BUSINESS - INTERVIEW
Thursday, May 9, 2019
BUSINESS - INTERVIEW
by Melisa Kaya
In order for people to be successful in their business, they first need to know their characteristics. This is important both in the choice of the right profession for them and in the selection of the branch that they will specialize in. Photography is one of the most suitable professions to be an example of this situation. If you look at the photographer community, you'll see professional photographers who have studied medicine, engineering, architecture, or different disciplines but have followed their passion for photography. Among these photographers, there are those who specialize in the detailed shooting in the studio environment, as well as photographers who photograph many objects in their natural environment that they cannot bring to the studio. In addition to these photographers, some photographers are open-minded and adventurous, such as Chris Close, who even prefers to shot portrait photos outdoors instead of a comfortable studio, because he wants the reflection of environmental effects on his works. I talked with Portrait and Advertising Photographer Chris Close about his career, the first project of its kind at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and his photographic approach.
Chris, before talking about photography, I would like to learn more about you. Could you tell us about yourself? Who is Chris Close?
I was born in a small historic town, St Andrews which is most famous as 'The Home of Golf.' It is also where two pioneers of photography Hill and Adamson (David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson) took some of their early work. It was an academic town, so I grew up surrounded by teachers, lecturers, doctors, and profs. There were no creative influences, and no-one took particular interest in anything artistic although my dad was a technical teacher and he could turn his hand to everything from rebuilding cars to building extensions, installing heating systems, etc. I was very much encouraged towards studying sciences and actively encouraged away from anything artistic.
Photo by Chris Close
How did you decide to pursue a career in photography? What inspired you?
I really should have been a film director, but I went to a school that taught you to be a lawyer, a doctor or engineer. I told them I wanted to be a film director and they put me down for engineering. It was Mechanical Engineering, and I thought I would be like Professor Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inventing crazy things, but I saw the course and said 'no, not for me!’ I chose to do Photographic Sciences at a Polytechnic in London instead. It was a science degree, and in many ways I hated it.
London was a massive culture shock emotionally and intellectually, not a friendly city in those days. I’d like to think I would have been pretty good at film directing as I get the storytelling aspect more than some photographers. I knew I didn’t want to follow the normal career path although I was fairly highly educated and have a couple of degrees. Maybe I thought photography would be a good way to meet girls, but I doubt it and I’m still single, so it didn’t work! I think I just wanted to do something different and studying art in my final year at school really opened my eyes. I was naive enough to think if you were good at something then you would succeed. Of course, this is nonsense. I was painfully shy which is the worst thing for any kind of success and ironically makes you come across as quite arrogant. I found it difficult to make friends so was and am quite a loner. None of these attributes are good for being a photographer.
Saskia and Brian - Photo by Chris Close
You have worked in very different and extreme conditions. Why do you endure these conditions instead of performing more studio work?
I never think of it as enduring, more of an adventure. I am pretty good at keeping a cool head. I was on a shoot in South Africa, and it was all going wrong. There were too many outside influences and a lot of tension around the shoot. The AD asked how on earth I keep going. I replied, "This is a photo shoot, I'm not performing open heart surgery. Nobody's life is at stake. I know people whose job is literally life and death. We are in a beautiful country shooting models.” Photography people can lose perspective very easily although on that shoot I did get chased by a full grown male lion. I have some pictures I took that I thought would be the last I would ever take. Strangely it is easier to work in say Greenland than it is in the Seychelles. The Seychelles is beautiful, but there is sand, wind, and sea - elements that are not camera friendly.
Dave - Photo by Chris Close
I once had armed guards accompany me in a rather dangerous part of the world. I jumped out of the jeep to shoot the local fish sellers, and market people and the guards were pretty uptight because they knew the situation better than me. In that case I had to respect the guards and I made sure I did not overstay my welcome.
I rarely work in a studio. A studio to me can be a sterile environment. I need the random elements in my work. Ideas come to me based on my surroundings. It is a bit like being a writer. You cannot sit at home and write about the world, you have to get out there and observe it. Even the author portraits I shoot which look like studio images are shot outside, with people walking past, rain falling, etc. That is why many of them have a spontaneous element to them; people are reacting to what is happening around them. I suppose a lot of my work has an editorial element to it. I use the environment.
What inspired you to decide to establish your own studio? Could you tell us about Chris Close Photography and your team?
My team is me. I use freelancers when needed. Working in Scotland predominantly the budgets are much lower than say London or New York etc. The Scots have a reputation for being mean with money and it is largely true! I am Scottish so I can say that!! Photography budgets have collapsed in recent times. My studio is an office and gallery in The New Town which is a Grade A listed series of Georgian Houses and shops built over 200 years ago. I opened the gallery on a whim. I literally walked past the building one Sunday and by the end of the week was the owner. I did use the space as a studio but have filled it with plan chests and artwork so that it is now too small. For a time it was the only independent photography gallery in Scotland. Now there are 2.
