I recently met fellow Norwich photographer David Drake for a conversation in the Underbelly, the artistic space in the cellar of the city’s Rumsey Wells pub, which is currently exhibiting his most recent project - a series of portraits of the artists who have exhibited in the space since its opening one year ago. Along with this current exhibition, we spoke of living and working in Norwich, as well as its thriving artistic scene…
“The project sort of grew out of the Underbelly birthday preparations, as a way to tie in the past year while also making something new,” Drake explains. “It was really interesting to meet all the previous artists, especially in their own work spaces. It helped me get a sense of the city’s diverse art scene.” Without doubt, “diversity” is an apt description for the exhibition. Among the artists whose portraits Drake has produced are screen printers including Vicki Johnson, Jo Stafford and Richard Horne, photographers including Katherine Mager and myself, digital artist Sammy Merry, illustrator Phil Cooper, painter Alec Cumming, musician Dan Tombs, videographer Marcus Williams and performance artist Elena Italia. “The actual shoots were done fairly quickly,” he remarks. “We tried not to alter the environment all that much. Basically, I wanted to document their work spaces as they normally were, with minimal interference.” With this in mind, the artists were photographed wherever they worked, from their studios to their gardens, from their kitchens to their bedrooms. Not that documentary photography, he adds, ought to be taken at face value. “Just my presence is an interference. No matter what a photographer tries to do, we are always altering things simply by being there with a camera, so there’s always a degree of fiction, even to documentary photography. It can’t be avoided.” This must, of course, be acknowledged. Drake even expresses an interest in working much more explicitly with fiction in his photography in the future, “potentially bringing in narratives and scripts”. Some time later in our conversation, he also expands - with an admirable frankness - upon his consistent use of context in his portrait photographs. “Habitat is crucial to understanding any animal, and humans are no different. Photographing a human in his or her environment speaks volumes about that person’s nature, right down to the incidental details.”
In light of documentary photographers’ inherent issues with interference, the strength of Drake’s photographs lies in the artists’ ease and concentration in front of the lens. In less capable hands, such comfort in portrait photographs can often be notable by its absence. Nurturing it is a delicate skill, requiring patience, responsiveness and well-judged interaction. “There wasn’t much conversation during the actual shoots. I generally try to get the photos done fairly quickly.” If this sounds a little clinical, it must be added that Drake simply saved the conversation for the time before the shoots commenced. “I spoke with some of the artists for hours before taking out the camera, and with others for just for a couple minutes - whichever felt natural and comfortable.”
Having grown up in New York, and having also lived in Dublin prior to his move to Norwich six months ago, Drake might be forgiven for feeling a little restless from time to time. Not so. “With new projects to work on and new people to meet, there isn’t time to get bored,” he explained. “It’s also a lot more manageable here”, he adds, referring to the difference between life and work in New York and Norwich. “When I was working back home, it always seemed like business was business and friends were friends, whereas in Norwich there’s much more of an overlap between the two.” Drake and I are in agreement that the blurring of boundaries between work and pleasure in Norwich is very much to its credit - but we are also in agreement that care must be taken to avoid what Drake termed “disconnection” from the world outside the artistic community. “Where,” he points out, “is the experience in only hanging out with other artists?” Although his first exhibition in Norwich has focussed on these other artists, it is this willingness to draw influence from the wider world that looks set to influence his future photography. I am eagerly anticipating it - and I am certainly not alone in doing so.
Words by Ryan Watts and David Drake. Photography by Ryan Watts