Tell us about your first assignment.
It was for a book called the National Trust book of Long Walks. It all started when my wife and I went to look for a house in South London. Finding the house not very agreeable, we viewed it in three minutes flat, but by chance the owner asked me what I did for a living. For some incredible reason I replied “I’m a landscape photographer.” It was complete nonsense I wasn’t a landscape photographer, I was just an out of work actor trying to make a few quid photographing other actors. Out of courtesy I asked him what he did and he replied, “I’m the director of the illustrated books department at Wiedenfeld and Nicolson.” Within seconds I asked to have another look around the house! As we came back to the threshold he told me they were doing a book on Britain and that he would like to see my work. As we got into the car he shouted out, “Don’t forget – Monday, 9 o’clock, bring your portfolio.” I had no portfolio, so I spent the whole weekend doing some black and white photography (I remember somebody saying if you want to make the image look important, allocate to it a bloody enormous border and put a 5 x 4 image onto a 20 x 16 page. It’s ridiculous, but it works!) I took in six pictures, which they liked, but they asked me to shoot some colour as well. I went to the South Downs with my old Hasselblad and it was the best weather in April that a landscape photographer could have – rain, sun, rain, sun – 30 times it shone and 30 times it rained. I presented three photographs to them and the job was in the bag. Then it was a roller coaster, even before it was published I was asked what I wanted to do next. Me and the writer didn’t know so they sent us off for a cup of coffee and told us to come back in 10 minutes. We suggested long walks in France. “When do you want to start and how much money do you want?” was their reply. No sooner had we done one book, then another project was given. We went on like that right the way through the 80s. They were really exciting times.
Where would you be now if you hadn’t become a landscape photographer?
I assisted some marvellous photographers doing still life – like photographing dog food on 10 x 8. I was the guy who had to undo all the cans and pile up the chunks of meat then boil up the marrow bone jelly so it was all viscous and at the given moment I had to pour it – I thought I was really at the centre of things! But what I did learn was the wonderful knowledge and skill of able and experienced advertising photographers. And car photographers, wow, don’t they know about lighting! The people in the street have no idea of the meticulous nature of that work. I really liked that assisting, but it was tough.
Have there been any painters that have inspired you?
Just a while ago, my mother encouraged me to look at paintings and I’m just getting to know Claude Loraine for the light. I’m looking at paintings much more than I used to. I like Claude Loraine’s light it’s all terribly dramatic – incredible skies – wow! For my portraiture though I was lazy, I just found a soft light that worked and I used that all the time. I was probably more concerned about getting actors to reveal themselves than actually get my light stylised. I did a lot of outside photography with my portraits.
Has Ansel Adams been much of an inspiration for you?
I would think probably the greatest, as much as for his images and for his complete commitment and dedication to the image. I think he knew every facet of the camera, lens, exposure, development and printing – he was intimately acquainted with every single stage. He attended to all the ingredients, all the components with such loving care, nurturing out every last ounce of quality and I think it’s that degree of love and passion and complete commitment to the entire image that I really admire.
I have several Ansel Adams books, I feel some of his pictures are too clinical and technically perfect to the point that he misses the essence and spirit of the landscape.
I have to say there are some of his photographs that really do move me – the technique is interwoven with the profound nature of them. There are some that I just feel like weeping in front of…not all, but then it’s like when you buy an album, you like three tunes on it and just want to keep playing those.
What do you dislike with photography?
There was a time when certain photographers would do a narrative of a little stream and I thought how many pictures of a stream can you see? And I did wonder whether that the 5 x 4 and the immaculate print, a bit like what you were saying about Ansel Adams overwhelmed us with resolution so much so that content seemed to be secondary and shape, design and form. I was given a book of landscapes by anther well known photographer and thought, “that tree should be moved more to the left. Why did they cut the shadow from that tree? Why cut a cloud in half when just raising the camera a little bit more would see the whole cloud?. I thought it was excellent printing, beautiful definition, but the pictures were sterile. They didn’t seem to have a soul and they didn’t say anything to me. It sometimes seems the more vignetting and the more unsharp a picture is, the better – shoot from the hip and don’t look at what you are photographing, put it in a 20 x 16 frame, bung it in a New York gallery with a $5,000 price tag on it (big border of course), limit the edition to 25, and sign off with a flamboyant signature.
The Emperor’s new clothes kind of scenario?
I think so, to a degree, but far be it from me to criticise anything or anyone, especially as I am about to have a book published!
What is the new book all about?
The book is called “In My Mind’s Eye” to be published in October by the Guild of Master Craftsmen. It’s a collection of my Black and White photographs.
Did you go out and shoot B/W with a view to making a black and white book?
No. I never had a commission. It is a collection of pictures I had done over the years that I wanted to find an outlet for. What I really enjoyed was the printing. My God, to remember all the things! When I first started there were no paper grades – it was Royal Bromesco. Now, there are half grades from Ilford, the quality has certainly gone up. I love working in the darkroom watching the print slowly appear in front of your eyes, there is something magical about the process.
Do you miss that magic when you are printing with the large format printer?
No, not at all, it’s just different. When you see a wonderful sunrise appear from the printer bit by bit, the excitement of taking the picture comes back to you.
You have not displayed many B/W images before, are you comfortable with b/w?
I enjoy b/w photographs, but colour does distil the image down to its essential qualities in a kind of a way. Colour is incredibly more difficult than b/w. I met a wedding photographer and when I’ve asked him if he ever did b/w, he replied, “Oh, yes. In fact the pictures that don’t look much good in colour I just flip to b/w in Photoshop.” That made me think for a moment and it bears out my point, that colour is really hard. But coming back to the b/w, it has been quite an introspective process for me.
Which photographers do you admire?
I love the work of Irvine Penn, Arnold Newman, Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson – look at the stylised things they did. It’s very different to fashion photography today (I suppose I would say this I’m just another generation). When I spoke to a fashion photographer recently he said you don’t need to see the texture, you don’t need to see the clothes, it’s the ambience. I said yes, but it’s all out of focus and lopsided. I’m slightly disdainful of that. I think it will come back to more formal stuff. I’m sure it’s a cyclical thing.
You obviously see your landscape photographs as being a pure record of what you see in front of you.
No, I wouldn’t say I see it as a record.
I meant by record you are capturing what you have in front of you rather than an impressionistic thing?
No, I have done that, although it’s a bit of a departure. Take my Venice shot for example, I personally have mixed feelings about it, although it does sell well at exhibitions. Maybe I should shoot a few more in this style.
When you go to any location, do you have any preconceived idea of what you want to take? You must research the places you go to?
Actually it’s more roaming. I certainly do look at the map and I look for a lot of river valleys and I certainly look for forestry because I detest forestry. I once got caught in a forest in Germany and I felt terribly trapped and couldn’t get out. But these regimented lines of conifers, miles and miles of pine, I find completely ghastly, I don’t like being in them and I can’t bear it. I look for reservoirs and lakes, crops – that’s one of the reason I love Tuscany because the shapes the farmers make are lovely and they know too, I’m sure when they are driving their tractor and they are going home for their nice little glass of Chianti they look back and they see what they have done with their ploughing that day – immaculate. They’re artists!