in conversation with Alex Jones
Hamish Linehan was interviewed by fellow photographer Alex Jones for Decoration Centre. Hamish documents uninterrupted landscapes, embracing the melancholic nature of his surroundings. His photographs possess a sort of anonymity, acting as an observation or experience of these spaces.
Both photographers grew up together in Cornwall, and now use their medium as a therapeutic tool to document home, among other subjects. Having since moved to major cities, the pair discuss how their rural upbringing has influenced their individual gazes.
Alex: We’ve known each other a long time but I don’t think we’ve ever really spoken about your photography. When we’ve been talking about our photography in the past, we’re just talking about it from a technical standpoint, like: “What film are you shooting at the moment? What camera are you using?”
Hamish: It’s very dad chat.
A: Just a couple of camera dads.
I’ve always enjoyed watching you start photography and you developing. Your photography has always appealed to me and excites me because it has that really empirical nature of, like, meeting the world. It's something that I apply to myself as well, and the way that I photograph. It's something I always love coming back to as well, it's the essence - you have to do that to be able to make photographs. Maybe you could start by reminding me how you came to be making photographs on a regular basis?
H: Yeah, I think I kind of started off in quite a naive way, in that I was a teenager and was like “what do I need to do to be cool?” And it was that kind of tumblr thing, people taking really grainy photos of stuff. My friend Fin, started taking photos and I was like cool that seems really interesting, I’ll start doing that.
A: I think with our generation we kind of went through that resurgence of film photography, which was really appealing, the process of it was really exciting. We were just on the cusp of it, digital was the mainstream when we were of age to be making photographs, which is like really instantaneous and there’s not much satisfaction in it. All of a sudden when film started becoming a thing again, it looked so exciting to me.
H: Yeah, I think so. Especially growing up in Cornwall as well, it’s such a… there’s not much infrastructure to do stuff beyond natural things. If you’re a teenager you would be like, “let’s go hang out at the beach” or “let’s go on this walk.” Documenting that felt like quite a natural extension of doing it.
I started taking photos before iPhone cameras and stuff got really good. Part of it was just necessity - you want to document those things and document those experiences. But I think it’s similar for you, right?
A: Yeah totally. On how iPhone cameras have developed in our lifetimes, which I think is really interesting, do you think that development has cheapened your photography in a way? Or the way you approach photography?
H: One of the things I find difficult - because I’m not like, trying to be a professional photographer, and I’m not displaying my photos in galleries - so a lot of my photos just end up on Instagram or social media. I think it’s not necessarily the development of iPhone cameras, but more the development of apps and social media.
One thing I think about is: “what’s the purpose of my photos? What’s the place for them? What is the function of them?” - are they going to be viewed by someone on my Instagram feed for like, 2 seconds? Someone might be like “that’s a nice photo of a beach” and then just move on. Because the process of taking film photographs is so arduous and so long, I think I worry that that function can cheapen them sometimes.
A: I think that’s cool, that you’re thinking about what comes after taking the picture as part of your own development for your own photography after telling us where you started. Where would you say you’re at in your arc or progress or whatever as far as your photography goes? You spent most of your adult education reading philosophy, and philosophy, for me, is a mentally strenuous field to be in. Especially in your particular areas of interest, most of it goes over my head when you’re trying to tell me about it.
Now you work a job in the public sector that requires exercising a similar intellectual praxis in social situations. I mean correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like your photography is, in a way, a respite from the machinations of your brain, and more about the process and the act of photographing itself, rather than the end result or what’s going through your head at the time of making the work.
H: Yeah totally. It’s really nice that you think that, it’s really nice that that comes through. It’s a really unacademic thing. The kind of philosophy I was interested in was the philosophy of science, it was rigorous stuff. It wasn’t light reading.
My photography, for me anyway, has a kind of therapeutic function, where you lose all that stuff. It’s about your orientation towards something happening in the natural world, the process of going and finding that and taking a photo and documenting it. It’s quite a simple, straight-forward thing, you don’t have to think about it in an academic way or intellectualise it. It’s from my gut, almost, it’s much more instinctual. I’m not a trained photographer at all, the idea of working on projects or having a singular focus or theme seems really weird to me.
A: While we’re going down that rabbit hole, similarly photography started as a hobby for me, before it became something that I use to explore ideas in my head about other things, unrelated to photography. I wonder if you see yourself moving in that direction? Where you would become more intentional and you would use it to explore other ideas. In a similar way, philosophy is used as a tool to interpret the world, and I’m wondering what thoughts go through your head when you’re making work - if any? If there’s something else that isn’t “there’s something I want to take a picture of.”
