With a background in media and TV and inspired by Christoph Niemann, he began sketching landmarks and taking photos of the sketches in their real locations. But this had been done before. How could he break the mould?
France.fr caught up with Rich about his love of buildings, travel and street art, and his latest project in France in 2019.
So, Rich… why buildings in particular?
To be honest, I had nothing beyond an average interest in architecture – it was more about the landmarks and the fact they were so instantly recognisable. Playing around with something so familiar was really what interested me. Especially Big Ben, because everyone knows and loves it – it’s a true icon of London. But I’d seen everyone take photos of it, so I decided to do something different and actually change the landmark using cut-outs, making people see it in a different way.
I wandered around London with my camera just noticing the buildings around me. The more observant I became, the more it developed the type of thinking that creates my work, and vice versa – noticing patterns, and different angles and viewpoints. When I came up with the idea it felt so simple and organic, as if somebody had to already be doing it, but they weren’t. It went down well – and that’s when I decided landmarks were the one!
What’s your connection with France?
Growing up in Kent, I did the classic trips to France by ferry with my family, visited the Loire Valley a couple of times, did the south of France one or twice, and then did Paris with university friends. I hadn’t visited the mountains until a couple of years ago… I wouldn’t describe myself as a skier, but I’m a keen learner…
Let’s talk a bit about your latest France project.
I worked with Atout France across five French destinations in 2019, promoting them through their landmarks. In Le Havre it was the ‘Le Signal’ sculpture at the MUMA, in Paris it was the Palais Galliera. I also went to the Louvre Lens, the Chateau du Clos-Lucé and two sites in Marseille: the MuCEM and Chateau d’If.
You mentioned you enjoy the parameters that brand work involves. What were they like for this?
The hardest part was choosing the buildings! We had a long list and initially thought it was going to be a wonderful open project with a playground of buildings, but we ended up having to scale it down, which limited but also helped me in some ways. The campaign was split across two trips. Having the focus really helped – I struggled coming up with an idea for Clos-Lucé, but ultimately I think that’s my favourite one: it’s so ‘on brief’, celebrating Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance’s 500th anniversary, and a bit different from my usual style, i.e. not urban.
What were the challenges?
Coming up with six ideas that I was really into. But the nice thing about this project was that there was quite a long lead-up time, so there was plenty of time to think and not rush the ideas – so that helped a lot.
The Louvre Lens guitarist is the only photo with two hands showing! How did you take that one?
I do this a little less often – it’s using a tripod and self-timer. It’s always my own hand(s) – I made that choice consciously three or four years when taking photos in London. Someone stopped and asked if I needed them to hold the cut-out for me, and I think it was in that moment I decided I’ve always got to do it independently.
Are the animations a new thing too?
Over the past year I’ve been doing more of these, as there’s only a certain amount you can do with one or two cut-outs being held up. I wouldn’t have been able to realise my idea for Palais Galliera without the animation element – it just wouldn’t have made any sense. I found myself throwing away some ideas because I couldn’t do them just with cut-outs, so animation really widens the spectrum. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t go down that well, but I’ve kept it within my style and seem to have got away with it.
You’re trying to travel more slowly these days and take your time. Did you find the French way of life was conducive to that?
One of the best aspects of the project was that it took me to parts of France I’d never have otherwise chosen, or even heard of – I didn’t even know Lens existed. Many people I met and spoke to on the trip hadn’t heard of the Louvre Lens. A couple of people knew about the MuCEM in Marseille, but they were amazed when I showed them a photo of it. I didn’t know about Chateau d’If and the Count of Monte Cristo novel either, so there were so many discoveries and connecting dots. I stayed a bit longer in Marseille as I particularly loved it, and headed off to explore the calanques. I think there’s a risk of familiarity with France being our nearest neighbour, but this trip really challenged that for me. I’ve also done a lot of long-haul, so it was refreshing to stay closer to home.
What did you think of the Loire Valley?
