Interview With National Photographic Portrait Prize Winner Liz Looker
Welcome to our interview with national photographic portrait prize winner, 2016, and winner of the National Photographic Portrait Prize Art Handlers’ Award 2019 – Liz Looker.
I first discovered Liz and her lovely photographs while in Paris celebrating a big birthday several years ago. I was captivated by her pictures which seemed to have a transcendental quality, transmitting something beautiful that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I looked her up and began to follow her on Instagram. I was thrilled to be able to spend some time on the phone to Liz over in Perth in Australia for our Wellspring our podcast and interview series . I do hope you enjoy getting to know Liz and discovering her world, I know I certainly have.
Interview With National Photographic Portrait Prize Winner Liz Looker
Q. Can you tell us a little about your self and how you like to spend your time? What’s day-to-day life like for you out in Perth and has being a mother influenced your practice?
Hi Emma, thank you for such thoughtful questions. Becoming a mother really did alter and shape my entire perspective, bringing clarity and, along with my son’s articulate visions and dreams, a belief in infinite possibility. It sort of released me from fear. Inspired more creativity, a sense of adventure and an openness to experimentation. Becoming a mother asked me to consider what I wanted to teach, how I wanted to guide my sons in the world and the answers were things I had to embody.
I am so grateful to them and for the ever-expansive experience of being their mother. As with my work, our days (outside of school hours) are unplanned and happen quite spontaneously, depending on weather and mood. We live between the ocean and the river and so a lot of our time is spent in and around water. The boys are interested in old fashioned pursuits.. shooting a bow and arrow, throwing a hand-made spear, canoeing. There is also a lot of music in our home, a lot of Lego and a lot of dancing.
I just asked my seven year old to describe in his own words how we spend our days and he said ‘they are filled with fun, learning, a little bit of boredom and a lot of playfulness.’
Q. Do you have certain things you like to do to keep healthy, well and connected to the flow of life? Like yoga or meditation for example?
Connection to people, for me, is connection to the flow of life. Holding my sons every morning. Talking with friends.
Throwing a frisbee is a happy meditation. The beautiful monotony of swimming laps. Taking photographs.
I was a dancer before I was a photographer and now, without the definite structure of classical ballet, I love to just move freely. I have been researching authentic movement after I stumbled across it as a concept as part of my experimental work in Sweden, photographing incredible professional contemporary dancers. There is something truly meditative about instinct guiding the body to move.
Q. You recently won The National Portrait Prize. Congratulations and well done! Is it people, in particular, you like to photograph or other things too? I find it quite tricky to capture pictures of people, but I love photographing nature!
Thank you. What an incredible and unexpected honour it was.
My interest does lie in capturing humanity. My camera, the invitation to meet people and the photographs the by-product of that meeting. The wonderful bit in the middle is the connection – time spent with strangers who become friends, listening to their stories, trying to tell it through the lens.
I feel like I can see people really clearly that way. A wonderful friend of mine (whose life I have photographed over the years) said to me recently that I use my third eye as the lens and I really like that thought. It is a holistic vision/version of the person in front of me, as I rely on more than just eyesight.
Being in nature is a huge part of our life but I struggle to capture it’s beauty on ‘film’. It’s almost as though I can’t find a focal point and struggle to crop in on the incredible expanse in front of me.
Q. Your work takes you around the world, which are some of your favourite places to photograph? I read that you love South America, can you share a little about what it’s like there?
When I travel I actually prefer to just be in the moment where I am, storing it all in my mind’s eye rather than photographing it, writing letters home to my parents to share what I see. I actually find that picking up my camera removes me from being really present when I travel, which is strange considering it does the opposite when I am looking at people. My favourite place then, is sitting with someone, anywhere, connecting to their life and story.
I felt completely myself in South America and in each of the six countries I travelled through, I was thought to be local and treated as such. How I felt became how I looked. I was struck by the incredible passion each person I met had for their history, culture and politics. There is an honesty as they express themselves so freely, through words and music and dance. People are tactile and sincere with a deep faith and spirituality which seems to connect them to the mountains, the ocean, their ancestry, each other.