H: I don’t think it is just that. I don’t think I’m going out and finding things that look nice and just taking photos of them. I think for me, in terms of a project or aim, it's to capture moments of calm I guess. To document them and keep them. In that sense, it's therapeutic as well. The things I seek out to photograph are things in the natural world that feel calming or peaceful or kind of straight-forward. Again, it is that idea of having a respite, a respite from having a busy brain through capturing those moments.
In terms of my practice - I don’t know if i can imagine moving on from doing that. I’ve done some stuff where people have asked me to take images for specific reasons, like promo shots for things. They’re always fine, I’ve never had anyone be unhappy with them - apart from me.
A: Yeah. Unnatural for you and what photography is for you.
H: My photos are quite anonymous in some ways, in that they are mostly landscapes. That feels weird to say as well. When you think of landscapes you think of dads with really HD photos of sunsets.
A: It’s impossible to be completely objective in photography, like we always bring something of ourselves into the work. Is there anything that you use from studying philosophy for so long that has some kind of influence on the way you photograph, or what you think when you’re making the work?
H: Me and you have talked about this before - I did a lot of philosophy of mind stuff. I was especially interested in this idea of enactivism. So it's this idea that like… in classical models of the mind your conscious experiences are located just in your head. Whereas enactivism is this idea that your conscious experiences are something that happens as an activity between you and the world. It breaks down that idea of the individual and the place that you’re in or the activity you’re doing or the landscape. I think I’m probably thinking about that kind of stuff, about getting lost in a photograph or getting lost in a place. I guess photography is a way to interact and be in a kind of relationship or orientation with the landscape, or with somebody else. That’s the kind of stuff that’s going on in my head.
It’s partly like a background thing as well. My gran is super Irish and grew up in rural Ireland, all of her stories about my family are to do with how people were in the land or acted in relation to the land. She would always talk about someone being great with horses, or a great fisherman.
I guess it’s that idea that your personal identity is connected to the land or to the place you’re in, via some kind of activity or mediated by an activity.
A: You’re mostly making work in natural environments and in your case, namely the Scottish Highlands and also the coastlines of Cornwall. These are places you and I share a common sense of belonging, I have Scottish family and we grew up in Cornwall. Both places are special to us, and make us feel a certain way, unlike anywhere else. What is it about open outdoor spaces that draw you in? Or out?
H: It’s this idea again of being subsumed or at one with a place. I’ve lived in Edinburgh for about 8 years now. It’s really hard to feel at home in a city, I think, because of that lack of open space, or lack of less curated or managed open spaces. Cornwall and the Highlands.. it’s easier to feel at one with that kind of landscape, for me anyway.
It’s also a natural draw as well, that I think is instinctual. I surf a lot as well, and I have Scottish and Cornish family too. Being in those places and doing those kinds of outdoor activities, you’re almost existing in a lineage with people that have lived there for thousands of years. I think anyone who has ever lived in Cornwall or Scotland would’ve been awestruck by the landscapes they found themselves within. I think by documenting it, you’re existing within that lineage as well, documenting it is almost a way to communicate with them. I think surfing is the same as well, surfing in Cornwall you’re existing within this tradition of people who fished or lived by the sea and had to live within those natural rhythms. All of those things draw me to those places for sure.
A: In between your work and family you kind of bounce between these two Celtic nations. Do you see similarities? Not only in a cultural sense, but maybe in the aesthetic nuances in your two distant motherlands?
H: I think the aesthetic similarities make photography harder, there’s often weird light or low sun or rain. I think there’s an austereness to both landscapes, they’re not really lush or vibrant places. They’re quite melancholic as well.
A: Cornwall for me has always been a melancholic area, it’s never that kind of picture on a postcard.
H: The sea and the Highlands are such big, open, austere spaces. They’re really easy to project things onto. They’re such blank canvases that you can personify how you’re feeling with them quite easily.
A: When I first passed my driving test, I spent way too many evenings driving down to Polzeath and just brooding over the horizon. It’s the perfect place to really feel sorry for yourself.
H: Yeah, it absorbs angst. It’s quite cathartic.
A: Us being from these places, it’s really easy to take it for granted. I’ve always thought I’m so lucky to be able to go home there, whereas some people might holiday and go home to somewhere that isn’t as traditionally pretty. My family have never been wealthy but we always had the natural space around us, that’s a lifeline for so many families in Cornwall, one of the most impoverished areas in Europe. Say a single parent can’t afford to take them somewhere else, they can still always go to the beach or the woods or the moors and get nourished in a way that is way beyond what a monetary thing could bring.
H: Growing up, being like, ‘Hey what should we do? Just hang out in one of the most beautiful places in the UK.’ Until I met people from elsewhere I didn’t realise that wasn’t something people had, which sounds naive, but I think we were really lucky.
