Peter Davidson: photographer of the week
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by Yvette Depaepe
I adhere to what Eve Arnold said: “I don't see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary, just people in front of my lens.”
I'm continually drawn to shape and form and the tonally of my work is often dark. That glint of a reflection in a passing bus window or the spark within a glance, hint of secrets within. To this end, I do tend to see the world in monochrome. The light providing nothing more than shape, texture and mood. It's a much harder medium to work with than colour, but for me it tells a story better and is ultimately far more satisfying.
* So that summer I found myself a job as a 'photographer' working the carnival fairground rides in the northern English seaside town of Blackpool. Given an Olympus half-frame 35mm camera and a big Metz hammer-head flash I was told - with a shove in the back and a kick up the backside to: 'Stop faffing about being 'effing arty' lad, and get taking proper snaps and make some bloody dosh!'
* In the autumn, I skulked back and enrolled again in the same collage of photography, and agreed to the humiliation of starting again back in the first year. To my surprise, they accepted me. They had decided that I showed 'promise' and so welcomed me back. It was the sixties summer of love after all.
* I did head down to London with my 'folio, even met Bob Guccione of 'Penthouse' infamy (who encouraged me to bring him back some 'good stuff man' for his magazine) and also received great feedback and encouragement from many other photographers, and eventually, I was offered a job as unpaid tea boy/runner in one studio. Which I would have taken but for being skint, alone and friendless in a big, unknown and expensive city. Despite all that, there is no excuse - I should have taken the 'job' and stayed. Instead, I returned to free bed and board at home. And when a job in Manchester came up that actually paid decent money for actually being a photographer, I took it.
So started my photographic journey in reverse.
* Industrial photography sounds dull, but actually isn't. Especially as Health & Safety was unheard of in the early seventies. I was given a car, a boot full of PF60 flash bulbs, a full Hasselblad kit and told to go to various locations around the UK and shoot docks, truck, buses, factories and engineering works. Aged just twenty and on my own, I was organising whole factories in pursuit of a great shot. Using up to a hundred PF60 one-shot flash bulbs, connected by wires snaking over mills, drills and irate workers. When the ensuing blast of light erupted, someone panicked and shut down the whole vehicle production line. I was not exactly flavour of the year, but the shot was cool.
* So I took another working for a mail-order studio. It paid well. Hint: Don't get a job just for the money... Working with 10x8 plate cameras and shooting mundane merchandise quickly makes a boy photographer turn to booze and parties.
* Two years I lasted. Gave it up and decided to go AWOL and travel around North America for a few months. I cheekily wrote on the off-chance to Yousuf Karsh and he astonishingly replied with an invite to visit. So I stuck my thumb out and hitch-hiked from Toronto to Ottawa and said hello. He must have been quite taken aback by this young, long-haired scruffy youth from England turning up with a just a backpack. I'm afraid I was too star-struck to make much of an impression, but he was unfailingly polite and generous, showing me his home and studio, chatting with me for an hour or so. I returned to my YMCA lodgings in some converted prison cells feeling inspired and awed and a little depressed. I was then twenty four and felt time was running out.
* The mid-seventies in England was the time of the winter of discontent. Strikes, protests, great social change, the Irish troubles. It was a great time to be a documentary reportage photographer. Having no money or camera gear is a problem if you want to do that however. So of course, instead of capturing these momentous events, I gained employment as a lecturer at my old college. (jobs were thin on the ground, and they said, it's a job...) Two years later I saw an opportunity to work in Saudi Arabia and I again jumped ship quicker than a rat down a drain pipe.
* The next ten years I was a freelance agent dodging being arrested (photography and photographers being particularly frowned upon) while photographing Princes and Kings and other very rich men and politicians. In-between all that, I was shooting corporate brochures and advertising for most of the worlds largest companies and agencies. I was in it for the excitement and money, not the art. My documentary affinity had slipped further into the background. Another great missed opportunity.
