Clayton Hairs tossed a rock into the water and found his photographic purpose.

The Beginning of Authorship

‘I’m not one given to the grand narrative about how I picked up a camera the moment I finished suckling at my mother’s breast,’ said South African born and raised Clayton Hairs. ‘I don’t come from an artistic family. While I probably had inclinations to the artistic side, I had quite a domineering father and I was always aware of his, “how are you going to make a living mate” attitude to career choices. So I did undergraduate things that I really didn’t care much for – and which, quite frankly, took me far too long to actually complete.

‘When I finished my undergraduate studies, I decided to buy an old 1976 Land Rover and together with my partner at the time we drove for two years through Africa, up to the Red Sea and down again.

‘My partner had just finished her graphic design degree and it was through her that the artistic fires were lit, if I’m honest. I took a camera with me on the trip and I thought “this is something I’ve never engaged with – but I love it!”’

Marble Cathedral

As the rolls of film accumulated, an interesting trend became apparent in his work. ‘Out of all the images I took, there were barely any portraits,’ he said. ‘In retrospect, having done landscape photography for the last 10 years, it’s almost as if there had been some sort of undertow there, a fascination with the landscape… and particularly with the idea that I was witnessing scenes that I’d never before seen – and this idea has flowed through into my current work.’

The contrast was particularly noticeable when he saw the pictures other travellers around him were taking. ‘Their photographs were mostly about the people and especially close ups of them. And I thought why didn’t I take any people pictures?’ It was, he decided, because of ‘the fact that I had been born and lived in Africa. So African people weren’t a novelty to me. I had always been around black people and that’s just the way things were. I was, however, seeing new views and aspects of the land that really did interest me.

Boab at Full Moon

‘It was 1996 and I decided I want to tell stories about Africa. Being brought up as a white South African in essentially a police state while all the time being ignorant of that fact (it was pre-internet!). The fact that we lived in Africa was actually an abstract idea we never really engaged much with. So when I got back from my overland trip, I thought, well it’s the stories of Africa that we need to know.  And of course I was – vaingloriously – the one who was destined to tell them!’ he laughs.

‘So I decided to do a journalism degree. And it just so happened that I got an internship at the South African equivalent of 60 Minutes. Very soon thereafter one of the researchers was leaving and I was offered a permanent position as a journalist. It was quite a shock in many ways – least of all the fact that I had only done three months of a journalism diploma – to be catapulted into the premier television production company in the country.’

Describing himself as initially being quite clueless and not really cut out to be a journalist, Clayton narrowly avoided being fired by switching roles to focus more on the camera as a video journalist. And the life of production meetings with top television producers in the country brought a wealth of on-the-job learning. ‘It was really quite brutal in lots of ways,’ he said. ‘But I learned to dissociate my emotional self from my output. I was a very precious youth and if anyone criticised me I would have been incredibly hurt, offended and found a little shell to occupy. So the experience really taught me that in order to make it in this world I would need to be far more dispassionate about what I was doing.

The Hanging Tree in Blue

‘There is another thing to add.’ Clayton said. ‘I’ve done a daily meditation practice (Heartfulness Meditation) for the best part of 20 years now. It’s been a really important companion and has become part of my work. I find I’m evolving at both the conscious and subtle levels of myself… and it’s often the conscious that needs to catch up with what the subtle is seeing or wanting to express… so it’s a very natural companion to photography.

‘Looking back, I can’t really thank these experiences enough. Now I’m not afraid to experiment, and I know that I need to fall down in order to grow. I need to fail. And it’s OK to fail. The only way we grow is through some degree of pain and discomfort. I like growth and I like evolving,’ he chuckled.

‘You know if we want to grow, as people and I believe as artists, then we must necessarily fail so that we learn what we ought to do. But the point is that failure shouldn’t lead to self-pity or nihilism. You really need to know where the limit of self-criticism is. It can quite easily tip too far.’

Subtle Beauty

Asked how as a photographer he strikes the delicate balance in his work between too much self-judgement and not enough, he responds, ‘You’ve used the word “judgement”. I would prefer to use the word discernment. It’s better to be discerning of your work than to judge it. Judging means there is an emotional component to your assessment and that you are assessing your work relative to something or someone outside of yourself. Discernment is a more intuitive thing. It’s not as brutal and I would say is an active part of the ongoing image-making process. If you can feel when something’s not “right” in an image, then that implies there must be something in the picture that you know is right. It’s like solving a puzzle – you know that when you finally feel that you’ve got it, you really have nailed it… through a sort of internalising process.’

