In 1990 I spent two months making a film about an environmental research expedition in Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard Archipelago in northern Norway, bordering the Arctic ocean. Crawling through the dirt rocks and dust of a glacial moraine I spot a seal. Taking care not to disturb it, I set up the tripod and camera and started to shoot. Electronic viewfinders weren’t like they are today and to cut a long story short, I have 40 minutes of some of the best footage ever taken in the Arctic of a black dustbin liner. In 1994 I made my first trip to Islay as part of a film crew shooting a documentary about sailing and whisky – two things that I found are best left well apart. The crew, understandably impressed with my recent Arctic wildlife filming credentials, thoughtfully shared the news with our host, fisherman and Coastguard Station Officer Harold Hastie. For the next two weeks I couldn’t move for things being wrapped in black plastic. On the same trip I steered Harold’s fishing boat for three hours through a force eight gale. The film crew throwing up over the side, I was drenched in perspiration, deep in concentration, not wanting to steer us off course and stay on the heading Harold had set. Months later I find out the boat was on auto pilot the entire time. I could share dozens of similar stories about “wind-ups” and practical joking on Islay. Usually involving me and always involving Harold. It’s a way of life for many of the locals and for an outsider like me it’s a sign of acceptance. In the two decades since I first visited the Island I have forged great friendships, shared in some of the happiest and saddest of times and been privileged to have been given a glimpse into this island community and way of life. One that I believe, we on mainland Britain, have for the most part lost or forgotten.
In 2003, Lagavulin distillery stillman Kevin Campbell invited me to take part in an ambitious project to row an old Irish Skiff boat around the Island, picking up whisky from the then eight distilleries. The whiskies would be blended, bottled and labelled, then auctioned for charity. I agreed to design the label and shoot the pictures. The project, ‘Islay Pillage’ took two days to shoot and sowed the seeds for my future career as both photographer and filmmaker. Other projects followed in 2005, 2007 and 2010 and the challenges became more and more ambitious, in total raising nearly £150,000 for the RNLI, Children’s Hospice and several other worthy causes. My work as designer and photographer brought me into contact with more locals and friendships grew. My long history and strong connection with the Island and its people lead me to develop the idea for a deeply personal project, revolving around the Islanders themselves. After several unsuccessful attempts to raise the finance to make a short film, I decided to turn to my first love, the still image. A trip in late 2013 left me pondering over the word ‘Ileachs’ the name given to the Islanders and this led me to the idea of a book and possibly an exhibition, that would show through the medium of photography both intimate portraits as well as emotive landscapes, and in some small way attempt to capture the culture and day to day lives of these island people.
When I look at the photography industry today I am both excited and saddened in equal measure. Excited because we have easy access to all manner of exotic technologies that were once only available to a very select few, and this opens up huge opportunities for creativity. Saddened, because this access has lead to a tidal wave of mediocrity and to some degree I feel that the industry is drowning in a sea of nothingness and as a result the photograph has become devalued.
It’s estimated that in 2016 over a trillion photographs will be taken on mobile devices. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great examples of beautiful work produced from mobiles. Whenever I pick up my phone to take a picture or shoot a piece of video it’s because the mobile is all I have on me at the time. This is a great argument for the device and its single greatest strength, along with it allowing the user to be able to edit, post produce and deliver work all in something that fits in the palm of your hand! So why don’t I shoot everything on a phone? In a single word, ‘craft’. And its this that has driven me to create the ‘Ileachs Project’ a chance to utilize my skills as designer, writer and photographer. No big crew, no lighting, no assistants, no hair, no makeup, and no wardrobe. Just me, a camera and a handful of lenses. It’s pure photography that’s brought me here and although the technology is exotic, the end result is as old as photography itself; and that is to put ink on paper and make fine art prints. Photography is a magical medium for creative expression, and whilst I like to see my work on a monitor, tablet or phone, nothing can compare to seeing my pictures as prints. I remember the first time I developed a photographic print in the darkroom and the wonder I felt at seeing this picture magically materialise before my eyes. I was sixteen years old and at art college studying graphic design and thankfully, photography was a key part of the syllabus. The brief was to make a pinhole camera. I made mine out of an old shoebox with silver foil and insulation tape. The resulting picture was one only a mother could love and yet this simple hand made camera sowed in me the seed for a life long love for the still image. Then in 1982 my parents bought me my first serious 35mm film camera, which I still have today. A grounding in film gave me a deep respect for the value of a picture, and I would go to great effort and expense to make a single good print. The skills needed in chemical photography are significant and it was in these early days that I found a love and respect for the craft of photography.
My career as a professional photographer coincided with the advent of professional digital cameras and in 2005 I brought a Canon EOS 5D and quickly realised that this new technology was just as much a craft as analogue. Although the processes have changed, with digital replacing film and computers being used instead of darkrooms, there is still one constant between chemical and digital, the photographic print. Fast forward ten years and more and more of us are viewing our pictures on a screen, whether it is a phone, tablet or computer monitor. The latest Canon EOS 5DS and R capture each images to a whopping 50.6 Mega-pixel sensor; each RAW file is between 55-60Mbs in 12bit at 8688 x 5792 pixels, producing a 16bit TIFF at 300Mbs, and there isn’t a monitor on the planet that can do this amount of capability any justice. Even the very best monitors barely get close to a paper size of A2 and, if you want to see part of a file in detail, it means zooming in. These days print is almost limitless. In my home I have a Canon Pro 1000 and an iPF6450 24” two art large format printer, one with unparalled image quality upto flood print A2 and the other which can produce a full A1 edge-to-edge print in 12 colours at 600ppi in 14bit. Canon is unique in that it not only designs and manufactures cameras but also wide format fine art printers, and the two share technologies from decades of continual development.
There is something beautifully tactile about ink on paper and having a piece of work that you can hold in your hand. There are other very solid reasons for using print as a medium. It’s archival for in excess of 150 years, way beyond any current digital technology. Colour, contrast and brightness vary from one screen to another, not so with print. A print can be seen from any angle and the detail is viewed in context as we, the viewer, move closer or further away. And, unlike a monitor, print has the additional dimension of paper; I can choose whether to print on matt, satin, gloss or pearl. Then there is a very tangible monetary value associated with fine art printing. For a fine art photographer the print represents the ultimate expression of their work, enabling complete control of what the viewer sees. In my opinion the advent of a DSLR that can produce a 300Mb 16bit TIFF will lead both serious amateurs and professionals to take a closer look at the digital darkroom and fine art printing. I believe there are three types of magic to the craft of photography. The first being in the capture of a picture and all that is associated with the subject matter, composition and light. The second is in how I post-produce the picture, and my interpretation of the RAW data, and how I then create the look and atmosphere. The third is the process of making a print. From the alchemy of monitor calibration, paper profiling, paper choice, balanced viewing light and, finally, the deep appreciation of all that has gone before now realised in this… The most perfect, and by far the most rewarding, medium I know.