Eric’s Note: I visited Australia about two months ago, and had the great pleasure of meeting Tamara Voninski, one of the founding members of Oculi, an award-winning Australian collective. On one of my last nights there, I met up and had a beer with some of the other members of Oculi, and met Andrew Quilty whose color work blew me away. His vision for photography was like a mashup between Robert Frank, Alex Webb, and Constantine Manos – documentary-based, elegant, and colorful.
Quilty recently self-published a book titled: “The Mexicans” – an odyssey across Mexico where he captured searing insights into the life of the locals through their life & light. Interested in seeing the images and interview? Read on.
1. Andrew, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview. To start off, can you introduce yourselves to the community by telling us a bit more about yourself?
Ah-hum! Well, I’m thirty years old, currently based in Sydney. I’m a pretty passionate surfer but photography has won that tug-of-war as time has gone on. Still, along with reading, surfing is a great disconnect for me and my work. I love my music, both live and now on vinyl since I made the reverse jump back into recently. In fact music and literature I find are just as influential and inspiring to me as photography itself. I work primarily in photojournalism and portrait photography for news and current affairs publications in Australia and internationally.
2. In a past interview, you mention how you stumbled upon photography accidentally – after your uncle gave you a film Nikon to shoot with. At that point, what did you find unique about the camera’s ability to document your world, when compared with writing or any other mediums?
To be honest, back then I hated writing. I didn’t think it served any purpose other than unnecessary ones. It was all about visual art for me. i loved drawing at school and it was what i was best at. I hated reading – like maths (and religious studies) it was just something you had to do. Art was the only subject I looked forward to really. Yet I still had no concept of how I could make that work for me in terms of a career. In fact I had no idea what a career was and where you found one. Thank GOD I didn’t go into business or commerce or economics like the majority of my school mates – I almost did – I was so ignorant that I was really going through the motions that I thought everyone else did.
And to be honest again, in answer to your question, I don’t think it was the fact that I discovered this tool that had the ability to document the world (it wouldn’t have even been something I’d have been capable of grasping in my naivety back then), rather it was a way that i could be creative in a field that I could envisage making a ‘career’. When I put it like that I almost feel guilty. All these people who’ve dreamt of doing what I’m doing and it’s happened for me in reverse the dream has come with the career – I’m living a dream that is happening for me in real time.
3. I find your writing to be quite eloquent and poetic, when reading the introduction to many of your projects. How do you see your writing influencing your photography, and vice-versa?
I love this question. As I mentioned previously, it probably effects my work more so than looking at other photographs. The imagery that a beautiful writer can conjure in one’s imagination is potentially even greater than that which he or she is describing from real life. It’s these ‘images’ (there has to be some correlation between the words image and imagination right) – these mysterious, enigmatic fantastical images from everyday life that I’m always trying to replicate through photography. John Steinbeck is for me a greater master of imagery.
4. You recently self-published “The Mexicans”, a book documenting your travels across Mexico over the course of several months. Tell us more about the journey. What were some of the most exhilarating parts of your trek and also some of the difficulties you faced?
Every time I got in my $300 wagon with California plates, the worlds heaviest clutch, a screwdriver for a ignition key and no back windshield was exhilerating! I broke down several times which was always a test but also usually had a happy outcome – meeting friendly locals or stumbling upon something great to shoot. The colour was what blew me away in Mexico. I was shooting b&w film when I crossed the border from Texas and it was instantly apparent that this was a ‘colour’ place.
I loved the pre industrial way that so many of the Mexican people live and work. There are always fires burning by the side of the road, people walking round with machetes and axes, field workers instead of giant machines – the people get down and dirty, they know how to fix things, they’re resourceful and generally speaking very friendly and warm.
I camped most of the time so each afternoon as the sun got lower in the sky I never knew whether to shoot or look for a place to sleep. I cooked dinner on an open fire and read or write under my headlamp.
I got lonely at times. It’s amazing how lonely you get when you can’t communicate verbally with anyone as was the case for a week or two here and there when I was in rural areas where no one spoke English and there certainly weren’t any tourists.
I had a couple of close calls – sleeping on the wrong person’s property and finding out when my uncle who was with me at the time and I got surrounded by M16 wielding ‘farmers’ who in the end, let us stay the night on their property…
5. In your project, the images you capture are phenomenal. They really bring Mexico to life through the searing lights, dark reds, exotic greens, as well as the jet-ink blacks. What draws you to the light, and how do you feel it adds to your photographic vision?
The light draws me to the light. I see the sun as a spot light and use it as such. Artificial or man-made light can act the same way and one of my favorite things is when you combine the two! Light however is only interesting if it is hitting something interesting.
Fortunately for me, when nice light hits an ordinary scene it can potentially become an extraordinary scene if you can manage to override what your camera is telling you to do (and because we’re all smarter than our cameras, we can).
6. You titled the book “The Mexicans” – a nice ode to Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. Describe how Frank has inspired your photography as a whole, as well as the project.
His style, his approach, his subject matter, his ethics, his perspective of the world, his irony, cynicism and his aesthetic all inspire me. His trip that produced The Americans some more or less, like mine.
He drove around (albeit with his family in tow (jeez they must have been patient!)) with no particular goal or plan. He shot what he came upon. It wasn’t entirely objective and he was criticized for it but it doesn’t concern me in the slightest – it was photojournalism per se but I like it when you can see the photographer’s opinion or their tendencies or leanings in their work.
