Rhys Grail is a current (2020) third-year student on the photography degree at Birmingham City University. As one of the many highly creative students we have here, we wanted to ask him some questions about his practice and photography.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where did your interest in photography start and where did you study photography?
Growing up in Snowdonia, North Wales, I was introduced to the photographic world by starting out taking photographs of the rural landscape of the area. I soon enough grew out of taking landscape photographs and found a massive interest in fine artwork. From doing a photography course in high school I always found myself experimenting with alternative ways of image-making, finding myself experimenting a lot with collage-based work and digital manipulation. After starting my degree in photography at BCU I found myself being introduced to many contemporary sources of inspiration, opening my eyes to different forms of photography in which I was never introduced to before, as well as learning about a broad selection of practitioners and artists who work in many different visual forms. Surrounded in this creative environment I found myself experimenting and developing my practice to a professional standard I never thought I could achieve.
Tell us about the project shown?
The images shown are just a few from my undergoing project titled ‘Lost Girls’. The project explores the purpose of photographs and works on the concept of images becoming a disposable resource. Using abandoned glamour model photographs from the 1970’s/80’s, I decided to re-appropriate them to revitalise the images into new pieces of artwork.
Where did you source the original slides from? What made you choose those particular types of images?
Many hours were spent on eBay browsing different abandoned images. I came across undeveloped rolls of film, photographic sides of family holidays and a lot of abandoned glamour model photographs. The glamour model photographs particularly stood out for me. The pictures were taken to serve a specific purpose in their era, to be used for advertising purposes or to be used in tabloids, but these photographs didn’t serve their purpose and ended up on eBay for anyone to purchase. I thought it would be a cool concept to give these images a completely different purpose and essentially bring the photographs ‘back to life’.
Why not chose a different subject matter? What is about these kinds of photographs, and they are a very particular genre of image, that motivated you to work with them? For example, you could have tried to find studio portraits and used those. Can you say something about the reason for your choice of images?
I have always come across abandoned photographs, and have always been curious to as why they aren’t being used. I live by “if nobody’s using these pictures I may as well use them for something”. Glamour model photography is particularly based around beauty, being the ‘most beautiful model there is’. In a way, these abandoned pictures are ‘flawed’, as the image wasn’t good enough to fulfil its purpose. Using these ‘flawed’ photographs and providing them with a ‘new lease of life’ I thought was a really strong concept. There was something about the saturated look of these 70’s/80’s glamour model shots that I felt would be really interesting to work with visually. Giving a very nostalgic and ’cheesy’ 70’s/80’s feel to the project.
Do you think your project would have worked with any other images? Have you plans to develop it?
I previously thought of experimenting with family holiday snapshots, creating re-appropriated narratives with different families. This may be a separate project to work towards. I personally think that the particular images that I’ve used for ‘Lost Girls’ provide a very strong concept, and I feel that it wouldn’t work as well alongside any other style of photography. I’m looking into expanding my collection of glamour photographs to work with in order to develop the project further.
You mentioned being influenced by Andy Warhol, can you tell us more about that and what you like about him?
Andy Warhol has been a very big influence of mine, I’m a huge fan of his work. I enjoy that he uses multiple mediums to create his artwork and doesn’t stick to one method of working. I personally enjoy the way he used his Polaroid portraits and further developed them into massive screen printed artworks, completely changing the way the viewer looks at a photograph. I also love the scale he works in, most of his artworks are huge in size. It really provides his work with a ‘wow factor’ which I want to gain in my personal work.
Who else has influenced your work?
As with any other artist, I’m inspired by a lot of thing such as music, films, fashion, youth culture, you name it! Some of my favourite visual artists include Kaws, Imbue, Bonus Prize, Foka Wolf, Keith Haring, Nathan Chan, Penglog, Osian Efnishen, Kozydan, Ketnipz, Matteo Montanari, SLEW, Super Freak, Daniel Arnold, Daniel Arsham, Shepard Fairey.
Can you tell us about your process? What do you like most about the process itself?
The process I use for this specific project is divided into three parts I’d say. I start off by scanning in the glamour slides, then I take those images and digitally manipulate them in my own ‘house’ style. I then turn those manipulated images into detailed halftone CMYK screen prints. I personally enjoy the very ‘hands-on’ approach I take to making each image. Using a traditional method like screen printing is very time consuming and takes a few tries too perfect the process. But the satisfaction after making a tactile print, that fully looks like a photograph is very rewarding.
Can you tell us what you had to do to adapt your project after we all ended up in Lockdown because of Covid-19?
Due to the closure of the university because of Covid-19 I was unable to use the screen printing facilities. I decided to try and build a DIY printing setup in my garage in order to still be able to continue with the ‘Lost Girls’ project. This DIY setup consisted of me building an exposure unit, in order to burn my screen. It takes around 45 minutes to burn a design onto a screen. I then built a clamping system in order to be able to accurately print my layers. For each image, I have to print each layer one-by-one. I tried to adapt my workflow according to my circumstances, it cost me a little extra money, and the printing process took longer than expected, but after a lot of trial and error, I managed to create very successful prints.
Clearly you’ve chosen a form of practice that doesn’t involve you using a camera at all, in fact, you’re using transparencies that someone else has made, can you explain why you would still define yourself as a photographer?
