Known for his high-pressure professional portrait photography, Dan Wilton took a step back with his new book - a meditative, humorous look at bird-watching in Sweden
Dan Wilton wants to slow down. That’s all. The London-based photographer is best known for his intimate portraits, having shot world-famous musicians and recording artists from Stormzy to James Blake over the years. In 2015, he travelled to Los Angeles’ Runyon Canyon with writer Josh Jones to photograph and interview the characters they found there, turning the result into a book.
But for his new publication Crane, he wanted to rein it back, taking a step away from the lives of others and creating something more distant, quiet and reflective. In March this year, one month before the birth of his daughter Lola (to whom Crane is dedicated), Wilton and his wife travelled to the quiet town of Falköping in Sweden, to get away from frantic city life. Determined to put a project together during their trip, Wilton visited Lake Hornborgasjön just outside of the town to where thousands of Eurasian cranes migrate each spring.
Wilton had zero interest in photographing birds but, armed with a medium format Pentax, took to capturing the birdwatchers, their bored dogs and the vast, wide-open landscape. The resulting series, Crane, is a breath of fresh air – a collection that is delicate yet humorous, contemplative but utterly unpretentious, and above all patient.
“It all happened very naturally,” says Wilton. “But I wanted it to be pulled back. I could really take my own time because half the time there was absolutely nothing happening whatsoever anyway. People were just standing very still most of the time and I really enjoyed that. For my headspace at the time it was all quite an enjoyable, meditative process.”
“When I do portraits, a lot of the time I only have a few hours, or half an hour, or 10 minutes.” he adds. “It can be really difficult to bring any patience to it. It was just so nice to shoot slowly. And I used a medium format digital, which in itself is a little bit slower too.”
There’s not a single portrait in Crane, with all of the shots of people taken from behind or with their faces partially obscured. Instead the images capture the flock-like habits and quirks of the birdwatchers, and the inherent humour to be found in their interminably bored dogs.
“These people bring their dogs, and you can see the disgust in their eyes when they reach the fence and realise they’re not going for a walk,” laughs Wilton. “I really love dogs and have a stupid sense of humour. Like, there’s one of a dog looking really embarrassed with a jumper on.
“I wanted there to be humour in the pictures without seeming like I was taking the piss. If it was all really contemplative and reflective it’d be boring.”
The location wound up feeling perfect and, though Wilton was only there for four days, the series came together almost effortlessly. “I loved the light there,” he says. “It was really muted and spoke to my English of love of clouds. The tones were just beautiful.”
Even so he was brutally selective in his picture edit, changing a few brighter shots to black-and-white and sacrificing some favourites altogether in order to keep the colours consistent. “There was one where these three guys had accidentally formed themselves into a perfect flying V, like the birds would,” he sighs. “It was so strong but one of them was wearing a fluorescent red jacket so I couldn’t use it.”
The thematic ideas of quietness, form, space and the idea of “observing the observer” were all basically afterthoughts, says Wilton, who prefers not to think too much about “deeper meanings” while shooting. “I prefer to leave it mostly open to what’s going on in my head at the time, and then open to the viewers’ ideas after,” he says.
“I often find it a bit unbelievable when you read about photographers talking about grand ideas before they shoot. Maybe I’m just not like that. All I knew at the start was that I wanted it to be slower and I didn’t want to shoot anyone’s face. I took it on as a challenge to see if I could make an interesting project out of people with their backs to you
“Don’t get me wrong, I do think there’s a lot to intellectualise about photography,” he continues. “It’s just the knowing from the start what it’s going to mean is something I don’t get. There’s a quote by Diane Arbus that I like where she said: ‘The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way’.”
Wilton’s writer father-in-law, Tony Anderson, adds a sense of poetry though, writing a foreword that appears at the start of the book. “I showed him the pictures and told him just to write whatever he wanted as long as it wasn’t about me,” laughs Wilton. “I wanted it to be an oblique view, a sidelong glance at the photographs that didn’t talk about them too specifically.”
The last photograph in Crane is the only one to focus primarily on the flocks of birds that draw the crowds to Lake Hornborgasjön – it’s a stunning black-and-white photograph that Wilton describes as the final “Ta-Da!”. A parting shot, almost akin to a punch line, it adds to the underlying sense of wit. Even so, Wilton isn’t about to take up bird photography,
“I’m not old enough!” he laughs, adding that he’s instead keen to keep going as he is – shooting from the hip and acting on instinct, not worrying too much about what makes his photographs work but enjoying it when they do. “I can’t really describe what it is that makes it so interesting to me,” he says. “But I’m glad I won’t ever fully get it. If I did, it would be boring. It would be crap.”
Crane is published by The Golden Pig Press in collaboration with Blink Art. A book launch is taking place from 6.30pm – 9.30pm on 14 January at Libreria Bookshop 65 Hanbury St, London E1 5JP http://www.danwilton.co.uk/shop/crane-photo-book Dan Wilton is also taking over BJP’s Instagram at bjp1854 https://www.instagram.com/bjp1854/?hl=en