Beautiful images and wise words from the wonderful Jeremy Webb – images taken from his new book, Basics Creative Photography 01: Design Principles…
You have written two books for AVA: Creative Visionand now Basics Creative Photography 01: Design Principles. Do you enjoy the process of writing a book? What are the best and worst parts about it?
I love writing books, seeing the whole process develop and flow from initial concept right through to the finished product. The best part for me is all about being forced to express some of my very abstract and ethereal ideas into more concrete and precise communication. I often have a love/hate relationship with words and images combined within the same presentation. I’m much more at home in the visual world, so at exhibitions I often find myself constantly frustrated by photographers whose work can only be supported by endless panels of text required to provide context and meaning to the images – kind of essential I know for many stunning bodies of work, but all I really want is that glorious “hit” when your senses get thumped hard by some really visceral and exciting photography; where (beyond perhaps a short caption) the images just stand up for themselves. Sounds a bit shallow I know, but for me, books are where images and writing really take off, and when all goes well, the photographs and the text produce a really creative (dodgy word alert) synergy.
The downside for me is the interruption to my flow, when tiny details get in the way and when time drags on with not much happening, but thankfully, most of the troughs are completely offset by the peaks.
Both of these books focus on ‘creativity’ within the field of photography. The stated aim of Creative Vision is to “bridge the creative divide between progressive digital image creation and traditional photographic concerns”. Does this reflect your personal feelings about the direction in which photography has been advancing?
I think sometimes we’ve lost sight of what creative photography is about. It’s not about sticking rigidly to one set of rules or tools, it’s about using everything in the box – some things you might take to easily, others you may not. This doesn’t make you an air-headed experimentalist, it just means that you’re open to using what you feel is right for the transportation of your vision. I know film photographers who are utter snobs about anything which smacks of digital, and I know others who use digital capture but have never stepped foot inside a darkroom. The point is, neither position is at the opposite end of some mythical line.
Advances in technology have obviously allowed for some amazing images to be captured; what have the most major changes been? Is there a sense in which these advances can have a limiting effect?
I think that within our current culture it just becomes harder and harder to be impressed by anything which appears inside a flat box. You can take that to other visual art forms too – film for example. I saw Avatar and thought it was one of the most appalling films I’d ever seen. I went hoping to find an interesting storyline, characters with all their flaws and foibles and instead I was supposed to be impressed by 3-D effects and some ghastly sci-fi cowboys and Indians plot. Sorry, going off tangent big time! Grumpy old man kicks in :-D
As far as still photography’s concerned, I’m not particularly interested in the fractional degrees of sharpness at high magnification of the latest 40 megapixel camera – it doesn’t advance the power of photography to change lives. For me, photographers like Robert Doisneau or Nadav Kander can do that, not technology. High Definition TV? Emperor’s New Clothes! More product being sold to fuel international corporations and feed the thirst for technology, but how forensic do we have to get before we actually return to care about what we’re looking at as opposed to how we’re looking at it. There’s much current debate surrounding these new DSLR cameras which also shoot video footage. That will shake up the industry a bit. I’m not against technology by any means, I just think we’ve become so seduced by its shiny surface and promises of happy-ever-after that we’ve taken our eye off the ball.
And despite what it may sound like, I’m no technophobe. I somehow manage to run a wireless network of 7 or more Macs at my home and studio which serve the needs of my family and business – not to mention the bandwidth-hungry requirements of a teenage son developing and selling websites.
But all that aside, this year I’ve actually had more fun introducing pinhole photography to a class of 10-year-old children than anything else. Photography, at its core, is such a simple process, and you have to make connections; the eye receives the image on the retina upside down. It’s then turned rightways-up by the brain. Then I introduce the use of Camera Obscura and show how centuries ago, whole rooms could be made to receive an image on the far wall in just the same way that the eye does. From that, you show how a Camera Obscura can be built into a small box, and hey presto! There’s the magic right in front of you – a small hole, a dark chamber, a light receiving surface – that’s what photography’s all about, whether it’s captured by a flea market Box Brownie or a high-spec Nikon DSLR, the raw materials and principles are exactly the same.
Have you always wanted to be a photographer? Was there a defining moment that led to this career path?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a photographer. I can remember a time when I must have been 4 or 5 years old “taking pictures” simply by closing my eyelids and keeping the after-image alive in the blackness for a few seconds before it faded. At times, I must have seemed a very odd child :-D Later, I used to spend hours looking at the strangely surreal illustrations of Frank Hampson in Ladybird books. I never really wanted to paint, only to take pictures.
