“I wanted to be a painter, that’s why I went to Art School, but I got the bug. It was the darkroom that got me excited. Back then and still today, I love printmaking, it feels 3 dimensional, sculptural.”
Steven Taylor (born in Suffolk, UK in 1958) is a photographer from England. He got his first taste as an Art Student at “Lowestoft School of Art” in 1974. When he left he worked as an assistant to, what was called in those days, a general practice photographer. That meant he did everything from fairly high-end advertising to cheque presentations and weddings and babies. Steven Taylor finally formalised his intellectual understanding of photography with an MA at DeMontfort in 2005. That was under the professorship of Paul Hill.
Can I cheat on this? I would have said this if I had thought of it first…
“Confronted by the myriad relationships between objects in the visual world, I am impelled to choose or select those happenings that most accurately reflect or mirror a state of being at that one moment in time. This choice is governed by an instinctive awareness of the medium’s essential power of translating and recreating in photographic terms. A new world is magically presented in the form of marks made by the optical-chemical process, related to the world of everyday visual contact and yet quite apart from it. From this map of experience, hopefully something of value may be revealed”
Ray Moore, “Murmurs at Every Turn”, Travelling Light, London 1981.
Interview with Steven Taylor
Steven, why did you become a photographer? And why portrait and wedding photography?
I wanted to be a painter, that’s why I went to Art School, but I got the bug. It was the darkroom that got me excited. Back then and still today, I love printmaking, it feels 3 dimensional, sculptural.
Wedding and portrait photography are ways I can use what it is I have become proficient at to put bread on the table. I separate commercial work from my passion, which is for print-making. Wedding and portrait photography take up a small part of my working day but contribute a significant part to my income and allows me to pursue my passion.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
Photography can be used to say everything any other language can be used to say and sometimes, a lot more. Often, the point of using photography as a means of expression is that words are inadequate.
There are a lot of photographs being made today that is true; I don’t think that is, in itself, a bad thing. The language of photography has become more universally understood. Like everyone else I see lots of pictures of people’s lunch on Facebook but in the past, before photography was so democratized, those pictures would have been poorly executed, thoughtlessly composed. Now I see people with no formal visual training photographing their lunch with consideration for the statement. That means there are more people who are able to “get” what I do.
You are a traditionalist, an analogue photographer, enjoying film and developing your images in the darkroom. Why?
“From today painting is dead.” Paul De La Roche
In 1839 when Paul De La Roche, the French painter, heard of the announcement of photography he said: “From today painting is dead”. Painting didn’t die but it’s agenda changed. It was no longer necessary to employ a specialist draftsman to render a visual description. The photograph could now do that more accurately and with much less labour.
When digital imaging got to be as good as film photography a lot of the function of film photography was replaced. Digital is easier to use, it’s not necessary any more to have a dedicated space to process it and it can be immediate. Much more practical than film photography.
For a long time before the digital revolution a lot of commercial photographers were handing over the processing of their images to labs and specialist printers. The output of those photographers was often for newspapers, magazines, books brochures or other media. Prints or transparencies had to be scanned and separated for 4 colour print processes. So, for those photographers the transition to digital was easy and obvious. Clearly digital imaging has huge advantages.
My output is a fine print. Each print I make is unique. After nearly 40 years of printmaking you do get to a point where each print is pretty consistent, but no two are exactly the same. The process becomes an important part of the art. My prints, that are made using fibre based silver gelatin papers and archival processed, are hand-made. Each one is individually crafted.
Since 1839 we no longer need to use a brush and oils to make a likeness of a subject. I don’t need to make film photographs and hand print everything in a darkroom anymore either but I choose to.
Why do you consider it important to still working the old-fashioned analogue way? And what can you learn from analogue photography that helps you to become a better digital photographer?
“A foundation in film photography and darkroom theory helps in the understanding of the action of light on photosensitive materials.”
I don’t consider analogue to be old-fashioned any more than I would call oil painting old-fashioned. I use modern materials and state of the art equipment. It’s not one or the other it’s just another way.
As a teacher of photography, whatever method a photographer uses to render an image, I would say that a foundation in film photography and darkroom theory helps in the understanding of the action of light on photosensitive materials. In a darkroom you can see what is happening. Any student setting out would benefit from some film and darkroom practice.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I can’t give you one photographer that has inspired me, there are many and for several different reasons. In the same way I have already said I would recommend any student of photography to make a study of analogue techniques I would recommend them to study the history of photography. If you really want me to name someone, it won’t be just one. Ralph Gibson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Ray Moore, Paul Caponigro. The list continues.
What’s your favorite inspirational photography quote?
” (…) In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe (..) A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye (…) these we should all have.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, from The Decisive Moment, 1952
I’m not one of those photographers who like to advertise their presence, that’s as true in the landscape as it is in documentary photography.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process? How do you plan and execute a project?
