Interview with multimedia artist, James Grigg (Part One)
Joining us for this week’s interview is multimedia artist, photographer and nudist, James Grigg! In part one of our extended conversation, we’re discussing why the human form has inspired so much of James’s work, and we take an in-depth look at several of the artist’s most significant projects to date – hearing not only how his shoots have been transformative for his models, but also how they have impacted the relationship James has with his own body.
Britain Uncovered: Hi James! Thank you for taking some time to speak with us about your vast portfolio, and we’re excited to find out a little more about your impressive body of work! To start with, could we ask how and when you first got into photography, and what it was about this medium that particularly appealed to you? What were some of your beginnings as a photographer, and what were some of your early subjects when you were first starting out?
James: Well that depends how far you want to go back; my earliest memories of photography are from when I was very young and had won an art competition, which resulted in a Christmas themed painting of my cat being on display at the local Asda supermarket! The prize for that was a gift voucher and I used it to buy my first ever camera. I’ve been taking photos ever since!
I suppose I started to take it more seriously in my later teens, and especially when I got to university. I actually began on an architecture course, but I used photography as part of that to explore forms and behaviour in spaces, and well, long story short, I got to a point where I realised I was more interested in the photography than the designs that were coming out of it (among other things), and so switched to a photography course.
I’ve always been interested in both the built environment and the natural world, which spurred me into thinking architecture was for me originally, but also continues to be a big part of my work now. But more than anything, I’m interested in the body.
BU: At a certain stage, you decided to turn your focus to the body and human identity, and this now encompasses a large bulk of your work as a multimedia artist and is quite likely what you’re most renowned for. What was it that initially appealed to you about photographing the human body, and what were some of your early experiences of photographing people in their natural state?
James: So for me, my photography and my wider identity as a nudist have always gone hand in hand; they inform one another and build upon each other. I first came across the concept of nudism when I was 16, and began going naked at home. As I began to understand nudity as something natural and comfortable, and not always sexual, I also began to want to explore the body artistically. I did quite a lot of work with the body sculpturally in my later teens at school, and once I was old enough that I didn’t think it would get me in trouble (i.e. over 18), I began to photograph myself nude.
Early on, when I was starting to think about photography more seriously than just snapping things I found interesting, exploring my own body via the camera was a really big part of my work. It at once allowed me to learn a lot of photographic techniques, and learn my own body. Through photography and nudism together I got to know my body in great detail, and got comfortable with a body that was fairly late to hit puberty, and so at the time felt quite new and different still.
I’m rather a nudism evangelist, and my photography quickly became a tool for me to express that nudity is something beautiful, natural – pure even – and nothing to be scared or ashamed of. I found that photography let me share my own comfort with nudity, and I hoped it would allow people to begin to think they could also be at ease with nudity, if they allowed themselves.
BU: Although the moods vary from project to project, what type of themes are you typically seeking to portray via your nude photography, and in what ways do you feel as though your photography can help foster greater body positivity within others? Is nude photography (and nudity in general) a valuable way of promoting positive body image?
James: So once I got going on my photography course at uni, I began to shoot with other people. Self-portraiture has limitations and complications on a technical side, but much more than that, I wanted to start to explore humanity in a wider sense than my own being.
I quickly found when shooting with other people that their experience taking part in a nude shoot was often really quite transformative. For those who are not used to being naked often, or at least not being seen naked much (if ever before), letting themselves be naked in front of someone else, and letting themselves be the subject of art, allows them to shake off any sense of shame or fear about nudity in general and their own body in particular.
For many people the act of undressing is a big mental hurdle, but once they are naked they realise it’s really not a big deal. That they are just their natural selves, and that is something quite comfortable, pleasant even, when you let it be.
Because there is that mental and cultural barrier that separates most of us from our own naked bodies, I think most people don’t even know their bodies that well; they hide from them most of their lives. But also the nudity (or near nudity) we do see in mass media is such a narrow section of humanity’s amazing diversity. A lot of people come into a shoot expressing trepidation about not being “perfect”, about having “flaws”; in short, not being compliant with the narrow definitions of beauty that the beauty and fashion media, and popular culture more broadly, make us think is mainstream.
