Paul Sanders speaks to Charlie Waite about his landscape photography
Guest editor Charlie Waite asks the landscape and fine-art photographer about his inspiration, the importance of the print and the enduring power of the still image
The first question is: why do you need to take photographs? That is a good question… Because I can’t do anything else. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. It’s like a burning passion within me. When I take pictures, I feel properly connected with who I really am and what the world is really about.
I have no interest in the gadgetry or the ego or anything like that; it’s just about the image. And I get excited when I see something that I think might make a picture. Whether it’s a doorknob or a beautiful landscape or a flower, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as I can take pictures. It comes from right down inside me. Ever since I first held a camera, I knew I wanted to be a photographer. And I am intensely happy when I am taking pictures.
So it’s absolute food and nourishment to you?
Yeah. It almost sounds silly, but I live for it. It’s part of my every waking moment. When I wake up in the morning I look at the way the sunlight comes in through the window or how the rain falls. I look at the patterns. I find the most mundane things fascinating, just looking at them.
If you told me I couldn’t photograph, I would probably end up drawing. But I’m rubbish at drawing and I wouldn’t get the same satisfaction – although my back wouldn’t be sore!
How would you describe yourself? As a landscape or architectural photographer? Or would you say you’re a general practitioner?
I would just say that I’m a photographer. You know, I’m a bloke with a camera who loves taking pictures.
If I had one favourite, it’s probably landscape. But then, I’m not a classic landscape photographer because I hate colour, I hate golden light. I like pictures that look 2D, I don’t like 3D pictures. I shoot landscapes at f/2; I don’t see the world at f/22 with front-to-back sharpness. So I just describe myself as a photographer.
I don’t care what the images are made with. It could be a sheet of sensitised paper with leaves placed on it and letting the sunlight do its thing, then washing it off in water; or it could be using my Fujifilm GFX and all the technology that drives it. It’s just about making pictures.
You were picture editor at The Times for eight years. On an average day, how many images did you have to look at?
On an average newsday, somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 pictures a day.
I think that will astonish people. Most people don’t see that number of images in a year, let alone a day. So you had to make very quick decisions about what image would be on the front cover, or wherever it was going to be. Why didn’t that experience completely turn you off photography as a result of absolute overkill? I’m amazed you managed to
endure that bombardment of images, more than anyone would imagine.
When you are looking at that number of images, you’re effectively doing a kind of research. I used to have a hundred-plus images at a time on my screen and would just flick down the screen and make very quick decisions. I was drawn by strong composition, great timing, beautiful light; and I almost had a photographic memory of images that had come in.
I think because you’re looking at these images so quickly, it builds up a little repertoire of ideas or compositions. We’re all influenced by
things we’ve seen by other artists and photographers. And I think those little bits leak into your subconscious somehow, and help you build a really solid kind of visual experience of the world.
Like a bank?
Yeah. So it actually turned me on to photography more and more. I was very privileged to work with some incredibly talented photographers through some really amazing stories. However, the longer I stayed as picture editor, the more frustrated I got that I wasn’t taking pictures.
Do you look at work by any photographers and you just think “Oh my gosh, I can’t find the words to express my admiration for that image”? I’m a huge fan of Sarah Moon’s work. The work she shot around the time she was shooting the Pirelli calendar in 1972 is just stunning. And I like the fact that she was experimenting with how to diffuse the image coming in to the camera as well. I also really love the work by Man Ray, and I’m a massive fan of Fox Talbot and Julia Margaret Cameron.
But it’s weird, because most of the people I admire take photographs of people, and I don’t like people in my pictures at all. I tend to like landscape photographers, but the people whose work moves me generally are people photographers.
Do you sometimes look at some of your images from the past and fall out of love with them, or fall back in love with them?
I like pictures when I take them, because they express what I wanted to express. Then I immediately fall out of love with them. We have a very traumatic divorce, and then I syphon them out – what I really like and what I don’t – over a couple of months.
For me, it’s more about my relationship with them. There are pictures I took years ago that I look at
“I like pictures when I take them, because they express what I wanted to express. Then I immediately fall out of love with them”
now and I can see where I was in terms of my mental state, rather than looking at them and thinking, “That’s not the best picture of such and such a place.” Because none of my pictures are Opposite page Glen Strathfarrar, Scotland “I’ll often wait for ages for the landscape to talk to me. In this case, though, right at the end of a workshop the clouds opened up and the beauty of the glen just appeared before me. I didn’t even use a tripod.” representative of the place, they’re representative of a time that affects me. So it’s a love-hate relationship.
Out of all the photographs you do, what percentage of the images that you make end, for whatever reason, in disappointment?
I think I make possibly one or two pictures a year that I like. Generally I look at them and I am disappointed with something. I think I know when I take the picture whether I’ve truly got what I wanted.