7. Seeing your intense color work reminds me of the work of Constantine Manos as well as Alex Webb. Similarly to Webb, you shot the entire project on color slide film. Unfortunately in a previous conversation we had together in Sydney, the film you used no longer exists. How are you able to adapt for future projects without having the same film – which helps you achieve some of your photographic vision?
I’m yet to work that out. I’ve bought as much of it as I can afford until I do.
8.You are one of the members in the Australian collective Oculi. Describe how you got introduced to Oculi, and how being a part of the collective has helped you as a photographer.
Oculi was the benchmark of photography within Australia as I began to grow passionate about it. Fortunately I was introduced to a number of Oculi’s members in my early days working at Fairfax. I liked their ethos, their ethics and obviously the style of their work. Becoming a member certainly gave me some credit that I didn’t have without the group’s name following my byline.
It broadened my audience and I suppose elevated my reputation by default – just by being a member. It’s like if someone says they’re a musician and everyone thinks “oh yeh, who doesn’t play the guitar anyway”? And then you find out that they’re in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and you’re more like, “woah, shit, okay”! Not that Oculi is the Chili Peppers of photography or anything but you know what I mean. People take a little bit more notice, give you a little bit more time if you have credibility like that behind you.
9.The images you capture in “The Mexicans” are very serene, quiet, and soulful. How would you say that your work reflects your own personality?
Wim Wenders in his book: Once says,
“A photograph is always a double image, showing, at first glance, its subject, but at a second glance – more or less visible, “hidden behind it,” so to speak, the “reverse angle”: the picture of the photographer in action… the image remains somehow inextricably in the picture, as an invisible impression of the photographer…”
I like that.
I think my work in The Mexicans reflects, coincidentally, the reflective side of me, perhaps the melancholic side and perhaps a sense of isolation as well. I also feel the pictures are warm and passionate so it’s complex.
10. The style in which you capture the images are visually strong and aesthetically appealing, and you have many re-occuring symbols of the religion of Mexico through statues of Jesus, crosses, as well as the symbol of hats. How much of your project would you say is an ethnography or study of the Mexican people and society, versus your own personal journey as an outsider?
I thought I should call the book “Crucifixes, Cowboys and Christ” at one stage! No, I think it’s a mixture of the two. It’s my study of a people and a place; a people in their place. Although I don’t like to refer to myself as one (because it sounds a bit wanky) I like the term ‘visual anthropologist’. It’s a fairly accurate description of what I do I think.
11. I am amazed how you were able to find many fascinating color juxtapositions in your shots, that include both the scenery as well as the people. It is certainly not an easy task to create so many compelling images. Would you like to share with us what your “hit rate” is in terms of how many photos you took as a whole and what ended up making it to your book?
I would have shot about 120 -150 rolls. There are about 60 images in the book so 1 frame every two to two and half rolls I suppose. The ratio of good images to rolls shot is inversely proportional as time goes on for me though. The more experienced I become, the more critical I become and the less ‘good’ pictures I see in my contact sheets.
12.Let’s bring the conversation back to self-publishing. Self-publishing is of-course very expensive and a considerable investment. Why was it important for you to self-publish your project as a physical book – and what is your opinion of other self-publishing services such as Blurb?
Although I think what Blurb and all the others do is great, I feel that for a professional, it’s a bit too generic to be taken seriously. It also doesn’t suggest that the author is confident in their work enough to make that significant initial outlay.
Have you ever seen a Blurb book on the shelf of a book store? I would certainly use blurb for portfolio or presentation style publications but not for wide distribution.
13. Editing and sequencing is a huge part of compiling a book. Describe the process of how you edited/sequenced the images you included in the book – and the amount of influence your editor had.
I find the editing process boring and tiring however I know how important it is so I need to have someone who takes it very seriously and who is confident enough to be honest with me. Isabelle Rouvillois has worked with Agence Vu and Magnum in Paris and was exactly the person I needed for this part of the process.
14.What advice would you give to street photographers out there who are interested in self-publishing?
Don’t be in a rush. Especially for street photography, I think you want to have been shooting for many years before you need to think about publishing books. It is expensive and the reality is that you’re very unlikely to ever make your money back. However it is a great tool and I wouldn’t discourage it.
Before self publishing, blurb etc is certainly a valid option and a nicer way to show your work than on a monitor or tablet (in my opinion). If you’re serious about it, see if you can involve others who would stand to gain something out of contributing. I had a designer contribute their time so they would have a nice product to present, as well as a printer and paper company who were able to do the same as a way of showing off their products.
15.Any other people you would like to give a shout-out to, and anything you would like to mention that I forgot to ask?
Don’t think so mate. Great questions! If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.
Photos from “The Mexicans”
You can see the rest of the series on Andrew’s site.
Video Review about “The Mexicans”
To supplement this post, I also made a video review of “The Mexicans” book (in physical form)!
Dividing time between his own work and commissions for editorial publications such as The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine, The Guardian Magazine and others. He has won a World Press Photo Award and The Walkley Young Australian Photojournalist of The Year Award. Quilty is also has been a member of the Australian Photographic Collective Oculi since 2007.
Purchase “The Mexicans”
Help support Andrew and his photo projects by purchasing up a copy of “The Mexicans“. The book is published by Stop.Edit and comes with the choice of 3 limited edition, A1 poster-wrap covers. In a limited edition of 500, each book is individually signed and numbered – so make sure to get your copy before they sell out!
What do you think of Andrew’s work and which of his images speak to you the most? Show him some love in the comments below!