What’s been your most difficult assignment.
Going to Timbuktu – without a shadow of a doubt. Before I left England I thought I was going to die, partly because I was told we were going to have to fly to Timbuktu and we subsequently didn’t and then on the way, we were taken by two people who were totally unqualified to drive anybody anywhere and we should never have gone with them. We went in a four wheel drive that had tyres that were reminiscent of a billiard table, they were completely flat there was no tread on them at all and we went sideways almost the whole way. They didn’t bring enough water, they didn’t bring enough bread, and we drove from a place called Mopti to Timbuktu and it took about 20 hours driving. We broke down seven times and on one occasion we broke down in a lake and the driver had to hold his nose and go down underwater to free the axel. So Timbuktu was completely terrifying.
Did you get any pictures?
Yes. I was really, really pleased to have gone. I’m not a very heroic person I love travel and I do like adventure, but safe adventure.
What are the problems when working on location?
I’m not entirely comfortable with just being dropped into a foreign land. The true sense of exploring comes from the entire journey and it’s not a great heroic achievement these days when people ask, “Where have you just been?” and I reply, “I’ve just been to Vietnam. Do you know what I had to do? I had to go along the M4 and get to the airport. That’s all and then I was delivered to Vietnam and hired a car.” The people who go by balloon are the real adventurers, I sometimes feel I’m just dropped into these places. So for the drive to Timbuktu I really paid a high price but I got three photographs I was really, really pleased with.
Staying with “dropped into Locations”, do you feel that the pioneering spirit in landscape photography has gone, compared with what Ansel Adams achieved?
No, it’s hasn’t, we still have to work hard at finding the pictures even though it’s easier to get around. I think Ansel Adams had a remarkable vision and he was overwhelmed by Yosemite I think our sensibilities must match.
His wonderful view of the half dome is a busy tourists’ car park which I found really disappointing – it killed it stone dead for me. I wanted to be at one with the landscape.
It’s still there though. I also wanted to be at one – I felt similar. I could feel Ansel Adams breathing down my neck all the time! I find now that my pleasure comes from intimate little things that are not great seven star showpieces.
What camera equipment do you take on location?
Normally just the Hasselblad, a Gitzo carbon fibre tri-pod and two cases – I think my back will eventually suffer. I also have a Hasselblad Xpan, a Fuji panoramic 6 x 17 and a Nikon F5. I also carry a large supply of Fuji Velvia film.
Are you using the 6 x 17 much?
Yes – it’s very wide. I would love to have the 6 x12 but Horseman don’t do a long lens and nor do Linhof. The only panoramic camera that makes a long lens is the Fuji 6 x 17 and they make a 300mm which is fantastic. It’s very sharp and very nice to use. The focusing is 60 ft to infinity at f45 – I do enjoy that but it’s fearfully wide and I think the 6 x 12 would probably suit me better. I wish somebody could give me a 300mm lens adapted for the Horseman together with lens plate. I would pay anything for that. I have spoken to Horseman and I have spoken to Linhof and they say it doesn’t exist. Perhaps somebody could make it for me.
What about using a 10 x 8 camera?
I could. But the Horseman is such a divine camera. Maybe I could take the 300mm from the Fuji and get somebody to adapt it.
Is there any thing you would say no to?
We’ve done a screen saver for an exhibition and I was really apprehensive about doing that. I know I’ve got to be modern and more thrusting with my work, I can’t juNovember 18, 2008s sell to companies and doing rather nice commissions. I had the dream commission which I devised. In 1998 I wrote to a company asking them what they were going to give to their clients for 2000 and they said don’t know, we haven’t planned anything. I suggested they gave them a photograph of the first dawn of the new millennium, photographed by me in the first country to see it, Fiji. They declined but I kept on at them. On 21 December they finally said okay. Fortunately, I had already bought my ticket! I went to Fiji and I stayed there through Christmas and the new year, going out every morning to find the best location.the sun came up and the pathos was absolutely incredible. Part of me said it was just another morning, but then I thought this is 1 January, 2000, the dawning of a new millennium. England is still asleep. Anyway I did it and we shipped out 750 pictures to America and 250 to Europe. It really was a worthwhile, well paid dream commission. That’s what I’m going to do more of – companies like associating themselves with art.
