Immediate icons

A conversation with Jack Davison

By Zippora Elders

Jack Davison (1990, United Kingdom) is an intriguing new name in the field of artistic photography. The twenty-five-year-old studied English literature and is an autodidact photographer. Davison’s work shows a passion for the discipline’s history, and in it we can see him revisiting a diverse range of genres, styles, and techniques spanning from avant-garde experiment to objective documentary, and from mid-20th-century portraiture to conceptual study. Yet his practice is very contemporary as well, and visibly rooted in the borrowing practices of online communities such as Flickr, which laid the basis for today’s social media culture.

Born and raised in Essex, in rural England, Jack Davison subsequently moved to Conventry in the West Midlands, where he studied English literature at Warwick University. As a photographer, he is self-taught. Davison valued literature and art from an early age, but during his teenage years, his main focus gradually turned to photography. Since the age of fifteen, Davison has always taken his camera with him, constantly photographing his family and friends, strangers, and surroundings. ‘I grew up in the countryside, in a small village in Essex, so I spent a lot of time with just my family and was quite content to just draw or read. I hadn't discovered the temptations of the city yet,’ he jokes. ‘From drawing and painting a lot as a kid, I grew towards photography.’ His primary means of viewing pictures was via the Internet: ‘It would be a case of me stumbling onto people’s work and collecting things that I saw that struck a chord with me.’

It is significant to Davison’s practice that he did not receive formal education in photography. This allowed him the time and space to take pictures without the pressures, rules, and stigma that can come with studying art. ‘When I started mucking around with cameras on family holidays, it made a lot of sense to me, and I haven’t been able to stop shooting since I first started. I also think it was hugely important that I didn’t study it formally; I went to university and studied English literature, and I believe that was really formative. It gave me plenty of time to study something else. I think it gave me less preconceived notions of what I should do and not do, and just felt happier experimenting. So it was kind of good to be dislocated from the photography world for longer.’ His work is full of investigation and play, as he jumps between different cameras and mediums, styles and genres. The ‘unknown’ and ‘uncontrollable’ elements are what he enjoys most about his way of working. ‘They are the most challenging thing that often make the best photos, those moments where a stranger brushes into the frame, or someone opens a window and the light bouncing off it pierces into a room. It’s those things that you can’t control, that can work against you, or often push you to different places and to see things you wouldn’t have stopped to ponder before.’

The work of Jack Davison reflects a diverse range of inspirations derived from the historical canon of photography—from Salvador Dalí and August Sander, the Flickr community and the Internet in general, to Mark Michaelson’s infamous book, Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots, and classics like Richard Avedon, Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter, Irving Penn, and Edward Weston. Indeed, the images made by these famous names are remarkably present in our everyday lives, and therefore they all may also somehow shape our perspective on reality. ‘The way I learnt photography was through sites such as Flickr, where the process was very quick and organic. I’d sometimes shoot a picture, edit it, and post it online in a couple of hours, but that picture would have to be able to stand alone and couldn’t be supported by a series or a long paragraph of context.’ Davison sees the people he learnt photography from as his best critics—they were never afraid to chastise him when he was doing something wrong. ‘I met these friends through Flickr, whilst it started with online conversation and shared inspiration. I went on to meet certain photographers who became mentors, and were crucial early teachers and shapers of how I would learn photography. I had an amazing community in London, which was great as it brought me out of the countryside and into the city. But I’ve ended up meeting people from this Flickr group all over America, too.’

Exchange is characteristic to Davison’s way of working. ‘When I was young, and still now, it used to be thrilling to share images with a wider world than that which I knew; you had access to reactions and opinions that would help you reflect on your work. I like the power a single image can have, and that an image can hold its own in a multitude of different contexts.’ Flickr, an image hosting website founded in 2005, was initially just a place to show and circulate your photos. But over the years it grew into a social community based on an ever-evolving database. The structures of such social network platforms have become increasingly influential in our daily routines, which is indeed visible in Davison’s development since the time when he roamed the Internet from his room somewhere in rural England. The connections between Flickr’s many users are not just constructed around personal interactions, but also nurtured by technological, commercial, and various other mechanisms characteristic to social media websites. In this way, those icons that were already popular become even more celebrated. Moreover, users contribute their own comments, feedback, interpretation, and appropriation. Today’s fairly accessible social networking websites prove to be fertile ground for making photography’s history one’s own, and perhaps even becoming a part of it.

Eventually, Davison became interested in physical archives as well, which in turn shaped his ways of seeing and working. For instance, he started a collection of found photographs while traveling through the United States. ‘There is something really moving, exciting, and beautiful about pictures that families have discarded which stand out in piles of paper and draw themselves to you,’ he remembers. Artistically, his own works reveal a similar urge to revisit and recreate a past that is no longer existent.

As Foam has previously shown the work of many of the icons that inspired him, Davison’s oscillation between photography’s past and present is an intriguing addition to the context of the photography museum. Even more so, because his oeuvre also has something characteristically ‘now’ to it when brought together in one place. As touched upon previously, we recognize the fascination that social media users have for iconic historical photography. Davison effortlessly employs and appropriates different genres and styles in what seems to be an endless stream of visual consciousness. With classic photography being so omnipresent nowadays, his genuine homages become almost timeless—‘immediate icons’, in and of themselves.

That said, Davison’s practice is never preconceived or too clever. His work maintains a sense of wonder and play. In his own words, ‘I guess the aim of my work is quite simple, in that it’s marking the moment where something I have seen has moved me, be it an emotion on someone’s face, or a bit of light. There’s always a gut feeling there, and an excitement and satisfaction in recording that moment. A lot of my work is down to luck and being in the right place to see the right thing.’ On that account, Jack Davison reveals himself to be a true photographer, formally educated or not—at the decisive moment, he will have his camera at hand.

© Jack Davison and Zippora Elders

Revisiting Pictures by Jack Davison will be on show until 5 June 2016 at Foam 3h. 


This exhibition is made possible thanks to the Gieskes-Strijbis Fund, the Van Bijlevelt Foundation and Kleurgamma.

Foam is supported by the BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Delta Lloyd, City of Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.