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Fixation/AOP Junior Assistant Competition Winners: Graeme Cunningham

Graeme Cunningham was one of the lucky winners of our AOP Junior Assistant competition. We find out more about his photography

Conceptual, experimental, striking. There’s a lot to love about the conceptual images of Graeme Cunningham, and his fabulous entry to our Junior Assistant competition was an instant hit with our judges.

Graeme blends portraiture with an illustrative processing style to give his images a distinct look which we found fascinating. We wanted to know more, so we got in touch…

“I like to use dramatic lighting, often leaning towards spot lights that pick characters out of their environment.”

Fixation: Congratulations on a fantastic prize-winning image! Could you tell us a little about your winning shot?

Graeme Cunningham: The image was created last year, and was part of a larger series called “We Only Come Out at Night”.  I had had the rough idea for a while, and it was a question of finding a suitable kitchen to shoot it in.

There are two main images comped together to create the final shot. First I shot an empty backplate of the kitchen in the dark, exposing for the night sky outside. Then I placed a gelled speedlite on a trigger inside the fridge and brought my model in. Once I had captured the pose and facial expression that I felt told the story I wanted to tell, it was a case of blending the two images together.

By this stage in the project, I’d refined the look and editing style for the series, so the final image came together quite quickly.

© Graeme Cunningham

F: How would you describe your style of portrait photography? How have you honed it?

GC: There’s definitely a propensity towards the dark and macabre. I like to use dramatic lighting, often leaning towards spot lights that pick characters out of their environment. For the series “We Only Come Out At Night”, I wanted them all to share a sort of weird hyper-real dream world.

I suppose my take on portraiture is more interested in performance than truth. I like to give sitters some kind of eccentric character or scenario, with suitable props and costumes.

I take a camera with me everywhere, and when I’m out and about I often see locations that give me an initial spark of inspiration for something. Similarly, sometimes I meet people who just have a certain charisma that appeals to me, and I’ll immediately be able to envision them as a certain character. Then it’s a question of persuading them to take part, which is often easier than you might think. My shoots are usually a lot of fun – I think this is important.

My style is something I think that develops out of me following what I’m interested in. I don’t doubt that this will continue to develop and mutate as I go.

© Graeme Cunningham

F: Your work is quite experimental – what sort of things inspire you?

GC: I’m a big nerd. I can and will bore people to tears about all manner of subjects, a lot of which shows up in my work in one way or another. Cinema and TV definitely loom large, particularly B-Movies and weird cult television shows.

Often I’m inspired by things that made an impression on me as a child, such as Terry Gilliam’s work both as a director and with Monty Python. Its combination of weird, funny and terrifying has had a lasting effect on my worldview.

I’m definitely drawn towards and inspired by counter-culture and youth culture. Punks, skinheads, etc.

I worked as a graphic artist before coming to photography. I’ve used Photoshop for a long time so I’m very comfortable with that side of things, and some of my work definitely blurs the lines between pure photography and illustration.

© Graeme Cunningham

F: Who are some photographers you admire? Have they influenced your style?

GC: I love photography in general, but I suppose a lot of the influences I see reflected in my work are more contemporary ones.

Gregory Crewdson would be one. His use of lighting really appeals to me, picking his characters out of the gloom with spotlights, or glowing TVs. I like the uneasiness that permeates his images. That idea of something being not quite right, just below the surface. I also love the ridiculous scale he works on, with his sound stages, shutting down whole towns and the like…

Erwin Olaf is another photographer whose work I love, particularly his personal projects. He has a very developed look to his work, which I think nails that hyper-real quality I mentioned earlier. He’s also has a penchant for the macabre characters, which he realises so perfectly.

Then there’s Nadav Kander. There’s something immediately recognisable about his work, which given the volume of photography we’re bombarded with daily is quite an achievement. It’s very contemporary and he’s not afraid to experiment.

© Graeme Cunningham

F: What are your plans for your future career? 

GC: I relocated to London in September of 2016. Since then I’ve been looking to gain as much experience assisting other photographers as possible as well as continuing to look for opportunities to develop my own work.  Ideally I think I’d like to work as a first assistant with someone whose work I admire to learn more about the business side of things.

One of the first jobs I worked in London when I arrived was assisting the AOP to put on their awards program and subsequent Beyond the Lens conference. That was a very inspiring start, with so much great work on display. It would be nice to return to the awards in the future as a nominee.

In the long term, I think my work would be quite suitable for use in things like film, television, theatre and publishing.

I’m currently finishing a personal project, which is a bit different to my portrait work. It’s more abstract and environmental. I’m not sure what’s going to come out of yet, but that’s the most enjoyable part of the process.

Thanks to Fixation and AOP for this opportunity. If anyone reading likes what I do please get in touch.

See more images of Graeme’s at

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