You also teach; how important is that to you? How is photography changing/developing as a taught subject?
Teaching is an essential part of what I do – I couldn’t ever not do it. I love to see other people get as much of a kick out of photography as I do. I love sharing the passion and seeing students put their heart and soul into an assignment, and then telling me how much they’ve learnt from the experience.
It’s especially gratifying to have a student who may initially have failed a particular assignment, bounce right back with a stunning submission because they pushed themselves that little bit harder. That kind of thing really makes my whole week!
In the last ten years or so, darkrooms and film cameras have been turfed-out of universities and colleges like never before. This is simply the result of a changing society and I try to be open and neutral about the fact that of course all things change. BUT for some photographers, they’re too exposed to a culture where rigorous thinking about what, why and how they shoot something takes a lower priority than it should. And it’s this, combined with the ease of modern digital capture, which results in a regurgitation of (expletive deleted). Film photography and traditional darkroom skills allow you to understand the process better and develop greater respect for the craft of producing your imagery. I embrace both worlds, but you can’t become a concert pianist without having learnt to play a few scales at some point in the development of your talent.
Is a formal qualification important for a photographer? In the introduction to Creative Vision, you emphasise the benefits of a degree of “playful ‘unlearning’”. Have you found a way to reconcile this with your teaching practices?
It’s a kind of paradox, for sure. When I teach or mentor I try to unpick the threads of their current belief system bit by bit – not in a destructive sense, but to test every artistic assumption they have. Starting from a base of greater clarity, it’s then easier to find direction without all those voices in your head telling you that you can’t do this, or shouldn’t do that. Those kind of internal barriers have a really detrimental effect on the development of vision.
But then again, not all teaching allows that level of interference from me! Sometimes it’s just a case of introducing experimentation, or alternatives, or brainstorming, depending on what needs doing.
How did you learn everything you know about photography?
Still learning – by trial and error. I went to study Photography at college in the early eighties. I also started feeding my appetite with books about different photographers from my early twenties, but have always learnt most from looking at the work of other photographers.
In your view, what is the primary objective of a photograph?
To communicate an idea or emotion with clarity, strength, and economy.
According to your website, you have served apprenticeships on cruise ships in the Caribbean and environmental expeditions in Tanzania as well as travelling around Europe shooting stock for various agencies and stock libraries. Do you enjoy travelling and is it an important thing for a photographer to do? Are there any countries in particular that you would like to visit to photograph?
Top of my list would be Iceland, or New Zealand, but in my dreams I would also be somehow kayaking down the Grand Canyon. I think travel in the main has huge benefits for the individual, and especially so when tied to an enquiring mind and a curiosity about how this strange chaotic world works. I think travel is an important thing for anyone to do, let alone a photographer. It ensures that you no longer use your own environment and background as the yardstick by which you measure all others.
My first fortnight back in the UK after returning from Tanzania was filled with an overwhelming realisation that my world was so crammed full of useless stuff – we live in such materialistic times we can’t see the wood for the trees or even begin to understand how our rate of consumption is spiralling completely out of control.
Have you ever been put in a difficult/amusing/frightening position when trying to capture a certain image?
Many times. I’m one of those infuriating people who just want to go that little bit further round the corner, just to see what’s there or how much further we could go. Then I carry on and want to get to the next corner, the next bend in the landscape, just to see what’s beyond that, and before you know it, it’s dark and a long way from base camp.
During my time, I’ve almost fallen through a bell tower floor, nearly been eaten alive by angry hippos, had a terrifying experience with a witch doctor and had countless altercations with security guards. None of which comes close to the kind of danger that professional photojournalists have to endure, so I’m not complaining – all part of the rich tapestry of a freelancer’s life :-D
You have a whole series of photographs of the Norfolk coast. Is this your favourite subject-matter? And is landscape photography your preferred genre?
I’m passionate about the Norfolk Coastline and have been photographing it for years. I’m trying to develop the project into a viable book proposal but in the current climate this is a very challenging prospect. One publisher of some beautifully-produced photography books spelt it out to me straight; “If it ain’t sexy, and you’re not a “name”, we can’t publish it”.
