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.

 

The Most Personal Yet

My regular readers will already be aware of the importance I place on personal photographic projects, without which I don’t think I’d be the photographer I am.

For the most part I tend to use film for this work because I prefer the change in workflow. However lockdown has presented its own challenges. With limited funds, do I keep shooting film, or save it for when I can next visit Salisbury Plain?

And without the ability to roam about taking the pictures I would normally look for in a personal project, I’ve retreated to the most personal subject of all, my own home life.

Yes I have shot some film, but found myself reaching for the digital camera and developing a new theme: The Home Front.

The Home Front is my deeply personal reaction against the war rhetoric which has been liberally applied to the Covid-19 crisis, in particular by our politicians. I’m a firm believer in the importance of language and how it is used, and since we are not at war, I find it inappropriate to use conflict terminology now.

Apart from anything else I believe it sets a combative tone in the national psyche, and this can have unintended consequences in society. Too much of the “don’t you know there’s a war on” attitude can lead to unnecessary conflict between individuals, or groups.

What The Home Front sets out to illustrate is that while we are facing undeniably difficult times, there is also a great deal to be thankful for. There is also beauty in the small, normally un-observed corners of domestic life.

I know I’m particularly lucky to have a home with a garden, and to be living with someone who is may absolute first choice of lockdown partner. Not everyone enjoys these simple luxuries, but I wanted to illustrate that whatever one’s situation, we are not being shot at or bombed.

The Home Front has been featuring on my Instagram feed this week, and if you’d like to see the set to the end you’ll either have to follow me there, or keep an eye on my Facebook page. In the meantime, here are a couple of the images posted so far.

Drive-In Gallery

As Bowie never sang, “It’s a crash course for the ravers, it’s a dri-i-i-ive-in photo exhibition.”

So having crammed another Bowie reference into a blog post like pushing a banana through a keyhole, what I’m trying to explain here is that I’m massively thrilled to announce that tomorrow sees the launch of my first solo exhibition in an open-air space. To be precise, it’s a car park, making this the world’s first drive-in photo exhibition.

Now, don’t ruin it for me by googling this and finding one already exists, I did search and the closest I found was an underground car park ramp to some billionaire’s posh residence with walls lined with priceless paintings. That doesn’t count.

This all started a few months ago when I approached Mendip District Council (owners of the Saxonvale site) to see if there was any way I could continue documenting the site since they’d made it secure. The timing of my contact was perfect – someone in the council had seen What Happened Here and decided some of the photos would look great on the site hoardings, so we looked at various possibilities from a few different angles and came up with a plan.

Mendip council officers agreed to go ahead with the project and I re-scanned the chosen images since they were going to go big, and I mean VERY big.

Two days ago I visited the very excellent Compugraphic in Frome to see some of the prints coming off their large-format printer ready to be mounted on aluminium composite board; thirteen images in total, 1.5 x 1 metre in size with two of them 1 metre square format. In other words, really huge prints and certainly larger than I’d ever had anything printed before.

I’d been concerned that I couldn’t supply good enough files for such enlargement, but when I saw the prints I nearly cried! They look fantastic, and where I’d been thinking that viewing distance would make up for any loss in quality, I’ll be happy for visitors to walk right up to these. They’ll be able to dive right into the grain of the images.

The panels will be displayed on hoardings in the Merchants Barton car park in the town centre for at least the next few months, so if you do happen to be in the area I hope you’ll check it out. You can find out even more from Mendip’s press release here.

In the meantime, this may well be my final post of 2019 as Project Bunker is overrunning and I’m on a deadline to transfer my office into it by the end of December.

So I’ll take this opportunity to thank you, my clients, my friends, colleagues and suppliers for making 2019 a pretty good year, with an extra special thank you to Naomi and her colleagues at Mendip District Council for rounding it off so spectacularly for me.

Oh and with regards the continued access to the Saxonvale site, we’ll see. I’m doubtful at this stage, but you never know, it could be what keeps me busy in 2020.

Sound Move

In this post I’m back to talking personal photographic projects, this time with one of the quickest I’ve ever done!

A few weeks ago, the local record shop in Frome, Raves from the Grave, was preparing for a move to a new location within the town as they’d outgrown their current store.

In fact they were only moving a couple of streets away, but they’d been in the Cheap Street shop for 12 years (22 years on the same cobbled street and Catherine Hill even before that), so in all that time had become something of a local institution.

I remember my first trip to the Cheap Street store. It was astonishing, with CDs on shelves which extended right up to the ceiling, with more squidged in wherever there was a nook or cranny. The same with DVDs, though I was never a big purchaser of those. The real pleasure though was that they also specialised in vinyl, new and secondhand.

So when I heard about the impending move, I decided someone (me) ought to go in and capture the essence of the place – the heady mix of chaos and order, the colours, lines and hopefully some of the people too.

Of course being a personal project, it had to be shot on film, which also seems appropriate for a record shop (in particular, one selling vinyl).

I only had a two-hour gap in my day and three rolls of film with which to capture what I could, so there was a bit of a challenge, but as a series it sits together pretty well.

Of course Raves from the Grave and I were able to trickle the images out on social media over the course of a week and it was fun to see the reactions to the images. I even started meeting people in town who told me how much they enjoyed the series.

Now the move is pretty much complete and the old shop is soon to be taken over by a new business, a chocolatier I believe, so I’ve captured the end of an era. What with that and Saxonvale, I seem to have a knack of capturing era ends. Maybe I’ve found a new niche!