Jon Eland is a Leeds based photographer who has steadily built a strong reputation for intelligent, inventive male portraiture.
2014 was his most prolific year to date and seen his work receive wider recognition, including a solo exhibition in his home city this summer which won much attention as well as some excellent reviews.
For his latest project, KY Guys, Jon has turned his sights across the Atlantic bringing a British sensibility to a series of portraits of men all hailing from the US State of Kentucky, the result of a recent trip to the city of Louisville.
RG: How does a Yorkshireman wind up taking photographs in Kentucky?
JE: Back in 2010 I was running a Leeds-based photography group and we held an exhibition. At that exhibition a representative of the local council asked if we’d consider hosting a photographer from Louisville, Kentucky. After we clarified the reason why, that Leeds is partnered with the city and he was looking to capture some of Leeds to share with the good folk of his own city – I said ‘sure… and how about one of us makes the return trip?’
After the council agreed to the idea, discussions were had and I was nominated to make the trip. I visited twice representing the city and my group – in 2011 and 2012 and then took a break.
2014 saw me return entirely under my own steam – essentially as a vacation and to see some of the many friends I’d made in Kentucky.
RG: It’s clearly a place you have great affection for. What is it that draws you back? The people clearly but it also sounds like it’s fast become a second home.
Absolutely! It’s one of those places that, on the surface, looks like a normal American city – and at the ‘big’ level a bit like my own. But once you peel away the top layer you get to an interesting liberal city with a strong blend of cultures and a great attitude to the arts.
RG: One of the things I love about KY Guys is it does feel very natural and unaffected. And the location is great. Where was it shot?
JE: The location is a unit situated close to the city centre that my friend, Michael, has owned for a number of years. It’s been offices for most of its life – initially for the tobacco industry. But he’s currently renovating it to be an AirBNB location.
I loved it cos of the great natural light. It’s got 3 tall windows either side – both north and south facing.
RG: It looks a great space. Did it influence the style of the series? You mentioned the natural light and there is something very relaxed and at ease about the photographs that makes it feel different to the usual set of male nudes?
JE: That was intentional. In my previous visit I shot Alex (who also appears in KY Guys) in an alley and the light there was great. I’d seen some of Michael’s shots in the space and wanted to give it a go; having had limited experience with natural light nudes – especially inside.
I intentionally stayed away from more traditional erotically charged imagery – I wanted the guys to be themselves, relaxed with (hopefully) a hint of seduction. I also chose the non-commercial route of a mixture of guys. I’m not someone who believes in adhering to types or tribe-chasing – so it was great to get a mix – I just wish I had been there longer and got an even greater diversity.
RG: Yes, it is a pretty diverse series of guys that you’ve featured. How did you find them? I assume they’re all locals.
Yeah – they’re all living within a 20 mile radius of the studio space. In preparation I contacted some through modelling sites, but the majority were guys I found through the mobile apps – so I guess I should thank Growlr and Scruff for the intros!
RG: Hahaha… Those apps have so many uses!! But I guess that also means there are quite a few who had never modeled before?
JE: Yes – the majority in fact. And, while there were some nerves, all the guys were fairly up for it. I ensured they all knew they had as a minimum to get their shirts off, but many were quite happy to be completely naked. I’m guessing the unseasonably warm weather at the time helped (it was 30°+ in early Oct – and I needed a/c to keep the place cool enough to work in!)
But feedback has been great – all of them are still in touch with me – many added to my extensive Louisville Facebook family.
I do wonder if some were taken in by the English charm and Yorkshire brogue though.
RG: You should ask them…! As someone who has also photographed many British chaps, and I know that this is a terribly general question, but did you find any difference between working with US and UK guys?
JE: I think Americans in general are brought up to put themselves ‘out there’ a bit more than we are, and I think this helped with the attitude, along with the concept of being offered free photos a bit more unusual in that city. I found it easier to convince them – however I suspect my being from elsewhere made it easier for them too.
But once in front of the camera there was little difference in terms of response, attitude and personality.
RG: So a happy experience then?
I think it was a great collaboration – I learnt loads and the experience of working (and getting people to buy into your activities) in a city far from home is always scary – but generally less of a challenge than you think. Of course the language barrier was a problem – but these things you can get over.
Once someone’s naked it’s all about treating them with respect and keeping up the banter so you get the right expressions, poses and personality from them.
RG: And it’s great that the feedback from the guys themselves has been so positive. Are there plans to exhibit it in Louisville? Or indeed elsewhere?
JE: I’m still in the process of editing the photos, shooting 20 guys in a number of poses generates a lot of images – which take some time and, as with all the best creatives, I excel at being distracted by other things! But, I’m looking forward to getting a full set and seeing what I can achieve – at very least there will be a couple of publications made available in the future. I’d love to exhibit the images – and would love to hear from anyone interested in this.
For now, I’m simply providing a teaser in the way of the 13 guys in the 2015 calendar.
RG: And a fine teaser it is too! You mentioned working in a city far from home. Does this mean it’s something you want to repeat elsewhere?
JE: I’m always open to ideas and opportunities. However I’ve also worked in both Sitges and a fishing village in East Lothian and consider all interesting opportunities as they make themselves known. A great example of this is that this time last year I had no interest in Latex and by March I was photo documenting the Manchester Rubberman weekend – in a rubber kilt!
RG: Wow! That is quite a turnaround!! And totally different from KY Guys. Clearly you have quite a few diverse projects on the go. It seems to go without saying then that variety and new challenges are something you welcome as an artist.
JE: I think it’s important as a photographer to try new things – whether it’s learning empathy with your models by sitting for other photographers yourself or by throwing yourself into strange environments – a week following the drag queen, Lady Diamond in Sitges is another thing I never imagined myself doing before I arrived on location!
RG: What do you think you learnt from the Kentucky project and how might it shape your work in future?
JE: I learned I love the city even more and would love to work there in the longer term, that naked men in great light take any of the chore from photography and that trying to source and shoot 20 guys in 10 days is a little tiring. But mostly that Kentucky men are soooooo hot!
RG: I think we can all agree about Kentucky Men! I understand that KY Guys is only one of the projects that’s made 2014 a big year for you?
JE: Yeah – 2014 has been phenomenal At the end of 2013 I did a review gallery of all the guys I shot and thought I’d never surpass that but this year has included (in no special order) the Rubberman weekend, photographing Stuart Hatton – Mr Gay UK (and now World) as a honey bee, documenting Carnaval for Gay Guide Sitges – as well as exhibiting for Brighton, Manchester and Leeds Prides – which included a solo exhibition in Leeds of work in progress for my long running ‘Veiled ‘ project.
I’m ending the year, equally weirdly, making portraits of models from the northern English porn industry – never a dull day in my lens!