The vibrant colours, the architecture, the art, the craft, the incredible and diverse geography all make for such a rich experience. I learnt to Tango in Argentina, went by canoe in the Peruvian Amazon, watched witches mix potions in Bolivia, caught my breath at Machu Picchu, danced in the dance halls of Rio. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Q. Selfie culture seems quite popular at the moment yet many people tell me they don’t enjoy having their picture taken, for example, taken by a friend or even by a photographer. They feel awkward and self-conscious. Can you speak a little to this vulnerability, perhaps sharing what it’s like from your side, and the effects you’ve witnessed in your subjects through your portraiture?
It is a hugely vulnerable thing to do, to stand before someone and to allow yourself to be open to the process and most importantly, to being seen. And to know that that moment will be recorded, permanently. I admire and am inspired by each and every subject I photograph for their bravery and honesty. Their willingness to be seen.
I have found that the experience interestingly ends up transcending the physical (the ego and therefore the awkwardness) and I receive a lot of letters from women/mothers who feel empowered by the process. They feel seen and heard and recognised, powerful, beyond the flesh.
During my experimental project in Sweden the work used movement and a slow shutter to sort of blur the obvious, tangible physical self, and to look more to the energy or spirit of a person. It is a wonderful thing to be able to release ourselves from the inner critic and to see ourselves through different eyes.
Personally, I don’t really relate to the idea of the ‘selfie’. I am drawn to people who are showing me things I otherwise wouldn’t be able to see; people who are looking outwards. The selfie, to me, seems to encourage an interest in the superficial, a moment frozen by one’s features, and I am more interested in what lies beyond that. What the eye sees that tells of the soul.
Q. I read that you “never have a plan or any expectations going into a shoot because the outcome is so dependent on a mix of ingredients. The subject’s mood, mine, the weather, your chemistry, the light, the location.” and that “The job is to see and feel those things and then capture that on film.”
I feel a similar way in my own work. For example, when I’m giving a workshop or session, I can’t predict what I’ll be sharing as it is dependent on so many factors. But it wasn’t always this way for me. When I first started I used to prepare and plan everything, and then something changed. I think it was a combination of having gained experience and having connected more deeply to or developed trust in the living moment.
The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom expressed this sentiment nicely in his book The Gift Of Therapy, (p34) where he notes that ‘The flow of therapy should be spontaneous, forever following unanticipated river beds’ and that it ‘requires the therapist to invent a new therapy for each patient’
Has this approach been part of your work for a long time now, or is it a perspective that has emerged due to a particular influence or activity?
Yes, that is still true of my practice and naturally, Yalom’s approach resonates with me. I think it’s so important to attempt to recognise the individual in any circumstance in order to be able to understand them, to have them feel understood and to connect honestly. I have found this to be true of motherhood too. I am a very different mother to each of my sons.
In answer to your question, I think in my work I have always been like this. I have to trust that things will align in the moment and that I will be able to see and capture it. I have always believed that the magic would be missed if I had settled on a preconceived idea.
I have worked a lot in advertising for big corporations and due to large budgets and nervous clients, ideas are always approved beforehand. I am often frustrated delivering a replica of the reference when I can see more interesting opportunities from the corner of my eye.
Most of my work now is private portraiture, home to home, and the families who employ me understand it will be free-form, but they come to me because they are like-minded and happy to trust.
Q. I was recently photographed myself by the photo art society here in London and as part of the days adventures I wore a 1920s outfit and had my photo taken with a vintage car. Several different photographers took my picture one after the other and what struck me most what how different I felt, being photographed by the different people. Almost as though a new me, a new expression of me and how I felt about myself was evoked or drawn to the surface by each photographer.
Your photos and the way you share on Instagram seem so very natural and judges praise your images for being enchanting and mysterious. How do you capture the innocence and freedom of the people in the photo and why is naturalness, or ‘the way things are’, so valuable in todays world?
I find it endlessly fascinating that a person’s appearance changes depending upon who is looking at them.
The eye of the beholder.
This very idea is the reason I fell in love with photography in the first place and will be the premise for my next collaborative experimental study.
My work looks the way it does because it observes and records the things I value the most – naturalness, truth, true beauty, connection, innocence, freedom. I capture it that way because I can’t see any other way.
