Interview with…Peter Evan

Photos by Peter Evan

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Peter Evan was born in the far north of Michigan in the USA, but has spent most of his life in the UK and Japan. He has worked at a castle, a diesel engine plant, a publishing company, a hotel, a middle school and two universities. He is currently a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

When did you start to think about photography?
I’m a newcomer. I’ve only been taking photos for three or four years.

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What does it mean photography for you?
Maybe because my day job is so intellectual I don’t like to think deeply about photography. For me it’s simply a way of communicating what I see without being bound too closely to a particular message. I’m still fascinated by the old paradox that photography is as subjective and ambiguous as it seems objective and precise.

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Witch kind of photography do you like more?
Lately I’ve become very interested in how series of images work. I just bought a beautiful old copy of Masereel’s Die Stadt, a collection of 100 woodcuts set in an unnamed German city in the 1920’s. Although its grimness makes it a little hard going, the way the images work together is very appealing. On a quick flip though, they immediately give the feeling that there’s an overall narrative to the book, which encourages the viewer to look a bit more closely. At first it’s easy to pick out a few characters as they appear on two or three pages, but there are so many subplots and seemingly unrelated scenes that they defy attempts to fit them them into a single overarching narrative. In the end, the viewer is left with a strong, yet somewhat ambiguous, impression of life in Masereel’s city. That sounds like a lazy way of working – just make a bunch of images, put them together and let the viewer make whatever they want of it. It does leave a lot of the work to the viewer, but after spending about as much time with Die Stadt as I would a more conventional novel of that size, I’ve started to realise just how difficult it is to do something like that well. This is the sort of thing that interests me most right now.As far as individual images go, my taste changes fairly often. At the moment I’m most drawn to the poetic yet restrained images of Kawauchi Rinko, and the deadpan Americana of Alec Soth.

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When you take a portrait, what is important for you?
To me the setting is as important as the subject. Of course I hope to be able to find something unique to that person and somehow express it in my portrait of them, but the background and composition can be almost as revealing. The larger negative of the medium format cameras I use gives me the freedom to move further away from the subject without sacrificing resolution. I like to include as much of the surrounding landscape as possible before reaching the point where the subject becomes unrecognisable. This gives me a lot of freedom to play with composition, and it also forces the viewer to look more carefully at the subject then they might have done if it were a head-and-shoulders shot.

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Do you think it’s important to follow a school to learn how to shoot?
I’m completely self-taught, so I wasn’t trained to follow any particular school. I suppose it could be a help for some and a hindrance for others. I sometimes think that it would be better if my photos had a more consistent and recognisable style, but I wouldn’t want that to limit the way that I see.

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What’s the photo you want to take and you never did?
It sounds sentimental, but I wish I’d taken a good portrait of my father in the year before he died. If that’s too depressing, I’ll also answer with a quote from G. K. Chesterton describing an unused idea for a book: “Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written!”

What’s your photo-mission?
At the moment I’ve got a very particular goal for a series of photos I took a couple of years ago. In 2007 both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer, and I took a year off from work to help care for them. My mother is now in remission, but my father died in February, 2008. I spent that year caring for them and exploring a part of the world that I hadn’t visited since I was ten years old. I’m very grateful that I was able to spend so much time with them, and also for all the help that we received from friends and from charities like the American Cancer Society. I’ve put together a book that I hope to publish soon, with all the proceeds going to cancer-related charities. You can take a look at a rough draft at http://issuu.com/super-ape/docs/warm_as_winter

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