The reluctant surfer, North Devon 2011.

Saturday, 29 October 2011


The photograph above was taken last weekend.  The reluctant surfer is Jake Wilson, aged five and three quarters.  In the background you can just about make out three figures enjoying the surf.  They are his parents and sister Ella.

Jake had worked hard with his family all day in order that I could shoot some happy holidaymaker type photographs for an advertising job I had to do.  We'd gone into the nearby town and hired wetsuits and surf boards but, after stopping off at the local pub for a while, by the time we got back, I think the sea was either too cold or, maybe, the surf too rough for Jake to manage.  He manfully stood up to every other task I threw at him.  He's a great little poser.  He's also my grandson.

I do realise that I recently wrote on this blog that advertising photography was not the kind of work that I ever really aspired to doing.  The job in Devon was great fun but nevertheless that still does hold true.  But in order to sustain a career as a freelance photographer, especially in the current economic climate, it sometimes pays not to be too sniffy about some of the jobs one gets offered.

Over the course of the last week, I've been part of an online debate about just this subject.  Or rather, photographers who shift from genre to genre.

Generally speaking, I don't think it's a very good idea.  Some of the greats (Richard Avedon or Irving Penn for instance) can be brilliant across several genres but usually only those that can be made to sit happily side by side.  In the case of Avedon and Penn, usually whatever would fit into their studio.

Usually if a photographer tries to spread himself too thinly across too many genres, the result will more often than not be that they won't excel in any of them.

Here I'll offer as an example someone who was very nearly a contemporary of both Avedon and Penn - Patrick Lichfield.

Over a fifty year photographic career he shot advertising, fashion, portraiture, reportage, erotica and, for all I know, probably weddings too.  The one time I met him he was a friendly and utterly charming man but, especially considering the subjects he had access to through being a member of the British Royal Family, very few of his images are in any way memorable.  He was pretty good at most of the photographic subjects he tackled but, in my opinion, not great in any of them.

You might say that I and photographers like me would be very lucky to have a career even half as successful as that of Patrick Lichfield.  That would certainly be true, no question.  But Lichfield, Avedon and Penn all come from a different era, an era when photography itself was a lot harder and those that managed to climb to the very top often became household names.

Which meant, if you could ever manage to hire them, they brought their own special  kind of prestige to a project.  Hence they used to get offered a lot more than they might otherwise have been perfect for.

(When I was still an ad agency art director, I once tried to hire Norman Parkinson to shoot a campaign for Courtaulds.  In this case, I did think he was exactly the right photographer for the job, the client was prepared, very reluctantly, to pay his astronomical fee and the only thing that nixed the idea was that he couldn’t make our dates.)

Nowadays everyone has a camera, everyone can take at least a half decent photograph but, it seems, less and less are earning a living from photography.

And not so many photographers have quite the fabulous prestige of some of the greats of the late Twentieth Century.

Which means, if you’re staring out now and you really want to get noticed, you need to specialise.