urban artists at work

‘Urban’ artists work under the gaze of the public, painting and drawing in public spaces. Their art is often monumental, filling walls, even buildings. They seldom have more than a day to complete a particular work or commission so they work under significant time pressure. They are strongly influenced by popular culture and their artwork is usually very colourful and graphic in nature. The genre has become popularised and ‘legitimised’ by the work of well-known artists such as Banksy.

Urban Artists at Work is about absorption. It is a series of portraits of ‘urban’ artists immersed in the process of creating their art. They do not address the camera/viewer directly or even acknowledge their presence. This is despite the fact that they had all agreed to be photographed beforehand. They appear present yet absent at the same time.

Because the artists do not make eye contact, the viewer should feel free to scrutinise them at length without fear of confrontation. For many people, the idea of the ‘artist’ is fascinating and in a modernist sense, heroic. Indeed a particular question that these portraits may prompt is ‘what makes an artist, artistic?’

Other photographers have made work investigating absorption. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Trust has been a particular influence (Broomberg & Chanarin, 2000). Trust is a series of portraits of subjects immersed in a range of different activities: at an amusement arcade, at the gym and so on. They are frontal headshots and give no clue as to what the person is doing. The photographers noted that ‘the fact that they have agreed to be photographed but then are unable to compose themselves for the camera indicates the level of absence, the loss of self control, the vulnerability of the subject.’ (Broomberg & Chanarin, 2000, introductory essay).

I made portraits of over 50 artists. Some I have photographed on several occasions. All were made on location, some inside, and others outside. They usually had an audience whilst they worked.

The portraits are presented as a video to be projected large onto a gallery wall. This mode of presentation references the subject matter itself, which is about filling walls with artwork. The video moves slowly from artist to artist. The accompanying music is intended to create a ‘trancelike’ mood emphasising the quiet concentration of the artists and the sense of absence in the portraits.

Urban Artists at Work is part is part of my broader inquiry into strategies portrait photographers use for ‘disarming the pose’ of their subjects.

Keith Greenough, April 2013

Broomberg A. & Chanarin O.  (2000) Trust. London: Westzone Publishing


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