In reality, humans are so much more diverse than that, and so much more interesting than that. I think doing a nude shoot allows many to see that their worries about exposing that mark on their skin, that bit of hair, or that asymmetry of their body, actually don’t amount to anything when you’re naked and the world doesn’t fall apart. When they see the photos they can see they look great, and that tiny thing they were worried about is both not as big a deal as they imagined it, and just adds to the character of the body and the life story it tells.
BU: To what extent has photography helped you understand and appreciate your own body, and do you find that photographing people in various states of undress (and being around your models in general) positively impacts your own self-perception and helps improve the relationship you have with your body? Does creating self-portraits also help you feel more comfortable in your own skin?
James: As I mentioned, my photography really helped me get to know my own body very well, especially in my late-teens/late-puberty. Between nudism and photography, I think I have a very good relationship with my body, because I know it so well, and am completely comfortable with every part of it. I think shooting with other people has helped me better understand bodies in general, and really developed what has become something of a personal philosophy: I strongly believe there is no such thing as a flaw with the body, but rather a feature, something (many things, in fact) that make each of us uniquely interesting, uniquely beautiful, completely special and individual physically. Trying to share that idea, and help others feel the same, has become a major part of my ongoing work.
A lot of people, when I first talk to them about potentially modelling, express some sort of idea of wanting to do a shoot at some unspecified point in the future, when they feel their body will be better than it is now, and often more like it was in the past. But this is an idea I really try and deconstruct, because I don’t think any of us can ever live comfortably in our bodies if we’re constantly striving to reach a body goal or go back to a historical condition, because we then forget to simply enjoy and love being who we are right now, in this moment, in our wonderful body as it is today. If our body is more healthy in the future, great; but it might not be! And one thing is for sure, it will be different now than it will be in the future, or was in the past. We are many versions of ourselves over the course of our lives, and I think we’re interesting and beautiful the whole way through; there is no singular point when we were just right, or better than any other – just different.
BU: Dipping into your portfolio – much of which is available for viewers to peruse in the archives on your website – one of your most notable projects to date is your Neutral Nudes series; in which you photograph people in the exact same style and poses as a way for us to celebrate our shared humanity and our individuality. What gave you the idea for this project, and what were you initially seeking to achieve via this concept?
James: Honestly, this series started by accident! A friend of mine asked me to do some portraits, and I really liked how they came out, and I hit on the idea that the format would work well with many subjects – so I set out to shoot more people the same way. It quickly became apparent the great potential of the series would be to shoot many people the same way. So after the first few shoots I had established a set of different poses and framings, and now aim to get each new subject to match to those positions.
As the series grows, the potential of everyone shot the same way becomes ever more apparent. When you’ve got eight photos of different people that are essentially exactly the same, but also so clearly completely different, there’s some kind of magic in how we are one species, in so many ways identical, but at the same time each and every one of us so completely unique and very different from each other.
I’ve only shot a handful of people for this over several years, but it’s a series I hope to expand for a long time to come, adding in many more people. I think the effect of that same/differentness will only become more amazing as the series grows.
BU: Another project in your archives that really stands out to us is Self Summary, in which you photographed a series of models (male and female) naked in a studio space; stripping away their external personas and asking them to pose alongside a single word that relates to their identity. What gave you the impetus for this particular project, and why did you wish to present your models in this manner? Were you satisfied with the final outcome?
James: So far this is my biggest series in terms of the number of subjects (thirty), and so I find it very satisfying as it probably, best of all my work so far, shows some sense of the great variety of humanity that I love to celebrate.
On the other hand this is quite a different series to most of my work, because it really asks the participants to analyse themselves at a level far deeper than the body. In fact, that’s the point; the body, as beautiful and amazing as it is, as wonderfully unique each of ours is, it’s not who we are really; that’s in our heads. Yet in day-to-day life we project visions of ourselves onto the world, through our fashion, our hairstyles, our makeup, even how we talk, or walk, what music we listen to, etc etc. Long before we considered the curated lives we portray through social media, even the most analogue person presents a very carefully designed version of themselves to the world. In many cases I’m sure much of that design is a distraction from other characteristics, or a safeguard against being discovered as something else – I’m also sure many people aren’t consciously aware they are making big statements just from what feels like every day decisions to get dressed.
