Charles Harry Mackenzie is an artist finding expression through the mediums of writing and photography. He calls himself a chronographer – a made-up title which refers to the fact that everything he creates (regardless of medium) stems directly out of his desire to ‘record’ life. We spoke to Charles to find out a bit more about his creative roots, his ever-changing aesthetic inclinations, working within the present moment and using photography to come to grips with reality.
Did you grow up in a creative environment, or one where creativity was actively encouraged?
Yes and no. There is no easy answer to this, I mean my parents have always supported my pursuits but it’s safe to say that my schooling, and even the culture around me restricted me from having an outlet. Art was just another subject at school, not that I put much effort into it or was any good…but when talking about creativity and expression this is usually the first place to look. To be fair – I didn’t really have an outlet from which to express myself. But that’s besides the point. One should feel creativity…and inspiration to be creative…everywhere. Finding photograpy, and in turn expression, was really one large fucking fluke, and there are a million other boring realities in which I never found my voice.
What initially drew you to writing as an art form?
I wrote for a long time before I delved into photography, and for me it was an opportunity to learn and shape my voice. I never really knew all the rules, but I followed all the ones that I did, and most of the stuff I wrote was in-authentic and trite. After discovering art/expression and shoving my foot right up its asshole, I learned to encourage freedom and experimentation. After all, art begins as a manicured technical process that is then abstracted, and abstracted, and abstracted, so it only made sense to do this with words. To play, to experiment, to break the rules. This is so important with regards to honoring your voice and doing the best that you can, and honestly if it’s absolute gibberish that only you can understand…that’s fine. But yeah, luckily the nonsense I pushed out found some connection with people (a weird underground alt lit movement no less), and at the end of the day there is always the mainstream journalism that I churn out. It’s all rubbish really. But it’s my junk, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And language was, if anything, the very first art form, not just as a vehicle of communication…but one of expression.
What is your earliest photography-related memory?
Taking this photo:
I remember crying after it was developed. Prior to taking it (and discovering photography), I was hip-hopping between the idea that I was crazy…and the idea that perhaps I actually had a unique perspective of the world (as does EVERYONE else). This photo came out exactly (and above and beyond) what I expected – seeing it, and realizing that I wasn’t totally insane, was incredibly inspiring and healing. And ultimately, this photo may seem insignificant to all but me. And that’s the point, and that’s why art is so misunderstood. It’s unique expression. The only person you should try to make happy is yourself, and if you can touch other peoples lives that’s cool too.
While they’re both forms of expression, what function does writing fulfil for you that photography doesn’t – and vice versa?
I have this weird disconnection between my brain and pure motor function. The result is, that I am quite good at verbalizing things, but with regards to creating physical art (or even writing), a lot of things literally get lost in translation. Photography was thus an absolute godsend, because I was literally able to capture the things that I had often failed to draw and write about. It still seems this way, but persistence and the experience of expression have helped me to be more courageous with my words.
When comparing photography with writing, at least from my experience, it’s incredibly hard to describe the difference. I think that is because, unless they are independent of each other, my writing and photography often go hand in hand. The line is so incredibly blurred. My photographs capture moments that I can’t write about…and my writing provides context that my photos can’t, but this can also sometimes slide into a complete reverse.
It can even be boiled down to subjectivity and objectivity. At first I would take ‘objective’ photos and write subjective things, so that people can jump in and say “Hey this is what happened, and this is how he saw it happen.” But I found myself in a messy pool of obscurity, and I realized that both…can portray both…and should portray both.
As Terence McKenna said: “The artist is the person of language.” So despite appearances writing and photography are actually the same thing on the inside, they just wear different coats on the outside.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
So many things. So many things that even as a writer, I cannot cleverly summarise and distill these things for you. But I’ll try.
Life. Love. Dream study. Conversations. Connections. Beautiful people. Beautiful things. Hate is great for the whole ‘suffering artist vibe’, but love for everyone and everything is all encompassing and incomparable. Hippy bullshit aside. It is really great.
Has the act of taking photographs changed the way you look at or think about things?
Absolutely. Our reality is socially constructed, and photographs play a big part in both creating and unveiling this. The way that things can be seen, manipulated and displayed is unfathomable. The fact that moments…passing moments…can be captured absolutely and completely is always life changing, and getting that one shot is like a punch in the stomach (in a good way). At the end of the day, everything is subjective and a product of our culture. We make our reality, and photography is a great way to truly come to grips with this thought.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic of your photographs, and how has this developed since you first started out?
