Skateboarding & happy accidents: Photographer Neil Brown
Read Time: 5-6 minutes
Creativity: It all stems from skateboarding
Hope: How did you get your creative start? Neil Brown: I think it all stems from skateboarding. When I discovered skateboarding in the early 80s, it was all I wanted to do, all the time. The graphics on the skateboard, photography, film scenes, all those things were just part of it, so it was the first thing that was creative. There was no critical analysis of it. It was just an emulation. I want to be this person and I want to wear those clothes, draw like that… I didn’t really know anything about creativity until I started skateboarding. I wasn’t aware of what creativity was.
HF: So you found your people? NB: Absolutely, 100%. The photographer Paul Crawley and I used to go to school together, and he was doing a project on graffiti, BMXing and skateboarding. He came to Mill Lane in Margate, where (my friends and I) used to skate. He took photos and presented me with this contact sheet. It had white marks on the photos he’d chosen from the negatives. This is, like, incredible to me. I’d never seen one before.
And then weirdly, I’m walking along Margate Beach, and I find this camera and it had a film in it…
HF: So literally the world presented you with a camera with film in it – so there were already some images? NB: Yeah. I go to Mill lane and I’m like click, click, click of my friends skating. I asked my dad where do you get film done? It comes back and there’s a few pictures of some people having a holiday…
HF: That’s such a flash forward to the slides in your Tiny Book, isn’t it? NB: Yeah! And all of (my pictures) come back and they’re just blurry rubbish, right? And I was so frustrated with myself. Like, what? I was rubbish at photography, right? I’m not doing that anymore. This would have been like early 90s, so I would have been about 21 or 22 and I was living in Margate. Skateboarding was the thing that kind of kept me sane. Anyway, we decided to make a video. I went to my dad, and I said I want to make a video, and at the time me and my dad didn’t really got on because I left school then I went on the YTS, and it was rubbish…
HF: Classic age not to get on with parents because you’re figuring stuff out, right? NB: Yeah. He said, I will buy the camera. You will pay me back. I was working in a supermarket and I just said 100% yes. Later, my friends and I got together and bought a fisheye lens – all the skate videos were made with that. Then all we did was copy the American Skate videos. We’d shoot really low fisheye and we made these videos called the Outsiders. (Link opens in a new tab) We did little skits and stuff. It was quite funny. You know, we were just having a laugh. Two of my friends were younger than me and they had just finished their 2-year college work and invited me to a private view, and I was like, what’s that? Well, we show our artwork and, you know, celebrate with free wine.
HF: Haha! The universal draw to a PV! So they were doing creative things and you were doing stuff with them and not realising you’re picking up their vibe. NB: Yeah. I was sort of soaking it up. Skateboarding was amazing for that because every video, every skater had songs that represented them, so you’d have like punk, hip hop, jazz, funk, everything. So, I’m not just listening to like the Top of the Pops. I’m listening to all these. Anyway, I get to college (for the PV), and Jon Dent, who was in the Art Department, said What do you do? It was this weird moment. If I’d met him in Margate a couple of years before, it was a rough place to grow up in then, I’d have dismissed him, been rude. Instead, I could feel this wave of embarrassment. I’m guessing he kind of sensed that. He said, “I saw that video you made – it was really creative.” And that was where the word came to life. I have nothing to say and then that word absolutely hit me. Before then, if I was doing something creative, I was unaware of it. He asked if I’d ever thought about college. “Basically,” he said, “all I want from you is commitment. Could you come three days a week?”
HF: And you’re like, why not? What else am I doing? NB: 100% The only course they had was meant for 16 year olds – a level one course.
HF: Is that what you did? NB: I did it, but I was 23. I was an immature skateboard kid, so I just fitted in.
HF: I think it’s really important to acknowledge that if you miss the boat at 16, you’re not always missing the boat, you know? NB: Absolutely. And I was as like a sponge. You can use ceramics, you can use sculpture, painting. I was like, what’s that? You can make something out of clay in there. What? Yeah, we’ll teach you how to make it up. Coastal project? OK, brilliant. Honestly, it got to the point where I was probably quite an annoying student because I just had sketch books full (of work). I was literally a kid in a sweet shop, right? It was incredible. That was the moment where I realised this is what I wanna do.
HF: Was that straight from that first course? NB: It was, 100%. I knew. Yeah, it felt like it the first day of the first course.
