As a preamble, I should mention that I am one of a group of photographers, who also happen to write blogs, and I’ve been inspired after seeing Light, a brand new technology camera company, to write a piece about my career and how it evolved through traditional analogue cameras to current digital technology to which I am in thrall.
I don’t have many clear memories of the time before I was a photographer and there was a time in the middle of my career as a professional photographer of which I have no memory at all. That career began suddenly one day, in 1968, when the photographer whom I then assisted told me to stop assisting as I was of no assistance whatsoever. It would be true to say that I didn’t possess in any quantity the work ethic which is a prime requisite if one is to be gainfully employed by a third party which meant that I was, and henceforth would be, on my own. If you’re planning to start a career in photography do it in 1968. There was a lot of work about, everyone was not a photographer and, what’s more, it was fun….and there’s the difference.
Some studio based shots from early days
Let me be clear, I have never had a hobby and never ever will I have one. Hobby is a word that I particularly dislike as it demeans the activity or pursuit to which it refers, unless it’s a horse, so it would be safe to say that photography and I were never in such a relationship. The mid 60’s found me at art school studying painting with two subsidiary subjects, print making and film making, and it was a combination of those two that led me to photography. Photo silk screen and photo lithography clearly demanded photographic images and it was not long before I tired of sourcing existing images and wanted to create those images for myself which meant that I found and bought a famously reliable and equally famously cheap Russian camera, a Zenit. At the same time, owing to a much lower enrolment in the film making course than had been expected, there was a surplus of equipment and materials which meant that I was able to make as many films as I wanted with what seemed to me to be an Aladdin’s cave of toys….Beaulieu 16mm cameras with Angenieux zoom lenses, Nagra recorders, flat bed editing suites, a seemingly endless supply of 16mm film and the rest…it was an epiphany. At the end of my second year, the year before I would have graduated, I was offered a job assisting a successful London photographer, through contacts that I had made in my late teens, who would later turn out to be the same man who was to fire me in 1968, thus launching me into my career in the same way as an unsatisfying half eaten sandwich is launched out of a moving train’s window. But before being deservedly thrown out of the window, as there’s no doubt that I was an unsatisfying sandwich, I learned so much…for which I am still hugely grateful. I was introduced to the magic of Hasselblad and Nikon and also to a marvelous Olympus Pen-F half frame camera, that was adapted to take a Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f/2.8 Sonnar lens and which, when loaded with Kodachrome, was like a magic wand . The photographer was Clive Arrowsmith. From him I learned about light; the light of day (sublte differences in which I had never really noticed before) and the light of electronic flash. He was a master of both and some of it rubbed off on me. At the time when I first joined him there was no such thing as a Polaroid back to fit medium format cameras which meant that he taught me the importance and the skills of taking accurate light readings but most of all he instilled in me that the making of photographic images was as joyful as it was serious. Interestingly, in the whole time I was with him, some 18 months, I never once entered a darkroom, a habit that I religiously practiced throughout the rest of my career. I loathed the chemical atmosphere and the confinement, but most of all I couldn’t bear the thought of being locked away from the life that was going on all around me at that exciting time. Luckily there was a plethora of wonderful laboratories and excellent printers. There was also a handful of truly superb printers such as the great Robin Bell who. I’m happy to say, is still is plying his trade.
To recount the full story of my career would be lengthy, inducing sleep in some and rage in others, so I shall stick to the nuts and bolts, of which there are many, on the plate cameras with which I would become so well acquainted in the middle section of my photographic life. Having done my best to avoid the darkness and confinement of the darkroom it is ironic to realise that, as a studio photographer, it was to be the exact environment in which I was to spend many subsequent years. At one particular studio, which was in a basement in Covent Garden, there would be long periods in the winter months when, not only would I arrive and leave in the dark, but I might also spend most of that day in the dark doing multiple exposures: a mole like existence leavened with more than the occasional glass of wine which was quite acceptable at that time….or so I told myself. Sinar Norma cameras, both 10×8 and 5×4, were the picture making machines that I used for a great proportion of my work at this time. I had an unusual way of attaching the camera onto my Foba stand in that the panels hung downwards from the rail rather than upright in the time honoured fashion. I’m not sure how or why this came about but I always found it very comfortable and it reached a point where I would be surprised, thinking that upside down was the right way up, when I saw other photographers’ more traditionally mounted cameras in their own studios. I got immense pleasure from the slowness of the process when working with these cameras but my mind boggles when I think of the quantities of film and Polaroid we got through and the cost that it entailed for the client. So much of a photographer’s profit in that era lay in that magical section of an invoice, entitled “Film and Processing”: which brings me neatly to the digital age in which no such profit area exists.
A gallery of some of my recent digital photographs shot with a Nikon D800
Affordable and efficient digital photography arrived at an opportune time for me. My wife and I had moved from London to live in the French countryside which had long been my dream. Annoyingly, my dream had not made it clear that the nearest E6 laboratory was to be around 100 miles from our house. Rather than move nearer to the laboratory, I moved to digital. Having studiously avoided the darkroom in my previous life, I now spend as much time as possible each day in that virtual darkroom known as Photoshop. The fact that many of the icons represent the very actions that a printer would perform beneath the lens of the enlarger make it even more realistic….and I’m working in the warm, soft light of the French sun coming through my lightroom window.There is no question that digital has drastically changed not only the way that I work but also the look and subject matter of the images that I now produce. It is also true to say that, no longer having clients to satisfy, has allowed me to adopt a more relaxed style of picture making which includes my phone which forever surprises me with its quality. What is more, I take pictures each and every day in surroundings that never cease to fill me with wonder and happiness: and that is the photographic present in which I live, a present that teeters on the brink of change each day. The digital world develops at an amazing speed and I have been blown away by the innovations that appear each and every day – and there is no doubt that there’s so much more to come.