Be Water My Friend: Woody Gooch on texture, abstraction and joining The Pool Collective

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Be Water My Friend: Woody Gooch on texture, abstraction and joining The Pool Collective

Q&A with Woody Gooch by Adam Rivett for Campaign Brief.


Woody Gooch’s work is blessed by the light and in awe of the heights. Initially making his name in the world of surfing with imagery that captured both the immensity and instantaneity of the sport, at 28, his practice has evolved into short-form film, portraiture and landscape while at every turn maintaining the keen eye and responsiveness to the moment found in those early works. A self-taught artist who has always retained the energy and restlessness of the auto-didact, he’s also the newest member of The Pool Collective. I sat down with him to discuss his work and the motivations and ideas behind his imagery.

Adam Rivett: You got your start with a very particular visual style and subject: surfing. Was that a case of the personal leading to the artistic?

Woody Gooch: I’ve always seen the ocean as my playground from a young age. Before I had a camera, I used to swim around in the waves and pretend to take photographs by blinking my eyes. It was how I saw the ocean, in my own way, as a nourishing space. Over time, it’s been a mentor, a place I understand as having a mind of its own. Working in the water has made me understand texture and abstractions in a very personal way, which I’ve been able to transfer to the way I see other objects and places. The water is a place that’s always corrected and fortified my vision and overall thought.

AR: Documenting surfing and working on and beneath the ocean surface offers challenges very different from most other forms of image-making. Some works in your Contained series feel like being caught in the shadow of a wave moments before the crash. How do you position yourself and get the right angle, so to speak, in such an unstable and perpetually changing medium?

WG: The ocean has a mind of its own, and it’s why I’m so connected to it. I often like letting the ocean take me where it wants to rather than fighting against it and positioning myself where I believe I should be. It’s like the water encouraging me to try harder and see my subject differently. It’s also taught me to work with what’s in front of me to respond to the moment’s immediacy without overthinking it or trying to falsely compose an image.

AR: Your landscape portraits, such as the work from the Common Ground exhibition, feel immense and seem to take on the forceful, stark nature of the subject — the ice obfuscates or obliterates much of the frame, while mountain views are hazy, seeming to dissolve from the lack of oxygen. Is there an attempt to impose a particular idea or aesthetic to the landscape, or do you feel like it’s more a matter of trying to honestly capture a space and let its conditions affect the work? 

WG: I see landscapes within landscapes. I follow a thought and vision, find something grand and visually interesting in the entire image and then crop it out. It’s a sense or impression that I want to focus on — there is something about creating something from nothing. It’s all in front of you, but you don’t need to use it all. I find myself waiting around a lot for things to shift and change within the conditions of the landscape. Through this patience, you find meaning and convey the exact nature of place and time.

AR: I’m very taken with your film I Am Here Now, a collaboration with Sophia Layrea. How the conversation with her distant, phone-bound father works against the vibrancy and beauty of Sophia, her dancing, and her movement across various landscapes is very effective. In some of your other work, smaller human figures are often dwarfed by their surroundings, while in this film, Sophia is front and centre almost constantly. Does working with a human subject change your responsiveness to space?

WG: This is where I have enjoyed working in both filmmaking and photography. The parallels have a precise meaning for me. I like working with the idea of naivety and leaving my decision-making open to the possibility of the unintentional. What’s important is that I leave space for the viewer’s imagination, thoughts, and prejudices to flourish. There must be a window for someone else to step in and bring their own point of view. If I give you all the context and force my version to the fore, there’s less space for nuance. My hope is that the less I give you, the more you bring to the work.

AR: Do you think the approach changes when the camera moves in closer, so to speak, whether it’s Sophia’s face or the intimate practice of human portraiture. You mentioned before that you were happy with the ocean taking you to the right spot for the shot — Does the collaboration and trust between a face and a lens need that same fluidity and adaptability? How do you “let it flow” when it comes to more intimate shots?

WG: That intimacy of portraiture almost intimidated me when I first started out. I initially enjoyed the anonymity of observing from afar and felt slightly uncomfortable about being in someone’s personal space. Over time, I realised that if I were to walk up to people, I wanted to photograph and chat with them and tell them a bit about myself. People sometimes forget to do that — you’ve got to give some of yourself away and put something at risk. In that circumstance, both the photographer and the subject share moments of awkwardness and uncertainty, which is important and gratifying. Most of my portraits are photographed with little preparation. The spontaneity of that meeting is really crucial and meaningful to me.

Be Water My Friend: Woody Gooch on texture, abstraction and joining The Pool Collective

AR: You’ve worked with a diverse group of commercial clients: Audi, Dior, Corona, Lululemon, MoMA, to name a few. Often, the work feels like an extension of the natural visual grammar you’ve developed over the years. What are the challenges and points of interest when translating your visual language into a commercial context? 

WG: I’m often asked to bring my style to whatever I’m shooting commercially — which I love. Image-making’s surreal but wholesome nature speaks strongest in the final work when there’s a sense of trust and enthusiasm. If my images can be a vehicle for communicating the subject at hand, then that’s what it’s all about. It’s the most important thing about being an image maker.

AR: Given inspiration can come from anywhere, are there any contemporary artists you feel inspired by in any medium? And are there artists that first “got you going” that you still return to? 

WG: A handful of artists I seem to carry with me always animate and stimulate my thinking, but they vary across different forms. I’ve always been seduced by the rich colours that infuse Jamie Hawkesworth’s photography. On the other hand, Glenn Murcutt’s architecture also means a lot to me — the connection is more abstract, but I like the way it invites daydreaming and the way the space lives and breathes as if in its ideal location. The artists who have continuously inspired me were those who could open up a small crack into the moment they were experiencing and then leave it available for others. That’s the same for me. I like looking at moments that are not necessarily as interesting when you take a step back. These moments are so day-to-day, but they represent a broader feeling. As I spend a lot of time on my own, travelling with work, I become more outward-looking.

AR: Lastly, the inevitable closing question: What have you got ahead of you for the rest of the year and into 2024?

WG: I have a few short films I’m working on, which are still in the early stages of coming to life. I have just finished up on a large piece I’ve been working on for the past 5 years, which was shot in Haiti, Port au Prince. The short film and book Beyond Conscious, Beneath Blood is an experimental fiction that shows the stress brought upon individuals in Haiti as they struggle with religious identity and finding answers to historical issues in their country. It’s exciting to look at the project now, so close to the end compared to where it all started, and I’m excited to share it shortly. I’m also preparing for an exhibition that should be running in early February in Tokyo, which focuses on a local lake there. It’s a location I’ve spent a lot of time at, tracking the seasonal changes across the Japanese countryside.

For commission enquiries contact Courtney Lewis at The Pool Collective:

To view Woody Gooch’s portfolio:

Visit The Pool Collective website:

Be Water My Friend: Woody Gooch on texture, abstraction and joining The Pool Collective