Manchester School of Art graduate Nathan Cutler has a sensitive eye, despite his masculine subject matter. Born and raised in Brighton before venturing up north for university, Nathan’s work provides an insight to groups, communities and clubs. He never peers in on these clans, instead his photographic eye nestles in, it gets comfy, has a cup of tea and a chat. Then, he takes the shot.
Earlier projects saw Nathan photograph trainspotters, working men’s clubs or model railway groups before he grouped together his subject matter into Gents, his final project while studying at Manchester. The project is empathetic, insightful and quiet; encouraging viewers to answer their own questions about his work has been Nathan’s consistent approach.
Tonal and warm down to Nathan’s personality and use of his favourite film, Kodak Portra 120mm, Gents stopped us in our tracks. It provided a new tone of voice to the on-going current conversation on masculinity and below Nathan explains how he’s developed a thoughtful visual language at such a young age.
It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study photography?
Nathan Cutler: I have always been interested in storytelling but writing wasn’t my strong point. Instead, my outlet became studying creative subjects. However, in my school, art was very much focused towards painting and drawing, neither of which I took to very well. I would always take photographs to draw from, and found that the images were far better than the outcome. For me, photography seemed to couple up my interest in storytelling with a creative outlet.
I then decided against a traditional art foundation course and instead studied a foundation course purely in photography. I knew that I needed more experience before going straight into university, but was sure that my practice was based on photography. After the foundation year, it seemed clear that a photography degree seemed the best way to progress my practice. Despite being aware of successful photographers who hadn’t studied, I felt that the support within a university institution would benefit me. I don’t believe that every creative person should feel obliged to study at university after school or college, but it turned out to be a really positive decision for me.
INT: Can you describe a project you’re most proud of and why?
NC: I would have to say I’m most proud of my final major project, Gents, a study of spaces and groups that are traditionally seen as masculine, and their place within a modern society. Throughout the project I’ve been conscious not to enforce stereotypes, but instead attempt to provide a different voice in the discussion on masculinity.
During the initial stages of the project, I realised I didn’t want this body of work to be centred around a single location or group, but an exploration into the commonalities and differences between a number of different places. The most informative source of research surrounding my subject was undoubtedly Grayson Perry’s Descent of Man. I began to approach my work with a contemplation on masculinities in regard to locations and groups. I looked for objects and scenes to photograph as a means to discuss these typically masculine environments.
The project stands out from my other work as it leans towards more contemporary approaches to documentary photography in that it aims to raise questions, rather than make overt statements. Also, my working methodology changed with this project. I started with an ambition to make work about a certain subject, and then decided what to photograph, rather than the other way around.
INT: Portraiture features heavily in your projects, what’s your approach to photographing people?
NC: There isn’t anything too complex about my approach to portraiture. It’s simply that I enjoy going out to meet and photograph people. My approach is almost always a form of research into my subject, as well as a documentation. I’m usually making work in an environment in which the person I am photographing is far more knowledgeable about my area of interest than myself. Therefore, I use the opportunity to speak to them and take a few notes of what they say and I try to have this conversation before asking to take their portrait. I think this initial connection is really important in allowing people to let their guards down and be comfortable in front of the camera. People are, more often than not, flattered to have their portrait taken, if also a little confused.
Over time I have learnt a couple of little tricks that sometimes help. For example, I never really direct people too much, I’d rather allow them to relax and come to a natural expression on their own. When you point a camera at someone, often their initial reaction is to smile, so I often toy with the camera for a while and take their photograph once they’ve eased into it. I try to avoid taking images in which people appear to be reacting to the camera, so that the camera almost becomes an invisible tool to present people to others. I think the interplay between subject, photographer and audience is really interesting and integral to a successful portrait.
INT: Is there a particular person who has shaped your university experience?
NC: It is hard to narrow this down to one single person as there has been a number of people, who I know personally or not, who’ve shaped both my university experience and creative outlet in different ways.
Manchester School of Art runs a great program called Media Talks, which you voluntarily attend. Guest speakers are brought in from different media and design based disciplines, who were a great source of inspiration from me, from Erik Kessels to Jennifer Pattison. Manchester School of Art also has ties with Red Eye, a photography network based in the North West of England. They partnered up with the art school to run an event centred around photobooks, where they brought in photographer Jack Latham to speak. Afterwards I attended a portfolio session with him. I am a massive fan of his work and the way he forms projects, and the session was a really valuable experience. He discussed his mentality that photographers should never work for free, which was really refreshing to hear.
I’m sure this is true across all universities, but the tutors of the course were a major part of my university experience and creative outlook. All my tutors were great, but particularly for the development of Gents, the help of Sian Bonnell was invaluable. She gave me the confidence in approaching a delicate subject matter in such a way that I didn’t have to make any overt statements about masculinity, but rather raise questions about it. I am also honoured to be chosen by Sian to be part of this year’s Pingyao International Photography Festival in China, which she curates.
INT: What was the best bit about your time at university? And the worst?
NC: There have been loads of positives of my university experience. One that stands out for me, which I believe is a shared experience for many creative students regardless of institution, is the time and support it gives you to work on your projects and practice. You have time to consider your discipline and where you fit in its context, while also making work and, inevitably, making mistakes. It is a massive bonus that you have this freedom in a place where you have access to both an abundance of facilities and a creative network to support you. This support is not limited to telling you that you’re doing great and should carry on the way you are, but also is willing to challenge your opinions and working methodology. I see university as being a bit like having a chance to play at or pretend to be a successful practitioner.
I think that it goes without saying that the worst part of university is the debt I now have looming over me. The price of university has meant that studying a creative course isn’t an option for everybody. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to go, but by no means does it make it a perfect experience. Improvements can always be made, but I feel Manchester School of Art runs a very impressive three year course. If I had to choose one thing, it would be that facilities were often stretched due to its large intake of students every year. It’s great that there is this kind of interest to the course, but perhaps some more of the financial gain should be directed back towards the student experience.
INT: If you could create your dream project, what would it be?
NC: First and foremost, I am definitely not finished with Gents, and so I intend to draw a lot of my focus onto pursuing this project. I am considering going further afield with the locations and groups, potentially exploring avenues in Europe. Therefore a dream opportunity would be to get funding for this. Also, before coming to university I saved to travel around India for three months. While I was there I made some work and shot a bit, finding opportunities for a few projects that I would love to revisit. I would like the work to be the sole purpose of the trip. I only took a 35mm camera with me at the time which was great for my intentions then, but if I were to go back I would bring my Mamiya RZ67 and take more time over the projects. I am also keen to collaborate with other artistic practitioners, writers and researchers.
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About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.