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Tim Cragg
"Costa Hajiyianni" from the series Café Culture Tim Cragg

Exhibitionist + Visual Art
Narrative, Contrast, Culture and Deathtolls:
A Discussion With Cinematographer Tim Cragg

July-August, 2008

Mental Contagion: What city do you live in? How often do you travel, and how long do you typically stay when you are on location?

Tim Cragg: I recently moved from London to Hastings, a town on the south east coast of the UK, just under two hours from London. It has a strong art community and a certain quality of life that only a smaller place offers. It’s also convenient as it’s not too far from Heathrow and central London. I tend spend on average about six to seven months of the year abroad in various countries on filming assignments. They range in duration, but in general I am never away for longer then a month at a time.

Mental Contagion: There is a comparative theme in some of your personal photographic work, showing images side by side. Is it your intention to show similarities, differences or both?

Tim Cragg: I am interested in the visual narrative that a collection of images can create. In particular either using a fixed frame (called a “lock off” in the film industry) where it’s the subject within the frame that changes and not the frame (Still Life, Living Room, Tools for The Dead), or by creating a singular image by the use of two images, both given equal proportion and therefore importance. The choice of the two images can work as juxtaposition, similarity or simply on an aesthetic level.

Tim Cragg
"China" from the series Simile

Mental Contagion: In the Design and Nature series, you show beautiful, tightly-cropped images of rock beside images of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. What connections are you making between these images?

Tim Cragg: I was interested in the free flowing abstraction created by natural forces contrasted against the architectural design of man. I wanted both examples to be (in my opinion) aesthetically beautiful, and to have an equal level of importance in their own right, to both be known within their own fields of interest. The abstract colours and patterns are taken from a location called The Wave in north Arizona, USA. It’s a spectacular sandstone formation created by the wind. I am inspired by the design in the natural world, especially when the framing is tightly cropped leaving the scale, perspective and context unknown.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation is a giant twelve story apartment block built in the 1950’s in Marseilles. Structurally, it’s simple: a rectilinear ferroconcrete grid, into which are slotted precast individual apartment units. The concrete shell struck me, as been a perfect comparison to the wave.

Tim Cragg
"Design and Nature " from the series Nature and Design,
Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles, France (left); The Wave, Arizona

Mental Contagion: There is something that people hate to love and love to hate about kitsch culture. Jim Jarmusch's film "Coffee and Cigarettes" and the film "Fargo" are great examples of themes that show a culture that time forgot. Why do you think people respond so strongly to this? What is it about the Café Culture series that intrigues you?

Tim Cragg: I am not sure. Perhaps we all want to belong to a collective of humans and realize that there is an overwhelming sadness to the breakdown in most modern communities and when we look to those cultures locked in the past they evoke a sense of nostalgia to how it could have been. Or is that just me? Probably.

Tim Cragg
"Legs" from the series Café Culture

I entered the café on the search for caffeine, not on the look out for a new project to shoot. It struck me instantly that I had stepped back in time. The café had been designed in the mid-'50s and hadn’t been refurbished since. It had a sprinkling of customers who looked like they were straight out of central casting, mostly just sitting and waiting, for what I didn’t know.

Tim Cragg
"The Reader" from the series Café Culture

Tim Cragg
"Mavis Transcript" a visual transcript from voice interviews conducted at the café (above)

I came back a month or so later with a friend of mine, Jack Burton, and have since been frequently visiting the café to photograph and to record voice interviews of the regulars who virtually live in there. The café feels very familiar to me, not as a real place but as a film set. I wanted to reflect this in the way I approached the images. Rather then using observational street style photography I wanted to bring a certain contrived nature of the studio photography to the project. Shot on a cumbersome large camera, tripod and flash units, it very much involves the balance of the participation of the subject and a pose that I impose on them. I feel like I am part of the theatre of the café, whilst never actually appearing. This artificial approach contrasts with a natural lighting style and the brutally honest voice recordings that mostly centre around the themes of nostalgia and regret. Soon, I too will be part of the fabric of the café. It’s lure of ‘acceptance’ and refreshingly strong sense of community within reminds me that the success of corporate franchising in the café culture industry is destroying not only these small independent businesses, but also a space and place where those that have ‘fallen out’ of society seek sanctuary from the over-ambitious, too-busy, status-hungry polystyrene coffee cup club. 

