then I started working and developing film at Rapid Eye on Old Street and they taught me how to print color and that completely changed my photography style and evolved my work massively.
My mom being a painter, I grew up watching her paint very large scale oil paintings, and saw her considering every little detail. That crossed over to the dark room, and the way I put together an image or photograph, it’s very considered from the beginning.
Because you’ve been at Rapid Eye and had conversations with experts — what is the best advice anyone has given you about image making, or what have you learned that has stuck with you?
Firstly, make as much work as possible. Any idea I had, I shot and created and made the image. And secondly, listen to everybody and take the bits you need and leave the bits that you don’t. When you’re a young woman trying to be a photographer, everyone has unsolicited advice, as well as the advice you hope for.
I used to stress myself out so much trying to take in advice from everybody, until someone at Rapid Eye said, “just don’t worry about anybody,” and I think that was something that stuck with me.
Who are the photographers today inspiring you?
My friend Joe Sweeney has inspired a lot of my work. He has a very sensitive approach and sensibility to his subjects, while retaining this very observational humor that’s very tongue-in-cheek. That has always resonated with me and felt very digestible.
Touching upon dark or sad subject matter in a way that’s digestible is something common to all the photographers who inspire me. Francesca Allen and Sandy Kim are amazing photographers at the forefront of interesting and sentimental image making.
Taking someone’s portrait is kind of like asking who are you in a way that you aren’t always able to get into in conversation.
Even when you’ve created a fashion image, it still feels like a portrait. What do you find interesting to photograph?
I would consider myself predominately a fashion photographer in terms of what I shoot for work. I definitely as an artist identify as a portrait photographer. I’m not too into fashion but people really inspire me and people’s faces really interest me.
I grew up such a weirdo alien from everybody else and taking pictures allowed me to have a part in connecting with people. At first was sort of an excuse to speak with people that I wouldn’t really be able to. Being English and moving to LA and not knowing anyone, I have this vehicle that allows me to step into people’s world through their eyes for a minute and then it’s captured. Taking someone’s portrait is kind of like asking who are you in a way that you aren’t always able to get into in conversation.
What would you say is your approach to shooting?
Definitely very conversational. It’s very important to have an idea of who I am shooting and where they are coming from. I want to make the person feel powerful, that’s a running theme. I think a big part of that is when I used to model I would feel so uncomfortable and it’s something that always stuck with me. I just never wanted to make anyone feel like that. I predominately shoot teenagers and young girls and I want them to feel empowered.
Who would be your ideal subject?
My dream subject is Patti Smith. If you’re reading this, I’m ready for you! She’s my hero and my god. I know it’s so cheesy, but to me she is the total icon of any woman or person. Everything she makes, no matter what medium, is so uniquely her.
How has moving to LA shaped you as an artist?
I think as an artist you are always evolving and continuously making work. It’s very much about your situation and environment. Moving to LA was interesting because I acquired all of these skills and experiences and then moved completely to the other side of the world to this place where I didn’t know anyone. And I was implementing those tools and skills while feeling the way I felt when growing up, but in a more drastic and dramatic way.
It was really great. I felt like I had this moment when I was learning to take photos and using those skills to connect with real people. It taught me to be an adult in the real world.
What are the positives and negatives you’ve taken from the landscape of commercial photography? How has that defined your personal work ?
I feel like I’m in a fortunate position because I get hired to shoot in my own style. They want to make it look like my Instagram. So I shoot on film and I usually cast it all myself, and in that respect, I don’t really feel as if I have had that many new experiences. There’s a lot of stuff that I have been asked to do but I just turn down. I’m probably not the most business oriented woman. I never wanted to be a photographer, I just wanted to take photos. So I’m fortunate to just pay my rent and book a job.
So how did you end up making photography your career?
When I was at university my tutors said to me, “What do you want to do? What are you doing here? What is your career path?” I was like, “I don’t know. I just want to take pictures of people.” They were like that is just never going to happen, there are a lot of photographers in the class. I just never thought, even though I studied it, I was going to do it as a career. So I always just took the photos that I wanted to take because I was always told I wasn’t good enough anyway.