James Mason: Light, Shapes, and Style

James Mason is a UK-based photographer.  After obtaining his fine arts degree from Camberwell College of the Arts in London, James discovered photography was far more rewarding than drawing or sculpture. He loves to travel, walking around cities, and taking in the environment around him which feeds his obsession about architecture. He has traveled to multiple countries across Asia, Europe, and North America capturing everything from simple street scenes to the delightful interplay of light, shapes, and style.  This week atlas speaks to James about what he loves about photography, why architecture appeals to him, and the one photographer he would love to accompany on a photo shoot.

How did you first get started in photography?

James Mason: I attended art school in London when I was producing a lot of drawings and sculptures. A large part of my process involved walking around the city and using snapshots to document architectural details that caught my eye. I would later incorporate these details into my artwork as abstract geometric forms. After completing my degree, I began to realize that I did not actually have a lot to say with the mediums I was working in at this point. More significantly the idea of working away in a studio all day outside of the art school system felt very boring and isolated. I continued to walk and record the things I saw using photography but as an end unto itself. It became clear that this was what I found most rewarding so I started taking photography seriously. This was around three years ago.

Are you self-taught or do you have a formal education in photography?

I was always familiar with photography from going to art school as well as seeing the work of photographers in books and at galleries. However, the only formal instruction I had was when I was 17. I had a few compulsory classes in 35mm photography and B&W darkroom printing as part of my Art & Design course at college. I am grateful to have had this opportunity to experiment with film since this was right before darkrooms began to disappear from UK education with the transition to digital. Although the fundamentals I learned have stuck with me, I was not hugely taken with the processes at the time. Learning exposure tables and creating lighting diagrams felt very dry and technical. Now having photographed a lot, I regret not pursuing this further while I had access to these facilities and the time to use them.

What did you love the most about photography?

I love photography because it allows me to document my everyday life while producing something that is very subjective via the decisions I make in framing and editing. I feel like photography offers the perfect balance between reflection and personal vision. Furthermore, photography is an excuse to do lots of things that should not really require an excuse — to seek access to interesting places, to hang around, and to start different conversations with people.

Just looking at Instagram, you photograph a lot of architecture in cities around the world and capture the interesting interplay among light, color, and shapes. What about architecture appeals to you? Did you want to become an architect? 

I have always been obsessed with architecture. I like to spend a considerable amount of time walking and the built environment conditions the experience of these walks. Specifically I am interested in large cities; architecture forms a kind of palimpsest whereby the new is incessantly layered on top of the old, constantly creating new meanings and relationships to be explored.

I have lot of friends involved in architecture and take more than a casual interest. I always loved the idea of being an architect myself however I know enough to realize that I would not enjoy practicing architecture.

Can you tell us a bit more about these spectacular images and maybe a bit about your creative process?

The works you see here mostly reflect a particular process whereby I would travel a lot to different places and seek out architectural details that I felt could fit in with a particular aesthetic I had in mind. The best way I can describe this is to say that I was looking to monumentalize the buildings and spaces I depicted in a way that emphasized their density and scale in relationship to the human being.

I have since changed my way of working somewhat. The problem I had was that what I was doing felt very finite. I would go to a city and look for everything that fitted into a pre-conceived look and then photograph all of these features when the lighting conditions were most dramatic. In a way, this is quite a touristic approach to photography. However, I have now begun to focus on transient details within the urban environment, things that only reveal themselves by chance and for a short time. I wanted to be able to make photographs all of the time wherever I am so this shift in perspective means that I can regularly re-photograph familiar places.  I moved to shooting exclusively in film, which has has forced me to slow down and really look at things in a new way.

You shoot mainly in color. Why do you prefer color over black & white?

To me, it just makes sense to work primarily in color. It is one of the means we have at our disposal to describe the world so to forgo it entirely would not make sense to me.

That said, I love black and white and many of my favorite photographers are working this way exclusively. As far as my own work is concerned, the hesitation in not shooting B&W comes from the fear of getting a shot and wishing it was in color. This fear extends to only really using one type of color film (Portra 400) since I want my main body of work to all have the same look and feel to it.

Though not the same, I have been experimenting with B&W conversions of my color photographs in post-production. I want to produce zines and small books that bring together work on a particular place or subject. I see the act of sequencing and putting together a book as a separate act whereby I can manipulate all that I have at my disposal in order to create something new. Though I’m thinking primarily in color, I really like the feel of B&W for this purpose. A cheap color print looks awful but satisfying results can be achieved very inexpensively in B&W.

Are there any photographers whose work inspire you?

I look at the work of a ton of different photographers and my taste changes quite a lot. At the moment I am particularly fascinated by the work of Japanese photographer Junko Yonezawa. Yonezawa is able to find extraordinary beauty in the everyday. The work he produces is extremely subtle and requires a long time to absorb.  I find this very inspirational and would love to be able to achieve such depth in my own work.

If you could go on a photo shoot with any photographer (living or deceased), who would it be?

This is a very difficult question to answer. In my own work, I tend to take a snapshot approach — walking around on the street, and shooting whatever takes my eye.  If I had the opportunity, I would love to see how a photographer at the total opposite end of the spectrum approaches a photo shoot. I guess this would be somebody like Gregory Crewdson. Crewdson applies extreme scrutiny to every element of his image making process and runs sets that have the most elaborate levels of production. I think it would be great to see what kind of lessons I could take away from this way of working.

Thanks for being our photographer of the week, James!

For more information about James, check out his Instagram.  All images © James Mason.