You see a broken-down farm, but this young photographer saw a studio-home
Straight after university, and with high critical acclaim for the work he was producing, Luke left London for his hometown in rural Herefordshire. His drastic move proved to be a good one, both for his mental and physical health, and his creative output. In his studio on top of a hill he has the space to experiment, work on large-scale projects, and, occasionally, play around with pyrotechnics. While he still takes on commissions to keep afloat financially, Luke is enjoying the freedom that rural life provides, and the lower stress levels that come with it. Social isolation can be a struggle, he admits, but his work and feline companion keep him fulfilled.
What made you want to leave London?
At the time it was very intuitive, but picking apart the idea, I feel like I didn’t really have a choice. When I graduated my personal work was peaking so much that the idea of pushing it aside just wasn’t an option. Charles Saatchi saw my photography in my second year of university, and I won a D&AD award in my third year. I could stay in London, get a job, and do my personal work on the side, or pack London in entirely and concentrate on my own work where I could afford to. And there were so many other things that I wanted to explore and try out photographically. There are people that have a long career in London before they have the stability to leave, whereas I did that at the beginning. I don’t really think enough about how radical it is that I’ve managed to do that at such a young age.
What brought you to Herefordshire?
I grew up here surrounded by hills and lots of space and I just felt like I needed that at the time. I live on top of a hill on a farm – there isn’t another house around me for 20 minutes, it is so isolated. It allows a lot of time and space to reflect on my work. I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing now if I’d stayed in London. The disadvantage of being in the country is – although you have more time and you can get a lot more with your money – it can make you lazy. I wake up and the birds are singing and the cows are out. It can be really comfortable. I think I recognised that about a year after moving back. I realised that the pressure I was under in London was one of the catalysts to make really good work. I had to make very quick decisions, I didn’t have the time.
That’s an interesting point. How do you manage that?
It’s hard, but I don’t feel like this is going to be forever. It was needed at the time. I was super burned-out, producing work at such a quick pace, sleeping three or four hours a night. It just wasn’t sustainable. I had to come back, chill out and reflect a little bit, and then see what happens. I will probably move back to the city at some point. It’s this constant oscillating thing.
How did you find this place?
Initially when I moved back I lived with my parents. I was working in their living room. I did so many shoots that you’d look at and think it was shot in a studio in London with a team. But it was just me in my parents’ living room, with these terrible lights. It was really fun [laughs]. After 10 months I started looking for a studio space. You would think finding a space in the country would be easy, but there was literally nothing. Eventually I found this old barn that was full of old machinery. It was amazing.
The actual state of it was awful, but the space and the size was great. I was in the very fortunate position to have some money from the Saatchi Gallery. It’s still very rudimentary – all we did was build a room inside of a room, with a poured concrete floor and hardly any insulation – but it’s perfect. It’s just what I needed. A bit later I moved in next door and now I can just walk to the studio.
How has the move to the countryside affected your social life?
Socially it’s difficult. It is so isolated here – the nearest cities are all miles away. All of my friends from here have gone. There’s a gap in the population: you have the teenagers, then everyone my age disappears, and then you get all the retired people. Also, being a gay guy in the middle of nowhere is like social suicide. I was in a relationship for about eight years, but when I moved back here we broke up. It would be so nice to have someone, but the people I’m into live in London or the city.
I want to be with someone who is doing amazing things, I want to be inspired by someone, and I’m not going to find that here; or at least I haven’t, yet. I go on Tinder – it’s swipe, swipe, swipe, swipe, nothing. The guys are either 16 or 65. I think I’ve just come to terms with being happy being single, finally. I have my work and I have my cat [laughs].
I present myself as quite extroverted; if I give a talk or something I come across as this really outgoing person but, really, I am quite introverted. Some of my friends in London just couldn’t imagine moving out to the country. They were terrified that they’d be stabbed or something, because it’s the middle of nowhere and this is where all the murders happen, all Agatha Christie [laughs]. I grew up here, so moving out here had a sort of homeliness to it. I don’t know how you could explain to someone who’s lived in the city their whole life what it is actually like to live here. Until you’ve experienced a very limited social atmosphere, you just can’t imagine what it’s like.
Has moving here had an impact on your health?
