London-based photographer Morgan Hill-Murphy stands out through a special relationship with the medium: to him, photography is a way of making sense of the world, a zone of calm and discovery, in an otherwise frantic industry.
Morgan is a self-taught photographer, with a degree in Philosophy, whose work evolved and perfected during numerous collaborations and projects that saw him fully committed, to concept, aesthetics, and execution. In his work, he seeks depth and substance, chasing perfection in light and shadow, mastering technique yet capturing the naivety of every shot.
Elena Stanciu: What can you tell our readers about your photographic practice and process? When and how did you fall in love with photography? Who are your biggest role models?
Morgan Hill-Murphy: At the very beginning photography wasn't about love but necessity; in retrospect I needed a way to identify with the world around me and a way to interpret it. I spend an increasing amount of time in the darkroom these days, I think it's a levelling and meditative space in a frantic industry. My current role model is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I'm still getting my head around the fact we're the same age actually, but perhaps we're all capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.
ES: Your work is broad, from fashion photography, portraiture, to street and documentary photography – which one do you find challenges you most (in terms of research, time allotted to the project, engagement with the subject)?
MH-M: Fashion out of those different genres is absolutely the most challenging, in the sense that, ideally, you have complete control of the aesthetic. Simply in terms of production and preparation also there's a lot of decisions to be made and work to do before you even get to set. I don't make life easy for myself there either, because until I see the fashion and meet the model, I can rarely commit to a lighting set up.
ES: We witness recently a sort of 'post-photographic' era, when digital manipulation takes over the medium and invites rethinking composition as such in photography, maybe allowing more freedom for fantasy. What's you take on this? What's your own experience with digital photography?
MH-M: Does it? Maybe if I read into this a bit more I'd agree. There has been a big shift in the photography industry since digital started to gain ground about 10 - 15 years ago but on the whole, it hasn't really established itself like people thought it would.
I think people come to expect everything to be manipulated these days, and digital being what it is it's pretty much impossible to take a totally trash photo these days that can't be retouched into literally whatever you want. That being the case, I find it exciting to see a beautiful shot on film that proves to me that the photographer knew what they were doing, there in the moment it was taken. It's an art we're re-learning.
ES: For your recent series, Sicily 2018, you travelled to Italy and immersed yourself in the community, spent time around your subjects, and patiently chased amazing light. What was that experience like? Was it spontaneous or a long-planned project? What's the most important takeaway from this sort of slow visual storytelling process?
MH-M: Sicily was, again, primarily about necessity and some nostalgic notion of driving into the sunset to visit people and places that up until then had existed only in my imagination, or films. What is it about us humans that makes us love to be dropped into alien landscapes? Sicily to me became about belonging, about the raw ingredients of humanity and seeking out human connection after being in London for too long.
ES: What's your favourite photo in this series? What's the story behind it?
MH-M: Tough question – possibly the old fisherman walking to his friends after a long day of fishing and selling the day's catch. You can see more people socialising in the sunset in the background. This is one of my favourites simply because that's exactly how I remember that evening, my last in Sicily actually, and every time I'm taken back to the community and tranquillity of that afternoon.
ES: I'm guessing you learned a lot about the role and impact of location on a story. Where else would you like to travel next?
MH-M: I spent a lot of time in northern Italy on that trip, as well as in Saxony in Germany and my dad's in the south of France. The skill is in allowing a story to develop and then doing it justice. I think I'm still learning in that respect, but all the more excuse to practise! This year I'll go back to delve deeper into certain aspects of Sicilian life that fascinated me, such as the church and family units. Then, if I can afford it, I want to visit Istanbul and Baghdad. Then maybe have an exhibition.
ES: In a world overflooding with imagery, more or less indiscernibly curated, how do you see your work fitting in the endless stream of visuals on social media?
MH-M: I'm not under the illusion that loads of people are eagerly awaiting my next project or editorial. We're flooded by imagery, but can we discern what is good and what is bad? Or cheap? On the whole there is barely any money in the photography people see day-to-day; it's just not invested in. Which means good photographers must go away and spend their own money on taking good images to get people to hire them to take more bad ones.
If I was a cynical man, that's how I'd describe the current situation, although for the sake of balance it's also something we're incredibly lucky to be able to do. When you've been commissioned or hired to shoot something you care about and they are paying your day rate – I challenge anyone to find a more liberating feeling than that.
ES: What would you say makes a great photographer?
MH-M: A great photographer treats all of their team with respect, brings the best out of those working for them, feeds them and doesn't make them go beyond their comfort zone without good reason. If you can't photograph an editorial without checking these boxes, then it's just an ego massaging exercise.
ES: What's your take on fashion photography, a field where originality is often at risk? How would you respond to the idea that there may not be such a thing as "original idea" in contemporary fashion photography?
MH-M: Don’t we live today in the realm of the post-modern? Or the Post-post-modern aka the Altermodern? In which case the original is subservient to the copy; we live in a collage of constantly re-appropriated references to signs and signals past and we transfer ideas through the combining of previously totally disparate images. Try and chat someone up with an original idea and then a meme and see which ones gets you anywhere. The original is almost kitsch at the moment, who wants original?
I did a philosophy degree and never get to use it so thanks for the outlet.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Photography: Morgan Hill-Murphy