Tim Cragg
"Café Transcriptions "a visual transcript from voice interviews conducted at the café (above)

Tim Cragg
"Costa Hajiyianni " from the series Café Culture

Mental Contagion: In your travels, you've met people from all walks of life, from all over the world. Can you site any examples in which you've seen similarities between two cultures of seemingly disparate lifestyles? The series My Ride seems to lightheartedly explore this theme. What drives your curiosity about this?

Tim Cragg: The core ingredients that make us human, not inhuman, as humans can act, seem to be very similar though out the world. Two cultures that I have experienced that are very similar and yet totally different are the Touareg, who live in central Sahara, and the Evenki who live in Siberia. The survival of both cultures is linked to a great understanding of life skills in their own climatic, geographical conditions.

The Touareg are from the Sahara desert, water is scare as are food supplies. Extreme temperatures of heat and the general non-existence of life make human existence very difficult. The Evenki, who are a nomadic tribe in Siberia, roam the Siberian tundra surviving in temperatures as low as 70 degrees below Celsius in winter with very few daylight hours.

Tim Cragg
"Man With Animal " from the series Siberia

I wanted My Ride to be lighthearted, and have a ‘grabbed’ feeling to it. It’s more about the culture similarities that we have with an association through material goods. No matter where I travel, even parts of the world that have a history of socialism and a very young relationship with capitalism, the association of ownership of a car and what that car represents is prevalent. Does what you drive, a consumed item, represent who you are? Do we not knowingly make assumptions on a person’s character by what they drive, wear, etc., or are we truly free to not pass judgment.

Tim Cragg
"Russia and America " from the series My Ride

Mental Contagion: Your Scarred Landscape project shows images of sites from around the world where conflict or large-scale violence led to a large number of deaths. The images show the land and it's structures, if there are any, as it is now, eerily calm, or even strikingly beautiful in some cases. Seeing these images together in a series, and knowing that at one time, large numbers of people suffered at these sites, what thoughts arise while you are documenting them?

Tim Cragg: Do I feel that strongly about anything to sacrifice my life for it? Whilst our sympathy naturally goes out to the victims I am intrigued how some people can be led to believe, and therefor actually whole heartedly believe themselves, that their cause is worth risking their own life, and in some cases sacrificing their own life for. We see this with the huge rise in suicide bombers. Can you imagine feeling that certain that it's worth giving up your own life? It questions how we value and what our perception of sacrifice is. If you believe in something without a hesitation of doubt, does that cease to be a sacrifice and transform into choice. How does that compare to the many small but continuing sacrifices that we all make everyday, that are not a choice, but a sacrifice.

Tim Cragg
"Red Square" from the series Scarred Landscape;
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China - death toll near to 3000

Tim Cragg
"Tucume" from the series Scarred Landscape;
Tucume. Peru. A human scarfice site death toll: 119

Mental Contagion: Working with the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the BBC, it's clear that you've seen some incredible and unique sites. What are some of your favorites?

Tim Cragg: I have been fortune enough to have had so many varied experiences, filming in jungles, deserts, the Arctic middle of the ocean and most major cities in the world. They all have some tale to them. This last week I have just finished a project in Jordan, with the King of Jordan, I spent time with the King, met the Dali Lama, escorted around by helicopter. Next week I am off to the USA to climb and film Mt. St. Helens, then onto Poland and then Kenya, so it continues week after week, year after year. It's important to realize that with all the adventure comes a certain amount of sacrifice. My project Gnothi Seauton touches on the loneliness, separation from my family, and the ability to only be an observer of a culture one visits. I use the metaphor of the hotel window to visualize the separation from the inside to the outside. Gnothi Seauton is an ancient Greek aphorism "Know yourself."

As for locations, I have a love-hate relationship with Siberia in winter. I love to hate it, but keep on going back.

Tim Cragg
"Korea and America" from the series Gnothi Seauton

About the Photographer

Tim Cragg was born in 1970. He grew up living in various counties around the world but has based in the UK for the last thirteen years. His photography falls under the title “eye sore things” a personal observation of cultural and social ideologies translated into a collection of images. Comparative, repetition, juxtaposition and the mundane are continuing themes through out his work. He also works as a cinematographer and has photographed close to a one hundred documentaries and has a list of awards including a bafta for his photography. He is married with two children.

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