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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…

Light­weight stuff?

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.”

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