Meet the Artist - Special Philip SHALAM in 13 questions

1-       Your photos are characterized by empty spaces, reflections, upside down views. What does each mean to you?

I like emptiness. I feel in charge. It’s mine, it’s my space, it’s my space in that moment.

Reflections are mirrors. I like symmetry. I like showing the equal opposite and showing something equally mirrored is symmetry. Last year I started shooting reflections from puddles. Puddles connect me a bit more to London, they are the only positive thing that I have for the rain. I like the reflections from those puddles. 

Upside Down, because I like playing and turning my photos upside down, it is a comedy of sorts, it shows the abstractness of something real. It’s the A and B of the same building, the same road, the same landscape.

This is what it looks like real, this is what it looks like upside down

Today we all look at the picture and its’ “in and out”, the puddle reflections or the buildings that are upside down, are something that keep you looking a little bit longer.  I like the idea of keeping somebody looking at the picture a little longer than a second.  I like the idea that something can make you think a little bit more about what’s going on here. Reflections in both senses of the word, visually and mentally.

2-       Most of your pictures are architectural, or landscape, but never portraits, why is that? You say you see the buildings come to life yet there is very little life in your pictures

Even though I have never wanted to be an architect, I have always loved architecture. I like lines, and forms. To me buildings have both form and function. Their function is to house stores, people, goods but they also have a form, inviting or not, but a form. I like the focus of a building.

I like putting trees in the London city. I like nature in concrete.

  Tree on square  by Philip Shalam

Tree on square by Philip Shalam

I could put people in my photos but I don’t like to. I may be respectful of them by not being in their face. I also feel sometimes that they just look at me like “Who the fuck are you?” Or if I am taking a picture of them, “Why are you taking a picture of me?”. Maybe it’s just the energy that I give off. I remember taking a picture of the platform on Ladbroke grove and a guy on the other platform shouted at me “I hope you’re going to destroy that photo with me in it!” That gave me a fright. That takes me away from people.

I like emptiness. I like a city that is bustling and I like to show it empty. I find it exciting to show NY quiet. There is a scene in Vanilla Sky where the hero is on Times Square and there isn’t anybody there, I found that so exciting when I first saw it, I thought this is a place that is bustling during the day and you caught a moment when it is empty and it is fantastic. That is why I like going out at 5 in the morning and capturing photos at that time. The City (in London) on a Sunday morning is the only time I am really going to see it empty. But the buildings are alive. The picture is alive.

I belong to an empty city. It is mine. I like to think of myself as a nomad and empty places allow me that. Everywhere is yours when it is empty and you belong everywhere.

 

3-       Born in Switzerland, brought up in England, by Egyptian parents, you moved and lived in NY for 25 years, and now Belgium, has all this had an impact on you and your art? Did you feel like the odd one growing up in London, or in being “the Englishman in NY” for so many years?

I grew up in an international environment, everybody was different. My two best friends from school were from South Africa and Argentina. I didn’t feel any Egyptian, I mean I never heard any Arabic at home, maybe once twice a year. My parents spoke French.

4-       Who was your favourite artist as a kid? What was your favourite artform?

If there was a comic book that I liked when I was a kid, it was Tintin. Maybe that is why I like Belgium.

As for my favourite artist, I don’t know. I loved installations. When I was a kid, I used to build installations with my soldiers and loved them. To me they were works of art that I would be happy to come home to and see everyday, which is why I was so pissed off with my mum for saying “put your toys away before you go to bed”, it’s like “what do you mean put it away? It is a fucking installation! We can hang this on the wall!”

5-       You like visuals and graphics, you studied at London College of Printing, how did you switch to photography?

When in Art school, at Carmel, I painted, mainly abstract. I liked to paint blue skies. For my end of year piece I did an abstract piece. I still remember it clearly: it was square, it was blues and whites and there was a white square added on in the middle there was another piece of wood on top of the painting and out of the extra piece of wood I put a piece of glass that came out of the square so it showed the sky behind the glass. I loved that painting. I saw freedom in it, it was like a breath of fresh air. That is why I liked it. The only issue I had with was my teacher saying to me “what are you going to do next to it?” and I said: “but it’s done!” It is done.

In a way I chose printing as an artform. I didn’t pursue that and maybe, now looking back at it, it probably wasn’t the right course for me. But it does help me in my photography today. I dare experiment more today.

However, what I liked about going to printing college was the size of the printing machines and the idea of industry. I like the idea of being able to create something and print it 10 million times. To me, printing is key. When you see your own work in the flesh it makes all the difference.

