Spencer Murphy — Case study

An insight into the personal and commerical work of London based photographer Spencer Murphy.

Flicking through a couple of Murphy’s personal projects it is apparent he is continually interested in people who exist on the fringes of law and society — previously he’s captured Runnymede’s off-grid community and an abandoned park in Orlando. In his latest project, Murphy has documented the gangs of riders that congregate around London on the weekends and do stunts on roads and industrial estates.

“There’s something of the Wild West outlaw about the characters I met and I wanted to explore that and play to those themes — just replacing the horses with dirt bikes and the denim with an Adidas tracksuit”

My personal phographic interests lie similar to those of Spencer Murphy in regards to those that exists on the fringes of social obscurity. I think this interest originates through learning how a camera can become a gateway to exploring people and places before thought inaccessible. With the right approach, the camera becomes an instrument to investigate subjects without exploitation or personal gain — purely an interest to gain an understanding of a particular subculture.

Images from Spencer Murphy’s ‘One Wheel Bad’ project

Murphy states in an interview that he has ‘been interested for a long time in using the various elements to tell a story as a filmmaker would…’ Arguablly this is one of the most common techniques for stitching photographs together and creating a plausible and coherant narrative. ‘…So using still life, portrait and landscapes to paint a picture and then trying to edit that in a poetic way.’

Alongside his exceptional personal work, Spencer Murphy is a highly successful commercial photographer, with commissions varying from album artwork for musicians to billboard advertising for television corporations.

Wiley — 100% Publishing album art (left) — Channel 4 Grand National Advert w/ Ruby Walsh (right)

Alongside this, Murphy has carried out numerous commissions for newspapers, magazines, charities, organisations and causes to name a few. 
Even though Murphy has covered practically all aspects of commercial work, one thing remains throughout and that is his photgraphic aesthetic. This is paramount in understanding why people pay and ask specificially for Spencer Murphy to make photographs for them, because they can too foresee the outcome just like Murphy himself.

From this initial research into the work of Spencer Murphy I have learnt that in order to be successful as a freelance photographer it is essential you create and understand your own aesthetic and approach — regardless of the stark differences between your personal practise and your commercial practise, your photographic approach and aesthetic must remain consistent.

Email to Spencer Murphy

Corespondance of email to Spencer Murphy

Unfortunately Spencer didn’t ever get back to me, which in all honesty wasn’t particularly surprising. I decided I would then forwarded a similar email to the likes of Tom Sloan, Dani Castro Garcia, Laura Pannack and Max Ferguson, hoping to receive some insight from them…

In the meanwhile I thought I would go ahead and look into previous interviews, videos and talks Spencer Murphy has partaken in, just to see if there is anything useful there for me to pick from and use for this post.

Existing interviews with Spencer Murphy

Q: Do you think theory sometimes overshadows the artist’s creative process when working on a visual project?

Being able to contextualise and speak about your work is definitely important but you see students getting tied up in knots by this all the time. In truth most photographers I know work in reverse and sign off their supporting text once they have a solid body of work. Too much emphasis on theory would stifle my creative process but each artist works differently — as do viewers. I like art that really makes me think but I don’t like to rely on an explanation for me to understand it.

Q: Is it important for a photographer to have a recognisable style?

An approach across bodies of work can be important for recognition but I don’t think it’s vital. Although some people like to label artists and commercial photographers in manageable boxes, they shouldn’t feel inhibited by that or allow it to restrict them from making the work they want to make.

Q: Do you find that there is a continuing theme to your work that carries over whether you are shooting a face or say, the side of a mountain?

I hope so, I look at it as though I am making a film, so whether I am shooting a portrait, a landscape or some little detail, I try to put the same atmosphere and emotion into those images. It’s hard to pin down what that is but I’d say it’s a stillness, a kind of quiet introspection.

Q: Your online portfolio has a balance between personal projects and commissioned work. How do you manage your time between the two?

There is a bit more freedom in making personal work as it can be more loose and responsive to a situation. Commercial work is often done before arriving on location; that’s about influencing circumstances to create a specific image, as opposed to reacting to them. Aesthetically, I try to create an image I’d be proud of, whilst fulfilling the brief.
If they were to be placed alongside one another, I’d want all my images to sit seamlessly, whether that be editorial, advertising or my personal projects. The images that often jar the viewer out of that are the celebrity portraits as they come with their own baggage. It’s often painful for me that it’s so difficult to include some of my favourite pictures within an art project because they are well-known faces.

Q: And if you could give any advice to someone who wants to get serious with their photography and pursue it as a career you would say…?

Do what makes you happy. It takes a long time to turn photography into a career and you give up a lot of security. You have to want to take photographs not just want to be a photographer. “Work hard and be nice to people”.

I think what Spencer talks about in these select interviews is important, particularly when he brings up the significance of carrying the similar aesthetic across from your personal work to your commercial as this is what you will eventually be recognised from.

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