FILM PHOTOGRAPHER INTERVIEW | STEVEN TAYLOR

1. Hi Steven! I am particularly excited to do an interview with you, given your vast experience in photography. Do let our readers know more about yourself and your 38 incredible years of photography journey.

Hi Kevin. It’s 38 years of being paid to make pictures. I got the bug when I was at art school in 1974. It was the darkroom that excited me then and still does. While I was at art school I got a part time job working in a photographer’s studio, then when I left I went to work there full time. I’ve never done anything else really. A couple of stints working evenings in bars and for about 3 months I sold cameras, but I have either been paid to make photographs or to teach others to since, 1976.

I have worked in social, advertising, editorial, industrial, architectural and fine art specialisms. For the past 18 years though I have mostly made my living from documentary wedding photography and teaching. Even though I have always earned a living as a photographer I would say I am an amateur in the original sense of the word in that I am obsessed with photography.  

2. You are an Ilford Artisan Partner offering courses and workshops in photography and darkroom skills. What do you hope to leave upon other’s who attends your classes. 

At one time any photographer worth his salt could make a black and white print. Colour photography didn’t really get popular in commercial photography until the late sixties, and in high street studios, not until the seventies. Professional colour labs started appearing in abundance around the time I went to work in a studio. I remember Kodak sending out literature advising portrait photographers on how to use colour. From then on the darkroom took a bit of a back seat, and a lot of professionals used labs instead of printing their own work. 

I always loved creating a beautiful black and white print and I’ve always had at least access to a darkroom. I know photographers now who say they hated the darkroom and are more than happy sitting at a computer screen instead. There are others who walk into my darkroom, breath in the smells and go home to build a darkroom again. There is something magical about creating something with your eyes and hands from start to finish. It’s a craft and one, along with many others, we are in danger of losing. 

You don’t need to go into a darkroom to make great photographs anymore but there are a whole new breed of photographers who are finding out just how special that is again. 

I offer the skills and the knowledge to help others find out about the delight of darkroom printing. More important than skills though, I share my enthusiasm for the craft.

3. What is it about film and darkroom that you adore? 

I call my darkroom business “The Alchemist’s Workshop” because that’s what it’s like. We are using light to turn raw materials into objects of beauty. 

Film is not like digital. You can get filters, presets and actions that attempt to duplicate the “look” of film but they don’t really work. The ones that add “grain” to digital files are fine on the screen but the grain doesn’t scale at the same rate as the image so if you make a small print the grain is huge and on a large print it almost disappears, besides film grain is random, the pattern is organic and that makes the “look” totally different to any film simulation programs.

My interest in photography is now, and always has been about making prints. In my commercial practice I use digital cameras and Lightroom etc., often, because of my client’s wishes, the end result of my efforts is no more than an arrangement of ones and zeros that display as an image on a computer screen. That’s fine if that’s all they want, I have to make a living, but my output as an impassioned artisan is a “Fine Print”.  I still want as many as possible to see my work and by far the best and natural way is to look at my prints on a gallery wall or better still take them in your hands. In my pursuit to enable as many as possible to do that, I have to build an audience. Digital technology helps me do that. I don’t scan negatives to share on the Internet though, I scan my prints. All the work is in there and I offer a facsimile of a “Fine Print” to demonstrate the possibility. The scans do need an extra something in PS still to bring them to something that looks like the original.

Great prints on fibre based paper made in the darkroom by a really good printer make my heart skip. Digital images, however perfect, displayed on a monitor leave me cold. Most people, including photographers, probably haven’t seen a “Fine Print” as I’m talking about, they are rare, always were. You do have to experience it for yourself to understand what I am saying.

4. Has it ever come to a point in your life that you question yourself "Why am I doing this", "This is so boring doing the same thing over and over again" etc. How did you get yourself out of this negative whirlpool to become the Steven Taylor today? 

I have done my fair share of mundane work. I remember doing runs of prints on plastic paper for press releases, maybe 100 6”x8” prints of the same neg, I used to count them by the cost of each print so I was motivated to get them finished. Sometimes, I get a list of family groups to photograph at a wedding and it’s hard work organizing people to do what you need them to, especially when the result is something less than “artful”. I get demanding clients or ones who don’t get what I do and I don’t feel valued, but I’d rather do that than stack shelves or dig out coal. 

It’s tough making enough money to pay the bills when you don’t want to compromise. In the early days we all have to do what is required (unless you have independent means) but after a while we build enough of a reputation to win clients and patrons that trust us to do what we do best. I think Cartier-Bresson said something like “your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”. I believe he was talking about the formal aesthetic but I reckon that also applies to their content.

There is a fine line between making a living and making work you believe in, most of us, who like to eat occasionally, find ourselves constantly stepping over either side of that line.

5. I see that black and white photography seems to be the core of your photography style. Tell us what draws you to black and white images. Share to care some tips on a good black and white image? 

I do make colour pictures but yes, it is black and white that really “floats my boat”. Colour is hard to do really well. The Impressionists got excited about colour theory and explored the way colour could be used to give the impression of form. They observed how some colours advance and others recede and how complimentary colours placed side by side accentuated each other. Most of my work tells a story. Colour can skew the story. If you look at a colour picture the first thing that comes to mind is the dominant colour. Black and white pictures lead you directly to the narrative. 

I greatly admire photographers who work with colour well, Steve McCurry, Saul Leiter, Ernst Hass and Alex Webb are among my favourite photographers. I can’t do what they do though. I find it much easier to confine my images to shades of gray. Besides, I have more control in the darkroom with black and white printing than I do with colour.