Are you reluctant to do any digital manipulation on your work?
I don’t want to. There’s a great pleasure from getting it as near to right, or near to perfect in the field, in situ, on the day and not doing anything afterwards, not importing a sky from somewhere or anything like that.
Do you not feel digital manipulation is important to your work, or are you just putting off learning how to use Photoshop?
I must learn Photoshop. I think it’s a completely wonderful thing how you can increase the contrast to match the paper so it doesn’t look too flat. It’s on my agenda, but I only want to do those little tiny things – I won’t want to mask off whole areas or have the marching ants!
The one thing that really caught my interest in digital photography was seeing some Gainsborough paintings and thinking “Wow, what a tremendous backdrop to a picture, if only you could do that with a photograph.” Those possibilities are here, now. Does that appeal to you?
I see the advantage of that and I am not in any way disdainful of it, but it wouldn’t turn me on because it would be a collection of different elements and I am more excited about getting it right on the day. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it would appear dishonest or fraudulent, I just don’t think I would enjoy it as much. I can quite see the merits of it. I have seen skies from California put into a Berkshire landscape but it doesn’t seem right. Even by the very best people, I still think that where the horizon meets the sky, the nuances are not quite there, but I’m not against it. I think digital is the most wonderful thing in the world. One thing it has done is given photographers complete control – at last! Having that control is quite marvellous.
Going on to unrealistic elements in photographs, do you not feel your forthcoming book on black and white photography, is not a backward step?
Yes, you could say that. The black and white book came out of a sense of need to confront certain elements of myself and I did think of doing a sort of compilation, a retrospective, but it wouldn’t really challenge me. I have lots and lots of black and white and I like the process of being in the darkroom, I like the contemplative nature of it, I like the chemicals and I like the simplicity. So you could say it’s a backward step, but for me it was going across to a different discipline and I have a lot of negatives which I had made contact prints of that had been building up over 15 or 20 years – I kept looking at that pile!
Have you tried flipping any of your pictures to b/w in Photoshop.
No, I never have. I have taken some of these colour pictures in b/w as well, but the gear shift is quite odd. I have to change my whole outlook. Mostly I think with my b/w book maybe about 10% were also in colour, but I did them in b/w first.
We have talked about digitally, but what about shooting digitally. Have you considered that at all?
Yes, I have.
And do you?
No, I’ve never done it. A man came round the other day to show me a Leaf digital back fitted on a Hasselblad which transfers the image straight down to a lap top and I’m sure I will have a go with it.
I interviewed Lichfield and he told me that he uses a Phase one back and has saved £76,000 a year on film and processing costs alone. Do you think that for professionals film is on its final curtain?.
I think it’s in the death throws, although I don’t really want to believe it. Kodachorme 25 is still pretty amazing. I would miss projecting to 6 x 4 ft, or in my case 8 ft square – quite hard to get an Epson that would print out 8 ft square. I really like projecting but it’s a bit old hat isn’t it? But it’s a lovely way to see your images. It’s interesting this digital thing but a drum scanned Velvia is also pretty good.
What advice do you have for someone starting out in landscape photography?
Perseverance, determination and a fantastic portfolio with only 12 pictures in it maximum, all one thing – don’t be a Jack of all Trades and master of none. Specialise, just do what you do well. I think that’s the best advice and as far as books are concerned, illustrated books are coming back. Get somebody very well known to tag the pictures on to – a foreword by a really classy writer helps to sell the product. That’s what I used to do but I managed to turn the tables a bit because they got all the money, I used to get 2% and the writer got 8% and I didn’t want to illustrate people’s books any more because the photographer wasn’t even credited. I like to trail blaze getting photographers more credit. I want my name in the same typeface and the same size as the writer with a picture of the photographer and biography in the back. I think it took about 12 books before I could really say I had made it. In most books prior to the early 80s the photographer would hardly ever be credited.
What about future exhibitions and projects?
I’m think I will do another book on France. I just want to roam, no maps. I might also be going to Finland. I want to continue doing exhibitions – I have a burning need to promote photography as an art form.
Interview first published in 2002 by photo-i