A few years ago the name Luke Evans was on everyone’s lips. Creating a body of work which walked back and forth between fine art and photography, everyone wanted to know “just how!?” he made the work he did.
But things went a little quiet as Luke had to take a short break after being diagnosed with cancer. Only in his 20s, putting things on hold understandably stumped him. “I went through a phase of hating photography,” he tells us. “I just felt so bloody bored of it all, I couldn’t get excited about anything. I wanted to do anything but use a camera." Yet, slowly but surely, over the last 12 months, Luke settled back into place behind the lens.
The result is Second Nature, his comeback project, so to speak, and sees Luke return to using creative ruses to make photographs like no other. The project’s individual images are either highly crafted or a sort of brilliant accident, some are born out of research or simply a tree in his parent’s garden. They differ from his other works, as they’re “conceptually a bit looser and there isn’t a one-liner that explains it, which is what I’m known for," he suggests. "But I knew that if I wanted to grow as an artist, I needed to just let the images speak for themselves.”
So here they are, Glacier, Hill, Birds, Hare, Canopy, Sun, Tropic (11:26am, 17:42pm) and Volanic built into a cohesive whole as Second Nature. For those who’ve been waiting, you’ll be pleased to know – and to see! – that Luke Evans is well and truly back in full force.
“It’s a combination of digital techniques and analogue, which is a running theme in the series.”
Second Nature’s first photograph, Glacier is a mammoth shot. Despite the fact it wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Blue Planet, things are never as they seem with Luke in charge – it’s actually “a block of ice I made in a plastic storage box.”
For the piece to look realistic, Luke began by smashing the block of ice and placing it on a mirror to shoot. Behind it, he placed a whiteboard and used just one light to bang against it. “Most of the images I make are just a single light source and reflectors…it avoids it feeling too ‘studio’,” he says. “Well, that, and I’m too broke for lots of lights.”
Its textural colour is skillfully applied blue food colouring “slowly squeezed into the middle of the block while freezing so you get this awesome gradient of colour,” he explains. The almost fluffy flakes of ice building up in crevices were also caused incidentally, “because the bloody thing kept melting so I kept having to put it back in the freezer,” Luke continues. "When I took it out they just appeared when it was thawing!”
To get the final shot, Luke used five plates of large format film, focused at different distances. Once stacked, they appear woven as “the very back and front of the image are all sharp, giving the illusion that it’s much larger than it really is,” Luke explains. “It’s a combination of digital techniques and analogue, which is a running theme in the series.”
The second image (although the first Luke set to work on) is Hill. Depending on the image, the photographer’s constructed pieces begin with either an idea or a material. In this case, it was the latter and Luke wanted to work with moss.
Drawn to the moist, hairy material for its “great tiny texture” and “alien-like details”, Luke wanted to amplify the attractive qualities of a plant trundled across in damp spots. “I found this big piece of chicken wire and just stapled it to a board, shaped it, and then just started piling moss on it.”
This, as those who know the photographer understand and those reading this article, will grow to, is where Luke always seems to make the process difficult for himself. In some instances it’s initially an issue, he’ll promise himself an impossible image to construct, or, he’ll start small, collecting moss for instance, and let the photograph craft its own path: “When I was shooting and changing the shape, a big chunk of moss fell off and left some wire exposed,” he explains. “It looked like the wireframe landscape models that games use to load textures onto. I knew I had to keep it.”
Using grown materials has always been one of Luke’s starting points, especially in Birch. Luke’s family home in Wales is on a farm, with a birch tree shredding thousands of seeds each year. Once, while brushing them away, he picked one up “and was like ‘Hey! these look like lots of tiny birds!’ I found it fascinating how nature imitates itself like that.”
Over the next three days, the photographer collected them all up. He pulled them apart delicately, “selecting the most defined individual seeds with a scalpel… maybe one out of every 50 were good enough”. Next, he thought of two ways to get the “flock look”. He could throw them up in the air naturally, or, place them each on a mirror where he wanted them, and then take the shot.
Luke went for the mirror and, true to his personality and process, “spent a day arranging them perfectly using tweezers, considering how spaced out they were, what direction they were facing, and if any touched”. He took the photograph but “was so disappointed because it looked ‘arranged’,” he says. “I thought, fuck it, I’ll just chuck them on and blow them around a bit, and I’d be done with it — and that’s what worked!”
“I had to use my feet to press the cable release shutter.”
