While this interview is not new, it still contains many words of wisdom for photographers today.
Herefordshire is my mother’s native county so I may be forgiven when I say that I consider it one of the most photogenic of England’s many photogenic counties and I can see why a landscape photographer of David Ward’s calibre would make it his home.
I had driven from London to interview David as I had heard that he had a book to be published later in the year and also because I had liked what I had seen of his work in the UK photographic press.
Having had a welcome cuppa, said ‘hi’ to David’s wife, Jenny, who was concentrating on her computer working on the administration of Light and Land, a company which runs photographic tours and workshops, and accepted the welcoming ministrations of their dogs, I began to probe David’s photographic past which I quickly learned featured food, dogs by the dozen and racing cars in his time as an assistant after gaining his degree.
But, as the specialist food photographer he was assisting commented after five or six months, “You don’t really want to do food photography, do you.” “Not really.” “So, what do you want to do?” “I’d like to do landscape photography but I know there’s no money in that.”
With that out in the open, David was sent to speak to Paul Wakefield, an advertising photographer who also made brilliant landscapes.
“I spent a day with Paul in about 1985 and we just chatted about landscape photography. He was in the enviable position of the advertising paying his income so he could dabble, as it were, in landscapes. He had done some stunning books by then. The Scotland book he’d done was fabulous. He was doing a range of imaging then that no-one else was. He’d illustrated a book on Wales written by Jan Morris and I was most impressed by his work.” Then, with a laugh, “After twenty years of landscape photography, I can confirm that there’s no money in it!”
I backtracked a little then and asked about the dogs and racing cars.
“I assisted Norman Gold, who was a car photographer and this led to me doing the photography for a BBC book on the TV series The Power and the Glory which was about car racing. It was a nine month project and entailed me photographing for the book while the film was being shot. It was a bit awkward, really because when you’re working with a film crew, basically you’re not wanted! But, as BBC Books was stumping up a fair proportion of the production costs, they had to put up with me! In spite of the problems, I thoroughly enjoyed the project as I have always been passionate about cars. I enjoyed the formalism, especially when I was doing stills of the 1930s cars like the Bugattis with their fabulous shapes. It was really beautiful to play around with doing almost abstract compositions.”
Then there were the dogs. David’s wife was a veterinary nurse and her boss, Bruce Fogle, had written several books about dogs and was preparing another called, Know Your Dog, and David was asked to do the pictures.
“It meant 30 days in the studio with over 300 dogs — not all at once, thank goodness. It was complete hell! One of the really memorable things was photographing a team of huskies. We were in a big car studio in London and this team of eight dogs had to be shown pulling a sledge. However the studio wasn’t big enough for the team and sledge to circle around so we bolted the sledge to the floor and got the huskies to pull against that. It was the middle of June and was boiling hot in the studio and the guy was dressed up in all the gear for minus 40 degrees! We did get the shot but, after about fifteen minutes, the dogs pulled the bolt right out of the floor!”
As David had already told me there was no money in landscape photography, I suggested that he had survived by doing work with people associated with the landscape.
“I’ve worked for people like the National Parks Authority doing work for reports and stuff, The Countryside Agency and magazines like Country Living so I try to find commercial work that is associated with the landscape. And, I have been involved with Light and Land leading some of their courses over the last four or five years.”
“How do you go about teaching people to approach landscape photography?” I asked.
“You can’t be prescriptive on that. There was a guy on a tour recently who said, ‘What the leaders need to be are coaches rather than teachers’ and I think that’s very true. We need to show people the possibilities basically and then be non-prescriptive about how to do it. I had a long discussion with another guy a few years ago who wanted me to tell him the ‘rules of composition’. I told him that the difficulty is that there really aren’t any. I always quote what Weston said which was along the lines of ‘consulting the rules of composition before making a photo is a lot like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk’.
“And, that’s so true but people do get hung up on the fact that they’ve heard of the ‘rule of thirds’ or ‘golden section’ or whatever and that must be the way forward. The fact is that many of the very best images ‘break’ those rules. What is important is to coach people to the point where they feel confident that they can go their own way and recognise what looks right to them.
“First you have to get over the technical difficulties so that the person feels happy with the camera. They have to feel that it is not a hindrance to them making images and to many people when they start, it is. The camera should just be an extension of the individual and, at the point of making the image, he or she shouldn’t really be thinking very much about their equipment.
“They might be thinking about filtration, or about colour balance but not about the technical aspect of using the camera. That should be on auto-pilot.
“One of the main problems with landscape is that we are all conditioned to seeing the vistas. We’ve seen them everywhere all our lives from postcards to classical paintings and when most people begin taking photographs, they start with a vista as it’s the most obvious thing to do and it’s easier than looking for the detail in the landscape. But, often, it’s the detail that makes the landscape what it is. But, you have to look for it.
“Quite often, unless I have to rush to get the picture before the light changes or disappears, I don’t even take the camera out of the bag for a half hour or even an hour. I just wander around and look. I try to make the images in my head first. I look at the possible angles, I look at the colour of the light and I consider whether this is the right time of day or even of the year to make this image. I work through these things before I set the camera on the tripod. I ask myself, how do I want to shoot this picture? What lens would be best to achieve the result I want. Do I need filters?
“To actually see into a place, you need to get it into your head first. It’s not just a question of sticking a frame around a scene. I suppose this is a real pre-visualisation process.”
We chatted on and on, considered several large prints of David’s work that hang in the cottage — mostly of details to be found within the landscape — and discussed a wide-ranging list of subjects, all to do with photography, of course.
Does his website work for him? “To be brutally blunt, it could work a whole lot better if I had the time to devote to it.” A fairly standard comment. How is his marketing? This after we had decided that people with artistic talent rarely excelled at marketing their own work. “Bad!” with a huge laugh.
David Ward sells his original prints at exhibitions — in October he had a show in Oban in Scotland — through a couple of galleries and occasionally through his website. He also writes regularly for Outdoor Photography magazine and his book has just been published. Called Landscape Within it is about his philosophical approach to the landscape, a change from the many books on the technical aspect of landscape photography.
David is a working photographer; he is above all a passionate photographer who delights in making great images and also in passing on his philosophy to those who will listen.
“That’s what I want to do when I teach people. I want to make them passionate, to pass on some of the passion that I feel about the landscape and to let them feel confident that they can do it, too.”
His key to photographing the landscape is to say, “I’ll go, I’ll look and I’ll see.” And then, having considered everything and got a feeling for the place, he may make an image.
David Ward’s book Landscape Within – insights and inspirations for photographers is published by Argentum Press, London. 128 pages, 130x130mm, soft cover, ISBN 1-902538-34-X