Rachel Thomas and Dan Tobin Smith have proved several times over that a meeting of great minds pushes creatives to produce groundbreaking, often seminal work. Readily open to realising their wildest creative whims, Tobin Smith proves himself as one of the worlds greatest still life photographers, capturing Thomas' vision of polystyrene perfection with classy confidence.
In the life and work of Rachel Thomas, the image is everything. The London-based artist has shaped and presented visuals under a variety of guises from window dresser to film-maker and photographer throughout her colourful career. First and foremost, she is deservedly recognised as one of the UK’s pioneers in artistic set design, a medium that has enabled her to showcase a variety of constructed landscapes that photograph brilliantly and challenge the notion of set pieces as mere backdrops. Her works are visually arresting but their impact does not detract from the precision and intricacy that often reveal themselves after a second look. And they are always worth a second look.
An Imaginary View, currently showing at Somerset House, is her latest project with photographer and long-term collaborator Dan Tobin Smith. Their partnership has flourished over the years through a series of fashion pictorials and advertising comissions that have established a reputation for visual storytelling. In this new exhibition, his photographs showcase a series of neo-classical structures and landscapes designed by Thomas and constructed entirely out of polystyrene. The designs appear to take their cue from an imagined, half-forgotten bygone age, beautifully photographed through a surreal, romantic haze that partially masks their shadows and reflections. The effect is both calming and eerie. The exhibition itself is a celebration of human imagination and endeavour, knowingly defining itself as a “photographic folly”. Yes, dichotomy fans, there is something almost absurd about the notion of creating visuals so grand and elegant out of a source material that is decidedly low-rent and artificial. And destructable (but more on that later).
I meet Rachel at her studio, tucked away inside one of the upper floors of the Thomas Briggs building, a sprawling, ramshackle creative hub situated by the Regents Canal. This has been her workspace for the past five years and is home to her designs-in-progress and a tiny attic space masquerading as a study. This is the room that Rachel disappears to midway through our interview to retrieve the files and notebooks that contain the genesis of An Imaginary View; the monochrome sketches, plans and photographs that draw from a variety of sources such as Piranesi, Busby Berkeley and Walt Disney. It is the end of a busy week, and she is visibly excited and relieved by the enthusiastic reception to An Imaginary View. The project has been an intensive labour of love for her and Tobin Smith, and as the first public showcase of their work, it represents a significant milestone in the story of their formidable partnership.
Andreas Soteriou: This studio seems particularly calm. Is this where you work on all of your designs?
Rachel Thomas: Yes, I never work anywhere else. The stuff from An Imaginary View wasn’t made here, it was made by a guy who specialises in polystyrene, but we do all the designing here. I mean, the designing can happen on the bus, or in bed, but this is my HQ.
How did the idea for An Imaginary View take shape?
Me and Dan have worked together for a long time, and we’d shot this story with a set of images for a book. I was with Big Active at that point and they were representing me. They had a vague concept to do with the seduction of imagery and they asked me to work on it. I dreamt up these images, designed a set and then used polystyrene to make them. I was using a lot of glitter then, and I found that polystyrene is a very good material to make crisp shapes from. It is a great carrier for other things in such a way that you wouldn’t know it was polystyrene, it could be anything, really. I’d used it before, but it was usually with paint or glitter. The way we lit it meant that you really couldn’t see the texture. So, it was really successful for this particular story. I had an image with quite elaborate edging around the design that looked quite luminous and ribbon-like. It was a cut-out that allowed you to look through it to other things. Dan was really excited about the way that it looked in his photographs, like, “Wow, polystyrene can really look like that!”.
We took the idea of something that looked Eroded and romantic but Also very geometric and modern.
It is a material that seems familiar in its functional sense, but the exhibition presents it as something pristine and elegant. It is a total surprise, because in it’s most basic form, it isn’t even that pleasant. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even like to touch it, never mind having to work with it…
No, neither do I! I hate it! It’s weird, I mean, I was using it because it’s convenient and cheap. I was always drawn to the idea of making large things, taking everyday objects and blowing them up to giant proportions. Shooting things on such a large scale has always appealed to me, and it definitely gives you more scope with focus, depth of field, everything really. With the lenses that you are able to use, the bigger you go the more impressive it seems. With materials, it is also easier to work on a larger scale than a tiny or medium scale. Things just have a different quality when they are bigger. Both Dan and I agreed on that aspect and enjoyed working to that scale.
