Mike Figgis’s International Downtown Exhibition

Mike Figgis photographs designer Victoria Bartlett at Milk Gallery.


Mike Figgis may be best known for the two Oscar nods he received for his film, Leaving Las Vegas. But the director and screenwriter is also a lifelong photography devotee. Figgis was  commissioned to raise funds for London’s The Photographers’ Gallery, for which he photographed people, buildings, and “atmosphere,” creating a spontaneous, constantly evolving picture of London’s SoHo, where the Gallery is located. The popularity of the exhibition encouraged Figgis to take the concept global; to capture the essence of SoHos worldwide. He descended upon New York City’s SoHo, and his photos will be on display at Milk Gallery (which is in Chelsea, but you get the point) until the beginning of February. Next stop? China.


LUCY SILBERMAN: Tell me about this global SoHo concept.


MIKE FIGGIS: Well, like a lot of good ideas it started with a kind of necessity. In the last year or so I got involved with this really lovely gallery, the Photographers’ Gallery in London, the oldest photo gallery in the world. I’d been going there since I was a student, and a lot of the photographers that I really admire, I first saw their work there. It’s one of those places that I would, if I ever I was in SoHo in London and had an hour to kill, I’d go and just take a walk through there.


LS: Would you say that’s where your interest in photography started?


MF: No. I was always interested in photography, so to find a proper photo gallery, somewhere that’s dedicated to photography… I’d say it’s very important to me. [The Photographers’ Gallery] approached me about being on their committee to raise money and awareness for their new space, the idea being that this gallery needs to now come up to the 21st century. I immediately agreed and, you know, was quite flattered that they’d asked me in the first place. We just jumped straight in. I said, ‘Well, do you have a gap in your schedule? Let’s do something in that time.’ They wanted to do something that kind of highlighted SoHo and the fact that this is a SoHo-based gallery, so I said ‘Let’s do a SoHo exhibition.’ I started shooting the week before the show, just walking around SoHo, at like 5 in the morning, before anybody was up, shooting kind of architectural, observed images. And then once I got into the gallery space, I set up a little studio there, my printer and somewhere to shoot, and then I just continued shooting all the way through the week at the exhibition, shooting and immediately processing and printing and putting them on the walls. On day one we had something like seven images on the wall. Five or six days later there were about 170 images on the wall. People started visiting and then coming back, A) to see if they were on the wall, if I’d photographed them, and B) just to see where the exhibition had got up to. This was just a quick idea, but it made me realize that in most photo exhibitions, the photographs are already from the past, and that this was an idea where there was a sort of organic quality to the photography in the sense that, literally, sometimes the same day you were seeing the image on the wall from the day it was shot. There was a kind of immediacy and a connection that seemed to make people really, really interested.


The first thing I said was, ‘Look, we need to get some sponsors, ‘cause this stuff is actually quite expensive.’ We approached Epson (I am a fan of theirs and I use their printers anyway), and they gave me [the printer] and all kinds of paper and the ink that I needed so I was able to not worry about, you know, the budget. I was being quite cavalier about what I was printing and doing a huge compass of prints. So, literally the printer was going all day; it was spinning out images. And I was, as I’m doing at Milk, just sticking them on the wall with red tape, because there isn’t time to frame them. The immediacy of it really was kind of that “Warholian” idea of, you know, ‘do it straightaway.’


LS: So how did that then evolve into you photographing SoHos… elsewhere?


MF: Well, it was very much a kind of trial idea; a really quick idea, spontaneous. By the end of the week in the Photographers’ Gallery in London, they were having security issues because there were too many people in the gallery. And actually [laughs] people were starting to steal their prints, which I found quite flattering, in a way. A week after it had come down everyone kinda went, ‘Wow, that really was terrific.’ And I said, ‘Look, why don’t we extend the idea. Let’s think about taking it to New York.’ And then I said, ‘I’ve done some research… there are a number of  SoHos in China, also.’


LS: And from the two SoHos that you’ve photographed so far, are there major differences? The scene, the attitudes of people…


MF: Yeah. I would sort of say that New York and London are kind of first cousins. In the years that I’ve been coming and working in New York, I can clearly see the changes in New York’s SoHo in terms of, I’d say, the fashion colonization of a large part of it, and the sort of boutique aspect of it, and then to an extent the gallery thing. Being here with a specific reason to look at a place is interesting. I was just walking around without any kind of prejudice, looking at the buildings and at the kind of pattern of the place.


LS: How has the city changed?


MF: East of Broadway it’s still very much as I remember it from like 25 years ago. It’s still got that kinda funky small industry sort of feel to it and not so many boutiques. In terms of London’s SoHo…you know, [it’s] looser. There are these kind of quite marked ethnic areas, plus it’s a big club scene at the weekends and there’s a big bar scene there, and [there are] a lot of media people who either eat or work in that area. So it’s quite diverse in London. Here, I don’t think there’s quite such a diversity. But on the other hand architecturally, it’s amazing.


LS: Have you ever been to either of the China SoHos before?


MF: I’ve been to the Hong Kong one, which is a little Carnaby Street-ish, but then a Chinese friend told me that there’s a second SoHo in Hong Kong which is up the side of a mountain. Apparently the one in Beijing is really interesting. That sounds like the one I would focus on.


