The I was 20 or maybe 21 a friend of mine bought an Olympus camera with some family money. A few weeks later, a tax return gave me enough to buy one of my own. I’m not sure why I bought a camera. I liked taking photographs, I had a small Fuji compact rangefinder and I’d often played with my Fathers Olympus Pen. But actually to take the step in investing money and subsequently many years of my time in learning to be ‘a photographer’…I don’t know why.
I was really interested in Fine Art. Painting was the first calling.
I’d succeeded in gaining entry into Farnham Art college on leaving school in 1979. The adventure that it should have been was curtailed by my crippling shyness and a feeling of just not being good enough. I needed an escape. I took the long way round by quitting college and starting work in a perfume factory. At the time, in the area, it was a big employer of young and not so young people. An easy ‘in’ as I hadn’t a clue what I was really good for and just needed time to re-assess my life.
Looking back on this period, I’m horrified at how desperately unhappy I was. I didn’t know what to do with myself, with my creative self I mean. I already knew that in my heart I was ‘an artist’ of some sort, with the same sensibilities and insecurities as many of this sensibility have. I just knew that I needed to work with images, and that painting had come to a dead end for me.
My purchase of the camera at about the same time as I began packing perfume bottles on a production line gave me something to hold onto. A new avenue of interest. A fresh start.
I soon realised that I had a technical aptitude for photography. I understood the science of it. I was soon processing my own film and printing black and white photographs in my mothers small kitchen when she had gone to bed, through the night. The next morning she would come downstairs to find prints drying on sheets of newspaper all over the front room.
I had bought a Patterson Darkroom in a Box kit. Plastic enlarger..but functional. Incredibly good value! I love simple solutions. Everything you needed to process and print in box with instructions. Perfect!
I bought a good Schneider enlarging lens as an upgrade (quite how one bought things before ebay or Amazon I can’t recall). Loot maybe? A paper version of ebay if you will, without the pictures. I was aware of how optical quality was important right from the first. It seemed to matter to me to try and always get the best results from any negative I could and even today, I still find that using the very highest quality equipment is something I value..because if my images are unsuccessful, I know it’s all me and not the camera or lens. I also, in latter periods, shot with plastic cameras, or put bags over the lenses to distort the optical qualities of the gear to achieve blur, distortion, fuzziness…when I realised that an image could be many things…aside from technically ‘perfect’. indeed, I think very few of my photographs would I rate as technically perfect. Maybe none! But I tried!
Within a short span of time, I’d started a Photographic Club at the factory. I shot photographs everywhere I went. Built a portfolio of images. I learnt a lot about technique, aperture, shutter speeds, film emulsions and how to process them in different chemistry.
One day, a strike was called at work. We subsequently were not allowed to work (as the unions ruled the roost pre Thatcher) for quite some time.
I went to the Job Centre one afternoon, feeling that the winds of change were blowing and landed an interview as a press and PR assistant at a charity based some 10 miles up the A30 in Sunninghill, Berkshire.
Taking my portfolio along, I landed the job. In those days, it felt as if what I was doing was of some potential, some value. The job involved press photography, design briefs and a lot of rather boring office work typing press releases. I also recall, there simply wasn’t too much for me to do and I got bored very quickly. I knew I had to get out of there and wanted to get back to London, which I felt was my ‘home’ both genetically and creatively.
Photography had consumed me by this point and I decided to chance my arm and apply for a degree in it. Thankfully, in those days, If you got accepted onto a course, and your family was pretty average in income (I was living with my Mother, sister and brother at the time, my father having left a few years before) you received a grant. They paid you to study!!! Can you believe it!
I applied to The London College of Printing. The best photography college in Europe.
I remember vividly looking up at the tower block that housed much of the photographic suite at Elephant and Castle and thinking…’the next hour will decide much about my life’.
The interview went well. I was always good at talking about ideas..showing the tutors who were interviewing me, my latest prints. Mostly portrait work, street portraits.