Photographer Toby Coulson captures the “humour, beauty and strangeness” of everyday interactions
The London-based photographer takes a slow approach to his practice, catching “something off-guard, humorous or even strange” on the way.
- Ruby Boddington
- 27 July 2020
“As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a photographer, so it was never really a choice,” says Toby Coulson. Having been born in New York, he moved to the English countryside with his mum at just four years old and grew up photographing animals (“mostly our cat and chicken”) in Devon. A mundane start to his blossoming photographic career, Toby’s work is still very much concerned with finding the beauty in the everyday, “the stillness rather than catching the decisive moment”.
The reason Toby spent so much time photographing his pets, he tells us, was because he was a shy child. He recalls the first time he plucked up the courage to photograph people: “I was so nervous the first time I asked a stranger for a portrait but there was something about the experience that fascinated me.” In terms of what this fascination is, Toby splits his love for photography into two parts: “the actual shoot where no matter how much planning was done there are always unexpected elements that happen and create the magic”; and his “time printing in the darkroom, which is an amazing, meditative time to slow down and think about the images.”
This “slow” approach is imbued in Toby’s imagery, which is soft and quiet. Each frame – whether depicting a suburban cul-de-sac, a horse trotting through an industrial landscape, or man on stilts – is considered, providing a moment of calm amidst a saturated world. Despite all of this, there’s a surreal element to Toby’s images, an oddity and a wry wink for anyone looking out for it. “When going about photographing people, I’m always looking for something off-guard, humorous or even strange, but always with the priority of respecting and not being exploitative of the person,” Toby says. “There is a lot of humour, beauty and strangeness in the way we interact with the landscape and our own spaces. Hopefully this comes across in my work.”
GalleryToby Coulson: Document Journal
A recent project which Toby describes as both “chaotic and inspiring” took place in Senegal, where he travelled to photograph “legendary fashion and film costume designer” Oumou Sy for Document Journal. “It was a long chain of introductions that started with a Senegalese model I met on a shoot in London, Mame Thiane,” he explains. “I had been commissioned a few years ago to shoot a fashion story for the Sundays Times in Namibia, and since then I had dreamed of returning to Africa to photograph the amazing African designs I had seen.” He was lucky enough to be introduced to Oumou, “the queen of couture and fashion in Senegal”, and photograph four of her most iconic pieces.
It’s from this series that the image of the man on stilts can be found. “One of the outfits she designed was a patchwork coat that is about three metres long and the model has to wear stilts to fit it. The local kids loved it and by the end, we had about 50 cheering kids following us,” Toby recalls.
Closer to home, he photographed a Tea Dance in New Haven for Primary Paper. A subject which has provided photographers such as Elaine Constantine with much inspiration, Toby’s iteration is heartwarming and intimate. “A Tea Dance is an afternoon dance with an interlude for a raffle and tea biscuits and a good chat,” he explains. “Fred, who organises the dance, is in his 80s and some of the participants are in their 90s. Everyone is dressed immaculately and is there to have a good time. To be able to depict this age group in such a carefree and joyous way was a real pleasure and something often missing in our culture,” he adds.
Clearly, no subject is too niche or wide-ranging for Toby’s lens, but what ties it together is his approach. “I like projects to grow slowly and follow their own course,” he says. “I’ve always got an idea in mind to go shoot a story or a person, but this always seems to develop into something else.” This unpredictability is the thing he loves most about photography, Toby says, as “it gives you an excuse to just wonder and look. Of course, with commercial or editorial shoots, things have to have to happen quickly but it’s important to have an open mind and be prepared to adapt.”
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.