Sunday, April 24, 2011

Simon Roberts


What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?


My formative years are infused with memories of my Dad photographing us kids and then setting up his old slide projector as we spent Sunday afternoon’s in the dark sitting through presentations of his (un-edited) photographs, listening to his enthusiastic running commentary. Whilst these experiences gave me an early connection with the medium, the primary inspiration that unlocked the marvel of photography was a holiday to Yosemite National Park, in California, when I was fourteen. Mid-way through the holiday I visited an exhibition of Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite (some of his most iconic work) that were on permanent display in the Visitor Centre. As an impressionable youngster I was struck by the beauty and clarity of his photographs, however, more importantly, I was confused as to how these black and white, two-dimensional objects on the wall could be so much more engaging than the physical landscape I’d spent the past ten days exploring. What I came to understand was that these photographs had managed to unlock details in the landscape that I’d been oblivious to previously – clouds, for instance (an important motif in Adams’ work). I’d never spent much time looking up, and suddenly there they were, these extraordinary shapes that populated the sky. My reading and awareness of the landscape around Yosemite shifted dramatically after viewing these photographs; it was as if a whole new place had emerged and I was transfixed. I spent the last few days of the holiday voraciously photographing the place with my Dad’s Canon AE1 camera.

A couple of years, and a few hundred rolls of film, later I came across the work Stephen Shore and his book Uncommon Place. Near the end of the book is the photograph: ‘Merced River, Yosemite National Park, August 13, 1979.’ In this striking image Shore had chosen a totally opposing stance to Adams’ more romantic representation of Yosemite. Using a distant and elevated viewpoint, he had captured a banal scene, depicting the National Park as a place where tourists ‘consume’ the landscape, whilst revealing the lack of wilderness present. It is partly due to these two starkly contrasting views of the same geographical landscape, that I am continually inspired to take photographs. Places, events and ideas are continually reframed, redrawn and renegotiated depending on the artistic viewpoint of the individual photographer - we all have our own unique biography and stance, thereby bring a unique perspective to the subject matter we are narrating.


In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?


In my opinion there is no right or wrong time to start promoting your work, only hindsight can answer this question. The most important piece of advice I can give to an emerging photographer is to continually take advice from a mentor figure, someone who understands what your work is about and whose opinions you value. Furthermore, learn quickly from your mistakes. This industry is like walking a tight rope - it’s easy to fall, so take slow and steady steps forward.


How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?


Gosh, that’s a tough question. I suppose the simple answer would be passion and tenacity. However, I’d say that all the following elements are important steps I’ve taken (or lessons I’ve learned) over the years. Note that some are contradictory!

