Aesthetica Art Prize Interview: Mary Humphrey

An international celebration of innovation and brilliance, the Aesthetica Art Prize is an opportunity for emerging artists across the globe to showcase their work to a wider audience. Going on to great success, previous finalists have included Julia Vogl (Winner of the Catlin Art Prize 2012 and shortlisted for Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4′s New Sensations), Marcus Jansen (leading modern expressionist who joined a legacy of artists by featuring in Absolut Vodka’s artistic campaigns) and Bernat Millet (shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.) We spend some time speaking to the short-listed artist Mary Humphrey, whose photographic works will appear in the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition at York St Mary’s, York. Her series of images, Roma : Transylvania (2011) narrates the experiences and situations that she encountered whilst meeting and photographing Roma families living on scraps of land situated on the outskirts of a Transylvanian rural village. The portraits represent proud and defiant people who have suffered and are still suffering.

A: Your work will be featured in the Aesthetica Art Prize publication and the exhibition, how did it feel to be short-listed?
MH: My initial reaction to be short listed for this prestigious exhibition was one of utter surprise and glee. I am truly excited to be part of the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition. I look forward to the opportunity to meet other artists, and learning from their work. To be able to see all the other long-listed artists presented on a screen will add extra depth to the exhibition too. I am delighted that I can offer a presentation related to my work. It is a wonderful opportunity to be able to demonstrate past experiences and how personality traits have shaped my philosophy as a photographer.

A: Throughout your life other photographers must have influenced you, can you name anyone in particular?
MH: Various photographers at different stages provided personal inspiration and have collectively impacted my work. The group of photographers whose work first interested me were the Californian pioneers who formed Group f/64. So much in fact, I actually spent a month around San Francisco following and photographing in their wake.

I was also influenced by reading information on social photographers, Lewis Hind and Dorothea Lange, made me realise that technically awe-inspiring images can also illicit questions and information within and outside the frames. I became captivated by images which arrested and held my gaze.

Directly related to my work is Sally Mann, who initially influenced the presentation of the Gypsies and Travellers within my images. This was the start of the realisation that collaboration, genuine concern and interest of personalities and their circumstances were fundamental in presenting powerful and non-judgemental images. Viewing exhibitions of Jim Goldberg and Josef Koudelka compounded this philosophy. Other artists have provided different influences on my attainment of technical knowledge, Julia Margaret Cameron, Richard Avedon and Sugimoto Hiroshi. Although viewing and studying the work and achievements of various artists played a major part in my development as a photographer, I sometimes found it difficult to cultivate my own personal style. However, the photographer who validated my work was Pieter Hugo; viewing his work made me realise that my style, as is his, is unique. I have had the good fortune to be tutored and challenged by inspirational teachers, both at the College of San Mateo and the Cambridge School of Art.

A: When did you begin taking photographs?
MH: Apart from taking the occasional family snap of our three sons I had very little contact with cameras until we went to live in California in 2001. The following year I started taking photographs (point and shoot) in order to document and to relay our lifestyle to the family we had left behind in England. One thing led to another and eventually I enrolled at the College of San Mateo to gain some understanding of cameras and photography. After four semesters, prior to our return I was invited to join the fraternity of the Phi Theta Kappa Honour Society. As I wanted to continue expanding my photographic development I enrolled as a student at the Cambridge School of Art on our return to England

A: What do you have planned for the future?
MH: My camera has enabled me to meet diverse sections of our communities. Learn and obtain an understanding of issues surrounding them, as well as developing unique friendships. I feel very privileged to be part of so many lives. I want my photographs to continue making a difference by telling stories that need to be told and understood. My focus will undoubtedly continue to relate these challenging stories. This reflects my past career as a teacher and educator.

Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition, 8 March until 28 April, York St. Mary’s, York.

All images taken from Roma : Transylvania (2011) and courtesy of the Aesthetica Art Prize and the artist.