So how, you might wonder, does Clayton approach the challenge of photographing a landscape or devising one of his more abstract multi-exposure compositions?

‘It’s always different but I push through what my heart feels. So whatever I’m drawn to, whether it’s a tree in the landscape or a feeling, I’ll just go with it and work with it.

‘I’ve been fortunate to have Jackie Ranken as my creative mentor for a number of years now and being a part of that creative inner circle has brought me a liberation to return to a first love of the camera. The thing I’ve always loved about Jackie is one of her mottos – “Go play!” So whatever it is that first grabs my attention, it’s the incitement to go play, to absolutely go and play, and see where the inclination is going to take me.

‘When we lose that sense of playfulness, we can start getting a little bit too self-reverential. We can forget about that beautiful thing – that organic thing – that we almost have to catch up with. It’s a part of ourselves that has been identified at the unconscious or more subtle levels and it’s the conscious part of ourselves that is having to play catch-up and work out what that other part of us has already worked out… It can be quite beautiful if we manage to pull it off! ‘

The Hatters Exit
This image is a selfie. It’s about me walking ‘into the light’ and away from pedestrian image making (where the sole intent is to impress others).  The background image was shot two years prior to the shot of myself (in drag!).  I shot both with a Phase One IQ 260 with an 80mm Schneider lens, so the degree of detail in every aspect of the shot is remarkable.  I added the ‘tin type’ feel in post along with some ‘texture’ to give it a bit more of a tactile (organic) sense and be less digitally harsh.

Cultivating an almost Zen-like attitude to one’s photography – important as it is – only works if you’ve earned your chops first. Citing Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous line that ‘your first 10,000 photographs are your worst’, Clayton said, ‘I just got the new Nikon D850 in October  last year and I’ve already shot 11,000 images. The point is, it all comes down to experience; experience with your camera so that you know what it can do and you’re not really thinking about it.

‘When you’re driving a car, you don’t think about changing the gears. And I think that’s why Jackie often describes this as “doing your chops”. If you have done that, then it’s there at your fingertips. Now you’re thinking with your heart, pushing to find that subtle essence… you’re not thinking about what ISO am I on and getting bogged down in technicalities… You’re just doing and experiencing the wonder of creating.’

This is a multiple exposure (in camera) image of two images. I was camping in a motorhome the night before I shot the wave component of this image – it had been raining and I liked the water droplets on the window so shot that with a narrow depth of field using a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens.
The following morning I went down to the beach and the most beautiful backlight was coming through the little 2-3 foot surf. I shot the (wave) image with an 1839 Achromat Daguerreotype chrome lens on my Nikon D800E, so the milky highlights and blurred vignette are all ‘in camera’. In fact pretty much everything here is ‘in-camera’. I just gave it the ‘tin type’ toning in post and needed to spot one distracting bit of highlight from the centre of the final composite.

While Clayton still shoots intimate landscapes, in recent years his photographic explorations have moved in what might be described as a more pictorialist direction.

About five years ago he had an epiphany of sorts while photographing at Milford Sound in New Zealand. After setting the camera up and taking a few shots, he picked up a rock and threw it into the water. He said that as he triggered the shutter, ‘the idea of authorship really knocked me on the head. I thought “that’s exactly what it is. It’s an image offered by you – and authored by you.” In that instance, by throwing these rocks, I was including myself in this beautiful scene. The ripples were a representation of me as the author. And that idea has been one I’ve pursued for the last five or six years in various ways.’

Butterfly Fly

More recently, Clayton has been experimenting with alternative processes (including collodion tin-type) and has started applying the ancient Encaustic technique to his prints. ‘Encaustic is essentially beeswax,’ he explains. ‘So I print to beautiful textured cotton rag media. This gives it a mixture of texture and sharpness, but the beeswax makes it far more tactile, and it’s something the viewer engages with at an emotive level. It’s no longer about them engaging with a flat print that can be pumped out 10 to the dozen, but with something beyond that, in much the same way as I like to think about my photographic images themselves. As an artist you are literally putting your hands into your work. You’re scraping it, you’re making it “you” by somehow leaving a part of yourself in it.’

Clayton Hairs lives and works in the Southern Highlands of NSW.

Click here for Clayton’s website

Article by Don Norris

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 76  

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