Jet Swan’s Inky, Intimate Portraits of Strangers

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Material© Jet Swan 2021 courtesy Loose Joints

“There’s a kind of soulful defiance I’m really drawn to,” says the Yorkshire-born artist of her debut monograph Material, which brings together portraits of members of the public

“Often the most seemingly ordinary people are the most fascinating,” Jet Swan tells AnOther, as the Yorkshire-born artist prepares for the launch of her debut monograph, Material. Bringing together eerily beautiful portraits of members of the public, the Loose Joints-published book was created over a period of three years, in temporary studio spaces across the UK – including a shopping centre in Scarborough, Yorkshire and a repurposed community hall in Ramsgate, Kent, where Swan lives and works. Through these chance encounters with complete strangers, Material’s suggestive pages explore the tension between our public and private selves.

Shot in Swan’s signature inky style, the resulting images from these meetings achieve a surprisingly intense intimacy. Blending traditional studio portraiture and a painterly sort of realism, some images see their people gaze through the camera, as if lost in thought, while in others their body parts are brought to focus, honing in on legs clad in flesh-coloured tights, or an arm embracing a torso. “I guess [the shoots] were quite intimate in reality, too,” says Swan. “Some sittings only lasted ten minutes or so, but there’s an atmosphere suggested even then.”

Here, speaking in her own words, Swan opens up about her “emotional and instinctual” approach to her photographic practice and the story behind this book ...

“Material is a meeting of several very personal bodies of work. For me, it feels like a real embodiment of themes I wasn’t able to articulate in words or even in a sequence of images before … Those tactile, sometimes dangerous scenes feel like something I’ve dreamt about or something I remember but can’t describe.

“I didn’t have space to photograph someone, so I hired a local hall for an afternoon. I loved the neutrality of that space, I still love shooting there. I’ve always had this idea of stepping into someone else’s space instead of asking them to step into mine, and setting up my studio in a shopping centre felt like a really good place to be able to do that. 

“There was also a strong significance to the shopping centre as a place – they are really social spaces, especially in small towns. The process was so moving. The environments I worked in soaked into the work and I met some incredible people.

“Sometimes I’d see someone in the street and stop them, but lots of the work was made in public with no selection process – anyone could come in and I would photograph them. There’s a very specific female character I’m always drawn to, but taking away that selection process was brilliant because it presented me with people I would never have usually asked, and they are some of the pictures I love the most.

“There’s a kind of soulful defiance I’m really drawn to, particularly in young women, and sometimes that feels very epic and tragic, but there’s a spectrum of more complex emotions there too. I think there is a meeting of what I bring emotionally and how people present themselves to me.

“I hope [the book] makes someone feel something, even if it’s different to how I felt making it or looking at it now. I love the idea that it has a tangible effect on somebody.”

Material by Jet Swan is published by Loose Joints and is available from September 9. The book launches at Tenderbooks, London, September 9, 6-8pm.