I always shoot in the same way – I shoot raw and JPEG – and the JPEG is always set up to mirror the way I want the print to look. And if I can’t get that looking right, I go home and I kind of explore the raw file. If I spend more than five minutes on it in Photoshop I just delete it, no matter what it’s like. But I will revisit it – maybe six months later – and I will probably be able to get out of it what I wanted with a minimal amount of work.
I think photography is emerging as the world’s new common language. Do you think it is being sub-divided into considered, thought-through images, and transitory ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ images?
I think one good thing that’s come out of the rise of photography, the sort of democratisation of photography, is that people are becoming more aware of what good photography is. It’s great to be able to take a picture and use an Instagram filter or whatever and turn it into something that looks lovely, but I think I have a greater appreciation now – maybe I’m being naïve – of what good photography really is.
I’m really pleased to hear you say that.
And I think it will be a long time before certain news organisations catch up with it, because photography costs money. You have to send somebody somewhere and you have buy them a load of kit. But I think good photography stands head and shoulders above the sort of constant barrage of…
Yeah. You look at the millions and millions of pictures that are shared on a daily basis on social media. And it’s always a picture of a cat that people like the most. [Laughs] You know, it’s a cat doing something daft, or a rabbit eating in slow motion or whatever. Yet how do we know what people really value?
That brings me to what I call the grand finale, the photographic print. You do your own printing: do you believe that’s the best way of seeing it, whether on the wall or in a magazine or a book?
Yeah, I think seeing your work printed in any form is the only thing that makes you a photographer. It’s great to take pictures and to have them digitally all over the place; but if you’re looking at them on your iPad or your computer, the images are generally backlit, which gives you a completely false perception of them.
Until you’ve seen something printed and it’s hung on a wall for you to stand
and look at it, you can’t see any of the nuances in the image, you can’t see as much of the tone or value as you’d like. Once you print your own pictures, I think it makes you a better photographer right through the process.
“I’ll crop or use filters to get rid of stuff – but if there’s a telegraph pole in the way, I’ll use my feet. That’s what they’re for”
Because although you play different roles throughout the process, you can see how you might ultimately approach it as a print?
You have the idea of the image, you start taking the picture; but as you’re taking the picture, you’re thinking, “How will this look at the end of the process?” And then when you get to the end of the process and you’ve got your print you think, “Does that look how I thought it might?” If the answer is yes, then that’s a great job done.
And there’s nothing more beautiful, I think, than watching your print come off the printer. You take it in your hand and feel the weight and texture of the paper, and there’s a smell that comes from the inks on the paper. When you see it on a screen, it’s a shiny thing that looks lovely and bright and contrasty, but when you see the subtleties in a print… for me, it makes the hairs on my arm stand up.
Do you think, then, that under ideal circumstances, all photographers should print their own images?
Yes, absolutely. And if they can’t print their own for whatever reason, then they should look at how to understand how to print their own. I think it’s very important that you complete the journey – there’s no point going halfway.
I mean, I was terrified of my printer: I had a terrible relationship with my printer and I couldn’t make it do what I wanted. Printing is really simple and I think you can try too hard to get perfection. I am a perfectionist, but every image I produce has a flaw in it. And I think you have to accept the flaws to see the beauty.
Do you uphold the idea of mainly creating images in-camera, with only a little bit of darkroom work?
I think if you go back over history, well before Photoshop was invented, people were always manipulating pictures. A century ago, the Russians used to make people disappear and then put new people in. They were brilliant at retouching images. If you go back into the archives of The Times, the prints have got little bits whitewashed out where they’ve tried to fade something back or they’re darkened an edge in or whatever. It’s always been there.
To tell an untruth?
Not necessarily, but to draw attention to something, perhaps. But for me as a news photographer, I was never allowed, nor encouraged, to take something out of a picture and put something in because it loses its integrity, although there were times I really wanted to.
For me it’s the same with landscape photography, or whatever kind of photography I do: I will set up my camera and take the picture as I see it in my head, but I don’t deliberately move stuff around or try and take stuff out. I’ll crop, use filters in-camera or use exposure to get rid of stuff – but if there’s a telegraph pole in the way, I’ll use my feet. That’s what they’re for. I don’t know whether that will always be the case, but at the moment that’s how I feel. I like to do things in-camera.
What other people do with their pictures is fine, but I would rather people said to me, “This is how I took it, this is what was there.” And then if I rocked up
to take that picture I would say, “Oh yeah, I can see there’s a bit of boat, the electricity pylon, the dodgy sign.” It’s all there.
Probably more than many other photographers, you’re teaching workshops in old Eastern Bloc countries. Do you find going to those countries has in some way stimulated you in to a kind of new way of seeing, or do you feel that it’s challenging photography? Is it rewarding?
