Interview #25: Jacob Newey (2021)⁠

Turquoise Tetris” by Jacob NeweyLower Hutt, New Zealand (2021)

Jacob Newey is an abstract photo artist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He finds joy in the overlooked and the minutiae of the mundane. He is obsessed with the organic process of entropy on human constructs, and consequently his images are characterised by fascinating textures and contrasting tones. His striking pictures also feature bold colours and geometric symbols, which are recognisable yet somehow indefinable, having been extracted from the known world and transformed by his lens, like a dream that is familiar yet unknowable.

Here’s our interview with him.

PR/Please tell us about yourself and your background.

JN/I grew up in a small rural town in New Zealand, which had quite a lively music scene, mostly I think to provide relief from the constant farming. I tried the local university for a while (the three months it took me to spend my student loan) but decided formal education wasn’t for me, and got a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. I turned out to be quite good at it and was given a van load of door knockers to manage, and then my own franchise by the age of 20. My joie de vivre at selling vacuum cleaners didn’t quite translate to the administrative and managerial tasks required of a franchise owner, so I packed it in and went travelling.

A torrent of odd jobs followed in the US where I didn’t have a work visa — film extra, a purveyor of kaleidoscopes, a barman, a sushi roller, a dog walker and high rise building cleaner. None of which were any help at all when I then moved to the UK and fell into a career in advertising, through no fault of my own.

I now reside back in Wellington, New Zealand, where I live and work with my wonderful family.

The Fire Within” by Jacob Newey/Porirua, New Zealand (2021)

PR/How did you get started in photography? How has your relationship to photography evolved throughout the years?

JN/I live in a beautiful city, lots of hills, bush, beaches and a varied urban environment. I started going for walks with my camera, posting pics to Google Maps as a Google “guide” to earn enough points for some free storage in Drive. It turns out most of the scenic spots had already been captured and posted by better photographers with bigger cameras (no lens envy here) so I started wandering around the less visited streets and started posting ironically un-iconic and unbeautiful pictures of industrial sites and graffiti. This seemed to satisfy a deep urge within me to go against the grain.

I then started connecting with other people who found a similar joy in the overlooked and the minutiae of the mundane, and started sharing pics and ideas with these like-minded photo artists on Instagram. As my photographic style developed I started getting closer and closer to my subject matter and found the images I was focussing on shared a lot in common with characteristics of abstract art, so I started editing my photos to look more painterly to encourage this association. It now gives me untold joy when I get comments on my work asking about the type of paint I’ve used.

H is for…” by Jacob NeweyGracefield, New Zealand (2021)

PR/Who and what are you influenced and inspired by?

JN/Sid Vicious once said “I don’t know what’s so hard about playing the guitar, you just pick a chord and go twang.” Admittedly Sid wasn’t much of a bassist, but that punk rock ethos of “just give it a go” has always inspired me. It also fits nicely with a cultural concept we have in New Zealand, that there is nothing you can’t make or fix with a roll of number 8 fencing wire — just do what you can, with what you have, where you are — there’s something deeply satisfying and centering about this pragmatic outlook. I try to apply this view to my artwork, I don’t have the fanciest camera but I take it with me wherever I go and make time in to focus on photography wherever I am.

In an artistic sense I love Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s work. His artwork with its bold colours and organic geometry really resonates with me, as does his ability to take his art out of the frame and bring it to life in the form of architecture. His art is also a philosophy and a way of life, he not only designed buildings without straight lines, he incorporated living organic matter into the design, with his green roofs and tree tenants.

Bubbles” (Upper Hutt, New Zealand, 2021) & Burn Baby Burn” (Aotea, New Zealand, 2020) by Jacob Newey.

PR/What are you looking for when you take photos? What’s your process of finding new photographic material like?

JN/Although I know what I’m looking for in a picture, I usually don’t find it until I’m back in the dark room. My weekends are spent harvesting the raw materials, the photos which are the grist for my mill. Anywhere that boasts distressed buildings, dilapidated signage or maybe an abandoned campervan, and I’ll be there like a shot. I take a lot of pics, and hope that just by putting myself in the right places often enough I’m open to receiving art as a blessing.

I don’t shoot organic objects, but I am obsessed with the organic process of entropy on human constructs. Entropy is the process which takes effect when we have passed the apex of the circle of life and are moving back towards rebirth and renewal. There is something deeply humorous to me about mankind’s constant struggle to beat it back with coats of paint.

Simply put, I’m looking for structure, texture and contrasting tones on a flat surface that I can get close to. I like to take pictures outdoors in natural light, as it adds another distinctive layer to the photo — any day that’s not raining will do.

