In conjunction with Toby’s photographic exhibition ‘Skills, Smells and Spells’ opening on the 29th of May at The Strand Gallery, we asked him some all important questions.
You are a devout analogue enthusiast, in what ways has this affected your career as a photographer (if at all)?
When I left Art College in the early 90s digital photography didn’t really exist. I spent about 5 years trying to make a living from my photography but never really managed to earn enough money to make it worthwhile so I started working as a television cameraman. It is only in the last couple of years that I have decided to turn my mind back to making money from my stills.
The initial effect of digitalization on me was one of convenience: Websites, postcards, emails, scanners and printers all offered huge time saving and money saving possibilities.
The downside – because there is always a downside – has been the loss of materials. It was not so much that shops stopped selling the products I used and needed, but more that manufacturers stopped making them.
And the effect this has had on me? An old school, devout analogue photographer? I have merely continued to do what I love and refused to succumb to the so called quicker, easier, cheaper, more convenient and better option. To remove the chemicals, darkroom and labour from the equation would be to fundamentally change what I do. I would no longer be doing what I love.
And who knows, perhaps the most fundamental affect this has had or will have on my work and career is that I have come to appreciate what I could so easily have lost. I have a renewed passion and a love for film and the darkroom – the smells, the frustrations, the results – and a determination to continue doing what I love, regardless of the expectation and demands from the commercial world.
– Bucuresti, Romania, August 1992
Could you explain what it is about analogue photography vs digital that excites and inspires you?
Put very simply – if that is at all possible – it is the journey you go on.
The destination may be what is seen and admired, but no destination can be savoured and appreciated without the journey. It is the journey that makes you truly appreciate what you have achieved.
Every step of the way is tinged with magic, fear, wonder, beauty and frustration.
It is magical that when I mix some chemicals and pour them onto the film, this moment I captured with a split second decision, magically appears. The position of my camera, the moment I instinctively opened the shutter appears before me once again thanks to this mysterious alchemy.
And yes, this happens with a digital camera, but with film, I take the photograph and move on, I change the film, I put it away, I carry it with me through countries, I hold it close to me, I fight the fear as it goes through x-ray machines, I catalogue it when I get home, I forget all about the specific split second decisions I made.
And it continues – the struggle to find the will power to print the contact sheets, a crucial stage in the journey, yet one so easily over looked, skipped for more immediate gratification.
The selection process – another stage that is so easily skimmed over now you can upload hundreds of images onto flickr, expecting the viewer to edit your shots.
And then the printing, the frustrations, the need for a perfect print – just one more go, one more try, lighten the face slightly, darken the sky.
And now, with the exhibition, the final stage – the framing and presenting of the images, in all their (here’s hoping) glory.
And what satisfaction, what trials and tribulations, what depths of despair, peaks of euphoria, moments of frustration – what a journey.
Your photography has taken you around the world to some amazing places, can you tell us about somewhere that really inspired you and why?
Yes, I am lucky enough to have been to some amazing places and to have been present at some awe-inspiring moments, but I think the thing that stays with you is that it is not necessarily the big momentous occasions or majestic landscapes that inspire you. Majesty and awe can be present anywhere and everywhere, and sometimes it is only later, much later, when your journey is complete that you realise just exactly what it is you were photographing.
And of course sometimes you know then and there just how privileged you are and what a wonderful moment you are living through:
Photographing laughing smiling children in Romania, knowing all the while you are in an AIDS hospice.
– Romania, April 1991
Being high in the mountains, completely and utterly alone, coming to terms with your insignificance and yet feeling like you are the centre of the universe. An internal contradiction so fierce you feel the need to curl up and whimper.
The sheer danger and scale of the Himalayas. The freedom felt riding a motorbike round the hairpins down the side of a mountain at 4000 metres, through melting snow and ice…
…all inspiring, and all re-lived on every level every time I print one of the photographs.
Your recent project was Crowd Funded, how did you get involved with that? Was it a success?
Crowdfunding was intense, That is the only way to describe it.
It was a huge amount of work, constantly pushing it on twitter, facebook, by email…hassling friends and strangers. It was a long, long way outside my comfort zone.
You could never call it a failure, even if you don’t raise enough money, because the money you do raise, the money people do contribute – be it a tenner or a couple of hundred pounds – is so valuable and important that the campaign must always be considered a success.
Luckily I didn’t opt for an all or nothing type of crowdfunding. I was allowed to keep all the money I raised even if I didn’t reach my target. Which was lucky, because I didn’t! But I did raise a considerable amount of money for what is a reasonably specialist project, so I was hugely moved and grateful to everyone who helped.
Do you hand print all of your photos before transferring them to a digital format?
Yes. A short answer!
There is no such thing as a perfect negative. For me anyway, to scan a neg and then work on it in Photoshop would be a waste of time. I find it much easier to print in the darkroom and then use a flatbed, cheap(ish) scanner. Then it is just a question of adjusting the white and black levels in Photoshop, playing with the contrast and doing what I can to bring the image as close to the original as I can.
What’s can we expect to see from you in the coming year?
I have no idea! This exhibition will hopefully open a few paths for me. Ideally I would like to find some gallery representation, some more venues to tour the exhibition to and of course I am always looking to take more photographs.
I am working on two projects at the moment. The first, West of the Sun, has been bubbling along nicely for a few years. It is essentially a collection of landscapes from around the world that has grown and taken shape over the last 15 years or so and is crying out to be exhibited or published in its own right.
The second, Festivities, was kick started by my time in India photographing Holi. I was fascinated by the history, the emotions and the intensity of the celebrations. The idea to photograph and document similar cultural and unique occasions just grew and took shape.
– Holi Festival, India, March 2011