After college I worked for a printing company called “Letter Stream” in London  - my mum got me the job there - but they went bust so I went into the sandwich business. I had no money and I had to make some. For years after that I concentrated on making a living, I had moved to New York and needed to make ends meet, and get my Green Card.

6-       What about photography? Did you always take pictures? Did you have a camera as a kid? Or did you start later to enjoy taking pictures? Was there such a picture that made you think “I am a photographer”?

I received my first camera for my bar mitzvah. I actually received 2 cameras, but my parents kept one, an Agfamatic. It was nice, it was very nice, but I wished in way they had kept the SLR.

Agfamatic.png

I always took photos. I remember being complimented on my photos, that’s what got me going with that. Being told I have an eye. By friends, by professional photographers.

7-       What was the first picture you sold? Did that make you decide you wanted to take photography as a profession?

The first picture I sold was a chair auction at Christie’s in NY I was so happy. I sold it to a friend. I did not think I would ever do it as a profession, I just thought “wow somebody liked one of my photos” AND wants to buy it. It gave me a real buzz to sell [my first picture]. I was so happy somebody actually wanted it.

chairs.jpg

The first picture I sold was a chair auction at Christie’s in NY I was so happy. I did not think I would ever do it as a profession, I just thought “wow somebody liked one of my photos” AND wants to buy it. It gave me a real buzz.

8-       What is your main inspiration source if you have one? Who are your favourite  photographers?

I let inspiration come to me. I walk around and see things come to life. I see the buildings, the colours.

I love the Becher school of photography, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth. When I was on the train today, coming into Brussels, I looked out the window and the landscape, the farms, the grey concrete-y buildings reminded me of Thomas Struth, it made me think that by being in Belgium I am closer to that type of photography.

I also like experimental photographers, photography with mirror, with glass, photography or using a different glass and you have a psychedelic colouring thing going on.

9-       Do you have any message in your pictures? What would you like people to see in your art? What would you like people to come out with after seeing your photos?

I don’t have a message, “you see what I see”. I want people to see the beauty in it and I want them to want to own it.

I would like people to come out of one of my shows with the impression of having seen beauty, of having seen a new angle. I’m always looking for a new angle, something that’s going to make you see the beauty. And if you don’t see it, then I am going to turn the picture upside down, and you might see it. Turning it upside down adds a different dialogue.

If I can keep you for an extra second here looking at my photo, I am really happy I’ve kept you there. There is still beauty in it upside down. Sometimes there is more beauty in it. Many times there’s more beauty in it.

10-   When did you start taking pictures with a fish eye?

I always loved fish eyes and circular pictures. The first lens I ever bought was a 10-20 mm lens, which is a very wide angle lens.  Ike, this guy I worked with, suggested I start off with a 10-20 mm lens, because “this will give you an interesting view on life” he told me. So it’s thanks to Ike that I started with the 10-20 mm lens which is a very wide angle lens. That lens got me into architecture because I was able to take the whole building. It was amazing.

Ike.jpg

Ike, this guy I worked with, suggested I start off with a 10-20 mm lens, because “this will give you an interesting view on life” he told me. So it’s thanks to Ike that I started with the 10-20 mm lens which is a very wide angle lens. That lens got me into architecture because I was able to take the whole building.

The fish eye was just a graduation of that. It was taking the 10 mm and turning it into an 8 mm and all of a sudden you had completeness, complete landscape.

Circular is such an interesting viewpoint of the world. It’s all round, completely encompassing, cosy.

11-   Do you think your art hides you or makes you more see-through? Do you agree with the saying that everything is personal and everything is political?

I don’t know. Does it hide me?

I relate to hiding behind the camera. I might even be a bit of a voyeur with a camera to my face. But again, what am I showing you? I am showing you and empty street, I am showing you an emptiness.

Do you agree with the saying that everything is personal and everything is political?

I don’t want to agree to either. I want my photography to be a breath of fresh air.

12-   If you could donate one of your pieces to an organization who would you most like to give it to? Whose life would you like to improve through your photos?

Listen, when I started as a photographer I tried to donate a picture to the Jewish Museum in NY, they never responded, but I thought it was a very smart picture.  Since then I have given out so many photos to friends, to places, to charity auctions. I would like to think they can improve somebody’s life, everybody’s life.

13-   Why did you decide to move to Brussels?

I like Brussels, my partner in crime lives in Brussels and I have been spending a lot of time in Brussels and I am enjoying the city more and more, especially in the summer time.

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 16.15.00.png

when I started as a photographer I tried to donate a picture to the Jewish Museum in NY, they never responded, but I thought it was a very smart picture.  Since then I have given out so many photos to friends, to places, to charity auctions. I would like to think they can improve somebody’s life, everybody’s life.