In Conversation With: Jeff Gilmour

When it comes to striking, eye-catching imagery that sticks in your mind’s eye for weeks on end I find it hard to look beyond Jeff Gilmour’s series “Family Blood”. A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jeff as he shared his thoughts on the series, his cinematic beginnings and influences as well as his own personal experiences with boxing and staying productive through lock-down. 

Glasgow born Artistic Portrait Photographer Jeff Gilmour has a love for people, intimacy, and communication more than photography. His camera is just an extension of this and the medium he fell into to communicate with his subjects. Every image has to tell a story, before any technical thoughts or before even picking up a camera he asks himself “What is the point? What am I trying to say?”. Without this, the image is a failure in his eyes.

Family Blood

A stylized photographic homage to the world of underground Bare-knuckle boxing.
Shot in Glasgow, Scotland, 2019.

Elliot Linden: Researching you beforehand Jeff, I saw that you advertised the project over Instagram saying that this was the biggest project you have ever planned. That was August 2019. What are your thoughts on how the project turned out having had a year to think about it?

Jeff Gilmour: I’d say in terms of scale, budget, manpower, and the sheer amount of effort it’s definitely the biggest project I’ve ever attempted. I am proud of it, there are things I would change but I’m not necessarily sure what exactly. I think just making it happen in the first place is what I’m really proud of. It took a good two months of planning and getting the cogs in motion! I’m really proud of the team we had that day too because things just fell together so nicely. I look back and I’m proud of the images for sure.

EL: I mentioned there about the video you did for advertising the shoot and in that, you spoke about your inspirations for the shoot being a lot of Guy Ritchie films such as Snatch and the fight scenes in Sherlock Holmes. I take it you’re a fan of his, how much did he influence you for this shoot?

JG: For the most part, yeah. I think the keyword, if you like, for my photography is fun and I was thinking about today and thinking what sort of societal significance does my shoot have? But I think films like Guy Ritchie films don’t necessarily have that either. They are pure fun and entertainment so I thought it’d be fun to do something influenced by that.

EL: And you can get lost in that sometimes, like what does this shoot mean? Or this should have more significance.

JG: I mean it does, it must have some significance on some subconscious level but I think Guy Ritchie has influenced me in that way where you’re like: this is just entertainment. And I feel like that’s lost in photography a lot these days.

EL: Speaking of films and the influence they’ve had on you. Did you have a love for cinema before photography?

JG: Yes, very much so. When I was growing up my grandpa had a massive film collection and I used to raid his closet, basically, he would have 18 rated movies such as Terminator 2 and Tarintino films. From a young age, I would watch those quite violent films and I became hooked. From there I became a movie buff and went on to study film at The University West of Scotland which led me to work in Film&TV for four or five years after. So in the grand scheme of things I’m relatively new to photography.

EL: It certainly doesn’t come across that way in your images.

JG: Thank you very much. I guess I’d been planing it my whole life and thinking about and taking influence from these things. When I was working on Film&TV I was mainly in the lighting department so I learned a lot of my technical skills on film sets than I did from photographers. I’d say I’m more of a film fan than a photography fan, a lot more of my influence comes from filmmakers rather than photographers.

EL: And so what made you want to move on from that place in Film&TV?

JG: It wasn’t quite as creative as I would’ve liked for myself as an individual. I mean I love a team effort but I was setting up light and putting them up on someone else’s order so there wasn’t any real creative element. It would be the cinematographer telling me where to put things so that’s where it ended for me. I’d say as well there’s a slower pace that comes with photography, there was a harmony that came to me with still images as opposed to moving ones.

EL: On the day of the shoot itself what was going through your head, were you nervous?

JG: Not so much nervous, just excited. I couldn’t sleep the night before! Some of my favorite shoots I’ve put a lot of effort and time into are done on no sleep at all. I feel fine to shoot of course.

EL: It’s the adrenaline that carries you.

JG: Yeah I’d say so but I had a really great team behind me to help so I have to thank them.

EL: Yeah the team behind the shoot looked like a big one, the Instagram post you put out to thank everyone showed that.

JG: All in all I think there were about 40 people in the building and I was just one guy pushing the button!

“Some of my favorite shoots I’ve put a lot of effort and time into are done on no sleep at all.”

