In 1970, when I was fourteen, my Dad bought me a camera for my birthday.
Little did he know that his gift, a Russian rangefinder camera – the Zorki-4, was to become the defining present of my life.
Up to then I had been a keen artist working with pencil, charcoal and oil paints but this new device with its shutter speeds, f-stops, depth of field, etc. was a more exciting challenge and one that I took up with my usual analytical approach.
Endless experimentation with altering apertures and checking resultant depth of field against the little marks on the lens barrel; changing shutter speeds and seeing how slow I could go without getting camera shake; shooting at night under street lamps to see what I would get and what type of film I needed for different situations.
At first I was sending away my black and white negative films to one of the many places which would process the film, produce a set of prints, and send you back a fresh roll of film. It wasn’t long however before a friend at school invited me round to see his darkroom which he had set up in a spare room at his house. The world of developing and printing your own work added yet another layer of complexity to the hobby which was now taking over all my spare time.
I converted our upstairs bathroom into a darkroom every weekend by blacking out the windows, changing the ceiling light for a safelight and adding a large cupboard with a store of film and paper supplies as well as a small Durst enlarger with filter tray.
I filled the bath with warm water as a temperature regulator for the floating developing trays in which I had my developer, fixer and wash.
Needless to say the bathroom was out of bounds to everyone else in the house for the whole weekend. I suspect my parents by this stage were beginning to regret giving me that damn camera.
Figure in a subway c. 1973 (this is actually my younger brother Paul working as my model) – even back then I would do multiple takes of a shot like this to get the composition I wanted
Soon I joined the local camera club which held meetings every week in a small hall in Stourbridge town centre. I went along to all their print and transparency competitions for a while before plucking up the courage to enter myself. The club seemed to have around 20 to 25 regular members but this figure went through the roof on those evenings when they invited a female model to pose for them either scantily clad or fully nude. I swear most of the assembled ogling crowd had no film in their cameras.
Back in my darkroom I remember at one stage being disappointed with the quality of the blacks I was getting in my prints. I would look at the wonderful work of Ansel Adams with his famous ‘zone system’ with envy and dismay as my prints just looked flat in comparison. It wasn’t until I switched to a new batch of Agfa Brovira paper and a fresh set of chemicals that I realized my problem had been one of poor materials rather than incorrect technique.
A valuable lesson to learn in photography, as cutting corners in the name of economy can often be more costly in the end.
Study in light and shade c. 1970 – my dad was a keen snooker player and I often used his table as my set for shots like this
Looking now at the images I had to choose from to illustrate this period it is pretty obvious that I quite liked silhouettes back then. I still do.
Dockyard Cranes – Calais c. 1975
Ratcliffe coal fired power station – Nottingham c. 1977
After a few years using the Zorki-4 I saved up my pennies and bought myself a Canon SLR – the Canon Ftb. This was to become my main camera for a long time and saw me through the end of my school days and onto University in 1976.
This image was my first self portrait to be used later on on my printed mail-outs etc when I finally decided to go pro. Check out all that hair which now seems to have worn away with the friction of time
At school I was one of those strange people who did well at both Science and Art, which I guess is why I ended up using both skills as a photographer, merging technology with composition, especially during my early reportage days when I was shooting Science and Tech stories. But that is yet to come.
When I finished school with three A-levels I couldn’t decide what to study at University so I took a year off and worked in Birmingham for an insurance company. A year later was ready to go to University and had decided to study marine Zoology. This decision had come about due to my fascination with coral reefs – fuelled in large part by the articles in national Geographic Magazine by Jacques Cousteau, Dr Walter Starck, and later on David Doubilet etc. At this time I had qualified as a diver and had been experimenting with building my own underwater camera housings.
Whilst on the subject of National Geographic magazine – this publication was my main source for photographic inspiration and learning through much of my early career. I would teach myself technique by trying to emulate the more technically difficult shots I chose from within its pages – albeit in my back garden rather than in some far flung exotic location. Technique is technique – the locations came later.
Here’s a shot of my elder brother Glyn in Cornwall in 1973. Anyone remember those bright orange Fenzy lifejackets with their own little inflation bottles?
