Jane Hilton in conversation with Rachel Speed

  • Photography  Jane Hilton
  • Words  Rachel Speed

Our Features Editor Rachel Speed has a frank conversation with esteemed documentary photographer Jane Hilton about analogue photography, the commercial photography industry, and Jane’s love for all things Americana.

In-N-Out Burger, from the series God Bless America
Kacey, from the series The Brothel

RS: Your first article for PYLOT in Issue 03 features archived photographs but they still feel very relevant today. How do you feel about found photographs and the growing trend?

JH: Yes, if anything I think archived shoots are becoming more and more popular. I think people are embracing finding stuff that’s got the wow-factor as so many things are disappearing in the digital age and it keeps them alive. Also, creatives keep going to the same things, all searching and looking for something new about it. I think that’s why youngsters are embracing analogue because they’ve never had it before. They don’t know about it. And the digital age has made everything homogeneous – everything looks the same. 

RS: I completely agree, I think that’s why analogue is on the rise. Magazine sales are up, vinyl sales are up. People are worried about losing things in the digital age. So it puts more value on tangible things and the craft that creates them.

JH: Funny enough, I went to the computer shop the other day to update some things I have, and I was talking to them about storage. And they just couldn’t believe that I had a whole garage full of negatives. I asked them what I was supposed to do, as I have hard drives that are no longer compatible and can’t be plugged into new computers. They said, this is just an age where you have to do your housekeeping, and every five years or so you’ll have to back everything up onto a new system or server.

RS: It all sounds so tedious and boring as well. Who wants to spend all their time backing up their files and backing stuff up to the cloud?!

JH: That bloody cloud! I told them to absolutely not sign me up to the cloud. I love going into my garage and pulling out a file and being able to go and touch and feel my negatives.

RS: I agree, I love the tangibility of it all.

JH: Exactly. People want them on their coffee table to pick up and flick through.

Support Hillary, from the series God Bless America
Sabrina Dawn, from the book Precious
Red Seats, from the series God Bless America

RS: So you’ve never been tempted to go to fully into digital photography?

JH: Well I am in digital because I wouldn’t be able to earn a living otherwise. All my commercial jobs are shot digitally, I have to do that. For my personal work however I choose to remain analogue, but I’m not sure for how much longer because it is a pain in the arse! There are fewer labs and so the printers I like to use are busier and busier. It’s not the easy option, let me tell you. Say, I’ll come back from a shoot with twenty boxes of shot exposed film, all plate camera, 5×4 or whatever, and there’ll be no lab near where I’m photographing, so I have to go through this stressful process of convincing the airport to check the film without scanners. People ask me ‘why do you put yourself through all that?’ … Just because.

RS: Well the effect is so different, right? The grain, the quality, the image itself…

JH: It’s a different feel. It’s a different approach. Everything about it is different. You behave differently, you talk differently. With digital things, it’s a done deal, you’ve seen it, everyone has seen it seconds after it’s been shot, so you have a completely different psyche.

RS: And how does that work when you’re photographing people on the street? Like the cowboys you love photographing or the prostitutes in the Precious series? How do your subjects react to you shooting in analogue when they can’t see the image you’re making of them?

JH: With the cowboys I sent them each a print. The prostitutes however I gave them a Polaroid because I discovered after I started sending the out prints they’d changes addresses or they’d given me a completely bogus address, as you can imagine. The Polaroid camera that I’ve got, I bought up all the film stock I could find, and I’m nearly out. I might have a few projects left with it, but then I won’t be able to use my camera anymore because they don’t make the film anymore.

RS: What a shame.

JH: I know, it’s dreadful. But in general, the subjects, such as the cowboys or the prostitutes, really enjoy the process because it is slow. It gives me a chance to chat to them. And it gives them a chance to relax, and get used to me being in their space because a portrait might take an hour to do. So, I think on both levels, it’s a good thing. I know some of the girls found it quite a cathartic experience actually, because some of them had issues with their bodies. One in particular had quite big arms but she was slim and she had a real issue with being photographed naked, even some of her clients she kept in dim lights so they didn’t see her arms. She told me a horrendous story, she was fostered when she was a little girl, and from the age of six to about thirteen her foster parents would go out and lock her in a cupboard and tie her arms up. So she never used her arms and all her muscles dropped. And as horrible as that story is, these stories come out when you’re spending time with people.

Playmate Ranch, from the book Precious
Mustang Interior, from the series Dead Eagle Trail
Johnny and Gun, from the series Dead Eagle Trail
Jake Sukla, from the series Dead Eagle Trail

RS: In that, do you think digital photography encourages laziness?

JH: Yes! My assistants for example, all used to carry light meters on jobs and now, no one uses a light meter, they just shoot it to the screen and change the lighting until the screen looks right. You don’t go around measuring the aperture and the power to the lights anymore. People are becoming lazy and not doing the maths. I do understand because it’s easy, instant, and gets the job done when we need to do thirty shots a day. I mean some companies want fifty shots a day.

RS: It seems so counter intuitive to force creatives into time pressures.

