On Being a Photographer

“Never Too Old to Learn” is the title of one of the assignments from the newspaper photography course I attended back in 1992.

I remember it particularly well because I ended up contriving a story in which a grandmother was learning to fly helicopters. Of course she wasn’t actually learning to fly helicopters, but since this was just an exercise in illustration it didn’t have to be a true story.

I found a suitably elderly model and a suitably cooperative helicopter pilot, put the two together and took some shots which worked pretty well. All lies, but it fulfilled the purpose of the assignment and the grandmother had a blast.

The reason I’m reminded of this particular college assignment now is because I’ve just bought a copy of “On Being A Photographer” by David Hurn and Bill Jay. Even as a photographer with 30+ years in his back pocket, I still expect to learn a great deal from reading this book.

The other college-days connection here is that David Hurn founded the School of Documentary Photography in Newport. I went to Stradbroke college in Sheffield because that was where budding newspaper photographers went if they wanted to get into the industry. Us Stradbrokers would scoff at the Newport photographers because they had a reputation for swanning about in desert boots while carrying Billingham bags and dreams of shooting for National Geographic.

We were “the real photographers” who would all go on to work for The Independent or Observer magazine, covering conflict and strife around the globe. In reality Newport was a very fine college (the very best for photo-documentary training) and we had as much chance of fulfilling our perceived destinies as those who went to Newport. In other words, not much chance at all.

Actually, most of us did at least make it on to local and regional papers and one or two of us worked with national titles. Even now, one or two of our cohort are still working (albeit occasionally) for international titles.

But Stradbroke for me was 28 years ago. So why have I gone back to the books? In particular one written by the founder of a course I disparaged at the time? Simple; I’ve grown up. I’ve changed and I continue to change. I’m always looking at new sources of inspiration and solid foundations for new knowledge. I slightly wish I’d been able to go to Newport, even better go to Newport AND Stradbroke; that would have been incredible, but it wasn’t possible.

On Being A Photographer has a particular focus on the kind of work I do in my personal projects now and in this regard it will prove invaluable. I know I’ll learn new, better approaches and I’ll have a clearer understanding of how a photo essay should be approached.

It might take me another 30 years, but I hope this book will put me on the path to being a better documentary photographer. I’ll have to let you know how it goes.

 

A Visit to the Barber

This isn’t about getting my hair cut, though my pre-Christmas trim is starting to get unruly. No, this article is about a quick trip I made to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts between Christmas and New Year.

As I said in my previous article, my intention is to make it to more exhibitions this year, but I’m not making this exclusive to photography. Any decent photographer will tell you they draw inspiration from other forms of art; notably painting, though sculpture and other art forms can also inspire. And so what if I’m just a humble corporate photographer? It’s incredibly useful to refresh my understanding of light and its effect on the emphasis of a portrait or scene. Plus, I love art.

If you’re not familiar with the Barber, it’s located within the campus complex of Birmingham University. The building itself, in particular the interior, is a splendour of Art Deco marble, brass and wonderfulness and well worth a visit in its own right, but within the collection you can view, free of charge (we made a donation), works of art by the likes of Manet, Turner, Monet, Picasso and many more. I highly recommend it.

When visiting galleries, I tend to avoid taking photos within the gallery space, even where it is allowed. I’m there to observe, enjoy and learn, not interpret or, more crucially, get in other people’s way. The photo you see here is of a light shining through the window in a door to one of the institute’s lecture theatres, which I took before entering the gallery space. So on this visit I sated my urge to click the shutter, without breaking my personal rule.

I’m not sure when I’ll next get to any kind of gallery, perhaps the Martin Par Foundation for a dose of photography, but I hope to get back to the Barber to really soak up some of what I saw last time. Don’t you find it takes a few trips to really understand a large collection?