This is where it all started.
When I looked at a photograph in an exhibition, the thought came into my head: “I can do that.”
It was a show of Henri Cartier-Bresson landscapes at Nottingham University where I was supposed to be studying medicine. This just proves that I was callow, spotty and an arrogant late-teens fool. But that’s where it started. I think under that thought was a feeling, one whose strength was not yet obvious: ‘I want to do that’.
Weeks later, I’d bought my first camera – a double-stroke Leica M3 with collapsible 50mm Summicron lens, topped off with the Leicameter MR. As I couldn’t afford to buy it outright, I was persuaded to write a string of post-dated cheques – essentially a hire purchase, interest-free. Of course, on my tight student grant and wafer-thin budget, these bounced within a couple of months, and I was threatened with expulsion from student halls because I couldn’t pay the rent. I had to sell it after putting only two rolls through it. One roll I know I over-developed. It was my first ever, and I remember I had tried to push it a couple of stops. So it was grainy as a black-sand beach.
From that inauspicious beginning, I’ve been very fortunate in the spread of my photographic activity. I’ve photographed house interiors for estate agents, portraits of budding actors as well as great musicians, publicity for local authority … no; wait; that kind of job doesn’t look good in the CV.
I helped found Wandsworth Photo Co-op which is now Photofusion. I was technical editor for Camera magazine, freelanced for many photography magazines in the UK, all the while picking up the odd photography job or two and exhibiting here and there. I was made associate editor for Photography magazine which was one of the best jobs ever: I flew to USA to interview the likes of Jim Brandenburg, to Sweden to interview Lennart Nilsson, to Paris to interview Marc Riboud. Boy, was that fun! It was to be short-lived. While I was supposed to be working there, the Marco Polo Expedition suddenly came to life, having sloped around in the shadows doing nothing for years. When the Russian Embassy asked for our passports – ‘Now would be a good time’ – so I made the decision to go for it. If the magazine wouldn’t give a a few months’ sabbatical to shoot that, I’d have to resign. Bless them, and my associate editor Nigel Skelsey, for they were very supportive. The promise of free monthly up-dates recounting the dramas of the trip helped oil the decision.
The expedition led to my biggest ever (still) show, at the Zamana Gallery, Kensington London. it took up the entire gallery for three months. We had a flashy catalogue and they even hand-decorated the walls specially for me, though they stopped short of covering the floor in sand, in imitation of the desert (which the Director and I wanted). I’ve had few shows since as I find that putting them on too much work and expense for the return, while filling every space space in any accommodation with dozens of dusty picture frames.
Then I worked as a picture editor on the Sunday Correspondent newspaper magazine. The long and short of that experience is that it was far too much like hard work for me. It led to my test for being busy: busy is when someone gets a sandwich lunch for you and you discover at the end of the day that you’d not even managed one bite out of it. Working with a floor full of talented women was a delight for me. But working for an indecisive, arrogant and rather stupid editor was too hard for me. I always had a low tolerance for self-important twits.
After the newspaper job, I helped start up Ag+ Photographic magazine, which became Ag Magazine. And by ‘start up’ I do mean laying it out in Aldus Pagemaker, cranking the handle to get the printer going (each page – of text only – took half an hour to print), and writing more than half the first issue while crammed into a room so small that, should one of the three of us need to get up, the others had first to stand up or squeeze under their desk. It was here I filled out a job application for a lectureship at the Polytechnic of Central London. (More of that part of the story here.)
In my second year at the university, we put on a show of work from Central Asia. We got into protocal hot-water for personally inviting a Cabinet Minister to open it (he accepted), to mention being on very friendly terms with an Ambassador. Perhaps the worse sin in the eyes of my new academic colleagues was to decorate the exhibition panels with lots of different colours, inspired by the colours of Central Asia.
While I was walking across the foyer of the Polytechnic, the head security man called me aside one day. ‘Oi, you!’ (He had that charming Cockney way of addressing senior staff.) ‘Uh oh.; I’m in trouble again’ I thought. ‘Know wot, Tom?’ he asked, sotto voce ‘You’re the first lecturer around here we’ve actually seen carry a camera.’ Yes; indeed I was a photographer, worked as a photographer, wrote on photography all while I lectured on photography.
A few years ago I was told off by an assistant, an ex-student, when I remarked that I’m ‘not a real photographer’.
‘Never heard such poppy-cock!’ she said, in her usual delightfully forthright terms. What I meant say is that I don’t work as hard as the people I admire – the wedding photographers, the portrait photographers running High Street studios, the news photographers who wait all freezing night outside the hospital caring for a Royal Mother-to-be, and so on. I equate really hard work with being a ‘real’ photographer.
Essentially, I’m not a huge shooter. I have in my cabinets fewer than 1200 black-and-white rolls of film, and about 2000 rolls of colour transparency. After shooting digital for over 15 years, I have only some 209,000 images rolling around the hard-disks at time. Of that only about 106,000 images are truly in current use, these being in my Aperture catalogue. It may sound a lot, but believe me, those are rather low figures for 36 years of professional photography.
But when I work, I’m a very, very fast shooter. At the wrap of a recent shoot, the assistant I’d hired remarked, possibly a bit ruefully, that I’d achieved more in a day than most photographers manage in three. Whether that’s the result of knowing what I’m doing or lack of perfectionism, I leave you to judge. My point is that the images were published and all but one part of the shoot – which supplied several different stories for my book Digital Photography Step by step – were very serviceable.
After an interval of nearly 17 years of self-exile from gallery spaces, I put on two shows in 2014: one at Youngblood, Cape Town and one on Queens Wharf, Auckland and another in 2015, called Connections. This is part of a neat project. I mentor a group of photographers to create a group show within a month. They have never met before and mostly they are amateur shooters. I loved showing work in the public space on the waterfront of Auckland. Time to show more, I think.
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