At just 21, photographer Tommy Nease is one to watch. Hailing from North Carolina, his images whisper however consciously that the Surrealist tradition is still very much alive. Preferring to shoot on film, for want of its unavoidable and visceral grain, Nease captures numerous varying subjects from the people he knows in thought-provoking situations to shadows, structural forms or even raw conceptuality. This young artist is as comfortable in front of the lens as he is behind it, and notes that travelling is a way to keep his mind wide open. He is adamant that in black and white is how he sees the world, but who knows, in ten years time we might find him in the deep greens of a mountain raising a family of goats.

Sophie Flecknoe: Can you tell me a little about yourself? How do you define what it is that you do?

Tommy Nease: I am 21 years old and I live in North Carolina. I create photographs as a way of meditation, of finding, creating, and manipulating reality to find a way to represent the spiritual side of life.

When did you get started in art and photography? What was it about this medium that drew you to it?

I have been shooting photographs since I was in high school; I would shoot photographs of my friends skateboarding. That is what originally sparked my interest in photography – learning the technical side of the camera. Once I was comfortable with the camera, it became a nice way to express my creativity and has not ceased to interest me since then.

What is your idea of beauty? Where do you find it?

Beauty is something that can be found in anything, which is what makes it beautiful. Finding beauty is finding a reflection of infiniteness in the world, through imagery, nature, relationships, knowledge, etc.

What was your first camera? Do you still have it and use it? What do you shoot with now?

My first camera was a Konica Autoreflex TC, given to me by my grandmother.  I do still have it and will use it occasionally, but right now I am shooting with a Wista 4×5 field camera and a Pentax 645.

Do you prefer to shoot analogue or digitally? Do you see a significant difference in the outcome of the images? 

I definitely prefer shooting film; it just feels more natural for me. The aesthetic of film is very different from that of digital imagery. I prefer the raw grainy film look [to] the sterile look [of] digital. I guess it is just the fact that it is what I am used to, and what I have always shot.

What, for you, makes a successful image?

In my images, I try to keep an interesting subject matter along with a hint of illusion.  I like making photographs in which the viewer can be confused about how I made them. Also, having photographs that make people think is very important; not necessarily a strict concept, [but] rather, images that people can draw different and unique ideas from.

Who are some artists who are influential to your work? Where do you source inspiration?

I draw a lot of inspiration from folk art and music

Do you aim to tell a story through your images? How much emphasis do you place on conceptual ideas in regards to your images?

Instead of trying to tell a story through my images, I like to instead try and evoke emotions in the viewer. Sometimes my images are pretty literal, but as stated above, I like to keep them open-ended so that people can draw unique ideas from them. Of course, to me, they have a definite story attached to them but I enjoy hearing people’s different reactions to them.

Do you prefer to shoot the human form rather than landscapes, buildings or objects?

It all depends on what I am trying to do with the image I am making. I feel like I shoot photographs of humans more than anything, but I definitely like trying to expand my work by shooting in different ways as much as I can.

In your opinion, what’s the difference in shooting in black and white, versus colour? Does the colour palette of an image alter the concept for you?

It’s pretty simple in my case, I have been looking at the world in black and white for a long time now, and color theory tends to be an intimidating thing for me. For some images I feel that the use of color is crucial, and I feel like for others it is black and white that is needed. Mostly, I feel it could go either way though.

Is travel a major component of your work? Do you have any anecdotes or memorable images from your travels? Where is one place you’d love to visit in the near future?

I feel that traveling is very important for my work. Even if I am not creating as much while traveling, my mind is in a creative state because everything is new and exciting, which inspires me to make images later on when I am stationary. That being said, many times it is harder to be prolific while traveling because of limitations of creative space and money and whatnot.

Have you ever been in front of the lens? How do you work with your subjects?

A lot of my friends are also photographers, so I tend to be in front of the camera almost as much as I am behind one. When I am photographing someone I know, I like it to be a collaborative effort and let the subject direct their own movements as much as possible and when I see something that works very well I will take an image.

What is your approach to photography?

I take photographs because I have to; it is all that I think about and it influences a lot of aspects of my life. It makes me feel in tune with myself and as long as I am creating, I am happy.

What has been some of the best advice you’ve been given?

The best advice given to me was to keep a sketchbook, and to not go to art school.

What is next for you and your practice? Where do you see yourself in a decade’s time?

It’s all up in the air at this time. I want to keep doing what I am doing already – finding a way to be able to make a living while traveling and taking photographs. Maybe after ten years or so I would like to build a house on some land in the mountains and raise goats or something.

Words: Sophie Flecknoe. Image courtesy of Tommy Nease.

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