HF: And like before, you were like oh, THIS is where I belong, right? NB: Yeah. I think that’s the thing. And the thing about skateboarding is, it’s very hard. You stand on a skateboard. You fall off. So, the first thing you have to learn is how to stay on. I brought that into somewhere else. A few years later, it was time for UCAS. I didn’t know what UCAS was. It sounded scary. I was like no one in my family goes to University. It’s just not a thing. My tutor said I had a strong portfolio, so I applied to Kingston and got invited to visit. I’m chatting away to the head of art and I’m doing little cheeky jokes and I saw someone looking at me thinking, well, he’s ****** (laughs) And I was just talking about my work. I had such a lovely day. And I’m looking around thinking, there’s some amazing work here, you know, and what an experience anyway.
HF: I love it that you basically had no expectations. You’re like, yeah, I’m just here for a nice day. NB: Yeah. A few weeks later, the letter is there. Kingston offered me a place on the fine art sculpture starting in September 1998. It opened up this whole world. I had the freedom to just make whatever I wanted. I started to think about what I was I trying to achieve, and the things that I enjoyed. I was 26.
HF: Tell me about the Slides NB: When I was at Uni, all our work had to be on slides and presented in the lecture theatre. One of our lecturers hated if a slide was back to front or upside down or whatever. Sometimes we’d just slip one in for a laugh. I’d been to a boot fair and found some 35mm slides I thought were interesting. One of them was this 1970s living space. So I just put this slide in. And the lecturer goes “I think you’ve done it. You’ve taken me back to 19 and it encapsulates time and memory.” Because of a slide I found. I felt guilty – it was a prank! But that kind of started this obsession with the content of the slides. I started to collate them and present them as groups. It became a part of my practice with found objects and hunting and exploring. Those themes have always been in my work.
HF: So that one particular slide started your slides collection. It makes me think of archaeology. The things you find are precious. NB: With the slides, absolutely, it’s about the hunt and finding something interesting. The fact that I have no connection to the people in them is important. I always want to respect the photographer and the people in the images. I didn’t want to manipulate them because I love the fact that a slide is very tangible, right? People write on the slides and maybe not many people had seen them. But everyone has a story.
HF: Tell me about your Tiny Book decisions. NB: There’s no continuity, and I wanted a range of the different slide films. For the Tiny Book I was trying to find images that would translate well. They are printed at their original scale, so look as they would on a slide viewer. I took it quite literally. Tiny book, right? The images at actual film size are pretty spot on, but some types of image can lose details. I wanted to get a range of people in these in different time frames. With a title like Tiny Book, scale is a massive factor. If you said it was A1, it would have been different.
HF: I’d need a very big briefcase for that! Can you describe your work with photography? NB: I think a lot of my photography is about adventure. Think about Kingswood, bluebells during the day. And then if you go at night, it’s pitch black, right? I like to create a bit of risk and try and light things. Lots more things can go wrong but at the same time it is an adventure, an exploration. What are we going to find? Things pop up out of nowhere. And I just found this sort of rush using long exposure, flash and coloured LEDs to create something.
HF: You’re doing sculpture hands while you talk! NB: Yeah. (laughs) Exactly. I guess because I got my start in sculpture. I think the making process in photography is very similar. Even the structures I like, right? Big metal, concrete things. In work for clients, I’ll photograph architecture and products and that is very sculptural. Engine parts, for example. I haven’t got a clue about these engine parts. I think of them as mini sculptures. I think there’s a connection with the slides because I like them as tangible objects, as things. With the slides, every now and again I can come back to them. It’s over 20 or 25 years of collecting these things. It’s nice to have some closure within a (collection). Can I put some of these in that format (Tiny Book)? I really enjoyed doing it and it made me get that kind of excitement back. I can keep exploring. It made me think differently because you weren’t a client. You didn’t tell me what I had to put in the book, right? HF: Yep, it’s an open book. Literally. Talk to me about Teaching. NB: When I left uni, I came back to Canterbury and got an opportunity to be a Technician on the same course I’d been on. I wanted the kids to know how amazing this thing could be and I think it was about just sharing knowledge. When someone asks a question and then you can show them something and then they can use that tool to create something…
HF: Would you say that it was about recreating what happened for you? NB: What if all the lecturers I met over six years told me nothing? I feel like they taught me all these amazing things. They shared all this stuff with me. I’m not precious about it, I want to share it if I can. Yeah, we’re just passing it along, right? With teaching, I thought “I want you to get something out of this.” It took me a long time to realise that everything I was doing could lead to a career. I was given a chance and took it. All anyone can do on the other side is give you that information and the tools to try and make something amazing if you choose to. I think it’s giving (people) a chance to tell their story.
HF: What’s Next? NB: I left teaching over 10 years ago. Building up my Web Design business took time and my kids were young. Now the kids are older. So I feel like I’ve got some time, right? I’m excited now to be getting back to just exploring again. So wherever that journey goes… it may be photography (pauses) I might decide I’m gonna get some clay and plaster or… something or anything…