I think naturalness is so valuable in today’s world because societal pressures and technology are hurtling us away from the natural, from our spiritual selves, away from nature and stillness, quiet and meaningful connection. Causing unease, anxiety, depression. We are constantly ON, plugged in, and so, alternatively, just sitting with your baby or on the grass or kissing your partner – these moments of naturalness are deeply therapeutic. I think in my portraiture this is what I make time for and encourage.
Q. You won the highly coveted Art Handlers’ Award for this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize for the portrait ‘A calm so deep,’ which was part of an artist-in-residency project in Sweden. When speaking of your photos, the judges said “This work is deeply sincere and open. The golden glow emitted from the fabric of the dress and skin of the subject seems to speak of the ethereal – the inexplicable ‘self’”
Can you talk a little more about capturing this ‘self’ in photography? It sounds marvellous!
My ambition for my Swedish residency was to attempt to capture in imagery, the human spirit. To remove the first plane, the physical; ego, vanity and judgement.
To have this work recognised actually allowed me to feel understood and seen – that the inner workings of my mind externalised as photographs encouraged people to see what and how I see, to get a sense of something deeper within the subject.
I am so grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for creating these opportunities for photographic artists in Australia and for the sensitivity with which they view and discuss the work.
Q. The Wellspring is a place that we all have access to. It’s the source of energy, enthusiasm, ideas and joy and I liken listening to the flow of my wellspring to following to the changing flow of my enthusiasm and interest. I read that you started out in commercial work and moved into a different kind of photography. How easy was it to find the place you have landed at now with your work?
The things that guide me are my instinct, which I reconnected with upon becoming a mother, and the dreams, ideas and wisdom of my children. We become so narrow in our views, live as we are told to, stay inside the box. Children have not yet had these limitations put upon them and so they are free to see clearly. To see possibility rather than to act in fear, to implicitly trust their instinct and imagination. My sons have taught me many things I had either forgotten or never knew, and I consciously work to keep their curiosity and openness alive.
And so, with my work, I have found my way to where I am now by choosing to be a liquid rather than a solid. Choosing to think freely and to explore and experiment with ideas stemming from the conversations I have with my children. I find that really listening to others is so important. And being open to personal evolution. It isn’t an easy path but it is a rewarding one.
Q. Myself and many of the readers at Emma Mills London are interested in creativity, self-learning, meditation and wellness. I understand you’re involved in many wonderful projects from art and neuroscience to dance and drawing; how do you feel creativity is connected to wellbeing and more specifically, how can photography become part of a person self-discovery?
I believe that creativity is intrinsically linked to wellbeing and that it is foundational for good mental and spiritual health to engage in creative practises.
I am currently looking to establish and run a creative program here in Australia focusing on youth mental health. I have been speaking with professors of neuroscience and art therapy, people who are successfully implementing and integrating creative programs in to public school systems around the world. People who are proving the science of why art therapy and creative processes work on a neurological level. The idea of keeping a connection to instinct alive and finding avenues for self-expression and individualised thought seem vitally important and I am enjoying exploring the possibilities.
Photography has been an incredible part of my self discovery. A few years ago I was invited to deliver a talk at the National Portrait Gallery on light and my personal practice. The process asked me, really, to delve in to the subconscious; to find the place where my thoughts, values and observations align. It really was illuminating.
I also found that during my project in Sweden, each subject wrote to me of the process being cathartic, therapeutic.
These ideas of understanding the self from being both behind and in front of the lens led me to research the idea of therapeutic photography which is used all over the world as a tool for self discovery. Revealing your subconscious by reviewing your focus. Looking inward. Looking outward. Making connections.
Q. Last but not least, how can people be in touch with you, are you available for portraiture and can you offer some advice on having your photographic portrait taken?
I don’t have much of an online or social media presence but I love to curate my work in the squares of Instagram. I can be found there as @liz_looker and I have a website www.lizlooker.net I am available for family portraiture in Australia year round, in the U.S including Hawaii in April and May 2020 and am working on a family portraits tour of Europe! My advice in regard to having your portrait taken is to concentrate on how you feel as a person as opposed to how you look. To know that your spirit, your uniqueness, your beauty and strength will be seen clearly when you worry less about the facade. Take a deep breath in and out, and be yourself.
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