It’s hard photography. When you go to places that aren’t photographed a lot, it’s actually very difficult because the first port of call for many photographers is Google Images. You go to a location and find the spot that somebody else has photographed really beautifully, and then you start from there and you work out what to do. Whereas when you go to places that haven’t been photographed a lot, that’s more difficult.
I often wonder whether the places I’m photographing are actually worthwhile photographing. I find them interesting, but when I take clients I think, “Will they find it interesting?”
But they do.
Well, we hope. I was recently driving around Kyrgyzstan and the things that fascinated me the most were the bus stops: they were all built during the Soviet era, and they’re so beautiful. There are some bus stops that are just really angular, covered in yellow and blue tiles, and there was one the shape of a dove that must have been 20 or 30 feet high. And I thought, “There’s a whole project on bus stops here.”
And then I was driving to the airport and I thought, “Do you think any clients will get it?” It’s a bit of a gamble: you’re taking them to somewhere you find visually inspiring, in the hope they do too.
“I like the fact that I make myself vulnerable when I take pictures, and I am in touch with something really deep inside me”
Today, we’re overwhelmed by enormous amounts of video, but the still image still has an enormous amount to say, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s as valid today as it was yesterday. So do you think the still will always be sacred, for want of a better word? We all remember certain images – if I just said “napalm” to you… ...You see that picture of the little girl in Vietnam. If I say “Falklands War”, you see the picture of the ship exploding. You don’t see the headline, you don’t see the video footage, often because there wasn’t any. There is more and more video footage, but I think these days, your ability to retain a single image over a streamed piece of information is much greater. I think video is incredibly powerful and there are some great people doing it, but I think there will always be a place for still images.
Do you think people – as I suspect they probably are – are being influenced by your work and perhaps might want to duplicate it? I don’t think I’m that far up the tree. If people copy my work or whatever, it’s flattering but frustrating: I’d rather they had their own vision on a subject. I find it difficult – especially if you do a workshop and people say, “Where would you put your camera?” and I say, “Well, that’s a personal thing. What do you see here?”
They want to put their tripod where you’ve put yours, because they think it’s going to be a good picture. But it will leave them feeling a little bit empty, I think.
In a way, you are a photographer who’s got eyes in the back of your head: you’ve seen so many different styles of photography that you’re not locked
up in one particular style. You’re incredibly quick to respond, which is possibly why landscapes are exactly your thing. Where I would just be thinking, “Where’s the photograph?” you’d have said, “It’s over, it passed in a heartbeat.” With that in mind, what do you want to say as a photographer?
I don’t know that I’ve ever had anything to say as a photographer. My work is… I don’t think it says anything in particular. Most of it is a form of healing for me. It’s a place of calm, and if other people connect with that, that’s great. I think it would be a little bit egotistical to say that my work has this to say. And no messages – nothing you’re trying to pass on?
No, the only messages in my photography are to me, they’re purely personal. I like the rawness of my reaction to things,
I like the fact that I truly do make myself vulnerable when I take pictures, and
I am in touch with something really deep inside me that I try to hide away from a lot of the world.
So then through putting your photographs up, you’re baring your soul to people. It’s a necessary evil, but you kind of have to – it’s part of the job. But it’s more than a job, it’s life. For me, it’s like the air I breathe. It’s everything. www.paulsanders.biz
Above Glencoe, Scotland “Probably my favourite location, especially when the weather is bad. The looming brooding mountains really move me; they make the hairs on my arms stand up.”
Above Brothers Water, Lake District“I couldn’t resist the reflections. The light wasn’t perfect, but light is light, and it’s better to work with what you have.”Opposite page(top to bottom)Pulpit Rock, Dorset; Winchelsea Beach, Sussex; Brixham, Devon“I like leaving lots of space in my images: it gives me room to think about my place in the world.”
Above Empire State Building, New York “This was taken on Halloween, the wind howling, rain pouring down. I thought the ESB had a strangely Halloween feel to it through the storm, so I just had to take its photograph.”
Above Corfe Castle, Dorset“Possibly my least favourite location, because it has been so over-photographed from particular spot. There’s a quietness to this image, and a curiosity I enjoy. I’m a sucker for an open gate!”Opposite page Babbacombe, Devon“I came across this spot by accident while walking on the south coast. I love the curve of the steps, which mirrors the curve of the bay. The solitary tree has a wonderful position to take in the view.”
Opposite page Leskovic, Albania “Pandora is a goat farmer. I don’t really photograph people often, but when I do it’s usually after speaking to them for a while. It’s always about the relationship with my subject.”Above Togetherness “Part of my Fragile Beauty series. I struggle with my mental health. The flowers represent the feelings I have about myself or my relationships.”