American photographer Alexander Coggin is always in search of character when he wields his camera – and flash, crucially – which he does on a daily basis. But that’s not to say his practice and the consequent vibrant photographs can be boiled down to a single technique or theme. “I don’t consider myself to be a true street photographer because I think real street photography is people and candid characters on the street. But I kind of try to work the same way,” he explains over the phone. “I have worked that way for the past five or six years, having my camera and my flash and constantly trying to get shots that feel in-the-moment.”
Coggin’s first solo exhibition, Oh OK Fun, opens today at New York’s 4501 Gallery, and the featured photographs feel every bit as candid and playful as we’ve come to expect from the image-maker – perhaps you recognise his name as the man behind the clavicle studies of Frieze Art Fair and Dover Street Market attendees. “What I really love about those is that you can tell so much from a person based on a portion of their body – I think almost more than you could if you saw their face,” Coggin enthuses. This keen interest in character and the small but mighty details feeds into Coggin’s fascination with magical realism. “For me the magical part of magical realism is that it’s sort of more fun for me to imagine people’s faces. I feel like my best images can almost be the starting place for a short story.” Allowing the viewer to expand on the images using their imagination is something that runs through Coggin’s oeuvre in its entirety; the colours and composition provide charm by the bucketload, but leave a little left unsaid – just enough for you to conjure up a narrative of your own, should you so wish.
Coggin’s background is in theatre and, over the course of developing his photography practice, he’s continued to seek out the performative and theatrical from behind the camera. Take, for example, the images of flowers and leaves that fill every inch of the frame – which are size A0, “so they’re going to be massive” for the exhibition, he tells me – the capturing of which became somewhat of a ritual. “In Berlin I was working on some refugee pieces for Vice, and in the fall I went around and was taking images of foliage at night with the flash, sort of getting those fall colours,” he says explains. “And then I composited them all digitally into that overarching shot. What you see is all the fall images together it’s actually composited of many different plants.
“I really liked them from a purely aesthetic point of view, and I liked the process of doing it,” he continues. “It felt like theatre to me, very detail- and process-oriented. I went out at the same time each night to get the shots. I felt quite disciplined about it, like trying to make it almost like a ritual. There’s something very performative in that.” Once you tap into the theatre Coggin finds in photography, each shot takes on a cinematic life of its own. There are the eerily pristine images of suburban houses (or “strange suburbia,” as he dubs them); the eye-wateringly bright red Coke can set against tropical green wilderness; an actress applying mascara; or a mass of banana skins piled just in front of rows of empty seats – a rumination on the idea of luxury that started veering towards that of excess, Coggin clarifies. But whatever you take from his photographs, Coggin confirm readily that he’s always looking for fun. “When I’m editing imagery of everything I go through in the day, I really respond to work that has been very fun. I don’t know how else to say it – it has to have a fun-ness to it. It has to have that like instant complexity, but you also kind of get it.”
Oh OK Fun by Alexander Coggin runs until July 14, 2017 at 4501 Gallery, New York.