The Universe Speaking Back – an Interview with Tyrone Williams

When Tyrone Williams’ recent book, Aesthetix, was published by Bronze Age Editions in late 2020, the Northampton-based photographer was already known for his singular visual style. Developed over the course of several years and two collaborative books (Ordinary Fragments 1 and 2), with French photographer Jean-Christophe Recchia, Williams’ eye singles out the clean-lined graphic forms and nuanced colour to be found amongst the visual chaos of the urban environment. With Aesthetix, Williams moves sharply and exuberantly in the other direction, bringing a hallucinogenic edge to everyday visual experience. Over the course of an email exchange during the UK’s Christmas lockdown, Williams told me about his influences, his collaborative work with Recchia, and his unique way of looking at the world.

ES: Can you tell me a bit about how you got started in photography?

TW: I first got involved in photography in my early teens, photographing me and my cousins in-line rollerblading, using disposable cameras. In college, I started using DSLRs and experimenting with other types of cameras. I found the more compact style of shooting suited what I was going for, and I started carrying compact 35mm cameras in my daily travels as I realised I was finding inspiration everywhere. I was drawn to details in the everyday and ordinary. It was exciting to focus on subjects that are usually overlooked and give them my full attention – it was a way of understanding my surroundings whilst having creative control.

In 2012 I went to study photography at De Montfort university in Leicestershire, and this is where I really got to understand a direction in my work. Early influences were Ada Hamza and Sumeja Tulic. I was very into the snapshot style and making art out of moments that were close to me while questioning the nature of the image.

It’s interesting that you’d list Ada and Sumeja as influences – both of them really lean into street and environmental portraiture, but you don’t seem to do as much of that – was it a deliberate decision not to include people in your work?

For me it was the connection to their subjects that inspired me in my early stages, not necessarily the subject matter. I was more into shooting people when I was shooting with 35mm cameras. When I moved over to digital that’s when I began focusing more on deconstructing the environment, and also when I began an overseas collaboration with Jean-Christophe Recchia. This collaboration is where I refined my photographic approach.

I enjoy shooting the environment because it allows me to explore places I’ve never been. The unpredictability of finding subjects that I’m unfamiliar with has become a form of creative escapism. I feel as if the world around us is perceived differently depending on how we feel and our life situations. The universe speaking back. Creating with the camera where our own world meets the outer world.

How did your collaboration with Jean-Christophe start? Not everybody has the patience to work together for 5-6 years before releasing a collaborative publication (Ordinary Fragments) – what finally persuaded you that it was ready to publish? 

We both followed each other on flickr. I messaged him as he had a distinct way of seeing that I could relate to, although his images felt a lot different. I thought it would be interesting to see if we could pair up images and make a collaboration. We were both very active making images and after swapping hundreds of images and experimenting on different ways to pair our work, we found a middle ground between our styles. The collaboration was about starting a photographic journey together, and we have both been very open to incorporating new ideas with no restraints to our creative boundaries. This has been key.

The unpredictability of finding subjects that I’m unfamiliar with has become a form of creative escapism … I feel as if the world around us is perceived differently depending on how we feel and our life situations. The universe speaking back.

I’m really interested in this idea of developing a style in collaboration with another photographer. Most people think of developing a style as a really individual journey, so it takes a very special creative relationship to allow you both to grow together, while also maintaining your own distinct aesthetic. Can you tell me a bit more about how that worked?

All throughout the collaboration I was trying to bring the best out of mine and Jean-Christophe’s work. It was my intention to make our work shine together. As well as this, we were both trying to raise the bar to see how far we could go with the idea – trying to push each other whilst respecting the other’s work. There were many eureka moments where both our worlds met with complete balance. We did not want to make a project to merge styles, but to find an understanding between them. We would share work every week but at the same time talk about our findings. This collaboration has shaped my work today because of the time spent understanding and thinking around how images can be presented and read.

In Ordinary Fragments, it’s really interesting to see you pushing towards abstraction, combining images in ways that look like they might be digitally altered, but aren’t. What was it that led you to the sort of extreme use of post-production and abstraction of Aesthetix? do you see it as a kind of evolution of the work you did with Jean-Christophe, or as a separate project with its own momentum? or maybe a bit of both?

Yes, Ordinary Fragments are all untouched images – we wanted to see how far we could go in this direction. Aesthetix was something I was experimenting with over the years, for a personal idea/project. Usually, I stay away from editing images too much and have almost built up a kind of rule not to put this into my work. Aesthetix felt like a rebellion from all of my past work, but it still connected in a sense as a reminder to stay free creatively. This direction of work was liberating because I was breaking rules that I had put in place for myself over the years. It was a way of further exploring the images I had already created, seeing how far I could push the essence of the image, and at the same time pushing the viewer’s eyes to the max with colour abstractions

I did make a few edits that went too far at first, almost looking like graphic design work, but it was important to keep the image intact. It was fun because I never knew how the image was going to look so it was exciting to see what happened when they were transformed. It was like choosing a specific composition when creating an image – knowing what feels right. I used the same intuition when re-tuning these images; knowing when to stop was key when editing. These moments were all very close to me, and it was up to me how far to push them or abstract them into something else. Most photographers digitally fine tune and edit their work to enhance. But here I have gone overboard and put this idea into overdrive to create an aesthetic out of pushing limits of the image.

I was just wondering what you thought of the work of photographic artists like Kenta Cobyashi or Daisuke Yokota, or Maya Rochat, for example. All of them work almost exclusively with abstraction, kicking back against photography’s power to represent the world, and refusing what we think of as the main job of photography – to show us something that’s ‘out there’. Pushing towards total abstraction, can be thought of in two very different ways: either as a refusal to engage with politics – or, alternatively, as a kind of political statement in itself, a challenge to photography’s so called ‘truth value’. Do you see yourself in either of these categories?

I adore the work of these artists, and I can relate to their approach. For me this type of work is playing with tangibility, and almost testing it to further understand the image. Kenta Cobyashi’s selective use of distortion is something I’ve started using in a current experimental project: glitching and altering the image in places. 

My core work is all about trying to find a certain truth between the outside world and how we perceive it. It’s also about paying attention to scenes that might usually go overlooked, the edges of the urban environment. Creating an image takes energy. By putting energy into making an image, we are somehow transmuting the energy it took to really see something – transferring that energy into an image/camera. The complexities of making this happen is something I really dive into with wonder. It’s an infinite realm.

With this type of work, I think you are embracing the possibilities of the image: the ways that it can be understood and read whilst also challenging past perceptions, challenging the truth value of photography. Aesthetix holds onto these truth values but puts them to a test of limits, and at its core it has a fire for freedom. 

Tyrone Williams
Desire Press
Bronze Age

All Rights Reserved: text © Eugenie Shinkle & Tyrone Williams; images © Tyrone Williams unless otherwise noted.