If you look carefully you can see Glyn is wearing a regular pair of glasses inside that huge mask – he had to cut off the side arms and friction fit the glasses inside the mask each time he dived. Clearing his mask was no easy task.
Of course I eventually moved on to working with colour as well as Black & White and my film stock of choice through most of my transparency based career was Kodachrome 64. Here are a few shots from my University days.
It’s cold out there ! – Leigh-on-Sea – UK – 1978
This ice entombed telephone box was outside the main post office in Leigh-on-Sea and was being dripped on via a faulty gutter on the post office roof. I don’t think many calls were made from this box that winter.
Yummy – Colchester Zoo – UK – 1978
Back to another silhouette – this one in North Wales with Snowdonia in the background – I was at Bangor University at this time
All throughout my university studies I had been diving at every opportunity – in the sea around Anglesey, in the quarries of North Wales and in Stoney Cove near Leicester where I would pressure test my home made camera housings. I was building them out of perspex and fashioning my own 0-ring seals on both the main opening for camera insertion as well as around the stainless steel rods I was using to control the camera inside the housing. My first attempts fell short and I would often come back to the surface in Stoney Cove with my housing half-full of water.
Still, I persevered and learned from my mistakes until I had a working system for my Canon ftb. It wasn’t, of course, up to modern commercial standards but it worked and I got some good results with it. All I needed was somewhere exciting to shoot.
I found an advert in the back of Diver Magazine one day offering an expedition style holiday diving on the coral reefs of the Sudanese red sea. Living in tents in the desert on the shore of the Red Sea to go diving on the reefs every day ? – this was a dream opportunity for me and I saved up as quickly as I could to afford to book my place. I also talked my brother and a friend into coming along with me. I had not really travelled much at the time and the experience was pretty formative for me. I still remember it like it was yesterday. The heat; the smells; the flies; the bugs in my breakfast cereal that would rise to the surface of the milk so I could skim them off before eating it; the sand being so hot in the sun you had to run across it to get into the water without burning your feet. Above all the amazing contrast between the drab desert shoreline and the tropical wonderland beneath the water surface.
I was changed forever!
Lion Fish – Sudan – 1978
Restaurant Kitchen – Port Sudan – 1978
I had to find a way back out there without it costing me a fortune for just a few weeks.
The experience I had just enjoyed had been marketed by a company called ‘Explore Beyond Ltd.’ based in Ludgate Circus Buildings in London. Much of the on-location infrastructure and equipment they used was courtesy of the ‘Cambridge Coral Starfish Research Group’ – this was a group researching into the so called ‘swarming’ behaviour of the Crown of Thorns Starfish which it was thought was systematically destroying coral reefs all over the world. That fear eventually turned out to be unfounded.
I had made friends with a few of the guys who were working as staff on the Holiday – most were from the Cambridge University diving club. when I got back to UK I kept in touch and managed to get myself invited to a meeting to decide on the following years staff members. I felt like an interloper sitting in that small tutorial room in one of the Cambridge Colleges with a bunch of guys who all knew each other but not me. Luckily I had the organiser – Dr. Christopher Roads – in my camp, having written an enthused letter to him a few weeks earlier. I got the job and went out there for several months that summer in my vacation from University. My love affair with the coral reefs of Sudan was to continue!
You have to remember that this was pioneering stuff in those days. Diving was not like it is now with every holiday resort offering instant experiences and courses and very major dive site over clogged with divers almost queueing up to get into the water. There were no other tourism diving operations in the Red Sea at this time and this one only came about as a side spin from the infrastructure put in place by the Cambridge Coral Starfish Research Group.
When I got back to University that year I had turned blond from the sun and nobody recognized me at first glance.
I entered some of my photographic work into the 6th International festival of Underwater Photography in Brighton that year and I did rather well.
Alcyonarian soft coral
This was one of my winning shots that year.
Nothing special really but the competition was a lot less in those days.
Still it was a very encouraging start to my early photographic efforts.
Looking pretty pleased with myself
Accepting a few awards on-stage at the Dome in Brighton from National Geographic photographer Flip Schulke in 1979.
I had a bit more hair back then.
Look at the way I am eyeing up that next trophy.
Coming in part 3 – how I got back out to the reefs for even longer – ‘The British Suakin Expedition’