Really beautiful. We stayed at a lovely hotel in Amboise looking up towards the chateau, and I had spare time to wander, explore the gardens and see Leonardo da Vinci’s burial spot. It was quite a slow, relaxed trip. A lot of it was waiting for the light to be right! Normally I’d run into a garden, do the photo and be off again – but on this occasion we could enjoy lunch and meet the local PRs, which really added to the experience. I always have a back-up idea, one of which was Leonardo with a paintbrush painting the sunset in the sky, but I felt the easel worked quite nicely in the end. Being in the garden when it was completely empty was awesome – almost a bit haunting!
You took an awesome shot of a snowy mountain as a bride in a wedding dress. Do you have any yearning to do more of that style, working with natural landscapes?
Yeah, I’d be really keen to do more with landscapes – I think sometimes they seem to get more interest than the buildings. I’ve shot a few landscapes in Canada recently which I’ve really enjoyed. I did one in Tignes with the ‘hipster barber’ grooming the slopes and that got a good reaction.
Someone once described you as a ‘non-destructive vandal’. What do you think of street art? Do you consider it vandalism? Obviously it’s huge in France… Paris has spent €500m on creating ‘murs d’expression’ in all 20 arrondissements!
Really? Wow! I absolutely don’t think it’s vandalism. The more I’ve been building a reputation as an artist, the more I’ve been exposed to street art – and by that I don’t just mean people who do stuff with spray paint, I mean installation artists like the French guy who does little mosaics on street corners, Invader. I really like his work. I suppose my theory beforehand was that graffiti is graffiti – but there’s a real difference between graffiti that’s just tagging and people doing proper art on the streets.
Congratulations on publishing your first book! Are you still keen on creating an interactive children’s book?
Well… did you ever read The Jolly Postman as a kid? I loved it because it was so interactive, you got letters you could pull out and read, and there was one with a postcard and almost like an optical illusion with lots of different characters. I want to do something like that, using my stencils in such a way that children can interact with them, but I need to figure out a story or narrative. I imagine it’s probably going to be about travelling around the world via these cut-outs in some way. And someone pointed out to me recently that if I added an environmental message to it that would be a really nice touch too, and that would of course make sense and give the book more purpose. I’m not in any rush with it, but I’m playing around with ideas in my downtime!
You also mentioned you’ve got ideas that don’t involve paper… are you willing to tell us more?
I think it’s going back to street art and inspiration from there. I’m not very good with a spray can, but I’ve seen really interesting street art which plays around with existing landmarks, like the stuff by Slinkachu who places small sculptures in the street and they interact with a puddle, a chain, or a street lamp in some way. So it would be doing what I’m doing, but perhaps in a slightly more ‘destructive’ way! I’m just aware of Instagram and maybe it’s peaked a bit now – so if I can come up with an idea based in the real world that doesn’t just live on social media, that would be great and push me to experiment with different mediums. I think when someone stops experimenting or gets too comfortable, it can get a bit dull and repetitive. But I still love the paper and I’ll never lose it.
Finally – any dream projects?
Collaborating with another artist. Obviously I won’t always get to work with movie stars like Will Smith (Rich recently worked on a promotion for Will’s latest film, Gemini Man) but collaborating with someone else and bringing the two of us together would be great. A lot of what I do is quite solo and independent, and that suits my personality quite nicely, but it would definitely be good to combine ideas with another creative!
Any other French destinations you’d like to visit?
I think the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy would be great, alongside spending more time in Le Havre and visiting the D-Day Landing Beaches. In Lyon, there’s an orange building that looks like it’s had a football kicked into it (The Orange Cube). That would be cool too! Also more of the mountains and ski resorts. I’m a tennis fan so Roland Garros would be great – a couple of years ago I almost went to the Davis Cup when it was in Paris. I also love Disney, but going to Disneyland Paris on my own as a 32-year-old man would be a bit weird, so I’d probably need to recruit some friends to come with me.
And what’s your ultimate dream destination?
Johannesburg, South Africa – there’s some really unusual architecture there and I like that it’s a bit edgy, and they’re really into their street art. Otherwise Antarctica.
Rich McCor was chatting to Rachel Johnston. His first book, Around the World in Cut-Outs, is available here .