A: So you’ve lived in Scotland for 8 years - do you feel at home there? This is something I’m trying to deal with myself at the moment, living in London, which is the last thing anyone would expect from me. I wonder how long it takes for somewhere to feel like a home? What constitutes the feeling of being at home? Is it when we don’t think we can be somewhere else? In my mind I’m constantly thinking ‘where else could I be right now?’ I’m trying to figure out what this idea of home is. Do you think it’s something you’re trying to figure out?
H: I don’t really think Scotland is home. I don’t know if Cornwall will just always feel like home. I think having such a nice community around me in Edinburgh helps, there are so many creative people I know. Being part of that community helps me feel a bit more at home. In Cornwall, I think I would feel at home even if no one else was around.
I don’t know what contributes to that - I do still feel like a bit of a fraud when I’m in Scotland sometimes. Especially being called Hamish speaking with a posh English accent.
A: I wonder if it’s symptomatic of the neoliberal landscape that we live in. We always have to be successful, in a cool job, look cool and London is the “place to be” etc. I wonder if generations before us, that weren’t so sick with this neoliberalist idea, were much more comfortable where they were because they didn’t feel this pressure to be something or to be somewhere that’s supposedly “where it’s at.” I don’t think my parents ever considered that they needed to be anywhere else but where they grew up.
H: My parents travelled a lot. They lived in Germany for a long time, but I don’t think they moved there because it was the place to be. There definitely is an element of wanting to be in the coolest place, doing the coolest thing, surrounded by the coolest people. It’s weird because I think there’s not as much sense of wanting to build something or be part of a community in order to do that, I think people like the idea of being able to show up.
That’s something I try to avoid when I’m taking photos. I’m so aware that it could be read as me being like ‘look at all the cool places I’ve been to.’ Which is the opposite of what I want people to feel looking at my work. I don’t want it to be something that makes people feel bad or worried.
A: When I go somewhere where I’m a stranger or a foreigner, I try to think about what the people who live there would think of my photographs. For me, I’m communing with the space, I’m communing with this new place I’ve never been to before. I always try to come from a place of respect. I think sometimes I’m shooting myself in the foot by almost being too humble, you get these asshole photographers who just go somewhere with no respect and get these amazing pictures. At the same time it goes back to the idea that the end result isn’t the most important thing for me, it’s more about the experience I have in this place.
H: I really recognise that. Especially about it being more about the experience, it’s a way of clearing my head. It’s been a while since I’ve taken photos abroad, mainly because I haven’t travelled much recently.
It’s probably something I should do more of, not that I’m travelling to far off places and sticking my camera in people’s faces. I’ve never known how people do that. It takes me so long to feel like I can photograph someone. I feel like I have to have some kind of relationship with them.
A: With my kind of work sometimes there is a feeling of guilt, of having the privilege to represent somewhere which isn’t asking you to represent it in any way. I try to make the work about that personal experience, rather than the place I’m photographing. It is a bit narcissistic but also a bit more innocent in the sense that I’m not trying to speak for these people, because they can quite easily and happily speak for themselves.
It’s interesting because me and you photograph a lot of similar things but in different ways, we share a lot of the same ethos. When I see your photographs, what really attracts me is the light. I think it’s fair to say light is really important to you and it’s something that draws me in, they conjure up those sensory experiences of nature. I always think of your photos as damp, maybe that’s what I associate Cornwall and Scotland with. Do you go into these spaces with the intention of making work or is your work a consequence of your time spent there? Say hiking or surfing.
H: I definitely don’t have a map of places I’m going to go and take photos of. I think it’s definitely more of an extension of that activity, or of being in that place. I’m glad you think my photos are damp, or have that experiential quality to them, because that’s definitely what I’m aiming for. It’s cool to have that acknowledged.
A: Yeah. You’ve used a shit load of cameras through your development, and more recently you’ve moved to medium format. I wondered if that was because you started to become more intentional in your work?
H: I’ve got a Mamiya, it’s really nice. You’re so right in that it’s been a load of trial and error and I’ve been through loads of cameras. I think I’m definitely becoming more intentional, and wanting to produce work that can be printed and made into physical copies. That’s becoming more of interest to me than the digital.
It’s such a cliche but I also think there’s something nice about the slowness of medium format, and only having a certain amount of shots. You have to be more intentional and more discerning in what you take photos of.
A: And then when you run out of film you can forget about photography.
H: It’s kind of a relief when I’m hiking and shoot my last photo. It’s like ‘cool, I don’t have to do that part anymore.’
Visit Hamish’s Instagram here
Images by Hamish Linehan.
With thanks to both Hamish and Alex.