A fever dream rendered on paper. Nick Thornton Jones and Warren du Preez speak on the importance of making your own work at your own pace, and their frustration with this era of mass appropriation.
Nick Thornton Jones and Warren Du Preez, the London-based experimental photographers, call their work “the de-familiarisation of surrealism”.
In Immortal, their beautifully-produced new series of photobooks, the pair explore this idea with portraits of the human form shot with a dizzying intensity of colour and lights, as if we’re seeing, printed on paper, a fevered dream.
“We were fed up of everything being watered down and diluted. It feels like everything’s hyper-referential,” Du Preez says of the genesis of the project when we meet in their Bethnal Green studio. “The editorial and art world can feel like a pool of brown mud to me. There’s a lack of process to a lot of art out there now and for two process junkies, that can feel quite depressing.”
“It’s important to make your own stuff,” says Thornton Jones. “People don’t do that anymore; they sample everyone else’s and call it their own. They’re not inventing and making stuff. It’s an era defined by mass appropriation. So this series was born out of a sense of frustration with that.”
Throughout a 20-year career, the pair have become known for their experimental approach and a unique, inventive use of light and colour, employing multimedia and immersive platforms to explore themes of sexuality and futurism. For anyone familiar with their work, Immortal is consistent with their signature aesthetic but it is rendered here in classic print form rather than augmented realities.
Du Preez, a self-taught photographer originally from Johannesburg, arrived in London in 1989 and began shooting for magazines three years later. Thornton Jones began as an art director, working for a period on The Sunday Times.
They began collaborating in 1998 and have worked together ever since. The pair became involved with some of the best upcoming acts in in the music industry, collaborating on artwork and music videos for James Lavelle’s iconic UNKLE project, as well working for Massive Attack and Björk, including her past three albums.
In 2013, they oversaw their first solo show, at Londonewcastle gallery on London’s Redchurch Street during Frieze Art Fair,which included rendering of an interpretation of Rodin’s Gates Of Hell onto the side of the Shoreditch building. In 2015, their light installation was selected to open the V&A’s Alexander McQueen retrospective.
Meanwhile, the pair are open about the need to “finance our own dreams”, and have engaged in high-end commercial work for an impressive portfolio of clients, including campaigns for Lancome, Cartier, Hermès, Nike, Levi’s, BMW, Sony and Mercedes Benz. Memorable editorial work includes stories for Numero, Mixte Magazine, SKP, Another,The New York Times Magazine, i-D, Dazed & Confused, Chinese Vogue and Nowness.
Immortal is their latest, and perhaps most ambitious personal project. The work consists of photographic and lithographic prints presented in a limited edition boxset with a choice of four different colours, including 20 fold-outs, a booklet and two posters.
Each set of images come in its own, singular boxed collection, made in collaboration with a series of artists and creatives with whom Thornton Jones and Du Preez have previously worked with, including Iris van Herpen, Daria Werbowy, Daren Ellis, Chris Levine, Andrew Gallimore, Anna Trevelyan, Martin Cullen and Alex Box, as well as the aforementioned Björk and James Lavelle.
Each collection of images references the body of work Thornton Jones and Du Preez have created with each artist. For James Lavelle, for example, the images created for Immortal use as a launching point the aesthetics of the iconic music videos for Lavelle’s progressive indie-electro project UNKLE. For the Björk series, the photographers revisited the various photoshoots they have completed with the Icelandic artist, whom they first shot in 2001, since shooting the inlay and promotional artwork for albums like Vespertine, Medulla, Biophilia, as well as her Greatest Hits collection.
“Immortal is a realisation of ideas from across the media of photography, art, music, fashion and film that we have been fortunate to create with our friends,” says Du Preez.
And this is no ordinary print production, but rather an attempt by the duo, who began in stills photography before adopting overlapping digital and multimedia practices faster than many of their contemporaries on the scene, to push the boundaries of an ‘analogue’ output process. “There’s a technological arms race and it’s moving at a furious pace,” Du Preez says. “It’s easy to compromise if you’re constantly trying to keep up with that pace. It’s easy to become dissipated by that.”
