Arts & Culture: Jonny Briggs

Saatchi Gallery’s ‘New Sensations’ 2011 prize winner Jonny Briggs is a photographer who reworks portraits from his childhood into a series of strange and, at times, terrifying images of domestic life. Currently exhibiting as part of the Saatchi Gallery’s Out of Focus exhibition, he joins contemporaries such as Michele Abeles, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélo and Olaf Breuning in exploring how the medium of photography has changed in the last decade. The work in the exhibition has been curated to show what direction photography is taking in an age where everyone has a camera phone, from classic documentary styles to the reworking of found images.

Briggs’ series of uncanny images range from the grotesque to the serene, exploring the world as seen through a child’s eyes. “The work involves departures from the normal, and pulling the rug from under the feet of our expectations,” Briggs explains. “Escaping our adulthood assumptions and opening our minds to difference, to individuality. Culture is heavily dependent on group behaviour, and it’s often through group behaviour that ourselves as individuals can become lost.”

“It reminds me of late childhood, when I was learning about myself as an individual, alongside wanting to fit in with society,” he continues. “What I love about the childhood mindset is that they’ve yet to establish what is normal and what is not. They are in this sense closer to their natural, intuitive states that we are often socialized out of in the western world. They think outside of the normal because normal doesn’t exist yet – and neither does normality. Where a duck billed platypus is approached with the same curiosity as a household cat.”

This explains the scary fairy tale boogy men that can be found lurking in the woods, or chilling out in a messy child’s bedroom. Meanwhile the use of colour blocking recalls someone seeing the world around them through an imaginary kaleidoscopic. Nothing in Briggs’ world is fixed, everything is a dream.

“I sometimes wonder if our memories are re-imagined each time we recall them,” Briggs ponders. “If instead of accessing the same memories each time, we re-construct them to fit in with what’s happened since then. So our older memories adapt to fit in with our newer memories. Because of this, our memories and perspectives of those memories can evolve through time – become caricatured or fade away, become warped or move away from the events they stemmed from. And because of this, our memories are re-imagined each time they are recalled. So it’s impossible to remember without imagining; our memories are our imaginations. Even our newer memories are imaginations based on our older memories.”

“And I see this in the work, he continues. “Rather than being about the past, it’s about the past re-jiggled with the present. It’s both my parents and I now and my parents and I then at the same time; it’s a montage. And an alchemical one.On the one hand I want to preserve my memories, to stay in contact with this person I was as a child – who feels both me, and not me at the same time. On the other hand I want to escape my memories; to escape my learned behaviour and assumptions about the world; as a way of seeing with an open mind again – like when I was a child.”

Briggs’ parents were a huge part of the inspiration of the work and can be seen in the many sliced and reimagined family portraits. “The childhoods of my sisters and I were well documented, and I remember distinctly being asked to stand in a particular place, in a particular way and adopt a certain facial expression,” Briggs explains. “Our family photographs were themselves staged, performative, and I often consider the photographs I take now to be role-reversals of the family photographs from my past. Also staged and performative, now I’m telling my parents where to stand, what to wear, and how to behave.”

“The work has had a way of bringing us closer together,” he says. “They both think in different ways to me – especially my Father. He’s more on the thinking, practical side whereas I’m more on the feeling, intuitive side. Often the work will be seen more-so on an aesthetic level, yet as time’s gone on they’ve started to open up to the worlds being created in the work, and I love this. It’s as if their minds are opening up to other possibilities, other alternatives of what things could be. They are both quiet people, and often quite stoical. Yet whether I hear their perspectives or not it’s important to me that they see the work, that they experience it. The work often operates as the distance between them and I, and through making the work, I put the ball in their court to decide what it’s about.”

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