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Thames: Dark River, Still Shining

by Tom Farmer

Tom Farmer is originally from Southampton. He has been living in the big smoke for the past three and a half years, assisting editorial and advertising photographers whilst also focusing and developing three long-term projects.

Interested in photography from a young age, he gradually became interested in documentary photography and, specifically, the iconic photographic road trip — a veritable rite of passage for many.

We spoke to Farmer about his project Thames: Dark River, Still Shining, which we’ve featured here today. The work is about Farmer’s journey along the River Thames, which many are familiar with as being that famous big river in London.

However, ourselves included, not many consider where the river the comes from or where it goes to; at 215 miles, the Thames is the longest river in England and passes through places as far as Gloucestershire, Oxford and Essex, as well as London.

Farmer’s project is a great example of how photography is such a brilliant way to make people truly think and discover things they would have never thought about or found.

It’s a wonderful, light-hearted series that reveal the personality and character that forms and surrounds a well-known English landmark, and clearly photographed with a great effort and hard work.

What’s your story?

My dad had an old SLR, and I can remember playing with it as a very young kid and being fascinated by what I saw through the viewfinder. There are pictures of me running around our back garden holding the camera above my head and screaming — so I guess I was very taken with cameras from a young age!

It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I got my first SLR, and I’d also started studying photography at school. I had a very traditional photographic education, I learnt to shoot on an Olympus OM-10 with black and white film, and we developed and printed everything ourselves in the darkroom.

I also studied the great masters: Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Brandt, Salgado, Capa, and, of course, Robert Frank.

This was a very experimental time for me and I wasn’t really sure of my direction in photography, but my tutor had told me about the documentary photography course in Newport, South Wales. I applied and was lucky enough to get in.

My three years at Newport were a fantastic experience and a great foundation on which I’ve started building my photographic practice.

Please tell us about Thames: Dark River, Still Shining.

Gradually I became more and more interested in the idea of the photographic road trip and its importance in creating documentary work.

In my dissertation, I traced the history of the photographic road trip through American photographers from Walker Evans and Robert Frank, to Stephen Shore and Alec Soth. Soth’s Sleeping by The Mississippi was a huge influence on me, not just in subject matter, but also in the way Soth approaches taking pictures.

I realised I didn’t need to have a specific story to make a project, that I could set out with an idea and use the people I met and the places I went to influence the direction the images and story went in. I felt like this approach had been used quite a lot in American photography, but has not been used as much when depicting the UK.

I also have a very close personal connection to the River Thames; my grandparents lived in a village called Radley — halfway between Oxford and Abingdon — for forty years, which the river flows through.

I would go and visit them in the summers and fish and swim in the river. So I knew that part of the river well, but most of the rest of it I hadn’t seen at all.

I was fascinated by the idea that this same river connected such different environments and communities, that the same water that passed the rural village of Lechlade in Gloucestershire was the same water that passed the Tower of London miles later.

So, I set out to walk the length of the Thames and see where the river took me. The project was long-term, taking place over almost three years.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself at the start of the project?

I was working full time during the time I made the work, which was tough. I guess I would tell myself to take more chances, and to make more time for the project. To really take every opportunity when it’s there and not wait for next time.

Some of my best trips were when I was able to go away for three or four days time. I was really able to immerse myself in the project.

In hindsight, I can see the benefits of long periods of focus, so if I did it again I would probably try to do more of that.

Also covering such a large area there is so much subject material to cover — I got quite obsessed with trying to cover as much of it as I could, but now I feel like the feeling and mood of the work are much more important.

What are you up to next?

I’m currently working on a project about the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. I live very close to the park and pass through it often. During this time I got to see and realise what an interesting space it is.

Even four years after the London Olympics, the area still seems in a state of flux with so much building work going on. It feels like it is always changing, with new buildings or areas being created all the time.

With the rapid development of the neighbouring area of Hackney Wick, I think it will all look very different in two or three years time. I wanted to make a record of the park while its still feels slightly wild.

What are you recommending?

I’m a big fan of a blogger and writer called Mark Manson. He has just released his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck which is a fantastic read. It’s a great distillation of ancient wisdom and modern awareness gathered from tough personal experiences.

I also just finished the eight hour epic documentary OJ Simpson: Made in America which is very thorough chronicling of the whole saga, providing a fresh perspective.

I also can’t recommend enough Adam Curtis and his two documentaries, HyperNormalisation and Bitter Lake, both absolutely fascinating viewpoints that delve into the forgotten history of the twentieth century and how it shapes our world today.

Tell us about an artist who inspires you.

I have always been inspired by the work of the painter Edward Hopper. The way he paints light is intoxicating. It draws you into the scene; you can almost feel its warmth and sparkle. It shimmers and brings the subject to life, or relegates them to the shadows. A couple of great examples are Morning SunRooms by the Sea and Sunlight in a Cafeteria.

Hopper himself said, “What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”. For me that is great inspiration, to start from such a simple objective, yet create such beautiful and thought provoking scenes. What could be better?

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