James Alexander · Two Sisters
Interviewed by Odair Fortes
James Alexander is a filmmaker and photographer from the North East of England. From an early age he became fascinated with recording everything and anything on an old VHS camcorder. After watching "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" too young, him and his friends became obsessed with remaking films they loved. You can believe that he never really put the camera down ever since. His love for film making would lead onto this love for photography.
TBbM: Hello James! Can you introduce yourself to our readers and share something about what you do?
Hey! I’m James from Durham in the North East of England. I’m a filmmaker and photographer. My favorite place to shoot is California.
TBbM: When did you start seriously studying photography? (If you did study it or when did you pick up photography and why?)
I actually only started to call myself a photographer 3 years ago. I’d always focused solely on making films. Photography was something that came off the back of that. Of course, to be a good cinematographer you have to understand framing and lighting so it’s something I’d been studying for a long time. My grandmother would always introduce me as James the photographer and I’d try and explain to her that I’m a filmmaker, ha eventually I let it go and became James the photographer. Four years ago I was on a big road trip from Los Angeles to New York - it was epic. That trip changed my life in many ways, that's where I found a love in taking photographs.
TBbM: Where do you get your inspiration from ?
I’d say my biggest inspiration is cinema. It’s the thing that I hold closest to my heart. I’ve loved everything about film making since an early age and continue to be inspired by every film I see. Going to see a film in a theater is up there with my favorite things to do.
TBbM: Why two sisters? How did it come to inspire you to take these shots? What is the story behind it?
I'm currently writing my first feature film titled Two Sisters. It's a road movie set across the Californian desert. The story follows two siblings as they leave a broken home in search of a distant Grandmother who now lives in a small desert town called Twenty Nine Palms. I wanted to head out to find potential locations and see if I could find a particular style and tone to the film. This is where I thought taking my stills camera would come in handy. I asked my friend who is also an actress to come along with me and these are the images we came back with. I'm looking forward to heading back to that location as soon as I can. David Fincher used this location for the ending of his film Seven. An truly epic scene and location. Which is one of my all time favorite films.
TBbM: I notice that you like to take a lot of close-ups of your subject. Is that an important quality/component of your photography? How would you describe your work on a more personal level ?
I think going to film school really helped with understanding shot sizes etc. I remember we would always get excited about shooting close up's. It's a cinematic shot that expresses a lot of emotion from the character and I'm always looking to create something with feeling. Close up's are a great tool for that.
TBbM: What gear film and camera did you use for your this project (Two sisters)
For this project I used a very cheap (£20) Canon 500 N that I bought from a photographer back in England. He used to shoot film years ago and was throwing out a lot of cameras he didn't want any more. Unfortunately I would go on to lose this camera at Glastonbury last year. I used my 50mm Zeiss for some shots. Luckily I didn't lose that!
TBbM: Did you ever collaborate with other people? And if not, do you plan on doing so in the future?
I collaborate with a team of filmmakers, crew and actors while shooting projects. For a long time I would try do everything by myself but I now understand the importance of collaboration. I have a photo series I’m working on right now and the only way I can accomplish what I’m planning is to collaborate with a group of talented people.
TBbM: Can you tell us about your latest project and how it came to be?
I am currently working on a photo series called ‘blue hotel’. It is a series of photographs taking in an American style motel. The interesting thing about this project is that we are making the sets from scratch. As I’m now stuck in lock-down in England I thought to myself why not try and recreate America in my own backyard? The use of sets will give us a chance to play around with lighting set ups and it means we can move walls around to help achieve shots we wouldn’t be able to shoot in a real motel.
TBbM: Tell us more about the other cameras and films you use. How do they help get the results you have in mind?
I started with shooting on digital but quickly switched to film when I found out how exciting it was to shoot with it. To me it feels almost magical! I used to be a cinema projectionist before everything turned digital so I got to play around with 35mm film. It was truly one of the best jobs I’ve ever had! I think not really knowing 100% what you are going to get is part of the magic. I love the look of film, I love the grain.
TBbM: Thats why most of us shoot film I think. at least for my part. We know this might be an overused question but do you have a favorite photo until now? What makes it special in your opinion?
I love the work of Gregory Crewdson. I like how his photographs tell a story. They look like frames from a movie and that’s something I would like to create in my own work. I also love Steven Shore's work and how he captures 'the open road' in America. Making more cross country trips around the states is something I'm really looking forward to.
What about exhibitions, how many did you have until now or what will be your first/next one about?
I unfortunately haven’t had any exhibitions as of yet but this is something I would love to do so in the future.
TBbM: Lets go back to your projects. What is the most important lesson you learned while doing projects?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned so far is to realize things will never turn out the way you had in your head. Things always change and you have to be ok with that. Keeping a positive attitude when things are hard is crucial to staying creative.
TBbM: Covid19 at the moment is home bounding everyone and especially photographers it is hard. Can you tell us what’s in store for your upcoming projects/ideas?
It sure has been a strange and scary time for everyone. The future is still uncertain. As I and most photographers like to travel, it's put everything on hold.
Even though it’s been a really sad and tragic situation it has given me time to think, it's been like pressing the reset button. I’ve had time to plan future work and make a game plan on how to achieve my goals. I hope everyone can take something positive from this experience if that’s a new skill they have required or a new appreciation for the simple things in life. I’m trying to practice gratitude with everyday as I think that’s super important to stay focused and creative.
TBbM: Anything new you want to try out in your future photo series for example infrared or double exposure etc.?
I would love to experiment with double exposures. It's not something I have really done before but one of my good friends - who lives in California. She has some amazing examples on her Instagram page and she shoots film too, She even develops and scans her own work - This is something I would really like to start doing too. Check out her Instagram. Shout out to Isabelle <3
TBbM: I think I might know the answer to this one but what is the country you draw the most inspiration from? Which one do you look up to ?
America for sure, how did you guess? ha ha. From a very early age I've looked at America with wide eyes. Cinema is my biggest passion and I was brought up watching American on the big screen so for me it was a place of adventure, escape, and the open road. I have dreamt about going since I can remember. My dad brought me back an American flag from Los Angeles when I was 10 years old and hung it on my wall. I still have that flag now! It's a place that sure is going through a rough time right now and there's so much wrong with it, a lot has to change. I've been very lucky to have only ever come across the most loving and welcoming people during my time there.
The landscape and light there is really special. It's a feeling that is hard to describe, I am constantly inspired by being there. It's an exciting place to work. I have been on a journey over the last four years to be able to live and work in Los Angeles. To say it's been tough would be an understatement but I'm closer than I've ever been right now. I haven't lost sight of my goal.
TBbM: I don’t know if you look up other photographers on social media. Is there anything that wouldn’t interest you at all when it comes to photography? For example styles or subjects. (Nudity, Blur …)
That's a hard question. I think studio work - to me that kind of seems a little boring but I'm not knocking it. I prefer to be out on location. Having said that I know i need to learn more about lighting and the studio would be a perfect place for that. As stated before I have a new photo series which will be on a stage. I'm building a set for the piece so we can really take advantage of moving walls etc. The first scene will be an American style motel room.
Lastly, any projects you’re currently working on? Any shows or exhibits coming up where we can see your work up close?
I am currently working on my first photo book titled 'Take It Easy'. Which is a collection of film photography I have taken across America. It will also feature some writing from people I have met along the way. The theme of the book is lost love. I would like someone who is going through a hard time to be able to pick the book up and admire some nice images but also read some words of wisdom and feel a little better after reading it. If i can do that, I will be happy.
TBbM- Thank you very much for your time and your contribution to The Blackbox Magazine!
All images © James Alexander