PR/What is your creation process and what role does editing play in your work?

JN/I have a very structured approach to editing with some simple guidelines that hopefully provide some coherence to my diverse subject matter. Having guidelines (rules incite disobedience) also reduces the number of decisions I have to make with each edit, speeding up the process. A bit like a gold prospector I edit hundreds of shots each week, playing the numbers in hope of finding that nugget.

I try to avoid any background in my shots, to present a flat painterly image. I usually crop to a 4:5 ratio, to make the images more easily consumable on a phone. When I crop I’m trying to eliminate distractions, and highlight the features of the piece. I use the viewfinder grid to place the the significant pieces of structure in the image.

Prior to photography my primary creative outlet was music. I’d DJ at house parties and the odd bar round town. Someone once told me the best way to beatmatch two songs was just to ride the pitch slider, then crossfade when it sounded right. I do a similar thing when editing my photos — I ride the various light, colour and contrast sliders until the image looks right.

Woodgrain Blue” (Coromandel, New Zealand, 2021) & Illuminati” (Tawa, New Zealand, 2020) by Jacob Newey.

PR/For me, colour and geometry are two of the most significant elements in your work. What do you hope people will see in your photos?

JN/I’m attracted to the notion that symbols and colours have universal meanings, or at least feelings. A circle feels different to a triangle no matter what language you speak. So in this way art can be universally interpreted and appreciated. I extract geometric symbols from my surroundings and share them to see what reactions they stimulate in other people — a bit like an untrained brain surgeon, poking different parts of the cerebral cortex to see what happens.

I also pick subjects based on their colour bandwidth, and now have an understanding of how far I can move them when editing based on the ambient light spectrum when I took the shot. I’m interested in the tones and combinations that you don’t often see. Usually these off-brand tints have been provided by exposure to the elements, or just a fortuitous alignment of two unrelated pieces of signage or paintwork. I want these lesser seen shades to stimulate new feelings, which are combinations of the well-known compass points on the colour spectrum, and as such are unique to the viewer’s interpretation.

I hope people see something recognisable yet indefinable in my work, in the same way that a dream is familiar yet unknowable.

PR/What has photography meant to you in recent years? What place does it take in your life?

JN/I find it a stimulating creative pursuit that helps me express myself in a more family centered way than say music. I still love music but mostly it happens at night in bars and clubs. I enjoy the photographic creative community and the ability to instantly get feedback on your work from your contemporaries around the world.

I aspire to make my photography a self-funding side hustle, and I see two main avenues to achieve this, the fine art route or the craft/design route. They are of course not mutually exclusive. I have a number of artist friends who attest the fine art route is not the way to make money, and I’m aware any product marketing takes significant investment to get started. So at the moment I’m happy doing what I can, where I am, and trying different ways to promote my work and following whatever works.

A friend of mine who runs a creative media agency has distilled the creative process down succinctly for me: he said to just focus on doing cool stuff, and the rest will flow from there.

Dark Tower” by Jacob NeweyOtaki, New Zealand (2021)

PR/What are the next steps for you in your photography?

JN/I want to find a way of physically displaying my images that incorporates light, so either on screens, projections or backlit transfers. My primary medium is the digital screen, so as a minimum I would like the images to be as vibrant as I see them on the screen. I have seen some cool backlit artworks, for example Tommy Balogh, and I love projections for live shows — check out the massive outdoor immersive light installations at Vivid Sydney.

I’d love to indulge in better tech, i.e. camera, software, computers, etc, but would like this to be funded by my art in a virtuous cycle of rebirth.

My technique develops organically, I am almost a spectator as it unfolds. This means when I return to a site I’ve previously visited I see a range of new possibilities as I look through a filter which has altered through time and experience — I am a different person when I revisit the site, so I see something different.

When travel becomes easier again, I’d like to have the opportunity to collect some images in different cities around the world, and perhaps participate in some international exhibitions.

Jacob Newey is an abstract photo artist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He finds joy in the overlooked and the minutiae of the mundane. He is obsessed with the organic process of entropy on human constructs, and consequently his images are characterised by fascinating textures and contrasting tones. His striking pictures also feature bold colours and geometric symbols, which are recognisable yet somehow indefinable, having been extracted from the known world and transformed by his lens, like a dream that is familiar yet unknowable.

Interview by Paul Rowland.

Additional pictures from Jacob Newey curated by Paul Rowland.

New digital magazine that seeks to portray the abstract photography scene and the human-beings behind the pictures in all their depth and diversity.

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