There’s a lot of controversy with the subject of using photographs which you personally haven’t taken to create imagery. I still stand by my saying “if nobody’s using these pictures I may as well use them for something”. With the work, I create it takes my own initiative to re-appropriate the photographs and completely change the way the image looks. I personally think re-appropriating an image is the same as taking the photograph in the first place. I wouldn’t necessarily define myself as a photographer, I’d personally call myself something along the lines of a ‘visual artist’. Someone who creates artwork but uses photographic imagery as one of his methods of image-making.
Would you describe your work as appropriation or do you think, because there’s a more complex process that happens after you acquire the images that this is ‘more than’ appropriation?
I would describe my work as appropriation. But when I create work using stock/found imagery I manipulate them in such a way that they’re unrecognisable to the original photograph. It’s difficult to define, I like to think I’m adding my own creative flair on something that already exists.
What do you think is the future of photography and for graduates of photography?
I feel the future of photography is endless, modern technologies allow anyone to essentially become a photographer. But this makes it very difficult to be original and stand out from the crowd. As an upcoming photography graduate myself I thrive to create work that stands out from the crowd (as like any other graduate). This might mean finding alternatives ways of image-making in order to separate me from everyone else. What I’m trying to say is don’t limit yourself to just using a camera, see what other methods are available to make images.
What commercial or paid work have you done while at university?
Whilst at university I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a lot of commercial and paid work, building up my network quite a bit.
I worked on several commissioned projects with the Welsh band ‘Alffa’ producing artwork for their single covers. Their song ‘Gwenwyn’ featured my artwork and is the most streamed Welsh language song in the world (over 3 million streams) – a milestone in Welsh language music history.
I worked as a freelancer for the BBC ‘Horizons’ project. BBC ‘Horizons’ is a partnership between BBC Cymru Wales and Arts Council Wales, to promote new independent contemporary music in Wales. I was commissioned to produce a ‘behind the scenes’ video diary of the Welsh language band ‘Gwilym’ during their recording session at the renown BBC Maida Vale Studios. The video diary and stills taken at the session were posted on the BBC ‘Horizons’ social media accounts. The success of the Maida Vale video diary leads to further work on a larger project. Here in conjunction with a small team, I filmed 3 different Welsh language bands at impromptu gigs. The series – Horizons Tiny Tour – featured significantly on the BBC ‘Horizons’ social media accounts. The ‘tour’ gave me the opportunity to express my creativity through videography and build a network of connections within the BBC and the Welsh language music scene.
I created a zine called “Twmffat Papur”. “Twmffat Papur” was a self-funded collaborative zine between myself and the Welsh artist ‘Penglog’. The zine consists of re-apportioned artworks from each artist and was sold through my online store. All of my copies sold out within a week.
I designed artwork for the Welsh band ‘Gwilym’s’ debut album ‘Sugno Gola’. Minimal creative input from the band allowed me to explore and develop my ideas into a unique 4 panel CD cover using a variety of collage work. The CD has been sold in music stores throughout Wales. I am presently working on ideas for the cover of the band’s second album.
I was asked by the Welsh social media platform ‘Hansh’ to be an interviewer as a part of interviewing young Welsh artists. This was an opportunity for me to talk about my own practice to a wide audience. This interview also coincided with me receiving the award for “Best album artwork 2019” in the recent Welsh music awards ‘Gwobrau’r Selar’.
What have you enjoyed the most while studying photography at Birmingham City University?
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time studying photography at Birmingham City University. It’s provided me with the opportunity to develop my creative practice to a professional standard. Being able to use the university’s excellent facilities has broadened my scope of image-making.
Do you have any advice for current students?
I would probably say to keep on creating work. I know how difficult it is to find the motivation to keep creating but by just making more and more images you find out for yourself what works or doesn’t work for you and your practice.
What do think is the difference between photography as a commercial practice and photography as an expression of personal creativity?
Photography as a commercial practice is something you do in order to be able to live, pay the bills etc. Photography as an expression of personal creativity is something you do regardless of any paycheque or anything. It’s artwork you want to create just because you want to. A happy medium is if you’re able to get paid for making artwork you love, unfortunately, I’ve found out the hard way it’s quite difficult to achieve that hahaha.
How do you promote your work?
I mainly promote my work through my social media accounts and my website. I have also found working collaboratively with artists opens up a wider audience for your work, another method of promotion.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
In 5 years time, I hope to still be making artworks that I love, whilst also being financially stable. I would hope that I have built up the courage to try and organise my own exhibition. I’d liked to have travelled a bit, experience different cultures, really want to visit Osaka, Japan (heard they have pretty good ramen there). I would love to be able to have my own studio office space where I can spend most of my days creating cool artworks, and drink fancy coffee.
How do you see your work developing?
I hope to experiment with various different art forms in order to keep changing up my work. I get relatively bored if I continue producing the same style of work, so hopefully, I’ll be able to change up my style in future projects. I hope to be able to work alongside more artists, from collaborating on a self-funded zine it has made me want to initiate more projects with different artists. I 100% want to try and organise an exhibition, I really want to organise something that people will be able to come to and see my work first hand.
Has social media, such as Instagram, influenced your work in any way?
Social media has definitely influenced my work. Many of my early work was really made in order to be posted online, it never really occurred to me that the were other ways of presenting works such and in zines, exhibitions etc. I still think about how my current artworks will fit on my Instagram feed, a good social media presence is key for an artist in today’s society.