6. Whenever you go out, do you already have a theme in mind to shoot? Or do you just start shooting when the inspiration comes to you? 

I work in both of the ways. When I do street photography I am looking for something to occur, I have no idea what that will be, where I’ll find it or when. It’s about keeping your eyes open and being ready. The images I make on the street are seized in a split second, you have to be totally open and ready. 

My landscapes are usually more planned but even then the light can suddenly and very briefly do something exciting and again you have to be ready to respond. Which is why although I do occasionally work with medium or large formats I still prefer to work with 35 mm, even in the landscape.

Portraits are very planned and when I shoot weddings I put the story first, I know the “sort” of images I need but the story may not unfold in exactly the way I expect it to. 

I think in that sense, most of the time I “take” photographs rather than ”make” photographs. I do however have to “make” something of each situation.

7. How do you critique your work? Do you have hobby groups that come together to have a critique session? How do you improve yourself?

I’ve never really been in to the idea of critiquing single images, not from an aesthetic view anyway. I think we are all very aware of what went wrong and what would improve the image but unless you are doing very contrived work, like portraiture, you can’t really go and do it again. With something like street photography you really have to “fly by the seat of your pants”, I know that sometimes I might have been better to get closer, drop lower, frame to the right but it’s gone, and to be honest framing is pretty intuitive anyway. If you over think this stuff it can end up looking contrived. 

Now, critiques of complete or ongoing bodies of work are vital. Another set of eyes can help no end in the editing process, culling but also pointing out what is missing, stuff you need to go back and get. Then there’s sequencing. Sequencing can be very personal and as the artist we may not want any other input but sometimes someone else can spot a possibility that makes everything pop. When it comes to layout, on a page or a wall, the spaces between and the sizing of the images can say as much as the images so another view can be a great help. I work on weddings with my son Josh, he also has a photography degree so his view of my work is one I value.

8. Please pick your choice. Street, wedding, portraiture or landscape photography? And why?

My gallery is in a visitor centre at Grizedale Forest in The English Lake District. The Lake District is a national park and is one of the most beautiful areas in England. The visitor centre attracts around 200,000 tourists a year, they buy landscapes. Wedding photography, although it has become a very popular is still quite lucrative, maybe not as good as it was but it still provides my main income. I enjoy portraiture but I have to be in the mood and I’m not interested in photographing babies and families any more. 

Street photography every time. I always have a camera with me, it’s always loaded with black and white film. Sometimes I go out especially for a day of street photography. I treat it like an adventure, whenever possible I travel by train and I walk through city streets, Manchester, Liverpool, London or sometimes smaller provincial towns and seaside resorts. I go to events as well, like horse racing, anywhere I know that people will gather. I’m a bit of a loner really, there’s nothing I like more than watching, I’m curious, in my head I make up little back stories for the people I’m watching. I work out their relationships and give them occupations. You know that Simon and Garfunkel song, “America” where the protagonist and Kathy are on the Greyhound bus? That’s my idea of street photography in a song.

On any one trip I might shoot 1 or 2 rolls of 36 exposure film and before I go into the darkroom I’ll have one or two images in my head that I think are going to be special, then at various points in the workflow it all changes. Those one or two might not be anything at all and often something else that I hadn’t rated turns out to be special. That can happen when I first look at the negs, or the contacts or sometimes not until I make a print. When I’m out I might see something and I don’t know what it is that makes me raise the camera and make the exposure but when I’m printing it all falls into place, the reason why I intuitively opened the shutter. It really is very exciting.

Landscape photography is like fly fishing, very quiet, cathartic, casting and hoping something will bite. Street photography is like big game fishing on a big sea. Very exciting, loads going on, quite physical and a fight to reel in a big catch.

9. Name me a camera, lens and film that you have no qualms in bringing it out anytime of the day.

Olympus OM4Ti with 35mm f2. I have quite a few cameras and dozens of lenses but that is the combination I do nearly everything on.

I used to like the old style Tri X but they “improved” it.  In the pre-digital days there was a constant quest to eliminate grain, like with lots of things, we don’t know how good it was until it’s gone. Since we see so much almost pure, clean digital images now, I really want to celebrate the grain. So the old Tri X would have been great. Fortunately Harman Technologies are probably more forward thinking than any of the digital manufacturers. They picked up on the need to celebrate grain and, when they bought the Kentmere brand, used it to produce a couple of films that did just that. My favourite is Kentmere 400 and just like I did with the old Tri X I develop it in Rodinal, not made by Agfa now but by another German company called Adox.

10. Any inspiring words for fellow film photographers and also people who would like to jump onto the film wagon?

Get in the darkroom. If you have the funds and the space build one, if not find one near where you live and make use of it. If you’re lucky you might find someone to teach you, if not there are loads of books and stuff on the Internet, Youtube etc. If you can get to me I run workshops but I can do one to one as well. If not register on here and find a darkroom and teacher near you.

You can look up Steven at the links below:

http://steventaylorfolio.com/

http://thealchemistsworkshop.co.uk/

http://steventaylorphotography.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/staylorphoto?ref=tn_tnmn

https://twitter.com/taylorphoto


Singapore-based film lover, Kevin Lim, interviewed Steven for this post. See more of Kevin's work on his website, on Tumblr or on the Film Shooters Collective 

Kevin Lim

Singapore

Someone who's crazy about cameras. Someone who loves photography but wouldn't call himself a photographer. Someone who's lazy to do PhotoShop. Someone who loves the smell and physicality of film. That's why he loves films.