Gradwatch 2019: Photographer Hal Haines, Glasgow School of Art

Photographer Hal Haines is one of ten creatives we’ve selected to feature in our annual Gradwatch showcase, where we put the spotlight on the art and design grads we feel are producing outstanding creative work

Hal Haines had already spent several years working in photography when he decided to embark on the Communication Design course at the Glasgow School of Art.

Characterised by soft lighting, gentle hues and intimate connections, his photography has already caught the eye of Burberry, Uniqlo, Matches Fashion and Mr Porter. We talk to him about his work so far and what his plans are for the future.

Creative Review: Where does your inspiration come from?
Hal Haines: We often hear the phrase ‘inspiration is all around us’, and for me it really does begin there. I am always looking and studying what is around me and thinking about how I can capture it. I found it challenging at first to place my work within a particular genre and to justify my practice to others, especially in an academic environment. On finding the works of early colour photographers however – William Eggleston, Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas – I realised I didn’t have to.

There is beauty in the most mundane moments of time and I strive to capture it from my perspective and show it to people who didn’t see it. A brilliant quote I came across from Eggleston, who’s notoriously straight talking, really summed it up for me; ‘A picture is what it is … it wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It really gets ridiculous, they’re right there, whatever they are!’

CR: When photographing a subject or a scene, what elements or qualities draw you in most?
HH: Seeing an opportunity to play with an environment is what first draws me in, whether with movement, reflections and light sources, or interesting characters and faces. The most important component to my photographic process is a light source over which I have no control. My favourite is a low evening sun, but even on overcast days or under tungsten tube lights, they act as a set limitation to work within/around. I like to layer with windows or net curtains, translucent poly tunnels or fences, whatever exists within the setting to build depth, to partially obscure or enhance. I’m drawn to any chance to tell a story, whether human interactions or traces of places people have already been.

CR: What made you choose the Communication Design course, rather than a course focused strictly on photography?
HH: I gravitated towards the Com Des course in the hope that I would have more opportunities to work between disciplines than if I were to study a pure Photography degree. Coming from a foundation course at UCA Canterbury where I had also specialised in Visual Communication, I didn’t feel ready to narrow down into one area. As it happened I specialised in photography anyway, but I’ve been able to develop my interests in illustration and graphic design too, as well as writing, which I’ll continue as part of my practice.

CR: Are you working on anything at the moment?
HH: I’m setting up some personal projects to correspond with a couple of upcoming trips. Firstly, I am heading on a road trip around France, from which I am hoping to produce an exhibition and book. Then I am off to New York for fashion week work, which I just found out yesterday. I’m not sure what I’ll do there yet, but walking down a Manhattan sidewalk gets my creative juices going like nowhere else, so it should be fun. I am also reaching out to artists in my native Kent and Sussex for a project I’m referring to as ‘Studio Portraits’ – photographing and interviewing them in their workspaces. I’ve been shooting most days as usual since graduating, but I’m excited to begin something a bit more substantial.

CR: You’ve already had a lot of real-world commissions to work on. Do you think there’s pressure for creatives to determine their own style before they graduate?
HH: I had been working a good few years before I started at university, but I would say that it’s only over the last couple that I have found my rhythm. Studying art encourages a lot of personal growth and shift in interest, so it’s unsurprising that your creative practice follows suit. There is definitely a pressure to develop a personal style because you want to graduate with a consistent and recognisable portfolio, and the prospect of presenting that to the world is certainly daunting. Having some industry experience under my belt should make for an easier transition, but the nerves are definitely there.

CR: What advice do you have for someone starting out and still in search of their niche in photography?
HH: It’s useful to develop an awareness of other existing works both past and present, and not just photographic. Cinema, music and writing are my main sources of inspiration. But I think most importantly you have to follow your intuition. I’ve always been creative but came to photography as my medium through Instagram. I became focused on engagement and found myself heavily influenced by my following as it grew. I looked at what was doing well and tried to recreate that formulaically, and it became less and less interesting to me. Especially as I was also studying by that point and felt I was producing two completely different bodies of work simultaneously. Instagram began to feel like a job, but not the sort of job I wanted to be doing, and I eventually decided to change that and work intuitively. Your creative voice is invaluable and something you should never compromise. I couldn’t have made a better decision.

CR: What kind of work would you like to take on moving forward? Any particular places you’d like to have your photography published, brands you’d like to work with, or subjects you’d like to photograph?
HH: I’m excited to turn my lens to various subject matters; fashion editorials, travel pieces, food and lifestyle. I think my way of working is more particular than a certain genre or topic. I would love to work on a project where the client wants me to do ‘me’ and grants me creative freedom to explore the brief. I often pick up a copy of Esquire when I’m travelling, so it would be great to see my work in there. I love so many magazines though and would be thrilled to work with any of them; Fantastic Man, Holiday, and my favourite right now, Moon. They’re really cool. I’m also very keen to publish a book, combining my observational writing with photography.