“I come from a print background as an art director and Warren comes from a photographic background,” Thornton Jones says. “We were caught in the digital revolution, which is of course fantastic on one level, but diminishing the craft on another. When we decided to make something an early question was, ‘How do we print this?’”
“From very early on in any project, we talk a lot about colour and tone and grades,” Thornton Jones continues. “We want to mess with the way people perceive things, so the way our photography is produced – the very process of doing that – is integral to that process. We decided we wanted to manipulate the stocks and manipulate the print as best we can, and that’s when we were introduced to Steve Ilott at Park.”
Ilott is an account director at the company and a man who has worked in the printing industry since he was a teenager, while Park Communications, based in London’s docklands, prints many of the UK’s most revered magazines, such as, Printed Pages, Haute Couture, Boat magazine, Riposte and, of course, British Journal of Photography. Park also specialise in special-finish creative publishing projects, most recently Nike’s Milan book and slipcase, Jimmy Choo’s annual report, Mary McCartney’s Twelfth Night and Dunhill’s Spring/Summer collection 2017 publication.
“Park have an unparalleled reputation in the industry and they felt like the natural people to approach after we went through a major redesign,” says BJP’s Creative Director Mick Moore. “Our new magazine incorporates a wide range of various paper stocks and, as we’re dedicated to celebrating contemporary photography, we need the images we use to be reproduced with the very highest precision and fidelity. Park could guarantee that.”
While many photographers might work with a more conventional photo lab, Du Preez and Thornton Jones decided to approach Park to work on Immortal.
For each of Immortal’s 29 different image sets, Park created a printing ecosystem involving seven-colour printing onto high-gloss stock or a specially developed type of duotone onto iridescent stocks. For many of the shots, they used specially formulated, high-pigment inks and stochastic screening. Each image required specific profiles, multi-screening technologies and special inks and coatings, each designed, image by image, by the pr vinting team at Park.
“The images were electric to look at and very high resolution, some with lots of vibrant violets, greens and reds,” says Ilott, who worked directly with the duo on Immortal. “Had these been reproduced using the conventional four-colour process used in conventional magazine printing, the power, vibrancy and luminosity would have been dulled.
“For the mono images, our treatment – which used a combination of positive and negative images – enhanced the shadows, edges and detailed areas to create a deep mono image with extra detail, sharpness and contrast.
“Then we started to print the work in a larger format, using a printing press, with the very best inks and paper.” Park went through four sets of inks before they were happy with how it was working on the papers.
“It allowed us to see our work in a more tangible way and that was incredibly exciting for us. It was printmaking on a colossal scale and it felt like a gift for the project as a whole.”
Park proposed three materials for the printing process of Immortal, each selected to accurately convey the original imagery – a hybrid sheet, a high-gloss art and two iridescent sheets, a platinum and a mother of pearl – that were ultimately chosen.
“Some of the techniques we used to print Immortal have never been used before. I’ve never worked on, or even seen, a project that included as many diverse or experimental production and printing processes. We managed to devise a seven-colour process, including colours we specially invented for this project. It gave the prints more depth than I’ve ever seen in a digital print before. It means a lot to Park that we have people of Warren and Nick’s calibre trust us to do this.”
The final result was a “knock out”, the pair say. The luminosity, detail, depth and hue of the colour of the original images were captured on prints that seem, quite genuinely, to stand between photography and fine art – as tangible as it is surreal.
Park Communications are an award-winning London company celebrated for its uncompromising attention to quality and detail. Producing everything from auction catalogues and annual reports to high-end magazines and photobooks, Park’s clients include Pentagram, Christie’s, Mulberry and Lloyd’s of London. Park is to go-to printer for Mondial, Boat Magazine and Riposte, and is also active in supporting cultural initiatives with partners including The Photographers’ Gallery, It’s Nice That, Stack and magCulture.
Partner Content: Park Communications. This feature was made possible with the support of Park Communications. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.