Interview: Jamie Morgan

published on 22 August 2003

Christabel Stewart speaks to photographer Jamie Morgan about his work with the Buffalo collective, his move to directing and the three films he contributed to SHOWstudio.

Christabel Stewart speaks to photographer Jamie Morgan about his work with the Buffalo collective, his move to directing and the three films he contributed to SHOWstudio.

Still from 'Peaceful Warriors', a short film by Jamie Morgan

Christabel Stewart: You were a central part of a highly influential and individualistic 'gang' of creatives -Buffalo- that established a very strong aesthetic and specific professional structure in fashion image-making. What was it like to move away from this support structure to forge your own practice?

Jamie Morgan: Hard at first. I made a decision early on my career to work in cooperation with people: especially the relationship that I created with (the stylist) Ray Petri and the other Buffalo gang members. So much so that I sacrificed my personal ambition over what I wanted to create with the collective of Buffalo. It became more about attitude and aesthetic than my personal desires. Even so, I still always shot what I wanted to. Ray trusted my photographic judgement completely. When Buffalo was no longer I had no problem creatively, but I felt very isolated emotionally and in terms of my career ambitions. Without the gang it all seemed a bit pointless.

CS: Which parts of Buffalo do you think remain in your approach to photography?

JM: 'Start with the face and the rest falls into place'. That concept of portraiture is still very much a part of my work. The emotion created by human character. I'm more interested in people than clothes. Also the simple graphic approach to pictures is still very much my style.

CS: What led you to set up your design company 'Art', that created visual identities for fashion and music?

JM: 'Art' was an early prototype for Buffalo. In one sense, it is not really about the medium, it is more about what you are saying, so in a way the techniques, whether they be stills, design, film, song writing, are just different ways to express the same ideas. So the concept of a collective makes sense because different people in different mediums express the same concepts. This is an old idea explored by many artistic movements.

CS: At what stage do you think you developed an interest in motion image?

JM: I have always had a passion for moving images. From an early age I wanted to direct film, but got seriously waylaid by the world of fashion, sex and rock'n'roll! I am writing scripts now and feel I have eventually found my way back to work that encompasses everything I have a passion for, i.e. visuals, music and emotional art that looks at the human condition.

CS: Can you describe the process of initiating your film projects? What is the difference between the commissioned and personal work?

JM: Ideas come from everywhere! It's all about the choice to do something. The commitment to see work through is all you need to validate it. Whether it is good or not is only an opinion. I see commissioned work mostly as creative problem solving. You have something to say; how are you going say it? Whereas personal work begins with WHAT is it that you want to say.

CS: In your film Next Meal, you use webcam imagery and the aesthetics of surveillance cameras. What is it about these technologies that appeal to you?

JM: The idea behind Next Meal is that of 'document as art'. Trying to influence the situation as little as possible. We set up eight cameras in the Winnebago of a sixteen-year-old artist and filmed his life for 24 hours and then edited it together. In a sense, we were just voyeurs. We shot it on low-grade surveillance equipment recorded on VHS tape and edited by vision mixing the eight cameras live. So again we were trying to get as close to the truth of the situation as possible. It's a bit like using a point and shoot camera in photography; you want the equipment to not to get in the way of recording the moment and therefore you get closer to the truth of the situation you are recording. But even so, that is still a creative choice so you are still exercising creative control.

What Buffalo helped to create was a force outside the establishment and this has now been completely assimilated into the system, there is no underground.

CS: What were the origins of Boxing Buddha Were there any specific sources for this exploration of youth, movements, regime and costume?

JM: Boxing Buddha was shot after I was living in Asia for a year. I left the West for two years and was living in Bangkok. The film represents everything I loved about the culture. The boys in the film are all orphans, living on the street, who have been given another life. They now live at the school that I shot the film at. They are taught Thai boxing and Buddhism. This particular excerpt, 'Peaceful Warriors', is taken from a longer film called Boxing Buddha. The title says everything about what interested me: the ability to be strong and powerful, and at the same time be compassionate. This is what Buffalo was all about. The attitude. To be very male and still show a softer side. That's why the Buffalo images were so cool, they were both strong and soft, male and female. This to me is what a man should be: to be strong enough to have compassion. I shot the film on Super 8mm. I mounted the camera on a homemade steady-cam. The feeling I wanted to create was that of authenticity. I wanted it to feel like you just came across these guys and were discovering them for yourself. You are not sure whether this is really old footage or something modern like a fashion piece. This is also the ambiguity I was interested in creating.

CS: Deep is the product of your longstanding collaboration with the designer Ozwald Boateng. Is fashion still important to you?

JM: Deep is one in an ongoing series of shorts I made with Ozwald. He is a big fan of film and really enjoys associating himself with it. We always work with a loose theme and let the films have a natural development. 'Deep' is all shot under water in slow motion. The music is very emotive. The idea was to create a piece that was working on the deep subconscious; you feel something, but you don't know what or why, you just feel. The colours are all primary, i.e. red, blue, yellow, with the black background as the constant. I have always loved the simplification of black and primary colours, and this look suits Boateng's style very well. I love fashion, I love clothes, I love the way clothes are an extension of yourself. The fashion business I could do with out, but I still have a very strong desire to shoot fashion photographs. Now, as before, I want them to be somehow relevant. So if anyone wants to shoot with me......!

CS: One of the seminal changes brought about by Buffalo was the establishment of the stylist as a professional role, one that perhaps has less power now than it did then. How do you think image-making has changed during your career? What progression and regressions have you observed?

JM: Ok, big question that one! I feel a lot has changed. What Buffalo did was to try to create its own agenda outside the fashion system. We were interested in the images and the attitude. Yes, we loved the style and the fashion but that was just part of it. We would use an Armani jacket because we liked the cut, not because of the label. What Buffalo helped to create was a force outside the establishment and this has now been completely assimilated into the system, there is no underground. The fast track from the street to the big advertisers is so established. My analogy would be that Buffalo was beating a path through the jungle with a single machete, where as now we have a ten lane Super-Highway. It lacks a sense of adventure and it's all about the money. In the Buffalo days success was based on work and credibility. Now success equals money. Ray Petri died broke. That said, I think there are a lot of brilliant photographers and great stylists, so many more than before. There are lots of people I would enjoy working with, but somehow, in general it all seems a bit light.

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