LS: You’ve worked in what seems like every artistic medium. How does working with still images differ from working with constant moving images?


MF: In a way I was interested in still imagery before I was interested in movie imagery. One of the reasons I was drawn to movie imagery was it was sort of an animated portrait show. At the end of the day I’m interested in how people look, the character in peoples’ faces and the concepts of beauty. I’m much more interested in people; I never had any urge or desire to do like a big spectacular movie with thousands and thousands of extras. I’d rather watch paint drying. But put me in a room with three people having a hard time, like a character situation, and then you’re into a really intense portraiture kind of concept. So that never changed. As for digital technology, it started to make itself known, in terms of the quality suddenly starting to improve and improve – it was a huge liberation for me. It was the first time I was really interested in using color, because I could control it myself.


LS: The immediacy must be really gratifying.


MF: I never had the space or time to do a proper dark room application, so I was constantly dependent on experts, printers and technicians. And being a bit of a control freak, (another way to say that would be someone who’s interested in the process), I was delighted to start to have to think about it myself. In a way this show is the kind of logical expression of the technology. It’s like, you know you can do that so why not do it?


LS: How is shooting portraiture different from the sort of atmospheric photography you’ve been doing?


MF: I’ve been doing serious portraiture for the last 20 years or so. I would say my first love has always been faces. I have a studio in London, so normally I would take 3 hours to do a portrait. Here you’ve got to get it in about 10 or 15 minutes. I’d grab someone in the gallery and I’d say, you know, ‘Can I take your portrait?’ and I would limit myself to maybe four or five shots. 


LS: That few?


MF: I always remember that Bill Brandt would only take two shots: [he’d take] one and then he’d do one as insurance. If you know you can only do three or four (and the temptation on digital is to do a hundred), then you’ve got to deal with it later on; you’ve got to process it and in the middle of the night you’re tired and [you think], Why did I do so many shots? Usually after I shoot I look and [think], ‘Let’s be honest, that’s not gonna work, that’s not gonna work.’ You’ve got to be quite direct and look at the person that’s coming in to sit for you and immediately you’ve got to make a decision about the light and be very direct with them, otherwise you’re not going to get a shot. And then it makes you technically also kind of come up with new techniques.


LS: I’m sure you have a concept for what you want to shoot and how you want to shoot everything, but does anybody ever suggest things and you think, ‘Oh I hadn’t thought of doing it like that’? Has your photography changed, having more people around you?


MF: Socially that’s a bit tricky, because I would always choose to be by myself with a subject – that’s the best way. In London I don’t use an assistant. I have learned how to use all the equipment myself, and I set it up before a shoot, and I quite like having to deal with it as part of the process of taking a photograph. Here because it’s not my base and I’m not familiar with where I am, sometimes I’m taking a photograph and I look around and there’s like five people watching me. [Chuckles] You don’t want to be rude or anything but just say, ‘Ok, I need I just need a little bit of private space now.’ You get a different photograph if you are prepared to engage one on one with your subject; you get a stronger photograph than if you are one of six people watching. Then there’s an element of performance that comes into the subjects., they feel they have to somehow project in a certain way and I don’t want that.


LS: Right. So has the Photographers’ Gallery moved to their new location?


MF: They moved to their new location. I think there’s been a kind of realistic adjustment because when we started with this idea, the world economically was a completely different place. We were trying to raise 8 million pounds. I think we’ve all sort of felt [like we have to] be a bit more practical and slightly downsize our ambition. In the short-term we’re going make sure that it’s a really cool space, and then we’ll just carry on with our fundraising.


LS: I understand there’s going to be a limited edition book to contribute to that. Will that encompass all three or four SoHos that you end up shooting?


MF: Yeah, I think it will. I always think it’s nice to have a goal. For me this is entirely charitable, ‘cause I’m giving everything to the Gallery, literally every penny. So it will be nice for me to have a book at the end of it as a kind of record of what we’ve done.


LS: I wonder if there is a kind of global concept of SoHo.


MF: You know there is, actually. [My] Chinese friend explained it. He said in China the word “SoHo” is more like a concept. One part of Beijing is very SoHo because all of the artists are there. It’s like a brand. And somebody else told me that there’s one in  [another] region [in China], and I said, ‘Is that the art area?’ They said, ‘No, it’s great restaurants and beautiful people and boutiques and things.’


LS: It seems to have that kind of cultural connotation no matter where you go.


MF: Yes. Years ago I remember doing a photo project here for an installation I was doing and I spent the whole day on the top of the World Trade Center, in the observation area. It used to be that in the Twin Towers they would have etched on the glass a kind of outline of Manhattan, so if you lined your eyes up at it, you’d make all the buildings kind of match, and it had a description of each of the buildings in the areas. So I was literally there for about eight hours, nine hours, watching the light change, and these two old ladies, I guess from the Midwest or somewhere, came out of the elevator. They were looking and going, ‘Oh yeah, look, there’s Central Park; there’s the Empire State Building!’ And then one said to the other one, ‘SoHo? What’s SoHo?’ and the other one said ‘Oh, you know, they used to have it in London and they moved it over here.’ Hilarious.



A reception for Mike Figgis’s exhibition will be held at Milk Gallery tomorrow, January 22.