I think a lot of it is down to decision making beforehand. I made sure my main subjects and my background subjects, people helping me with lighting are all my closest friends and family. The main boxer himself is my uncle.

EL: Yes! So, I was going to come to this, what was the thinking behind having your uncle in this project?

JG: I think there’s something with photography that you’re allowed that little bit extra wiggle room so for instance I’ve obviously known my uncle’s face growing up and I know what he’s like as a character. He’s a really nice guy but he can look angry if he turns it on which is what I wanted. He was also of the age I wanted too. I dotted around model agencies beforehand and they sent me out a few options of like younger guys who were very fit but I just wasn’t getting that rough feel that I wanted from this shoot. Sometimes it’s about looking closer at who you already have available and who’s comfortable enough to work with. I saw his face and I knew it had to be him.  His boxing coach was my ex-girlfriend’s dad.

EL: Ex-girlfriend’s dad?!

JG: Yeah totally, cause we had talked about, when we were still together, doing a shoot and involving him. We then broke up and at the time I asked if it was okay to still involve him in a shoot and he agreed like “Yeah no worries”.

EL: Wow.

JG: I trust them, trusts the big thing. They turned up as well and were super nervous because they had never done anything like this before. I was telling them to just trust me. I also wanted to put them as ease too, when everyone arrived we had a case of like 80 beers and 6 large dominoes pizzas and just created a party atmosphere to make everyone relaxed. That’s just how I do things.

EL: We talked earlier about the influence directors have had over you and your work, where I think that’s very evident in this shoot is in your composition. How did you go about staging the scene for Family Blood?

JG: So I always start way out getting my establishing shot, kind of like you would for the film. It always relates back to the film for me. I’ll spend ages lighting it with the guys I have with me and we will use stand-ins just so my subjects weren’t standing there for ages, I’ll make sure I get it how I want it. I’d never put anyone in front of the camera till it was exactly how I want it. Then I’ll shoot what I think I want so that maybe what I’ve thought about in my head beforehand. Then after that, I’ll move about a bit and have some free reign and give the subjects free rein to do what they want to. It’s here that I find my sweet spot where I’m always surprised by what I capture. I don’t think I’ve ever planned a single shot that’s my favorite, they are always surprises.

EL: As well as the composition you also created an incredible atmosphere with these photos, you talked about getting the viewer to taste the blood, sweat, and iron in the air when they look at the photos. Which for me you really accomplished in doing that.

JG: Thank you. It’s about vision and taste, personally. Photography is almost like an equation made up of percentages so it could be 10% is the camera, 10% is the color grade, 10% is location. Every tiny element adds up to that 100%, not one single thing makes it all. So achieving that atmosphere was a combination of all these things and more. It all matters.

EL: Plus it’s about working with what you’ve got.

JG: Exactly. No excuses. I think when I started and I know a lot of photographers who do this, they’ll put off a shoot until they get a certain camera cause it’ll be better on that one compared to what they have now. And now I’m like, just do it. You’re putting things off just make it happen. Putting out a project can be very daunting at times so I can understand.

EL: Organizing and releasing such a big project like this must’ve been quite daunting, did you feel that fear with Family Blood?

JG: More so a financial sense (he laughs). I have been known to spend all my money on the shoot itself, it was a lean month. I lost weight that month! But I guess filmmakers or any creative individual will get that feeling of “Shit have I gone too far?”. And there are always costs that you don’t think about like we had to get a fire marshal out because we were using smoke machines so I had to pay him for the day. So you’re like “Oh god I have to pay a fireman’s wages for the day!” That’s what makes me nervous I’d say and it’s something I’ve had to train myself to deal with being an artist in this climate right now is daunting.

EL: And being an artist is always daunting financially.

JG: Yeah completely. But I’d say in the results sense it’s terrifying to put something out and have people judge it but I’ve had to train myself to go like “I like these results, I’m proud of how they turned out.”

EL: We’ve mentioned a lot about the expressions of everyone in the images, particularly your uncle and his expressions however the people in the background are just powerful and add even more to the images.

JG: Yeah I think the supporting artists just gave it their all that day, it was terrifying. Like when we were shooting I had loud music on to get everyone pumped up and I expected to spend the first half an hour telling everyone to give me more, but straight from the first shot everyone was in it. The room was electric! Even the guys doing the lighting were like “Shit! We weren’t expecting that.” I’m so proud of everyone in those images.