I probably would’ve been in a really bad situation if I’d stayed in London. Mentally I go through high and low periods. I feel like being in a city would’ve just amplified those quite a lot. It’s interesting thinking about mental health with people of my generation. Living in the city you are faced with the problem of making money. If your talent is doing something creative, which traditionally doesn’t pay much money, but you need it because that’s what keeps you going, what do you do? For me, the only answer was here.
The countryside really is over-romanticised, but I love it. Being able to go on a walk and breathe fresh air is really, really nice, as wanky as that sounds. I think at this point in my life I’d rather have that and miss out on the social side of things than be really social and miss out on the lower levels of stress that I have here.
The other thing is that I was diagnosed with testicular cancer about 3 years ago. If that had happened in London, I don’t even know if I would’ve survived being there.
My family all work at the local hospital so I had their support and excellent treatment. Having my family around at that time and not having to worry about money was a huge benefit. I feel like it almost confirmed, in a really horrible way, that moving back here was the right thing to do.
I can imagine. Are you now fully recovered?
Yes – all good, which is great. I still have x-rays and blood checks, but I feel a lot stronger mentally. Maybe now I could handle the stress of living in the city.
Has your personal work changed since you moved? Is it influenced by your surroundings in any way?
Creatively the freedom and the space that I have here really inform my personal work. I’m allowed to get away with stuff I wouldn’t be able to do in London. A lot of my work does sort of teeter on legality.
At the minute I’m doing a project called ‘Second Nature’. I am interested in how we imitate, mess, and play with nature, because it feels so sacred. I’ve worked with the idea before. In university I did a project called ‘Forge’, recreating natural landscapes in my kitchen, using paper and other day-to-day materials. I was responding to the environment that I was in. I was in the city and I wanted to make these dreamy landscapes.
Now I’m able to scale-up the work. I’ve toyed around with pyrotechnics and explosives. I can just sneak around on the farm and blow things up [laughs]. I’m building these things and mixing it with studio work. Each picture takes a month.
Another project I’m working on is about cancer. I’m making artwork with chemotherapy drugs. I’ve attached a microscope to my large format film camera, so I’m really investigating the drugs and what they look like visually. As I’m going through this process of being observed all the time, I wanted to grab it by the horns and get all these drugs and really fucking mess with them. It’s about having control. This project has turned into a weird therapy.
Shooting bows and shooting cameras is very similar. You wait for everything to line up right. It’s very meditative
How do you find clients for your commercial work?
It has just been word-of-mouth. I have a good working relationship with some studios and once you’ve done a project they commission you for other jobs. I’ve also been speaking to an agent who’s been really interested in my work. Their idea is to commission people for commercial jobs based on their personal work.
I’m interested in how you use social media. What’s your approach?
It’s difficult because my work doesn’t fit into the social media way of consuming content. It takes a little bit of time to understand it. You need to know how it’s made. I actually really struggle with that, especially on Instagram where people just don’t have any time, they just flick through. My work doesn’t suit the platform very well.
I am getting better though. It’s really interesting how IG Stories are now so integral to so many social media apps. My day-to-day is quite interesting and I’ve always wanted to share that, but not let that influence the cleanness of my feed. Now I can post in my Stories and be way less worried about how it’s going to look, because it disappears after a day. I can keep the feed very, very clean.
Do you ever feel under pressure when you see what others are doing?
Oh, yes, totally. I used to feel that pressure a lot, especially when I was making work at such a rapid pace and every year something big was happening. Until I realised everyone’s fucking lying and nobody knows what they’re doing. Everyone’s in the same boat, everyone’s terrified, everyone is scared, and everyone feels like they’re not being listened to [laughs].
I know you have also taken up archery. Can you tell me about that?
I started archery when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I just fell in love with it. It’s the most amazing thing, it’s so therapeutic. Shooting bows and shooting cameras is very similar. You wait for everything to line up right. It’s very meditative. It’s a mental game more than a physical one. It has slowly but surely taken over my life just as much as photography. I’m now on the Archery GB Development Team (Great Britain’s Olympic development team), which means I need the space the countryside provides more than ever. Now I’m sort of tied into being here because I practice at the training centre every month for a few days. Luckily, being on a farm, I have the space to shoot at home.
What are your plans for the future?
Make some badass work. This year is a big one for me: I have two new personal projects that will be coming out, I’ve got a show at the Saatchi Gallery later this year, I’m launching with the agency, and archery is taking off as well. A lot of work.
This piece was originally featured in City Quitters. You can purchase a copy here.