* On the upside, I was having a ball. King Fahad gave me a watery-eyed glower when I came too close, and David Rockefeller was as charming as his henchmen were intimidating. And Sheik Yamani, the Saudi oil minister who had not long previously plunged the UK into a three day week by restricting UK oil, was urbane, friendly and unassuming. Despite Yamani being under house arrest at the time, he tasked me with shooting his son's wedding. And a rather interesting three day long affair it was too. Another wedding I covered was spread between Saudi and London, during which I was surprised to be mentioned in the national tabloid press as the 'court photographer'. I never did get that call from Buck House though.
* Photographically, there were many near fatal scrapes as there was no risk assessment or indeed much safety procedure at all. While shooting the finishing touches to a new airport runway being built alongside the original, a 737 jet decided it was open and land. This, despite me standing in the bucket of a huge bright yellow Caterpillar digger parked on the runway with me thirty feet in the air. I wondered why the driver was sprinting away until I saw the plane bearing down. I think the pilot must have seen my frantic waving, as he opened up at the last minute and went around. I can still smell the fumes of the jet exhaust.
* Then their was the time I climbed aboard an ancient WW2 company re-supply aircraft for an ARAMCO oil drilling exploration team deep in the The Rub' Al Khali or The Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. The DC3 Dakota was filled to capacity, one half with seats, the other with goats and equipment. There was a small gap in the seal of my window and the pilots were retired American ex-service men. Indiana Jones would have felt quite at home. We took off following a direction beacon out to the exploration site, which, if we missed meant we could well be lost and unable to get home. It had happened before, and they had never been found.
* Returning to the UK, Nikon offered me an exhibition in London which was nice but led nowhere personally. And the process of bringing up a family meant stability and no further risk taking so I opened a photo mini-lab and family portrait studio and basically settled down.
Now retired, I'm rediscovering what I really loved about photography in the first place. I'm free of clients, dire advertising demands and grim merchandise photography. Hence my sense that I've lived my life in reverse. I'm doing now what I should have done right at the beginning of my photographic career. I remember feeling time was running out when I was twenty four. Now it really is the case now, so I'm determined to make the most of it.
How would I describe my current work?
I no longer own high end 'Pro' gear as I don't need to. My current equipment consists of a modest Nikon D750 and is just fine, with my second current camera being a Leica M9. That's a bit extravagant perhaps, but it's small form factor is simple and inconspicuous (and when covered in black electrical tape even more so). Good glass is more valuable than the camera itself.
My lens choice is small and I don't use zooms, not for any prime lens fixation, but I find they just make me lazy. For the Leica I have only two 35 year old pieces of lovely glass, a 35mm f2 Summicron and a 90mm f2.8 Elmarit. Both are small and fully manual. Nikon glass is a 24mm f2, 28mmPC f2.8, 50mm f1.4, 135mm f2.
Photographers I admire?
Irving Penn, his shot of Picasso is extraordinary. 'Pose and gesture that both hint towards the inner life of the subject'. Advice I try to remember.
Margaret Bourk-White sitting precariously with her camera atop the Chrysler building in 1935. Showing that women take their photography just as seriously as men, if not more so.
Yousuf Karsh, an extraordinary portrait photographer of the great and the good.
Don McCullin, his shot of the American soldier and his dazed, glazed expression. Haunting.
Portrait of Dennis Stock by Andreas Feininger for life magazine in the year I was born, 1951. An astonishingly modern picture even by today's standard.
Dennis Stock's shot of James Dean, hunched over walking through rain on that street. That feeling and mood, just wonderful.
Robert Capa, his picture taken in the French town of Chartres in 1944 of a female collaborator, her hair shaven and surrounded by a baying mob as she cradles her baby... just ohh, my goodness.
Sebastiao Salgado, his work is astonishingly emotive and beautiful. A modern master. His shot of the gold mine workers of Serra Pelada, the human ants climbing impossible hills with improbable loads.
Vivian Maier, an unknown woman photographer that only found fame after her death. Beautifully seen and captured images of everyday life. Wonderful.
WeeGee, (or Arthur Fellig), a man who never gave up looking for that great shot. His picture of kids sleeping on a fire escape, just burns in my visual memory.
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