A self-portrait may take root in confidence, extreme shyness or alternate bouts of each. Leanne Surfleet goes through this kind of fluctuation when the camera is all eyes. The attraction—as far as we’re concerned—is the mix of uncertainty and a kind of quiet poise. And here and there, a flash of skin that is more a mystery than full-on revelation. Even Surfleet’s portraits of other people have the same hushed invite, as if to say questions are encouraged. There we took our cue.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town on the east coast of England.
Where are you based? What keeps you here?
Unfortunately I’m still based in that town and what keeps me here at the moment is not having the means to move away, but I’m hoping to be able to do that by next year.
Does youth or seniority impact your work? In other words, does it affect what you are drawn to photograph?
I’m 28. I actually don’t think it does impact me, not that I’ve noticed. I’ve been told before that there is a certain maturity to my photographs and I think that’s just because of the subject and nature of the photographs.
Are you a part-time or full-time photographer? What other jobs have you had or still have? How do these other pursuits complement (or run contrary) to your photography?
At the minute I’m a part-time photographer. I finished studying two years ago and have had to take up a day job to be able to eat and live; I try to make photography more of a full time venture in my life. I have noticed in the past year that working a regular job can definitely squash your motivation and I’ve felt it quite a lot. But now that I’ve realized and acknowledged this I’m trying to move past it and take the time to concentrate on photography.
How did you get started with photography?
I got a little digital camera for Christmas one year, I think when I was 18 and I loved playing around with it and taking silly photos of friends, and then someone gave me a 35mm SLR and encouraged me to experiment with films and processes. Then, I went to college to study and began developing my own style, using only film and the darkroom. Then I discovered Polaroids and took my obsession a little further.
What made you pursue it?
I’d never had a genuine passion for anything before I discovered photography, and once I started, it just became so natural to me and so exciting to explore and experiment with films and self-portraiture. I started submitting my work to magazines, websites and competitions and was surprised that anyone wanted to share my work. After being in a couple of group photography shows I just knew this was something I wanted to do forever.
How do you plan and shape a new series?
I don’t generally work in series, other than when I was at university and had specific briefs and projects to follow. My series are usually categorized by shoots, so one day I’ll go out with a friend and we’ll take photos and I’ll get a series from that. I hardly ever plan any of my work unless it’s for a client. My personal work is very relaxed and usually takes place on random days when I’m feeling inspired or just really excited to go to a specific place.
What project or series do you take pride in, and why?
I developed a documentary project at university about my health and hospital visits—I was born with cystic fibrosis and have to visit the hospital for checkups every few months. I’d never publicly told people about this; it was a bit of a sore subject for a long time. But I thought the project was a great opportunity to communicate it the best way I can, through photography. I decided to use only 6×6 black and white film as I felt color would distract from the subject and it just felt right to me and turned out to be a really personal series and one of my favorites. Other than this, my continuing self-portrait project is one that I take pride in. It’s important to me to keep it up and just feels so normal to me now. It’s not like work, just a part of my life.
What other activities and hobbies influence your photography?
Being somewhere away from home, even just at the woods or the beach, influences me and my photography. I’ve realized that it’s important for me to get out and to start traveling because different places spark something in me and I love that new and exciting feeling when you see something so naturally beautiful that you can’t leave until you’ve photographed it.
Who do you look up to in the world of photography?
The first people who always pop into my mind are Nan Goldin, Francesca Woodman and William Eggleston. But there are so many more. These days I see a lot of work daily through people I follow on social media sites such as Aëla Labbé, Alison Scarpulla, Shelbie Dimond, Eylül Aslan and Can Dagarslani. They all have their own individual styles that are so appealing and inspiring to me. Seeing them working and creating inspires me to do the same.
What is photography to you?
These days photography to me is definitely a form of escapism. A way to just switch off and dream and create. For a long time it was also a kind of coping mechanism for me getting through bouts of anxiety; it’s very natural and calming to me. I can’t imagine what I’d do without it.
Why do you still use film?
It’s just photography as it should be and I wouldn’t even think about using anything else. I don’t like having unlimited photos to take—it makes me too critical. Just having 24 or 36 exposures, or even 8 or 10 in Polaroid packs makes you concentrate much more and perfect your craft while you’re working, rather than shooting hundreds of photographs and then choosing a good one.
How do you develop your photos?
I develop my own color and black and white films at home in my bathroom and then scan in the negatives.
What cameras and films do you use?
I have quite a lot of cameras but the ones I use mostly are Zenit E and Polaroid SX-70 Sonar. I can rely on them for every shoot and know which quality each of my cameras will give me. The Zenit is really dreamy.
Most of the time what I see on the viewfinder is exactly how the photographs come out. And the SX-70 is just a classic and so much fun to work and play with.
Have you used any Lomography camera, film or lens? What were your impressions?
Yes, I’ve used the Lomo LC-A, Holga Color Flash, Diana+ and recently the Lomo Action Sampler. I love them all because I’m a fan of experimenting with films, lenses and developing processes. I used to cross-process a lot and the Diana+ was always my favorite. It’s surprising the quality you can get from that little camera. Actually, I still have a roll of film in my Diana+ from over a year ago that I have to finish and see what’s on there. The Action Sampler is my boyfriend’s camera and he brought it along on a recent trip to Berlin, so it was fun to have a play with that too.
Why are you drawn to making self-portraits? What do you want to express?
