artnet Asks: Alexander James of DELLAPOSA Gallery in London

The artist explains how he continues to challenge our understanding of photography as a medium.

Alexander James, Witness (2012). Courtesy of DELLAPOSA.

Alexander James has earned a reputation as someone working within one of the most demanding studio practices today. Last time we spoke to the artist, he explained his attraction to water a medium for photography, and how it serves as an analogue special effect in his work. For each of his magical and otherworldly photographs, he creates everything you see “in camera”—meaning it has to exist in real life first.

He’s taken his painterly photographs even further by strictly controlling their production, allowing only a single print of each image and making further editions impossible. Here, we catch up with the artist on his latest series, and how his current solo show “Death of the Dream” came together. Be sure to sure to catch the exhibition while it’s on view at DELLAPOSA gallery in London through September 17.


Each artwork in your latest exhibition, “Death of the Dream,” is entirely unique. What made you decided to only create unique one-off pieces, rather than editions?
Photography seems to have lost its way. We are so visually over-stimulated with a saturation of images in the digital world, leading the charge. Photographs on the whole are used to politicize a subject or sell us something—the food set on the table in the magazine looking so perfect, the beach hideaway on the billboard without even a single blemish or footstep in the sand. Photography has become a lie; both in its purpose and its creation with a market full of practitioners tweaking and changing their original works into something other, completely other—always looked at, rarely looked into—as the pillars of provenance crumble beneath them. Why should we look into [a photograph] when we know it should not be believed?

Alexander James, Death of the Dream of Democracy (2017). Courtesy of DELLAPOSA.

To my mind also, editions have sullied the water. I recall a particular conversation with a curator—one from ten years ago—in which the reproducible capacity of photography, its force and its failing, was scrutinized. I was provoked by the notion that a painting is intrinsically more valuable than a photograph, primarily because of its singular uniqueness.

To counter this perception, I publicly announced in 2013 my intention to only ever produce unique works from that point forward—with no editions ever to be released—in an attempt to challenge the ideas concerning the spiritual and economic valuation of artworks and to create an exciting tension between their individual present and relinquished, reproducible past.

You often use the metaphor of “in-camera purity” in your art. What made you interested in exploring this concept?
“In camera” or “pure photography” captured on analogue cellulose film plates—there is an eloquent and organic beauty to how it represents the world. A digital camera does not understand what it is pointed at, it sees no color or story. It merely converts light into binary code, which is then transformed again in another device into what it believes these codes should look like in color or black and white. From the very outset, there is a computer or algorithm making these choices for you. I only want the natural process of light on film, and to set them adrift in a caustic ocean of chemicals to convert the moment into a timeless capsule—these are my time capsules to the world; the only difference being is that unlike Andy [Warhol], I choose to keep them around as a reminder of what was.

Alexander James,
Transparency of a Dream no. 13
(2014–2017). Courtesy of DELLAPOSA.

Film and “in-camera purity” can only be a true force to outlast trending changes that come and go, and stand the test of time when their provenance is shored up by painstaking preparatory work. I have worked for years on a single piece and yet it might still only ever be referred to as a photograph. It makes me proud for the unassailable conviction in what I am doing.

The collectors I have often refer to their pieces as paintings. Perhaps that is the highest compliment I could receive—it is indistinguishable from a painting, and yet it is not.

Your studio practice involves more than photography. Can you explain your process?
Everything you see in my any of my works had to physically exist in front of the camera. Whether you see butterflies or flowers, they were reared and grown in the studio, the silk dresses are delicately sewn by hand, the props handmade using traditional methods. Every element of my works must be physically brought to life before I can even begin to consider the canvas which I will then create underwater.

Alxander James,
Grace from Vanitas
(2009–2013). Courtesy of D Contemporary.

The camera is the dustiest piece of equipment in the studio. I recall Grace from the Vanitas series, which took a whole year to produce all the components. The stool was turned by hand, the terracotta pot thrown and fired in the studio, and the flowers—all period specific for 1640–1720—were cultivated on the roof of my studio. Then I only exposed two eight-by-ten inch film plates before destroying it all with a hammer. These two plates of film, after a year of painstaking work, have me being defined as a photographer—as this is the final execution on the wall.

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