It’s another of the reasons I shoot nudes in general: I don’t want all that baggage! I’m sure many nudists would tell you, nudity is a great leveller; you can’t infer nearly so much social status from a naked person, and you have to get to know them in the moment without being able to access many of their clothed signifiers and your preconceptions that come with them. That’s not to say a naked person is stripped of all such things, as your skin tells its own stories – and so do tattoos, piercings, hairstyles and the ways you express yourself physically.
But it worked enough for this series, and I think my nude work in general, to be able to strip away many of the more obvious signposts about a person; and then, in this case, set them an impossible challenge: summarise yourself in one word. You can’t, of course. How can any person be one word, even if that word implies a lot more? It can never encompass the totality of a human. So then the choice of word, and the type of word maybe even more than the actual word itself, starts to tell you a whole load of other things about a person. Had they picked something that feels shallow, something that feels maybe over-thought, or had they managed to hit on something really particular that got to the core of their personality?
It was a really interesting series to shoot, as I only had one image from each subject, but each shoot was an hour or two talking through with them, as I tried to get them to find some means to physically express their chosen word and its meaning. These conversations were really fascinating, as sometimes words that on the surface felt a bit simple and odd were revealed to have layers of meaning. That’s why, immediately after the shoots, I also got each person to write down a little one-page summary of why they picked that word. I didn’t warn them I was going to ask for that bit, but the conversation during the shoot primed them to write down what they were thinking. It was a really fascinating series to work on; some of the shoots felt like little counselling sessions!
BU: Another series we really appreciated was Living, which was a photography project you created with the help of a friend and collaborator named Chi Jan Farn. Like many of Britain Uncovered’s photoshoots, this has a really candid feel to it, and I think that capturing people in the moment like this can help present the human form in a desexualised way due to the lack of posing (such as what you might typically end up with inside the four walls of a photo studio). What was it about this particular project that led you to want to shoot in a slightly different way to your usual style, and how much do you enjoy shooting in a more candid style like this?
James: I love that series! Mostly because it’s such a joy to spend time with and create anything with Jan Farn; she’s an amazing multi-talented artist herself and this series was very much a collaboration, working with her to try and capture her just being in this place. We’ve shot a couple of other projects together, but like you say, this one was much more candid than any of my other work. That was very much a response to the location, which was an out-of-the-way house Jan Farn was staying in at the time, that afforded us a lot of freedom to just explore and play really. Normally I come to shoot knowing what the images I want to get out of it will be, but in this case I was going somewhere new, hanging out with an awesome friend, and seeing what we could make.
I think you definitely can get very desexualised imagery in the studio, and with more posed subjects, as you’ve seen in my other series. But what I suppose sets this apart from any of my other series, studio or location, is that we were specifically setting out to make it about a person being in this place, not as a figure in contrast to a place (like much of my other location work). This was about a person living, comfortably, freely, joyously, in a place, being a part of it, and at ease in it.
Normally when I’m shooting on location I’m trying to make some sort of commentary about the place. In more natural settings, I’m often looking at either how humans seem to contrast with being there, or can actually be comfortably a part of nature if we allow ourselves to be. In built places, I’ve normally explored locations where humans just don’t seem to fit in, because there are so many human-made locations that aren’t designed to welcome humans, let alone humans in our natural form. So coming at this location from a very different point of view was a different experience to shoot. I’ve definitely been mulling over ever since shooting Living if I can do more to explore people and place in union, and capture some of that natural energy and casual comfort again.
- Stay tuned for the second half of our fascinating conversation with James, which will continue here on the site next weekend. In part two, we’ll be exploring how and why James is intent on desexualising the human form and tackling censorship via his photography, and we’ll also be assessing whether or not the body positivity movement is as accessible for men as it could or should be. We’ll also go into detail about the benefits that can be achieved by attending social nudity events, and of course we’ll be touching on even more of James’s excellent work behind the camera.
James Grigg is a multimedia artist, primarily focused on photography. His work spans many areas, but his major area of exploration is the body; exploring the physical in different body types, the physicality of the body, and human identity as expressed by individuality of each person's body.
Additionally, his work spans several other areas of interest, including architecture, landscapes, still life, and conceptual series inspired by environmentalism, science, mathematics, politics, and popular culture. His work also includes other mediums, including animation, model making, drawing, and poetry.
To find out more, and to see even more work from the artist’s fantastic portfolio, check out his official website over at www.jamesgrigg.com. You can also follow the artist on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Medium.