I definitely have certain inclinations and aesthetic values, but man…these change ALL THE TIME. I try to focus more on the moment, what is right in front of me…if that forms a puzzle piece in the grander scheme of my style…I don’t know…I don’t have a clue really. But I like to let everything define itself for me, and then I make the decision to redefine it, both in the moment and sometimes in post. My style has always been there, I just had to dig it out from the slew of random nonsense that covered it up. Everybody has their own style…everybody has their fingerprint…sure, but we are all a product of our experiences and at the young age of 20…it would be incredibly dishonest to say that there isn’t room for change…there is always room for change.
You seem to work in garish colour, gritty black and white, and everything in between. What makes your work distinctly yours?
For a long time I felt an unbearable amount of self loathing. Just as I have illustrated before, everything I do is all over the place, great for experimentation…terrible for a distinct style. I tried everything…and enjoyed everything. I would gloss over greats like Kent Andreasen and was always ready to throw a loaf of bread at my computer screen. I mean, it wouldn’t matter if I travelled into the obscure far reaches of the deep dark web, hopping between silk road and terrorist forums…if I saw a Kent Andreasen image lurking about I would immediately know that it was him. I felt jealous. Why is that mother fucker so cool?
I’m a lot more content now, I work haphazardly…but I have also created definitive distinctions both in my ‘freelens’ work and ‘abstractions.’ Freelensing is such an undervalued technique that allows people to bend and distort light, dimensions and colours in real time. I mean the implications of this are incredible. No Photoshop, none of that…you are literally manipulating reality right before your very eyes and coming back with a photo to prove it – if that isn’t a trip then I don’t know what is. With my abstractions, I have found a way to do a similar thing…albeit in post-production. I mean artists generally get to go wild with abstracting reality, in order to create a subjective representation of it, but photography is stuck in a sick circle of Photoshop and unreality. So with my abstractions I have found a way to capture a narrative that is not mine, that belongs in the external world, and then create a new world inside of it. The trick is to maintain most of what makes a photograph a photograph, and then bend the rest of it. I really like the connotations of this process, because it is the closest (if not the definitive) representation of reality. If ‘photography’ can be abstracted through an artistic method and still represent reality at the end of it…then it still holds the ‘power of reality’. Which is really great.
If you looked at any art piece, take Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’ for example, without context you would say “What the fuck is this disgusting nonsense?” but after learning the backstory you would get the context and understand the piece and its connotations. My abstractions are a way of removing everything…but context.
When creating, regardless of the medium, would you say that your approach is more spontaneous than it is planned? Why?
Both. I mean planned or not, photography is a relatively unconscious process, so even if something is planned it ends up being morphed and shaped by the moment, it’s the same for writing. At first I took this as a slight to my ability, I mean if most of what I did was unconscious then what was the point? But now I accept it. I’m currently interested in photographing the effects and experiences of hallucinatory states of mind, and that’s completely unconscious. I can’t tell my dick from my nose but I can still take photos, and I have started to make massive headway in that direction…but more on that another time.
So yeah, most of the time when I conceptualize and plan something with absolute scrutiny…time passes and it falls to pieces. Passion exists in the moment, and if the moment passes then so does the passion for that particular thing. So I try my best only to act on impulse and work with the present moment on hand. There is a lot of failure in this process, but a lot of success as well, and I hold that both circumstances are equally important.
What are you currently looking at, reading and/ or listening to?
I’m reading Terrence McKenna’s ‘The Archaic Revival’, watching Russell Brand’s ‘The Trews’, and listening to Earth’s most recent album ‘Primitive and Deadly’.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
I’ve been working on my Letters of Apology Project. I wanted to bring my art back to its grassroots, which was always to captivate and connect with people. I also wanted to incorporate the healing and growth of art and expression, which I had naively thought would come naturally. It didn’t, and I still continued to wear the skin that I envisioned myself to shed through art. So this project is an effort to reconnect with people and repair relationships using words and art. I don’t see myself writing anymore letters soon (maybe I should piss off more people, hah), but I want it to be a lifelong project. There is nothing more that I value on this earth than human connection, and I really think that in our culture it is so easy to let things dissolve away…in my mind that only serves to make whatever memories and experiences you shared with these people absolutely worthless, if you can’t fight and justify maintaining these relationships…then what was the point in the first place?
When I am back in Cape Town, I want to dive head first into documenting the artistic process. I believe that the artistic process is not only profound, but more important than the actual works themselves. There is so much that is hidden in the ‘finished product’ – all the flaws, mistakes, nuances…all of it. I have done this before actually with two of your selected creatives (Kent Andreasen and Sibs Shongwe-La Mer).
I am obsessed with process, and I feel that an artist’s work alone can be thrown onto a pedestal and alienate a lot of people. I think it is so incredibly important for people to see and experience the process of expression both from a perspective of entertainment but also for learning and growth. So yeah, hopefully in collaboration with artists and websites (such as Between 10and5) I want to explore and document the nature of creativity.