" It [lockdown] dictated a slower pace of work, less hectic busyness, less urgency, and more time for reflection."
Michael Wharley is a photographer, shooting portraits and advertising imagery for stage, screen, brands and beyond. He is a qualified Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography and a full member of the A.O.P.
What is your definition of studio space?
Well as a photographer, I suppose it's a little bit different to lots of artists because you always need as much space as you can get.
My studio is a large, quite blank space. It reflects a necessary balance between elements characteristic of my artistic identity , and blank-canvas functionality. There's a pleasure in in returning it to neutral at the end of shoot filled with equipment, props and people, but the trade off for that utilitarian vibe is the sacrifice of a bit personality in things that accrete over time. When I go into other artists’ spaces or studios, I often find that it feels like there's a bit more character there.
Collaborative communal studio spaces are on the rise in London. Do you believe this formula can work?
I think the community idea seems vibrant and appealing. Speaking to friends who work in those kind of hot-desking offices, it seems really positive, great for energy, and exchange of ideas. My short answer, yes, I think they definitely can. Personally, I don't have a lot of experience with it.
Do you believe that London has an impact on your art?
Yes, absolutely. In terms of the diversity of experience, the diversity of community that's here, the pace of life and the general energy of the ambience of the city. You're aware of layers of history going back thousands of years, and you're aware of a very energetic, vital, and ever-changing present. I think you can't be artistic and not respond to that. It definitely informs the people that I want to shoot, the projects I'm interested in, and the way that I take photos.
Would you consider moving outside of London?
If you ask anyone who lives in London, they're always in some way mulling over the idea that they might live elsewhere. I love nature. I love being in nature. I love feeling connected to the land. I think you get some of those things if you have a strong connection to a local park. But yeah, it's the tension that's always there: on the one hand, the vibrancy of being in London and on the other hand, a need for something a bit more prelapsarian and bucolic.
How do you think your work would change if you were to move out?
I guess a different pace. Lockdown in 2020 offered a flavour of what it might be like - it dictated a slower pace of work, less hectic busyness, less urgency, and more time for reflection. I know that new projects and new ideas came about because I had had time to think and reflect and not be engaged in the sort of distracting moment of doing ‘right now’.
What do you think the future studio space will look like?
Given the enormous pressures on real estate prices, presumably shared coworking studios will become much more common. We've had lots of experience during lockdown with people working from home and maybe that's going to change the way some companies work. But not everyone wants to work from home and not everyone is lucky enough to live in a home that is pleasant to be in all the time. And I also think as a human, there is a need to go out to work, whether that's in a shed down the bottom of your garden, or going to a coworking space.
Personally, I would love the future of my space to be bigger than my current 520 square foot space. I'd love to have one and a half thousand square feet in an airy loft with lots of natural light. That would be perfect. Give me a triple height ceiling and floor to ceiling windows and I would be a happy photographer.
How do you believe we can ensure artists remain in London in the future?
That's really tricky. I work in a space just near Waterloo. It feels like it's the last of a dying breed of workspaces. It's an old Network Rail training site, owned by the Arch company, which is the development arm, or was, for Network Rail. I think they've struggled to make the building anything else so it's almost like a fluke that it's continued to be artists’ spaces.
It feels like that balance between affordable rent, space and location is a conundrum that is playing out all over the city and increasingly means that the artists are being squeezed out.
I don't know how a developer does that, but it must partly be keeping spaces affordable, flexible and within the city so that they don't just become way out on the fringes of wherever development hasn't quite reached yet. I suppose it's trying to keep artists as a voice in the process of developing an area.
And so speaking of that voice, is there any way you think the artist can collaborate or communicate with the developers to try to maintain that cultural community?
I think that's incumbent on the developer not the artists. Developers seem to like the idea of artiness as it helps sell flats and bring in high rents, but not interested in sustaining an area's artistic community later.
Even with legislation it seems hard enough for social housing to be included in new developments so the cynic in me doubts it can work, but perhaps a developer with the right ethos and outlook, could usefully and genuinely engage with artists to try and include some of their concerns when a site's being redeveloped.