Did you know at that point that it could work as the basis for an exhibition?
We continued to work on joint projects, but not necessarily with polystyrene, but he kept leading me back to it. We actually shot a story for Another magazine, it was photos of Prada shoes and they wanted to base it on these pedestals that I had made. So, we made this set that was like a series of frills that built up to create an all-white landscape with shoes on top. Dan always shoots polaroids and it looked so beautiful. Without the shoes, the set was made up of cloud-like pedestals coming up from the ground, shot in black-and-white. It reminded me of Disney when I first saw the images.
Is it usual for magazine assignments to offer that level of creative scope?
Well, with editorial you’d like to think that you could just do what you wanted, but that side of things is more and more controlled now. What was nice about that project was that even though the Prada shoes were the main star of the piece, we were asked to reference other work that I had done. Then that lead us to look at other ideas. Our shapes became more stylised and that inspired the concept of other worlds.
I was always drawn to the idea of making large things, taking everyday objects and blowing them up to giant proportions.
Did you have any reference points for the designs?
Dan started looking at Piranesi and his drawings of imagined landscapes and ruins. He bought me a book about them which frightened me a little at first, because the idea of ruins seemed quite lofty… You know, the concept of these grand ruins that have eroded over time was so beautiful and then polystyrene is just the opposite of that! It’s this man-made, really crass material and I had to think of a way for the two things to fit together. The solution was to draw on those references in quite an artificial way. There is a set in the exhibition that is almost a copy of a very classical building, it could be the Acropolis. It is a series of pillars, and that is a good example of that combination. Deco was a big influence and I also looked at a lot of photos of ceramics.
The structures in the exhibition seem very grand…
We played around with so many shapes. The specs drawings that we passed on to the polystyrene guy are very linear, simple shapes. We took the idea of something that looked eroded and romantic but also very geometric and modern.
Was it difficult to make those contradictions work?
Yes, because the designs look classical yet almost computerised. The original sketches look quite artificial but they had to be made into something real. We were working with loads of opposites. Repetition was also very important and the idea of “fakeness” that you sometimes associate with classic Hollywood sets. And the colour, of course. Everything is white, white, white, white.
Do your collaborations with Dan usually follow a similar pattern?
I always work on set, collaborating with Dan on the composition and the lighting. Sometimes, when you’re not consciously up against a deadline, the process can seem quite endless and frustrating. We have to plan things quite carefully, but it’s always great when we have the chance to do something spontaneous to make it work, like in one of the images, we ended up using the big polystyrene packaging lids at the bottom of the finished struture because it looked so much better and more complete.
Cheap and versatile, then.
Yes, as well making commercial sense, it does have that transformative quality. Aside from what we do, you’ve probably seen a lot of polystyrene sets on films like Harry Potter and all kinds of others… You can do a lot with it. The only thing is that it you can’t create a gloss finish, but you can carve it, sand it, paint it or coat it in something. A lot of people use it for creating moulds and prototypes.
Will these sets live on after the exhibition?
Well the images do, but the actual physical sets eventually get destroyed after the shoots because they are just so big that there would be nowhere to store them. They are expensive to make, but storing something on that scale would just add to the cost. You just have to be practical about it and let go. Once the images have been beautifully printed and framed, it’s like the end of the story.
So you are one of the lucky few who have that visceral experience of being around the sets, seeing them up close…
Yes, touching them, walking through them… You do become conscious of the fact that they aren’t going to be around forever, these things that you designed, that took hours to be built. They end up being reconstituted and turned back into blocks that can be carved again. But I have my memories. And the photographs, of course.
An Exhibition by Rachel Thomas and Dan Tobin Smith
On until 9 February 2013
West Wing Galleries, West Wing