Sebastian Sharples studied photography, but has made his career as a documentary film-maker. Working for the BBC and on independent projects alike, he had been an unseen presence behind the camera for nearly twenty years.
Sharpies’ photographs find the poetic in the mundane. To him, everyday situations are working still lives- all objects are subjects. I bumped into Sebastian on Christmas Eve queuing up outside the butcher’s. We were talking about some of his photographs and he said, ‘They don’t mean anything. This is not false modesty. Sharpies, like his photographs, is straight-forward and free of unnecessary theory. His skill is seeing what most of us wouldn’t give a second glance, creating un-satged ‘snaps’ that pick out the fragile beauty from the world around us. I caught up with him to find out what happens behind the scenes.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
I have always taken snaps, since being given a camera at nine. My father had lots of cameras, and there was a lot of it about in London during the sixties. It was something I did without too much thought. I did an A-level photography course with John Galliano followed by a foundation year in art. I went on to a technical college, but this was probably more to avoid a proper job.
How did you go from photography into film?
I needed a break from photography in the mid-eighties and the new Song Video 8 cameras were just starting to sell, so I went into filming. A big part of all this was a change of equipment, which can often inspire one to do new work or look at things in a fresh way, along with bringing that ‘new toy’ excitement. By the noughts, video cameras had started to include still frames as well, and I go back into photography.
What do you think makes something worth documenting?
I think, as with photography, time is an important factor. Everything is constantly changing, so to document it pins it to a cork board to judge at a later time.
What or who are you most influenced by?
Henry Cartier-Bresson was a big influence for photography- I loved the playfulness of his work. For a while I really enjoyed Nick Broomfield films, and for art it has to be Sarah Lucas followed closely by Stella Vine- two artists who don’t take it all too seriously.
How did you start working with Tracey Emin?
The artist Cedric Christy gave me Tracey’s number. I was shooting a small documentary on modern art and asked her if she would be in it. She told me I would probably have two minutes of her in the film and to ‘fuck off’. I phoned her straight back and asked if she could say that on film, and she said, ‘Yeah, sure… no trouble.’
What makes Tracey so interesting to film?
I have no artistic ability myself, so I was always looking round for talented people to leach off, band and such. Documentary is the classic last stop of the failed director, so when I first met Tracey it was a revelation- I had never met such a strong, forceful character. As a film-maker, you just have to have the camera pointed at her.
Which of her films did you most enjoy working on?
The most powerful one was the first, Why I Didn’t Become a Dancer, in 1995. Tracey had already shot the Super 8, so we projected it against a wall and re-shot it on video to edit on a Low-Band U-matic suite I had. Lastly I shot Tracey dancing round me for the film’s climax.
In 2002 you worked on a documentary about Jeff Buckley. Were you a fan of his music before you worked on the film?
I’m ashamed to say I had only heard one track by him on a compilation tape a friend had given me. At the time of his death a picture of Jeff walking into a beautiful river popped into my mind, but the truth was turned out to be very different. Doing a film like Jeff’s is a strange experience. You get to revisit all the places and people in his life, to stand in the river where he drowned and even on the spot his father, Tim, had died. Then having Jimmy Page ask me if Jeff was really listening to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ when he died, as if I was now an authority on the subject. Strange.
How did you feel when you had to film the spot where Jeff died?
The actual place on the Wolf River was a terrible industrial wasteland covered in crap. The river itself was not very wide or fast running at the spot, and I was really struck by the question, why? Why Jeff Buckley…?
You interviewed a lot of well-known names when you were making the film. Did Brad Pitt live up to the hype?
Brad was just fantastic- funny, self-effacing and very giving. He even offered to voice over the whole film…
You recently accompanied Juergen Teller on a trip to shoot a campaign for Marc Jacob’s perfume Daisy, and they used a number of your photographs as part of the final layout. What’s it like working with Juergen, and how is fashion photography different to what you work on generally?
It’s always great fun working with Juergen. His shoots are basically fun locations, good restaurants and occasionally we stop and shoot some pictures. Juergen’s style tends to be very stripped back and natural. I edited a film for him called Go-Sees in 2001, and although simple it really reveals the fashion industry and what these very young girls have to go through. Cinema films are generally shot on huge sound stages- this affords the luxury of being able to remove walls and take the camera much further back; using longer lenses comes closer to our eyes actually perceive people. With TV and photography you lack this luxury, meaning much wider lenses, which distort people. This is why the fashion industry uses such thin models.
What are you working on at the moment?
Mostly editing pictures. Digital means you can just shoot and shoot, two hundred pictures on a dull day. It takes time to see through the fog of so many pictures, to make sense of it all.
GEMMA DE CRUZ