I don’t really work on projects, or maybe I have always been working on the same one.
What I prefer to do is set some time aside to go and photograph. Wherever I might be or my whim takes me. I go through phases of working with small, medium or large format cameras. I once went through a phase of working with an 8”x20” banquet camera. Each set of equipment dictates the way I work. The larger cameras are much slower, more meditative, whereas the small cameras allow me to be more spontaneous and I take more risks. Then I make contact sheets and spend months contemplating, sometimes making work prints, until eventually I can see themes emerging and I start making editions. I am still making editions from negatives I made 10 or more years ago. On occasions, I write about ideas that are prompted from the themes I find in the work I did. That’s not common because I would rather let the work speak for itself.
I would say that after nearly 40 years my work is still unresolved.
You approach portrait and wedding photography in a quite different way. What does “conceptual portraiture” and documentary wedding photography mean?
They are just words I have used to help with the marketing really. Documentary wedding photography because it is influenced by documentary filmmaking and reportage, photojournalism. It’s about making a faithful record of the events without interference and with integrity. Taking the HCB quote to heart I guess.
Conceptual portraiture is less thought through. I am working in a space at the “Visitor Centre of Grizedale Forest” in the English Lake District. So I am surrounded by forest. I have made a lot of “landscape” images in and around the forest and people were asking me to make portraits. I don’t have a “Studio” as such here and I’m not really up for going to the sitter so I thought it might be fun to use the forest. Then I started thinking about film and literature that uses the forest as a backdrop and it went from there. “Conceptual Portraiture” just answered the need for a label.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
When I left Art School in the seventies and I became an assistant I was really only aware of what I could do as a commercial photographer. I knew about photographers like Ralph Gibson and Ray Moore but I thought my practice was defined by how I could earn money from it or not. My first “landmark” then was when I went to fill in for sick leave at an Art School in Norfolk and I met Chris Locke who was head of photography there. He was teaching to earn his living but had an art practice. He encouraged me to start making my own work and to study others who were doing that.
“People buy my prints and other photographers come to learn some of the techniques and philosophies I have picked up over the years.”
I went from there to take up a residency in an Arts Centre, that’s how I ended up in the Lake District. That was in 1989, at the end of the “Creative Camera” years. What I was aware of but failed to take note of until then was a vibrant movement of independent British photography that had been happening between 1969 and 1989. Photographers who I subsequently met like Fay Godwin, Paul Hill, Thomas Joshua Cooper and John Blakemore. Artists who were getting funding from The Arts Council, published in “Creative Camera”, showing on, the then healthy, British gallery circuit and publishing monographs. They worked in black and white and celebrated the “Fine Print”, a tradition that I obstinately continue.
Eventually I studied with Paul Hill at DeMontfort where I got an MA in photography.
Now that I have my gallery and workshop in the Forest I can put more time and effort into making my own work. People buy my prints and other photographers come to learn some of the techniques and philosophies I have picked up over the years. I still need to shoot a few weddings but being able to focus on my practice has got to be the ultimate “Landmark” in my career.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Subject is almost irrelevant in my work. My ultimate aim is the “Fine Print”. To that end I work with black and white film and other materials that help me to achieve that.
I try not to over think concept when I am making work. I think, when I do, the result can appear contrived and a little trite. Like adding tittles, that alludes to the meaning. I want to make prints that speak without the help of words so I let my intuition take over. It is hard enough to make meaningful images by setting out to make meaningful images. So to set out with a concept in mind as well destroys completely any integrity I may have.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
I’ll let Elliott Erwitt answer that:
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Well we established I don’t really do projects but my inspiration comes from my environment. Currently I work in a forest in the English Lake District. It’s hard to avoid seeing photographically here but I could equally make images in cities… and I have done…
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I use OM4Tis for 35mm, RZ67 for120, Arca Swiss for 5×4 and D700 for digital.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I don’t really have one, but I suppose I should say this one.
What book about photography would you recommend?
“The Mind’s Eye. Writings on Photography and Photographers” by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Some of the essays go a long way back, “The Decisive Moment” was written in 1952, but they are all as relevant now as they were when they were written. It is not a technical how to do it book. It’s a philosophy that informs an approach. Essential reading.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
All of it, read “The Mind’s Eye”.
I’m not sure what we mean by a “professional photographer” anymore. I suppose we mean somebody who earns most of their income from making photographs. If that is so I would say be prepared to mix it up. 10 years ago you could make a lot of money doing just wedding photography. That market is swamped now and wedding photography has become a commodity where the client names the price.
It was always tough to break into the big money. Advertising, high-end fashion or editorial portraiture. I would say that is even tougher today, so be prepared to do a bit of everything.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
You asked them all…
More about Steven Taylor