Caledonian Brewery - Photo by Chris Close
What kind of services do you offer to your clients?
I do a full start to finish production. I use producers when needed (e.g. on a recent whisky shoot for Ogilvy India the production team was actually from the film business, but it was great to work with them. They work in a different way and the retouching and CGI was done back in India. I normally prefer to have a tight grip on everything). I retouch my own work quite often and will bring in freelancers when required. I have a good knowledge of locations locally, but the production companies in Scotland have meant less work for photographers. Agencies in London say they would rather send a photographer from there to shoot whisky or landscapes than use someone local and the location and production companies have made that easier.
Seychelles - Photo by Chris Close
How did your interest in advertising photography has begun? What is the most special aspect of ad photography for you?
Advertising photography is just an extension of the wider field of photography. I do not exclusively shoot advertising, so it is hard to elevate it above my other work. Sometimes you have more freedom due to the budgets. It is much easier to work with a good budget. I suppose that sounds obvious but some films are ruined by having too much money spent on them. I’d like to see more reality in ads but it is nice to see your work used well. That’s the best part. When the agency really gets photography and uses the image well. It doesn’t always happen!
You have worked in numerous campaigns for many globally recognized brands such as Allianz, Smart, and Rolex. What are the key points that you pay attention to most before accepting a new project?
Is this the job for me? What are the problems that are likely to occur? Can I make the ad better than they envisage? If Rolex wanted me to shoot watches, forget it. It is not my field. You need to know your fields of expertise. That said I have a broad range of work. Once you understand lighting and composition, then you can turn your hand to different areas.
Tomatin Whisky Campaign - Photo by Chris Close
How would you describe the effect of the quality of the ad photo on the customers' decisions?
Being in the visual industry, I notice when images work - Very rarely There is an obsession with youth in advertising and most wash right over me. I mean an ad with a 25-year old using moisturiser because it covers up fine lines and wrinkles! TV advertising of late seems to have gone right down hill too. Strange with the amount of channels you would think it would be better.
People and places photography has an important place in your career. What do you enjoy most about photographing people and places?
I was initially drawn to landscapes because I grew up in a small town and most of my school friends were in a city, so I spent a lot of time alone hence big wide open landscapes appealed to me, and I was quite comfortable being on my own for long periods. I never saw this as unusual as it was all I knew. I was asked when young where I would like to live and I said I’d like a log cabin on the side of a lake in Canada. I would go hunting and fishing. I was ribbed at school for buying a big poster of a beautiful Canadian landscape when everyone was putting pictures of rock bands and cars on their walls.
Shooting people came later. That was well out of my comfort zone, and it was a conscious choice to try and get more portraits in my folio that lead me to pitch the idea of shooting author portraits to The Edinburgh Book Festival. Partly I wanted to get some well-known people in my book as I thought it would carry some kudos. It has become an annual pilgrimage as I found I had developed a certain style based on my personality. Few people believe I was shy as I am now quite cheeky. Not rude or insulting but I can push it just far enough to get a reaction. I have learned to judge people very quickly. Inevitably you will get on well with some people and less so with others, but you have to be interested in the person you are shooting. You can’t let yourself be intimidated by them, and you have to let them be themselves too. I could write a book on it!
Cambusdarach Kayakers - Photo by Chris Close
What kind of other photography fields do you like to work on?
Landscapes are commissioned less and less nowadays. The weekend warriors and Instagrammers have in many ways put paid to that by giving work away for little or nothing. I still love shooting them but when I am away overseas, I love to get out to shoot the people. When I was in South Africa, I took a car from my hotel. The driver was used to doing tours to the usual spots, but I wanted to go to the townships to see where the real people lived. I got some strange looks, but we went and did it. I shot a bunch of pictures in one day that I still love. Likewise in China, I had less than a day to shoot my own work and so headed out to a park. I came back with a mini folio of work. When students tell me they struggle to get a project done in 2 weeks, I have to laugh. I’d love to get an editorial style ad campaign to shoot. I tend not to think of the dangers. I will walk up to people with complete confidence and be fully prepared to take knock backs, but generally, people are respectful when you are.
Is it possible for abroad clients to work with you for their projects in their own countries?
Absolutely I’d love to work much much more with overseas clients. It’s making the contacts that is hard. I love to travel and I love to experience new cultures. I had a potential shoot in Russia last year, but it did not come off. I’ve never been to Russia but would love to go. I don’t think there is any country I would not want to visit. I do research but work from the gut, and even when you do not speak the language, you can get a long way on a smile. I will also use local producers and assistants. If I am going to someone else's country, it is good and beneficial to give work to the locals.
StAndrews - Photo by Chris Close
Which factors determine the project budget?