Without biting off my nose to spite my face, I’m also not doing too well at marketing the prospect due to the fact that I’m not really prepared to compromise my vision for the book. I’ve been offered compromise solutions to “sex it up” along the lines of “Walk the Coast with Ant & Dec” (not actually those two specifically, but something along those lines) but there’s no way I could go down this route. I’m obviously prepared to be flexible with it to a degree but there are lines I won’t cross. So sometime soon, when I have a bit more time, I’ll try to shape it into a more appealing prospect for publishers.
Landscape is certainly where my photographic passions lie, and the more remote and wild the better. I’m happy in my own skin and perfectly at ease in the wilderness – sometimes I really long to be marooned on a desert island though I’d miss my family terribly.
Can anyone become a professional photographer? What are the most important skills required?
Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity….and persistence. All the rest can be learned, acquired, or you were born with already.
Do you have any tips for young/budding photographers who would like photography to become a career rather than just a hobby? What should they be doing? What are the most helpful resources for photographers?
Going to exhibitions, reading books, looking at archives, hassling professionals to spend a few hours shadowing them, showing your work to complete strangers (not family and friends), events like the Rhubarb-Rhubarb festival and organisations like the London Photographic Association and Photolucida provide fantastic opportunities and support for young photographers.
There are obviously huge resources on the internet, but sometimes it just seems that in certain areas there are no barriers to its unmediated universal access, meaning that some very dodgy and derivative stuff gets on there and is taken as gospel when sometimes, what makes more sense is to visit the local library, take out a classic photography book (where comparative associations can be made) and see what a well-edited body of work looks like.
What tips would you give an aspiring photographer about to buy a new camera?
Read the reviews :) and never buy one without handling it first. Above everything else though, get a camera which fits your needs. It’s no good forking out for more than you need or for a camera with so many scroll wheels or tiny buttons to press, you’ll never use more than a tenth of what it’s capable of. Auto over-ride is essential, so before you even buy a good camera you should start learning how you’ll use it manually – where you control the camera, rather than the camera controlling you.
I’m reminded every day that I have a 35mm film SLR camera which I can operate blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back, so simple are its controls. I also have a digital SLR with more whistles and bells than you can shake a stick at, and this level of “control” just puts more barriers in the way of fluid and intuitive photography despite the many advantages that digital capture offers.
What are the best and worst parts about your job?
Best bits – variety, every week is different.
Worst bits – work coming along like buses; nothing for ages, then 6 all at once.
What projects have you been working on recently? And what are your plans for the future?
I’ve been working recently with Artists for Climate Change and trying to promote awareness in Norfolk schools of how climate change is affecting rising sea levels. Norfolk just happens to be one of the most visible examples of this in Western Europe. Of course, it’s happening all over the globe, but when you see it happening on your own doorstep, you have to do something. This has been filtering into my landscape work on the Norfolk coast for a few years now.
I’m hoping to become more and more active in my educational work; encouraging photographers of all kinds to articulate their ideas and that’s likely to involve more writing, tutoring, and who knows, I may even get the chance to get more of my own project work out there in exhibitions and publications of one sort or another.
The juxtaposition of vibrant colours is a powerful feature of many of your images. Why does this appeal to you?
I love colour. Colour is Life. It’s nourishing for the soul, so how or why we wouldn’t want to play with colour is just beyond me.
Are you always on the lookout for scenes/people/moments to capture?
Always. And it’s not always a healthy thing either. Sometimes I wish I could just switch off.
Are there any exciting developments in the field of photography that you think will expand its horizons in the future?
I’m much more interested in practitioners who develop photography through their ability to conceive and execute original and unique work, rather than technological developments or incremental steps in the development of a camera which can render in perfect detail the cells of a fly’s eye captured by a camera stationed on Pluto (as impressive as that may be!)
Do you think a photograph has the power to change people’s lives?
Definitely. Crimes have been proven, atrocities exposed, but also healing and happiness and insight occur in response to the photographic image. The humanity of the people on this planet is never more raw than when our own mortality is exposed through the lives of other people photographed.
Bruce Davidson said “I am a photographer in the way you might be a plumber. I like it that way…” Do you think of yourself as an artist?
Yes, and I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed to admit it.
Jeremy Webb’s new book, Basics Creative Photography 01: Design Principles, is out now. It is the second in AVA’s new discipline of Creative Photography, following David Präkel’s The Fundamentals of Creative Photography. The latest book in the series is Basics Creative Photography 02: Context and Narrative by Maria Short. All books are available from Amazon or via our website.
To find out more about Jeremy and see more of his photographs, please visit his website.