A fleeting hug, and then Kate Astbury launches into the conversation, talking quickly and with great enthusiasm about her BA in documentary photography, ideas for future projects, her theories about society and human behaviour and – in the immediate future – precisely where she’s going to live now that she’s graduated. These are, 25-year-old Astbury says, exciting times. She’s been nominated for the Welsh National Portrait Prize, has just had two London shows of her graduation work and is busy laying plans for an exhibition in Berlin later this year. February and March were spent shooting landscapes in Ghana and she’s planning a return trip in December. ‘But for now,’ Astbury says, ‘I’ve got a month to myself to think about my future.’
A flair for photography runs in the family. Astbury talks proudly about her grandfather Peter’s surreal, experimental pictures and her father Chris’s photographic studio in the family’s hometown of Poulton-le-Fylde in Lancashire. ‘My dad’s given me an innate sense of perspective – I never felt I had to learn about composition, I just knew what was a good picture,’ she says. Astbury put in the hours at the studio, learning about printing, framing and Adobe Photoshop. Having him on the end of the phone is handy – ‘Dad always solves my technical problems,’ she says, smiling.
It was he who urged Astbury to accept a place on the documentary course at the University of Wales, Newport. ‘The lecturers there are amazing and we had visiting tutors coming in all the time,’ she says. She’s a fan of Terry Richardson and David LaChapelle, but it’s David Hockney’s photomontage images that have influenced Astbury’s work the most. ‘I wanted to take that style but make the image so perfect you couldn’t tell it wasn’t real,’ she says. Her vast panoramic shots of Ghana – titled 50 Years of Independence – were created using this technique. Astbury singles out an image of a bus – or ‘tro-tro’ – station, assembled from 86 different shots. She points to little groups of people talking, swarms of brightly coloured vehicles, money being handed through a car window/ a hectic, vibrant world that Astbury is clearly passionate about.
Painstakingly piecing these scenes together in Photoshop is a laborious task. Astbury admits she gets obsessive, spending days on each picture, but says, ‘It excites me so much to see the images coming together on the screen. Every time I press “save” my heart jumps a beat. It could crash and I would lose everything, but that’s part of the process.’ Asked what she likes best about her images, she says, ‘Some are taken over a period of ten minutes, so it’s almost like a film shot, where a person might be replicated a couple of times. It becomes a game, finding these imperfections in the image. The more you look, the more you start to question what’s real and what’s not.’ She hopes the pictures will raise other questions too, about Western consumerism, and how Africa is perceived in the West. ‘I think people reject pictures of Africa because they automatically assume they’re going to be pictures of poverty,’ she says. ‘I want to make people look a bit longer than that.’
Careful not to pigeonhole herself, Astbury’s diverse portfolio includes a portrait series, Doll Face, with different models identically made-up in child-like masks. For Possessions, another labour-intensive project, Astbury documented the bewildering array of books, shoes, hairdryers and toiletries that cluttered her six-strong student flatshare. It’s the scenes of Ghana, though, that really shine. ‘The viewer’s experience is as important to me as the photograph itself,’ she says of her work. ‘In the same way, the process of making the image is just as important to me as the look of the finished piece.’ Astbury estimates that each of her landscapes takes 100 hours to assemble. She’s rightly proud of the detail she captures with this technique and has recently photographed Blackpool, her local seaside town, in the same style.
An ambitious, determined character, the only thing holding Astbury back right now is print size – ‘Printers are only 44 inches wide. Ideally, I would like to double that,’ she says. ‘I’m not a big fan of seams in images though, so I’m looking into printing on banner material. I’d like to hang my images on the sides of buildings to brighten up bad spaces.’