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An interview with Tom Owens: his life as a photographer & ‘Edgelands’, his first solo current exhibition

01 August 2015
In another of our series interviewing upcoming photographers, we interview Tom Owens a mature BA(Hons) Photography student recently graduated from UCS, Ipswich who utilised Metro's student services to produce his current exhibition 'Edgelands'.

Tom firstly congratulations on your ‘Edgelands’ exhibition.  Is this the first solo exhibition of your work and if so what does it mean to you to have produced this show?

Thanks. This is my first solo exhibition and is based on a series that is still in the making. When I embarked on this body of work it was for my degree project at UCS. Even at the very genesis of this project, I knew it would go beyond degree assessment and have a life of its own. I was a founding member of a photography collective at university called 'equals' and I was on the curation team for our Lux Locus degree shows in Ipswich and Free Range 2014 and it was for Free Range that I had Metro drum scan a batch of 'Edgelands' 5x4 negatives. I had to make the best of the huge space we had available so I had 5 large C-Types printed by Metro and framed by a local gallery.

As part of my degree one of the tasks set in 'professional practice' was to complete an Arts Council England funding bid and I was fortunate to have Kodak support me by supplying medium format film to continue making work in this series. Getting support at this level really spurred me on and helped me develop my senses as the series evolved.

‘Edgelands’ features images of areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in your local area. Can you explain what inspired this project?

The project began as AONB, very much in the manner of Keith Arnatt's series. I had already begun making work loosely on this theme based on my first visit to Ipswich in 1977 when I sailed up the River Orwell; it is a very beautiful river and my thoughts then and now were that if this was the front door then there must be a back door.  Although I thought 'someone has already done it' it spurred me on and my initial starting point for the project was near Manningtree.

I researched the extent of Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB using a copy of the map from the Act of Parliament designating the extent and I realised I was 500m outside of it but better still I was between two AONBs, the other being Dedham Vale better known as Constable country. I then realised that I was on the edge so I coined the term Edgelands and that immediately gave me more latitude to make work whilst still staying with large and medium format film.

What specifically did you look for in the settings or sites you photographed for ‘Edgelands’?

I needed to find edges - edges between areas of current or historical use. I had already called my work Edgelands and read Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts' Edgelands book as a catalyst amongst other works. There are no pictures other than in prose so used it to spur my imagination and dig deep into my psyche to make work that was in my mind but not yet visible to anyone.

Years of life experiences had been stowed away and I had discovered the best way to release them was by seeking out industrial/commercial areas that abutted the vast farmlands of Suffolk. Apart from the last ice age that carved out the basic canvas for our countryside, it's the efforts of humankind that has shaped and tamed it but as soon as we give up on an area nature fights back. I wanted to capture some of that whilst also highlighting our wanton disregard to our local surrounding by picking out areas subject to littering and fly-tipping. The AONB aspect became redundant after a while but it was the essential ingredient to getting the project started.

You use analogue and digital cameras for your work; do you have your favourite method of working?

My favoured method of working has to be with my large format cameras, closely followed by my medium format film SLR. I began in 1968 on a Lubitel 2 and I used to marvel at my grandfather's half plate mahogany and brass camera in our loft. It was not until I went to UCS where they major on film based work that the desire to shoot large format got an airing. My first ever E-bay purchase was my Toyo 45C

I love using my digital equipment also. It depends on the task in hand. My cameras are just tools of my trade and I determine what the outcome is first before deciding what tool to shoot on.

Your work covers many aspects of photography including portraiture and commercial work as well as environmental imagery, which area gives you the greatest pleasure?

Now that is a difficult question to answer. I suppose it has to be based on the challenge but my environmental imagery wins by a whisker as most of that is about catching something fleeting in the light that might require several pre-dawn starts to achieve.

Did you always have a desire to become a photographer and if so what do you think inspired this desire?

The answer is a resounding yes. I was mesmerised at seeing my father develop a print in the makeshift darkroom aka the bathroom. As I saw that print emerge in the development tray I was hooked. I got involved with the photographic society at school and was offered a place at Birmingham University but I had not spent enough time swotting for my exams so I ended up looking for work.

Soon photography became just a hobby but always one with a nagging thought at the back of mind 'What if I had done that degree course?' In those days Snowdon, Bailey, Lichfield were household names and the Sunday Times had real reportage from Vietnam. Photojournalism was in its heyday. I suppose this helped fuel a desire and everything from gritty B&W to glorious colour supplements screamed from the pages. I wanted to be part of it. It has taken me a long time to get there but I am enjoying every minute of it.

Do you have any upcoming projects or work you would like to share with us?

I am working on a collaboration with other photographers, to make a long study of the docklands of the Orwell stretching from Felixstowe to Ipswich. We will pool our work into a show and or a book when we decide to draw a line under it but I love the fact that we each bring our own viewpoint to the consolidated effort. Photography is all about the mind's eye and visualising the end result before cocking the shutter. The other nice thing about this project is that we are all talking to each other and sharing news and events. Being a photographer can be a very lonely experience.

Do you have any photography/career goals you'd like to achieve?

In my youth I aspired to gain a degree in photography and also gain an ARPS or FRPS. I've now got the first two and I'm hopeful of the third, but mostly I just want to keep upping my game to make better and better work that satisfies me and also interests other people to the extent that it makes them question what they are looking at.

I'd like to share my knowledge and enthusiasm with others and this solo exhibition is the first stepping-stone for me on that journey. Going to UCS and taking the Honours degree helped me set out a map to explore, only this map is three dimensional in that I want my work to have layers to it that people can take their time over when viewing it and indeed interpret it in any which way they choose.

As long as I can get up in the morning and have an image in mind that I want to make, and I have the wherewithal to do it with the camera of my choice then I'm content.

For information about Tom Owens
For information about 'Edgelands' the exhibition
Hear Tom talking about 'Edgelands' in a recent interview on Radio Suffolk (2:09 - 2:38)

Museum Of East Anglian Life, Iliffe Way, Stowmarket, Suffolk IP14 1DL, United Kingdom

Exhibition dates: until 31st March 2016
Opening times: Tues - Sat: 10:00am - 4:30pm; Sunday: 11:00am - 4:30pm

Admission to the exhibition is free

Images © Tom Owens

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