Magnus Holmes’ series Roommates examines the strength of a unique platonic relationship
Magnus sees documentary photography as a means to understand the world better, and Roommates was yet another opportunity for him to use his camera to learn about others.
- Ruby Boddington
- 17 April 2020
A lot can be said about photography’s ability to connect people, to provide a reason for two or more people to meet who wouldn’t have otherwise. As a medium, it opens doors and lowers barriers. It’s for this exact reason that Portland-based photographer Magnus Holmes found himself drawn to the camera. “I’m an inquisitive person,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Photo projects give me a way to engage and understand people I’m unfamiliar with in a direct manner.”
This is particularly true of Magnus’ most recent work, titled Roommates. A series of quiet, intimate portraits, it examines the “platonic relationships which stem from people sharing a common space,” and was borne from Magnus’ interest in how these relationships form in college. “I wanted to understand why certain pairs of roommates worked altruistically. Was it due to their personalities? Did the environmental aspects of living spaces have an effect on relationship tension?” he says. The project soon became something much bigger, investigation this idiosyncratic relationship on a wider scale.
Many of the subjects involved in the series were people Magnus had just met for the first time so he saw it as an opportunity to learn. “I believe there is so much to be learned from others,” he explains. “Sharing that knowledge is a core value of my work.” It’s for this reason that he often focusses on concepts which can be widely related to, and he thrives on seeing others’ responses to the stories he shares: “Personally, part of why I love documentary photography is that it is often driven by new understandings of life coming to fruition. The more I ingest this sort of work the more I feel like I have a rounder idea of the world. It excites me to make work which can cause that same feeling in others.”
GalleryMagnus Holmes: Roommates
Magnus’ process when taking an image is measured, describing his practice as “detailed, investigative, and at times painfully slow.” When on a shoot for Roommates, he would arrive and spend anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes talking to his sitters before taking the first frame. This ensured there was a level of trust between photographer and subject, and that Magnus knew how they felt comfortable being photographed. The result is a series of images which feels content and warm; before hearing about the process, we assumed Magnus was a friend of all of those pictured, for how else would a stranger in someone’s personal space capture sitters at such ease? “Most of the time, the further the shoot went along, the more subjects would let their guard down,” he adds in reference to the time he spends with his subjects. “Because of this, almost all of the photos I used for the project were ones taken on the later half of shoots, and I really feel like that is OK. Sometimes the camera has to go off a few times for people to get adjusted.”
Aesthetically, there are interesting juxtapositions at play in Roommates. There is a homeliness to the series thanks to its mellow tones, but how Magnus achieves this is through a fairly formal approach. “Most everything I do is on a tripod,” he explains. “Because of this, my photos are straight, and symmetrical.” The result, however, is photos which are “soft, neutral, and locked off,” and which relies on “faces, expressions, reflections of the everyday” to communicate within a somewhat rigid composition. In turn, you are drawn to the sitter immediately, as their gaze confronts the lens in an otherwise controlled frame.
On what he’s learned about roommates and why they are drawn to each other, Magnus says: “Surprisingly it wasn’t solely due to economic reasons. Many of the older roommates I’ve talked to simply wish to live with platonic friends who have similar interests and beliefs. I've learned through shooting the project that people who are roommates give and take from each other, in order to live more balanced lives. This could be through material things like sharing objects, making food, etc. Or it could be socially. I've learned that specific people often play the role of caretaker, cook, the empathetic one, etc.”
As a body of work, Roommates is an apt documentation of the wide-ranging reasons people choose to live together, but most importantly, it is an honest representation of the people pictured in each image. Together, the series is a testament to the results you can achieve when you allow relationships to form before pressing a shutter, and when you allow a sitter and their environment to guide every element of a portrait. Throughout the series, Magnus only used the natural light available to him in each person’s space: “People design their spaces with what is available to them, light is such a big part of that. If I were to have used a flash for the shoots I think I would have been removing a layer of realism.” It was a decision he questioned at times, when confronted with the problems it caused. But ultimately, he tells us: “This project taught me resilience and to be persistent with my actions if I really wanted to create opportunities to take good photos.”
GalleryMagnus Holmes: Roommates
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.