JH: But this is what life is now. It’s all money, money, money. And control, the photographer is sometimes having to relinquish control because of client demands on their work.

RS: It’s a shame when companies hire excellent photographers because they’re good at their job, but then don’t let said photographers do their job almost.

JH: Yeah, they can definitely stifle creativity.

RS: But then as you said, these jobs pay the bills and therefore allow you the freedom to do what you like in your personal projects. 

JH: Absolutely! And that freedom is very important.

RS: So moving on to your personal projects, let’s talk about your shoot for PYLOT Issue 05, a fashion special in collaboration with Damir Doma. How was that shoot for you?

JH: Oh I loved it! I love working with couples. I did this project in the 90s, called God Bless America, and it took me about ten years, and I documented all the couples that got married in Las Vegas, in that McDonalds-style wedding culture. It was fantastic! And I quite often found myself witnesses their nuptials, and going on the town with them afterwards. It’s a really good time to meet people when they’re head over heels in love. They were just really interesting.

Time Out, from the series The Brothel
Target D, Target F, and Target K, from the series L.A Gun Club

RS: What drew you to America in the first place?

JH: I was an assistant and I got a job assisting a catalogue fashion shoot and I went to Arizona for three weeks. I was in my twenties and we had a ball. I was just speechless, the huge skies, the sunsets, I was speechless. Those incredible 180 degree panoramic landscapes with the mountains in the distance, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I met an old cowboy in town who was in his early 70s and had written one book of fairy tales for his grandchildren but no one would finance it so he opened his own shop called The One Book Bookstore and then became entrepreneur of the year. It was characters like that that made me fall completely in love with America. It was also reminiscent of every film I’d ever seen, especially the cowboys. I used to watch Westerns with my dad every weekend, it was a family thing we did. And all these things made me fall in love with America.

RS: It’s funny you mention about watching Westerns. I used to watch Westerns with my grandad every weekend too, he was a huge John Wayne fan. I’d love to go exploring cowboy country.

JH: How funny! The West is where it’s at! I love Nevada, they’ve got all the interesting stuff in Nevada that I love.

RS: Have you ever lived in America?

JH: I lived in Vegas for nine months and when I did my documentary for the BBC about prostitutes in Nevada I stayed in Carson City for about a year. I think some people like photographing at home, whether for ease or finances or whatever but I’m not very good at home, I’m much better plonked into someone else’s environment.

RS: Your most recent work, LA Gun Club, is a wonderfully shocking series about gun culture in America. How did this series originate?

JH: I was on a commercial job in LA, and my assistants convinced me to go to the firing range. We had an induction which lasted barely ten minutes then they gave me an AK-47, a Magnum handgun, and a Glock. I had all these guns and the can ready to go, and they said “whatever you do, don’t turn around with the gun”, to which I said, “well they are blanks aren’t they?”, and he said “no, no, this is live ammunition.” “Are you telling me I could kill someone?” “Yeah, absolutely” The pressure of that, the thought that I could shoot someone by accident, and the targets themselves which were so un-PC, was where the project started. They were awful and beautiful at the same time, that paradox fascinated me.

Indian Couple, from the series Dead Eagle Trail
Bear Bum, from the series Dead Eagle Trail
The Agreement, from the series The Brothel

RS: Was it a conscious decision to take a stance on something so political as gun laws in America?

JH: Yeah, I suppose I document American culture. I show people things they wouldn’t ordinarily see and they can put two and two together. LA Gun Club was very different for me because it was quite conceptual. A few years ago I probably would have gone and met the people who were gun enthusiasts, gone back to their homes and photographed them with their guns for example. However, I thought the project was stronger by just showing the targets and keeping the shooters anonymous, just showing their ages and their occupations and why they were there. I think it’s more thought-provoking.

RS: Definitely, I know one of the images stuck with me for a long time: the target from the 29-year-old primary school teacher.

JH: Yeah, he said he went there to relieve stress. There was another teacher I met who slept with three loaded guns in his bed. He said it was ‘bone of contention with his girlfriend’. This is why I like America. I’ve met some very ordinary people who are quite extraordinary. I’d quite like to do a cult but I’m too scared!

RS: Why?

JH: I’ll put it bluntly, they’re not happy places. I’ve tried before and was run out of town!

RS: Whenever I’ve been looking through your work, I keep coming back to this thought that you’re the photography version of Louis Theroux. Maybe you should work with him to find a cult?!

JH: [laughs] he’s got bigger balls than I have!

RS: So, do you photograph more controversial topics, such as prostitutes or gun clubs, to try and normalise them in society?

JH: No, not to normalise them, because they’re not the norm. I think another point of view is very helpful and then you can make your judgement as to whether you agree with them or not. I think these ‘un-PC’ people have very one-sided views against them. It’s a bit like the prostitutes who love their job and enjoy every minute of it but a lot of people presume that they’re being forced to do it. I think I just like to be thought-provoking because things aren’t as simple and straight-forward as you think.

God Less America, from the series God Bless America
Portrait of Jane by Henry Gorse

Jane has previously featured in PYLOT Issue 03 (sold out) and Issue 05.
See more at janehilton.com