  • The best delivery is simplicity - start by doing one thing well.
  • Generate your own projects and remember that ideas are your currency.
  • Keep a cuttings file with ideas.
  • Always carry a notebook and pen. You never know when an important thought might come into your head.
  • Stay focused on the projects that interest you and try not to waste time on trivial assignments.
  • Under no circumstance give away your copyright. It’s important to control your archive and the terms of usage of your imagery.
  • Don’t make any rash decisions for short-term financial gains- you’ll end up regretting them.
  • It’s inevitable that you’re going to make mistakes, so learn from them.
  • Do plenty of research: into your ideas, the marketplace and those who hold positions of responsibility such as picture editors, art directors, curators and gallery owners. Knowledge is key.
  • Seek mentors to help edit and critique your work, but only seriously consider the feedback from those you trust and who want to help you.
  • Build a network of people who like what you do and nurture these relationships.
  • Create a website with a portfolio of your work, it’s a free calling card. However, don’t just rely on people stumbling across it, promote it.
  • Apologies for the cliché, but remember it’s a marathon not a sprint.
  • More importantly, learn to accept that there is NO finishing line. There is only a time to slow down and a time to retire!
  • Treat everyone with respect. You never know where your paths might cross again in the future.
  • Watch a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.
  • It’s important to study and gain an education, but you don’t have to do this at University to make a success.
  • Attend portfolio reviews, however, it’s imperative that you research who you want to show your work to and why. Otherwise it’s merely an expensive waste of time and money.
  • Keep your finger on the pulse by subscribing to trade publications and art magazines. Better still, why not regularly browse magazines and listing guides for free in large bookshops!
  • Subscribe to influential photography and art blogs.
  • Make time every day or week to create something new.
  • You don’t have to travel half way around the world to make good work, first try looking locally.
  • Take a stance.
  • Keep your equipment requirements simple, they’re only a tool. The relationship between you and your subject is what really counts.
  • Recall what you first loved about the medium and retain an element of that innocence in your work today.
  • Be strict with how you use your time and don’t become a slave to emails and social networking.
  • If asked, give an artist lecture, it’s a good way to re-focus your mind on why you do what you do.
  • Go to artist lectures, everyone has a unique story to tell about their experiences.
  • Don’t be afraid to make beautiful photographs.
  • Try not to take photographs of empty parking lots at night, it’s been done countless times and in my opinion never makes for compelling imagery.
  • Visit a foreign photography festival to widen your experience and challenge your photographic boundaries.
  • Take a holiday every year (possibly without a camera).
  • Make a five-year plan, even if you don’t stick to it.
  • Enter juried exhibitions, grants and other competitions to be more likely to be in consideration for anonymous nomination awards.
  • Although remember to take note of the small print when submitting work, there can be some outrageous clauses lurking in there – like rights grabs.
  • Write an artist statement clarifying what your work is about, even if it’s just for you. Re-visit this statement every few months.
  • Keep an updated CV and online archive of all the tear sheets, cuttings and interviews related to your work.
  • Back-up your work regularly and be anal about cataloguing your archive.
  • Think laterally when looking for funding.
  • You are your best agent so work hard for yourself and don’t expect others to do it for you.
  • Trust your intuition.
  • Encourage your curiosity.
  • Experiment with your work and don’t be overly concerned with what others think.
  • Don't be afraid to take calculated risks.
  • Remember that the uncertainty of a freelance career can prove a source of motivation as well as frustration.
  • Regularly move yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Quality control is of paramount importance. Think about your presentation and aim to be a perfectionist.
  • Don’t just look at your national market as an outlet for your work.
  • When making a new introduction, why not send a personalised note or small signed print by mail rather than sending yet another email.
  • Be patient and don’t expect too much too soon.
  • Have a dialogue with your peers.
  • Give back to the arts community by donating prints, acting as a mentor or hosting interns.
  • Keep perspective – there is life outside photography.
  • Relish in your successes, however small they might be.
  • One of the toughest challenges is trying to balance art and commerce – keep the balance on your art rather than the commerce. It’s always more rewarding that way.
  • Most importantly, be an author of your own work not an illustrator of others.

Frank Maloney, UK Independence Party, Barking, 29 March 2010 (Barking constituency), from the series The Election project

Gordon Brown, Labour, Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency), from the series The Election Project

Goodman Park, polling station, Slough, 6 May 2010 (Slough constituency), from the series The Election Project

Ladies Day, Aintree Racecourse, Merseyside, 4th April 2008, from the series We English

Cotswold Water Park, Shornecote, Gloucestershire, 11th May 2008, from the series We English

Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottinghamshire, 16th June 2008, from the series We English

Blackpool Promenade, Lancashire, 24th July 2008, from the series We English

Burrs Country Park Caravan Club, Bury, Greater Manchester, 22nd July 2008, from the series We English

Police road safety sign, Magadan, Far East Russia, August 2004, from the series Motherland

Camping with Sasha and Paval, Kamchatka, Far East Russia, October 2004, from the series Motherland

Holiday makers onboard the Afanasy Nikitin cruise ship, Volga River, June 2005, from the series Motherland

Outdoor market in Grozny, Chechnya, April 2005, from the series Motherland

© copyright all images Simon Roberts

About this Blog

Two Way Lens is a project designed to inform and inspire emerging photographers wanting to focus their creative output in a way that enhances their chances of finding an audience, being included in exhibitions and ultimately achieving gallery representation. The journey from inspired artist to successful artist is one that is often difficult to negotiate and hard to control. On these pages, I will feature the experiences and opinions of other photographers who I have found inspiring, and hopefully the knowledge they have built in their own experiences will be valuable to all of us finding our own way to sharing our creativity with the wider world.