All the usual stuff, pre-production, time and retouching. Number of assistants, travel. I am pretty flexible if the job appeals.
What are your expectations from your clients for a successful collaboration?
That's a good question. Some AD’s leave you alone whereas others have a very set idea. I like to work with both. I did a shoot for a beer company. I didn’t think the visual looked as good as it could so I took it to a new level, but that is what you should do really. Clients are often there just in case there are any issues. It can be confused with being on a jolly but just because it may be fun does not mean they should not be there. You are spending their money. It is their product, and if they see the problems you are faced with that is often better than trying to explain afterwards why you had to shoot in a particular way.
Photo by Chris Close
You're not just a photographer, but you're also working hard for the development of photography. Could you tell us about your live exhibition project at the Edinburgh International Book Festival?
I have been involved in a number of efforts to promote photography in Scotland. I was chair of AOP (Association of Photographers) Scotland and opened the first independent photography gallery. For the Between the Lines exhibition at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I pitched the idea in 2009. I wanted to get more portraits into my folio, and I like interesting people, so The Edinburgh Festival provided me with great people from film stars to musicians to full-time writers. It is a diverse mix of people, and I like intelligent people, especially scientists. They in many ways are the most creative and open-minded people I have met. I had a great conversation with Cedric Villani, the genius mathematician and I blew bubbles at Professor Higgs of Higgs Boson fame. He lives round the corner, and I see him getting the bus outside the gallery all the time. The portraits are taken outside against a background. I get 5-15minutes per person on average and shoot between 5-20 people in a day. It is mentally and physically exhausting. After the days shooting I head back to the gallery to upload and print the work onto canvas. The next day it is hung around the gardens where the festival is held. It has changed the face of the Book Festival with people coming back day after day as the exhibition grows. Usually, by the end of the two weeks, I have shot 100-150 authors, and thus far I have photographed well over 1000 authors.
The most frustrating thing is that I get far more interest from around the world than locally. Less than half a mile away is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and they have never shown any interest in what is pretty much a unique body of work. I’d love to take the idea elsewhere so if anyone is reading this can make it happen, I’m listening ...
The Somme - Photo by Chris Close
Photography is just one of your many talents. What kind of activities do you participate in your daily life? How do they affect your photography approach?
I do a bit of sport. I used to play rugby for London Scottish then latterly took up tennis which I love. I have done open water swimming too. I am one of those annoying people who do very little training. I ran a half marathon without a days training. Someone pulled out, so I cobbled together some kit and ran under their name. Apart from that, writing, in particular screenwriting. I have a number of ideas which I like but like many writers am a terrible procrastinator. A friend of mine William Fiennes said Charles Dickens would never have written as much as he did if the internet had been around in his day. It’s true.
Boat of Garten - Photo by Chris Close
What advice would you give to photographers who want to pursue a career in photography? How could they choose the right specialty?
It is tougher than ever, and Instagram has driven a stake into the heart of the industry. Maybe I should say get a huge Instagram following although I think social media is going to suffer soon or maybe is already and I think a lot of people are pursuing that simply so that they can stay in hotels for free.
My work is all over the place so develop a style and be known for it and head for the big centres such as Paris, London, New York, LA. Scotland is a great country to shoot but not a great country to be based in.
Dad's Tools - Photo by Chris Close
What is your favorite photograph that you have ever taken?
I suppose I should say I haven’t taken it yet, but I think this may change every day. I would maybe pick something sentimental like a picture of my dad. I did do a series of still lives called Dad’s Tools. It is so not my usual thing but was very personal to me. They are a series of woodworking tools that I inherited from him. I shot them in the garage where he used to work and lit them with single window light and reflector. I also shot a series at The Somme where a great uncle who fought in WW1 is buried. Again a very sentimental story behind this. I am not sure if they work as individual images or they need to be seen as a body of work. As an individual image may be the man on Skye with his dog.
The Man on Skye with his dog - Photo by Chris Close
What do you think about social media? How can our readers follow you?
I have three Facebook accounts, three Instagram accounts, and two Twitter accounts and I am a bit of a disaster on all of them. Sorry. I will try and get better. I have read a lot about how Facebook operates, and it does not encourage me to use them. Instagram has also been a mixed blessing as it is about followers, not the image quality. In the UK there is a lot of bad press about the mental health aspects that social media has. So I am at chris_close_photo on Instagram as well as author_portraits
Mark Beaumont - Photo by Chris Close
What is next for you?
Update my folio, keep working on starting a photography fair in Edinburgh to get more interest in people investing in photographers work, I have a specific portrait shoot I want to do that I cannot speak about as I need to raise some sponsorship for it. I have been asked to do The Edinburgh Book Festival again in August, so that is on the cards. I am putting another idea to a couple of people this week to set up Photography Tours.
Thank you Chris for your time.