Most people might think that spending hours staring down at the ground makes one insecure or closed off - Steve Rolfe would say just the opposite. A photographer working out of Gloucester, England, the images found in Rolfe’s upcoming book, Small World, celebrate the beauty in the details that we’re often too busy to notice: a snail making its way down the sidewalk, a crushed beer can in the gutter, or an iridescent puddle on the ground. Though most wouldn’t look twice, Rolfe is fascinated by the stories the minutiae of the world tells. Like a detective working undercover, Rolfe transforms the anonymous, hidden details we pass by each day and shows us what they could be, if only we would slow down and allow our imaginations to take hold.
Small World is now available for pre-order and will be released Winter 2023.
How long have you been a photographer and what initially drew you to the profession?
I started in 2010 as a hobby. What first got me started was seeing the book Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu. In England at Christmastime, you get all sorts of weird and quirky books that come out. I was in the local bookstore with my wife and this book just jumped out at me. On one page you had a street scene, and then on the second page you had a close-up of the little people doing whatever they were doing. That got me thinking, “I could do my own!” That’s where this all started.
You live in Gloucestershire, England. What effect has the countryside had on your work?
I wouldn't say the countryside itself has had an effect. I love the urban side of things, the gritty side…the time in the city. It’s gives you a greater opportunity for creating juxtaposition within the images. I live in Gloucester and was born and raised in Cheltenham, which is about 11 miles away from Gloucester. When I met my wife, she was in Gloucester. She was born and raised here. So, I ended up in Gloucester and have been here for 22 years.
I know you were interested in the Little People in the City book and that started your career, but what first got you started photographing these miniature-scapes? How did you first conceive of and create them?
Photography just allows the creativity to flow. It’s organic, I suppose. I try to get people to go out, whether it’s with their camera or their mobile phones, for just half an hour and shoot something. It can be in the countryside or it can be in the town. Go out and look down, look everywhere, because I can guarantee within half an hour you would have three images that could tell a story. It’s all just to empty the mind. You let your creativity take over.
I'm focused more on ground-level on the pavement or in the gutter to see things that maybe shouldn't be there. It creates a story. It’s similar to Little People in the City where I can't explain where or how the ideas come up, they just suddenly come up. I can go weeks without anything, then suddenly, one thing leads to another. I suppose it's like writer's block for authors.
It seems almost like it's a meditative process for you.
It is. It’s just trying not to overthink and then things come along. There was one I did, “Ice Cream Crime Scene.” I was watching Better Call Saul. Saul comes out of his car and drops an ice cream on the floor. That gave me the inspiration to do the same sort of scenario. I had a bit of ice cream in a cone because in England we have ice cream cones called 99ers. The picture is a dome of ice cream on the floor with a cone stuck on top of it and the police around it so it’s an ice cream crime scene.
The "Mars Expedition” picture was interesting as I was thinking of people traveling to space. I had some little people in chemical suits so I thought I could do my own version, without having to go to space, surrounding an investigation on Mars. I found a street and opened up the packet of the Mars bar, took the end piece off so you could see inside it, and had these men in suits doing investigations on the chocolate bar.
Your images are heavily humorous and that really shines in your work. When you're creating these images do you simply happen upon a discarded apple and think of what else it could be, or is it more planned out than that? Is it in the moment or do you plan out each image?
It’s both, because I will come across something and then the mind will start to say, “Okay, that's interesting. So where can we go with this?” It can take a number of attempts to get what I want correct or to a point that I'm happy with it.
It does take a little bit of planning because obviously you have to make sure you've got the figures correct so that it gives you that look you want. I don't think you could have one without the other. With the “But I’m a Celebrity!” image I created with the Stella beer can, I saw the can just lying on the floor and got to thinking, “Okay, I could do something with that.” In England, we have a TV series called I’m A Celebrity where celebrities go to a jungle and have to live there for three weeks, and they have to do bushtucker trials. Stella is a popular brand of beer in the UK, but it's quite a heavy drink and lots of alcoholics drink it. So, you have this chap falling out of a Stella beer can with the police waiting for him and he's doing his bushtucker trial.
Are there certain scenes that you enjoy creating the most? Is it more of the humorous ones or is it more the sentimental ones? I’m thinking of the image of two people together in the middle of the puddle.
The funny ones. It’s the humor. Sometimes it's in the face, sometimes it's a little bit more ambiguous.
The one with the puddle was meant to highlight flooding, because in the UK we have a lot of floods. It doesn't matter who you are, you get stuck in it. That was one of the very first ones I shot back in 2000.
It seems that your style has evolved a bit to include more of that humor element.
There’s also the darker side of ones with a hard-hitting message. I’ve highlighted men’s mental health awareness, because men don't talk about mental health. They don’t talk anyway. There is that scenario. In the humorous ones they work with the actors, for want of a word, poking fun at things. I’m trying to draw the line so I don't go too risqué with them because you can go a little bit over the top. It’s trying to find that happy medium.
You have to have quite a good eye to create these images. Have you always been interested in searching for these small, hidden pieces that often go undetected in our daily lives?
I think as human beings we all like detective and police dramas. I think we all have that curiosity. I do have an eye for an image and that has helped my other photography as well, because I don't just do the little people series. Having an eye for an image covers all my photography.
I think that for you this series might be more of a way to meditate. When you're looking down at the ground and emptying your mind, you're seeing all these things that maybe other people are passing by. They would never have imagined these scenarios that you’re creating, and it makes us look at the world a bit differently. Are you currently working on creating images for another collection?
I'm always doing work. It never stops. I still work on bits and pieces because I think it's good to get out and about and look for things.
One of the things I'm doing, it’s not quite to do with little people, it’s to do with rubbish on the street. At the moment, it’s cigarette butts because in England there's an awful lot of e-cigarettes everywhere but you still get a lot of cigarette ends on the floor. I’m focusing on where they are, the make, if there’s lipstick on there, whatever. It’s a story of the street. It’s not everyone's cup of tea, but it’s something I've been working on for a long time, just creating that catalog. I’m also still working on new images with the little people.