— Luke Evans
Nature as an influence continues in the series’ next image, Hare, but plays upon how we perceive nature rather “than just pictorially,” Luke suggests. Researching this concept, Luke came across a book of hand shadow puppetry and “ended up being more interested in the weird, almost painful looking hand contortions, so I decided to try some myself.”
With a posed hand in the foreground twisting around itself into a position which would shadow a hare if shone with a light, Luke explores a “whole art to the poses”. But, rather than ask someone to press the shutter, Luke did it himself — “I had to use my feet to press the cable release shutter.”
Another image, Canopy, developed on a trip to Plantasia, a large public hothouse in Swansea “next to a derelict Toys ‘R’ Us,” Luke describes. Boasting a five star TripAdvisor review, Luke admits that even though it sounds “totally amazing, it couldn’t have been weirder… one of the best tropical glasshouses I’ve ever been to. It’s just bizarre.”
At the end of Plantasia is “an office-like section with that typical gridded foam ceiling with frosted lights," Luke explains. “The weird thing is that you can see straight through to the jungle section”. Having an office situated in a greenhouse means reflected in the glass are classic white squared office ceiling lights among a window of busy foliage, visible in the final image. “I just loved the idea of this total banal architecture, literally next door to a jungle.”
Luke found Plantasia while looking to explore “artificially made and maintained pockets of nature people use as an escape,” he tells us, explaining his next image, Tropic (11:26am, 17:42pm). The two shots paired together feature one taken as Luke enters the glasshouse, and the second at the end. Unlike the rest of the highly composed images, Tropic’s textural feel was actually an accident. “The funny thing is, I’d left my tripod head at home. The film was slow, and there wasn’t anything to rest it on.” Stuck, but faced with an image he wanted to take, he lifted the giant camera “resulting in the blurry images”.
Following two coincidental shots, Luke went back to composing an image where its process adds a further narrative. On first glance, the image in Second Nature, titled Sun, appears like a shimmering lake and you think he’s used some kind of kaleidoscopic light trickery. When, actually, it’s a "physical print that’s been destroyed by a bow and arrow”.
A few years ago, Luke took up archery “and it’s kind of taken over my life a bit,” he admits. “‘Shooting’ cameras and ‘shooting’ arrows gets really confusing to my mates". The concept for how his two outlets could come together slid into place when Luke was looking at used target faces and “instantly, I thought it could look like dapples of light if shot correctly”.
Taken on a trip to a lake with his Dad “to show him how the ‘big’ camera works,” once a simple photograph of rippling water was developed and printed, “I shot the hell out of it with my bow”. From there, Luke took the disintegrated print to the studio, lighting it from behind using a soft box, but “to get the light really spectacular, I then used a 70s soft star filter to exaggerate the shine.”
The final image completing the series is possibly the most dramatic on first glance, and in its makings too. Another piece which grew out of Luke’s research, Volcanic, developed from reading Amercan’s Wonderlands – a book “full of oversaturated images of National Parks where I came across an old tradition called the Firefall,” explains Luke.
Beginning in the 1800s, Firefalls took place in Yosemite organised by the owner of the Glacier Point Hotel who “would have an open fire for the guests and would then put it out by stomping on it, pushing the embers over the side of the peak, inadvertently starting the Firefall event,” says Luke. Rumblings of a waterfall-like fire falling off the Sierra Nevada mountains spread, attracting hundreds of visitors before being outlawed in 1968 because it was “deemed unsafe and ‘not a natural event’,” Luke points out. “So, I absolutely had to make one myself.”
Arguably an impossible task with several logistical issues to tackle, for Luke “living on a farm has its benefits”. The task at hand was a one-shot all or nothing moment, and so the photographer prepped considerably: “I collected wood and made fires, doing small tests to find the exposure needed and to get the timing right with natural night,” he continues. 7pm was decided the apt time when the farm owner would come, “lift the whole fire up high with a telehandler and drop it over a pile of broken concrete.”
Safety obviously being a primary concern, Luke used “a fairly long lens to give me a bit of distance”. But, with a particular shot in mind, the photographer combatted this by using “a freakishly long air shutter, which had a habit of sometimes not actually working. If it didn’t expose, I would have to start again the next evening" — astonishingly, like everything this photographer sees to turn his hand and lens to, it worked.
The series now completed, Luke’s main take away, after everything he’s experienced — photographically and personally — is that it’s “important to realise what you can actually achieve with what you have”. In Volcanic in particular, he faced huge difficulties (and a massive falling fire) but, in the end, like everything in life, “it wasn’t about scale, it was about the energy, the motion,” he says. “So let’s get fucking close up and make it work.”