EL: It’s clear to see that. How did you go about transcending your vision for the shoot onto those involved?

JG: So everyone that came had watched set films before hand, almost like a director would give an actor certain films to watch. They’d seen them before but it was important they re-watched them so they knew what we were going for. For my uncle it was crucial I gave him as much detail as possible rather than just asking him to look angry or exhausted. That’s boring. So I would say something like “You’re in this underground boxing match and some gangster has money on this fight and they’ve got your daughter held captive. If you don’t win this fight or if you don’t go down in the third round then your daughter will be taken from you and you’ll never see her again.” Something like that which is more than enough. It gives them plenty to work with.

“Family Blood doesn’t really have any cultural significance to anyone else. But looking back now my blood is in it, my family is in it. There could be some internal subconscious thing there where I’m like pushing myself in this business trying to get that break.”

EL: If you don’t mind me asking, there was something you mentioned in the post where you promoted the series that I wanted to ask you about. You said “Anyone who knows me well knows my relationship between boxing and a hospital bed.” Can you elaborate on that?

JG: Okay, so. Every two years I injure myself, and back in 2018 I was diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis and it happens when you push a muscle too far. So for me it was my triceps and I was punching a punching bag and this caused contents of my muscle fibers to leak into my bloodstream and it resulted in kidney and liver failure. So I was in a hospital bed for a week recovering after that. So boxing is tricky. And it’s funny too because no-one ever talks about this kind of stuff when boxing on social media and that’s full of people telling you to push yourself to the limit but actually in doing that you can kill yourself. If we’re relating it back to the shoot, Family Blood doesn’t really have any cultural significance to anyone else. But looking back now my blood is in it, my family is in it. There could be some internal subconscious thing there where I’m like pushing myself in this business trying to get that break. At times I do feel as exhausted as my uncle looks. It can be relentless.

EL: For many people the last 6 months have been some of the hardest they’ve faced not just financially but creatively too, do you have any advice for those who have struggled to get the creative juices flowing?

JG: I think there’s something to be said for taking care of the vehicle and the passenger looks after itself so I really believe in being fit and healthy and that way the creativity will start flowing for me. Look to other photographers too, watch films, read magazines just take influence from all these other things. And don’t overthink it either, I think we can all get caught up in what we want to be but if you follow subconsciously what you’re feeling then you’ll get through it.

EL: You mentioned taking inspiration from other photographers, who are some of your influences?

JG:  I like Joey L. He’s done a lot of humanitarian work, I love how he’ll set up portraits and the rest of his work is very cinematic. Another guy is Jeremy Snell, who’s work I think is just amazing. Again another guy who’s work is very cinematic. Annie Lebovitz for me is a big influence, it sounds weird but I think she’s now just coming into herself. Some people may disagree of course given the fact she’s had such a legendary career. I read her book At Work and just thought it was amazing. She’s just getting better and better.  There’s several others too but I would never go out to directly copy their work, I try and take a slice of the pie so to speak.

EL: It’s like the equation you mentioned before, just a little percentage here and there.

JG: Yeah exactly, I take a little bit from each and hopefully that all adds up to make me and my style.

EL: You spoke there about Annie Lebovitz and how much she’s influenced you, I think that’s evident in how you both have the ability to create a story with your images. How did you manage to create a story in Family Blood?

JG: This is actually something I’m trying to expand on a photographer. So for me it starts with characters, where do I want them to be at the start, middle and end. What I want to expand on is the little in-between moments so with portrait shoots I can get caught up in the fact it’s a portrait shoot and only capture their face when in fact someones hand can say a lot about a person so I want to expand on that more. With Family Blood I’ve realized that photography is a lot like a comic book, where I’m capturing all these moments instead of just someone’s face. There’s so much more to a person or a character than just their face.

EL: And finally, what is the next project for you? Obviously we are in the midst of a pandemic but things are beginning to open back up again and folk are beginning to arrange shoots again so what can we look forward to seeing you shoot next?

JG: I think it would revolve around selling a character again, kind of in the world of Fargo. So an old american car, a bag full of money, some blood, snow. Things like that have been floating around my head for that shoot.

To view more of Jeff Gilmour’s work please visit his website.

Special thanks to: Jeff Gilmour, Emerald Arguelles, Taylor Curry, Carson Sanders and Little Italy Pizzeria for allowing us to interview there.