I started experimenting with self-portraits around seven years ago because I always wanted to take photographs and I was usually the only person around. After shooting a lot of landscapes and abandoned buildings I needed a human element in my photographs, so I thought I’d try taking photos of myself. Since then it’s evolved so much and I realized a couple years ago that I just had a need to document myself even at the most mundane stages of my life. I need to remember and to know they will still be here even after I’m gone. I’m not great at communicating verbally; I’m actually quite socially awkward and anxious so taking photographs and self-portraits is a perfect way for me to express myself to others.
Do you find yourself working differently when you do self-portraits?
I do work differently when I shoot self-portraits. First of all, it takes a lot more time to fill up a roll of film because I’m in and out of the frame, setting up, checking light and focus and then coming up with ideas of how it will look and what I’m going to do when I’m in front of the camera and the timer’s ticking.
I set up the camera on the tripod and look around the room for a spot to shoot in. I mostly look for light and shadows. Then I’ll decide if I want to be wearing clothes. I quite often choose plain clothes or just plain underwear. I think fashion in personal work can age, whereas skin or nudity is timeless. Sometimes I have certain ideas I want to try out and other times I just really want to take photos and have no idea what I’m going to do until I run into the light in front of the camera! I either finish up a roll or change cameras. I’ll usually shoot a few Polaroids to get a general idea of how it’s going to look.
Do you work in silence or with a specific kind of music?
I think I mostly work in silence, I’ve never been one for needing noise or music on constantly. Sometimes I’ll put on a record but then get distracted and just start dancing instead.
Where do you usually have your self-portraits?
I have a spare bedroom in my house that is pretty much empty apart from my record player and my cat. It gets light all day and has big windows and bare wooden floors.
Are you completely alone when doing these portraits? How and on what surfaces do you mount your camera? Does this technicality affect the spontaneity of your movements?
I’m almost always alone when shooting self-portraits, apart from my cat. It’s safe to say that my cat is in the room in about 90% of my self-portraits. When I shoot outside my mum has been with me a few times. Other than that yes, mostly alone. I don’t think I’d be able to take many self-portraits if other people were involved.
I use a tripod when I’m at home or close to home. A couple of years ago, I took my SX-70 to Spain with me and shot a few self-portraits in the hotel. I used a pile of books, boxes, anything that would hold. I also used a shelf in a cupboard which was really difficult but turned out well!
Speaking of movements, what kind of body awareness do you need in self-portraiture?
I think it can be quite awkward to start off in self-portraiture especially if you haven’t shot a lot of portraits. You do need to be self-aware but I think you learn by just shooting and you realize what looks good and what doesn’t look good. It can help quite a lot to have a mirror around somewhere to practice a little before you shoot especially if you’re shooting film.
Depending on who looks, a bare body is either a thing of marvel or an indecorum. What is your take on this? Why are artists drawn to the human form?
When I first started out in photography I didn’t feel the need to take photographs of people. I was more interested in buildings, landscapes and the process of photography. But there comes a point when you want to shoot photographs of people. I think we’re drawn to the human form out of curiosity. We want to see other people and get a feel for the person and somehow relate to them. It can feel good to realize that we’re the same as other people or even that we’re different and one of a kind.
Where do you usually shoot your portraits?
I tend to shoot portraits outside. I think it’s just better for me to separate the inside in which I shoot self-portraits from the outside where I shoot portraits of other people. Usually somewhere natural like the beach or the woods.
How are you related to the subjects of your portraits, from female muses to the man in your personal series?
The people in my portraits are mainly close friends, my niece and a couple of models. The man in my personal series is my partner Ben and pretty much the first male I’ve photographed so personally.
Do you say anything specific to get your subjects in an ideal mood for a photo? What is your approach to portraiture?
We usually just chat and walk around, and I shoot the in-between moments. I don’t like posing unless I’m shooting a fashion editorial. Even then I still try to avoid it if I can. I think I get my best shots when the person or model feels comfortable with me by just being natural.
Do you want to make statements or tell stories with your photography?
I like telling stories with my photographs, more subtly though rather than obvious narrative photography. I’m not sure if I am making statements with my photography. Maybe I’m making statements about myself in my self-portraiture.
When your subject is turned away from the camera, what kind of statement or story is there? What is the allure of a person’s back?
I’ve always been drawn to taking back portraits. It’s hard to pinpoint why. There’s just a sense of the unknown and something thoughtful about them. I still class them as portraits even though you can’t identify the person because you still wonder about them and take in the view with them.
And the face—what do faces tell you about a photo, yours or otherwise?
Faces can tell you so much about a photo, by expressing emotion or simply by reading the face to tell age and gender. Faces can tell their own stories through the eyes especially and connect with the viewer on a deeper level.
What makes someone a ‘muse’?
I think a muse is someone who just inspires you when you’re around them, or even when you’re not with them. Someone you get excited about and when you see them you get a rush of creativity and motivation and just want to get started on something new.
Here are some hypothetical questions to help us get a better sense of your aesthetics.
- You have to describe your work to someone who can’t see. What do you say?
That’s really difficult! I want to say it’s like being in a slow and hazy dream with the sun shining on your face and there’s a girl lying around on wooden floors.
- You are walking toward a crowd of people. Who will catch your eye?
Usually a female, with little or no make-up on, and something unique or interesting about their face or eyes that suggests if they have had or are living a really interesting life.
- You are on holiday in another country. What makes you look twice?
The way the light falls on the ground or into a room, mountains, lakes, and the people.