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FAQ

How did you start your career as a photographer?

I first got interested in photography when I was a teenager and went to visit my Grandfather near Bradford. He was a keen amateur photographer and he lent me a camera and we would go out together shooting. We would come back, process the films and make prints and ever since this time I have always wanted to be a photographer.

You studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic between 1970 and 72, what was this like for you?

In these days the idea of a college was to learn to be a photographer by becoming an assistant, so they taught us all the basic studio techniques and things like reciprocity failure. I quickly got fed up with this input and started working on my own projects. This meant I had to justify my work and this, I guess, was good practice for fighting for what I believed in.

What photographers were you influenced by in these early days?

Before college I had seen the work of Bill Brandt and Cartier Bresson, as well as seeing copies of Creative Camera magazine with images by Frank and Friedlander and Winogrand. However it was while I was at college that Bill Jay came round and showed the work of Tony Ray-Jones and this for me was a real moment of inspiration.

What did you do after leaving college?

I first worked at Manchester Council for Community Relations for about 3 months and then started working towards my Home Sweet Home exhibition at the Impressions Gallery in York.

When and why did you change from black and white to colour?

I did do some colour within the Home Sweet Home project in the early 70’s, but it wasn’t until 1982 when I moved back from Ireland that I took to colour in a serious way. This was sparked off by seeing the colour work emerge from the US from photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. I had also encountered the post cards of John Hinde when I worked at Butlin’s in the early 70’s and the bright saturated colour of these had a big impact on me.

How do you achieve these bright colours?

I used amateur film, often Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens. This combined with flash gives very high colour saturation, there is no Photoshop used.

Now that you use digital do you pump up the colours using Photoshop?

No, not at all, I just let the colour look as natural as possible, but of course flash does help saturation.

What cameras do you use?

For the 35mm it is a Nikon 60mm macro lens combined with a SB29 ring flash. This gives a shadow on both sides of the lens and is like a portable studio light. For the early black and white work it was a Leica M3 with a 35mm lens. When I moved to 6/7cm in The Last Resort it was a Makina Plaubel with a 55mm lens. I later bought a standard lens Plaubel and more recently Mamiya 7’s. I now own a Canon 5D Mark 3 and a Canon G11 (see later question).

Do you think your work is exploitative?

I think that all photography involving people has an element of exploitation, and therefore I am no exception. However it would be a very sad world if photographers were not allowed to photograph in public places. I often think of what I photograph as a soap opera where I am waiting for the right cast to fall into place. In more recent years I have photographed much closer where bits of people and food become part of the big picture, and one advantage of this is that it means people are less recognisable.

How do you get so close to people?

If you photograph for a long time, you get to understand such things as body language. I often do not look at the people I photograph, especially afterwards. Also when I want a photo, I become somewhat fearless, and this helps a lot. There will always be someone who objects to being photographed, and when this happens you move on.

Why did you start to make TV?

One thing I had noticed over the years was that the dialogue I often had with my subjects was very entertaining, so I welcomed the chance to incorporate this into part of my work. You can see clips from some of these films on the web site. I also did a video for the Pet Shop Boys in 2002.

When did you first do fashion photography?

The Italian magazine Amica were the first people to commission fashion work in roughly 1999. I was doing 4 or 5 fashion shoots a year at one point. I explore the whole idea of making fashion look more believable and like the idea of doing street casting, indeed trying to make fashion not look like fashion.

Tell us about your problems when you joined Magnum.

It is no secret when I joined, there was opposition from the more conservative wing within Magnum. However I eventually got the 66.6% required to be a member. In politics, this is regarded as a landslide!

And your spat with Henri Cartier-Bresson?

Henri came to my Small World opening in Paris in 1995 and said I was from another planet! I always cherish this remark, and wrote back, I know what you mean, but why shoot the messenger?

Whose work do you admire from all the contemporary photographers?

I am a great fan of the work that emerged from the Becher school, indeed these photographers changed the way in which the art world viewed photography from a marginal activity to being a central player and I guess we all benefited from this. I also like contemporaries such as Lorca Di Corcia, Paul Shambroom, Joan Fontcuberta and many photographers from Japan. There are many of my colleagues in Magnum I admire like Bruce Gilden, Alec Soth, Gilles Perres and Jim Goldberg.

Talking of Japan, why are you so attracted to this country and their photographers?

I started going to Japan in around 1990 and have been virtually every year since. Araki for example has explored more ideas in book publishing and exhibiting than any other photographer I know, and I was particularly struck by his Banquet book in the mid 90’s. They also have made some of the best designed and printed photo books since the war.

I read that you said you thought your best work was behind you?

Yes this was a remark in passing when I did an interview in 2000. I still think it is probably true and this remark could be said about many mid career artists and photographers. I think the energy and passion you have when you start is difficult to match. I still enjoy working but one reason why I try many new challenges is to stop me going stale and keep me on my toes.

Why did you start to use digital?

I guess it is one of those things that eventually catches up with you. So in 2006 I took the plunge by buying a small digital Sony and in 2007 a Canon 5D, later upgrading to a Canon 5D Mark 2 then Mark 3. I am now conversant with the Canon and I really like the way you can balance the ambient light with the flash. I do this with the aid of my Gary Fong diffuser which I find invaluable. I also have a Sigma ring flash, so with one camera and 2 flash guns, I can virtually replicate any of my previous techniques. The thing people do not realise with digital is that what you should be constantly adjusting is the iso.

And digital printing?

Yes we have in my studio a Canon IPF8300 inkjet printer, and all new production is done on this. This is great news as we are able to control the quality of printing very carefully. I also very much like the fact that these new pigment ink prints are ten times more archival than a traditional c-print.

Tell us about the Parrworld exhibition.

This show is toured Europe and featured all my collections and my new Luxury project. The collections range between Saddam Hussein watches to recent British documentary photographs from other British photographers.

What advice would you give to an up and coming photographer?

I guess if you find an original subject matter and engage with this with passion and stamina, there is a good chance that you will come up with a good set of photos. Although photography is very competitive, there will always be opportunities for good new talent.

Why do you feel so passionately about photo books?

Yes, that’s true. I firmly believe that the photo book is still an underestimated asset in the cultural history of photography. Speaking as a photographer it is the one vehicle for photography that has influenced, not just me, but many photographers in a very big way. Finally in this last decade, there has been a strong revival of interest in the photobook. I am working with Gerry Badger on Vol 3 of the History of the Photobook, to be published by Phaidon.

What next?

I am currently doing a commission in Paris for the Museum of European Photography, which will be shown in 2014.  I am continuing to work on my Black Country stories project, which I am doing for Multistory. I am also starting to make a film every year for them. You can see these on my  film page. I am working away on a new book about Britain; it is an update of the “Think of England” project. Phaidon publishes the third volume of the highly influential History of the Photobook in Spring 2014 and I am working on a book about the History of Chinese Photobooks to be published by Aperture in late 2014.

 

MP December 2013