All images by Jez Sullivan. Used with permission.
Photographer Jez Sullivan is a creative that is heavily influenced by the world of cinema. He used to play in rock bands, and then a change in life made his creative energy take a different turn. But Jez has a very specific and unique creative vision because of, well, his vision. You see, (no pun intended), Jez suffered from an extreme astigmatism for a very long time. It stabilized, and he then took to translating his creativity into capturing images.
Jez likes to be very low profile, and that is partially how he captured the images for “Don’t Look Now.” Jez tells the Phoblographer that the project is inspired by Nic Roeg’s 1973 gothic horror starring Julie Christie & Donald Sutherland.
“As a regular visitor to Venice, I was surprised at how many photographers fall into the trap of either producing ‘postcard’ type images, or simply using the theatre of the carnival as a backdrop.” says Jez.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Jez: I grew up a musician, a rock guitarist, so I spent my early 20’s playing in bands. Then after the death of my father, I reached a crossroads in my life, so I decided to do something else. Growing up with a mother who was an ex-cinema manageress. I’d had this incredible exposure to cinema as a child. So I followed my interest there.
I enrolled in a Media Production degree at a small British college just outside London. As the degree was modular, I could try lots of options in the first year. I’d read that The film director Ken Russell had started out as a stills photographer. As I’ve always loved the visual splendour of his work. It inspired me to try it.
As the course progressed, I realized that I struggle with the idea of the decisive moment. So I moved towards more personal themes. My degree show was called ‘Myopia’. A series of surreal large color prints looking at the everyday world in a new way, which was about my childhood struggle with failing eyesight (I had a severe astigmatism as a young child, which fortunately stabilized). I was more inspired by painters like Magritte & Pierre Bonnard at this point than actual photographers.
While I was on my course, I got a job working in the University’s dark rooms. So I was doing that & bits of PR photography, portraits of academics, photographing architects models etc. it was a fun time.
Phoblographer: You’ve been working on “Don’t Look Now” for a while; so what motivated the creative decisions behind the images? Did you go into Venice wanting to create these images or did the fact that so many picturesque scenes make you want to do something much different.
Jez: I’ve spent the last 13 years working in the rail industry. So I started out just taking my cameras & travelling around Europe on sleeper trains in my spare time. There was no grand plan. I spent two days in Venice in 2010 & took a lot of postcard type images.
Then I noticed that the few images I’d shot at night were more interesting. So I started to think about that. Then before my next trip I saw Don’t Look Now on television one night. It totally inspired me. Nic Roeg, the film’s director said that Venice is a trap that doesn’t let you see it’s face. I really fell in love with that idea of place as a character.
Phoblographer: So how did you go about doing this project? Was it specifically planned in terms of the places you’d shoot, the times, etc? How much planning was really done beforehand? Considering your cinematic influence with the city as the main character, what specifically do you feel was most important for you to capture besides the other side of Venice that isn’t really seen? What kind of creative decisions went into making sure that the story was told in the way you wanted to convey.
Jez: I think for me the storytelling is really something that happens after the event, during the editing process. I started out in the days of film so I just figured I’d shoot lots of images & review them as I went. Just walking around Venice, which is probably one of the safest cities in the world at night. Looking for moments that grabbed me. The more pictures I made, the deeper down the rabbit hole I went.
Also I tried to use the weather to my advantage. On my third trip. We had terrible rain, so in a way that becomes part of the narrative. As some one who wears glasses, the rain added to the sense of the unknown. The idea of movement in the shadows. So I had to adapt my shooting style to that. I started to use the water buses more & think that every disadvantage to getting a clean image, was actually a benefit in disguise.
Some people like that self-aggrandising swagger of being a photographer, with loads of equipment, drawing attention to themselves. But for me it’s all about discretion. I don’t want people to notice me. I would always go out after 8pm & wander the streets quietly & discretely.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you used to create this project? It looks very film-like (due to your influences.)
Jez: I grew up on film. I shot my degree show on slide. But I always loathed the idea of the self conscious photographer, drawing attention to themselves.
I’m a big guy, like 44 chest, 230lbs…so people notice me. When I used DSLRs at night people would become suspicious of me very quickly. One guy in London accused me of being an undercover cop, which was scary. So I always struggled with a big clunking DSLR.
I decided to try to look as unphotographer-like as possible. No camera bag, no tripod. I’d always wear dark clothes. Lightweight stuff, good boots. I had a jacket where I could conceal the camera body quickly if I needed too.
I’ve always liked smaller discreet camera’s. I used to use Olympus OM’s in my film days with fixed primes & later a Contax G2.
I saw the Fuji X Pro1 when it came out & to me with the control layout and size, it’s like a digital version of a Contax G2. The layout is very similar.
The high ISO’s meant that I could shoot at ISO 5000 or 6400 & get these slightly grainy, but quite filmic images. I just used two fast primes. The 35 f1.4 and the 18 F2. I never thought about noise, it sort of adds to it aesthetically.
In terms of post production, there’s very little. A couple of tweaks in contrast, maybe some desaturation. But as I came up on film, the idea of spending 40 hours in front of a computer isn’t very appealing to me. I’d rather nail it in camera.
Phoblographer: Your sense of composition and the use of many wide angle shots also lends itself to the use of leading lines and contrast to tell the story tht you have. Was all of this intentional?
Jez: Yes–I guess it’s that cinematic term mise en scene. I love the work of directors like Ken Russell & Nic Roeg. Plus with a lot of Magritte there with wide shots. Very theatrical. I love that his paintings are almost the opening scene of a much wider story.
I’m probably more inspired by painters or filmmakers than photographers. Although I love Duanne Michaels & William Eggleston. There my big two photographic influences.
Phoblographer: When you went about editing down the images for this project ot the best of the best, what creative decisions made you choose the images that you did?
Jez: I guess it’s very subconscious at first, then the methodology presents itself.. The best shots kind of leapt out of the pack straight away, then once I had a dozen, more became apparent. It’s a bit like a play or a film, you have your stars, then you have the supporting cast. All of them are vital to the whole though. In some ways having breaks from the editing was a good move. It enabled me to step back & be more objective.
I’m intending to travel to Venice again later in the year. So the project will possibly evolve further.