Spencer Murphy on building a career and trusting your intuition

Spencer Murphy on building a career and trusting your intuition

Growing up in an isolated village in the U.K's Kent countryside, running wild in the woods and creating his own worlds meant that Artist Spencer Murphy cultivated a vivid imagination from a young age. This desire to escape, uncover new experiences and pay close attention to his surroundings is now the beating heart of his creative practice. Here, Spencer tells Capture about developing his style, what it takes to maintain a career and how he feels about photography's future.

Working at the intersection of art and documentary requires an ability to uncover unexpected and untold stories. Spencer Murphy began honing these instincts from a young age. Growing up in an isolated part of the Kent countryside, he relied heavily on his imagination to cultivate his own worlds in which to play and explore. It is no surprise that years later, his art practice concerns the notion of the outsider or the aspects of life and culture that often go unseen. Through his images, he holds space to honour those who live alternative or rebel lifestyles while encouraging the viewer to examine their preconceptions of what is deemed to be “normal”. Coupled with his distinct visual language, Murphy creates unforgettable images that linger in the imagination long after you first experience them. 

I think the exciting thing is the democratisation of the medium, the access it gives people, and the literal power that comes with it.

Capture: How did you discover photography?

Spencer Murphy: My Mum was a keen amateur, and I got a hand-me-down SLR from her when I was at secondary school. When my friends and I started skateboarding and going out, we would always document one another. The board sports magazines introduced me to this counter-culture punk creative aesthetic that we were always attempting to emulate - whether through photography, video, collage or just how we acted. A friend and I created our own imaginary skateboard company, created a subversive campaign for it, and fly-postered our school.

What influences inform your work?

Just about anything and everything. Cinema and documentary film have always been something that has fed my ideas and aesthetics - but it could be a news story, a stranger from social media or just a sub-culture that piques my interest. With all my work, I start in a documentary place and then look for the poetry and symbols in every day - things that might throw up existential questions if looked at by a receptive viewer.

In 2017, you published your first photobook Urban Dirt Bikers, with Hoxton Mini Press. How did you discover the sub-culture and build a relationship with the community?

I'd just moved to a new area on the outskirts of London. It's green and beautiful in one direction and industrial in the other. As I got to know the neighbourhood, I began to see young men on dirt bikes and quad bikes ride past me, pulling wheelies. It took me the best part of a year to catch up to them and find out where they all rode.

What were the challenges of making the work?

Initially, being accepted by the community was a challenge. Many of them were wary of attention, but once I was let in, they were friendly and glad someone was there to document the culture. Building the confidence to approach large groups of young men was a challenge for me. I gradually found more locations where they hung out and got brave enough to turn up on my own and see who was there.

The locations could be quite ugly, as the riders didn't like to venture from the group's safety in case they got picked off by the police. Another regular occurrence would be that I would drive to a location for an hour and a half, wait, and nobody showed, or the police would have already closed the spot down. I dedicated many weekends to sitting in the car and coming home empty-handed. Capturing the motion on a medium format film camera presented challenges as well. After seeing a fatal accident, I became very aware that I was putting myself in harm's way and became much more aware of my surroundings.

Born To Ride, 2016, From the series Urban Dirt Bikers/ Spencer Murphy

Gyr Saker Falcon, from the series Traces/ Spencer Murphy

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Your latest work - "Our Bullet Lives Blossom As They Race Towards The Wall" - was born out of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Tell us about the project and how it felt to make it?

It's probably the most purist documentary project I've made to date. I still remember those early days of the pandemic, just before the country went into lockdown. Everything felt so surreal and cinematic; the deserted streets and shops, the masked people, the palpable sense of fear. I felt compelled to document what I could - when I could. I covered miles on my bike, and the roads were so empty I discovered so many new places. Sometimes I'd go back to the same places and wait for the picture to come to me, but most times, I would follow my nose and wait to cycle past someone or something with a list of ideas in my head.

For me, it was a positive experience making the work. I'd spent the previous year helping to care for my sick father and had barely taken any pictures. I'd just started to hit my stride again when the pandemic put us into lockdown.

You’ve consistently made some remarkable and unexpected portraits of celebrities throughout your career. What’s your approach, and how does this work differ from your art practice?

Thank You! So often, in those situations, you are given a very short time frame in an uninspiring environment. It's an entirely different way of working - I have to be quick and decisive. There is no space to wait for a picture to present itself. I will arrive with an idea as a starting point and see where that leads. I often draw the portrait, make lighting plans and research the person beforehand. It's also a collaboration, so a willing participant that understands how to perform often generates the best results. I love photographing actors - they can take minimal direction and run with it.

You are perhaps most known for a dramatic portrait of Katie Walsh that won the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. What’s the story behind this image?

The portrait of Katie was part of a series on jump jockeys made for a campaign for Channel 4. I spent a day at the race track and had a studio set up next to the changing rooms. The idea was to show the faces of the Jockeys, which are often hidden behind the protective gear. It was about capturing horse racing as an 'original extreme sport'. With Katie, we wanted to show her strength and grit and what it takes to be a woman competing in a male-dominated sport. There was some tension because we'd asked if she'd have her hair down, and she didn't want that. We recognised that tension, and the room fell silent, so we tried to freeze that moment.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far as a creative?

Being an artist is a continual challenge - finances, finding inspiration, dealing with failure - I don't think any of it gets any easier. You just learn to adapt. Photography can so often be a hand-to-mouth existence when you start out. If you're lucky, that will ease, but you never know when the next job might come, and the feeling never leaves you.

I’m drawn to the community aspect of Web3. I think it’s really important that we can support one another.

The landscape of photography is constantly changing, and we've seen significant shifts over the last two years. How do you feel about the future of photography?

Honestly, I'm not sure. We are in this funny time where photography can be so disposable. You can scroll past 10, 50 or 100 images while eating your lunch. Certain approaches are celebrated, while others go overlooked. I think the exciting thing is the democratisation of the medium, the access it gives people, and the literal power that comes with it.

You are new to NFTs. What sparked your interest?

I'm drawn to the community aspect of Web3. I think it's really important that we can support one another, not just financially but as a community. There is also the democratisation of the art world - NFTs make collecting more accessible - and that excites me.

Know more about Spencer Murphy

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Visit Spencer Murphy exhibition on Numberverse to learn more about the stories behind each photo.

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