I started taking pictures around the age of 14. I was painting at the time and photography was offered as a selective subject at school, it seamed a natural extension, the moment I developed my first print I instantly knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I started out taking pictures of my family and friends at school also around the place where I grew up.
At 16 I went to College in Watford and studied photography, then I went to work as an assistant for various photographers in London, the guys I assisted were still life shooters so I kind of fell into that, and shot a lot of still life. I was, as all young photographers are, looking for direction, and although I don't do much still life now it was a great way to learn, it really helped me understand lighting and composition, it helped me learn the craft.
Do you have a most memorable shoot?
A few, I've been lucky to have been on some great shoots, and go to some amazing places, some are great for where they take you and some for the images, and some for the people you meet.
As far as commercial shoots go, back in 1997 or 98 (sorry can't remember) I did a shoot for Winfield Cigarettes out of Saatchi & Saatchi in London for the English market, I had just moved to NY and was flown back to Australia to do the shoot we spent 2 weeks flying down the West Coast of Australia in a piper chieftain airplane and a Ranger Helicopter, we flew into Darwin spent a night there then went to Kununurra where we picked up the plane and chopper then flew to various locations, we would scout for possible locations in the plane then meet the helicopter at an outback airstrip then load on to the Helicopter and shoot.
It was quite strange to wake up in the morning and work out whether to take the plane or helicopter.
On the same trip we landed the helicopter in the back garden of a pub in Esperance it was just too bizarre for words.
I recently photographed Wayne Rooney in Manchester for a job which was a buzz, he is probably the best Footballer in the world right now, and a really nice guy, very professional, none of the normal bullshit that can go with dealing with some celebrities, only trouble with that was he plays for Man United and I support Chelsea.
I think every time I travel on a shoot it's special, the opportunity to experience another culture and quite often the people you meet are incredible, although sometimes it's sad at the end of a shoot where you have spent time and worked with these people and quite often that might be the last time you see them.
I think it's as much about the people you meet as the places you see.
It’s the same with personal work, although after finishing my latest project it will be hard to top being 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
How about a favourite image?
Wow that’s a tough one!
It’s very hard to be subjective with your own work especially once you have lived with it for a while.
With commercial work I wouldn't say I have a favorite.
I have images I'm proud of because they are great images and serve a purpose but I find it difficult to have that longevity with a commercial image.
I guess with personal work it's most recent images, as they are still fresh, the trouble with your own work is that you never get to see it for the first time in the way someone else does. And the more you look at it the less armored you become.
I think that’s one of my main driving points, to continue to push myself.
The Melt images still move me, and I'm extremely proud of them as a body of work.
Just recently I’ve spent time going through pictures I took years ago, it’s quite an amazing thing to do, sometimes it can give a whole new lease of life to these images.
At the end of last year I went to the Robert Frank show at the Met in NY and seeing all his contact sheets and how the work progressed really inspired me to look back through my own work and look at the direction it’s been going in, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to seeing them with fresh eye.
Do you shoot editorial as well as advertising?
A bit, I'd like to do a lot more actually, I've never actively pursued editorial work, but I recently shot a cover for a magazine called Club 21. I used to shoot a lot for them 12 years ago when I was based in Sydney, I recently got back in touch with the fashion editor and he asked me if I was interested in shooting for the magazine again and I jumped at the chance. I like the freedom that comes with editorial work; you don't get that much in advertising these days.
Ha, yes the darkness, I'm known in the US for doing dark work, personally I don't think it's dark, it's just me, I like mood, I like shadows, I like images to have depth.
If I had a dollar for every time a potential client has asked me if I have work similar to mine but not so dark I'd be retired by now.
With Commercial work I try to make things look as real as possible, that is to say I try to make it look as deconstructed as the idea will allow, I'm not really into the over worked, multi retouched over sharpened look that you see in so many ad shooters portfolios these days, not to say that there aren't commercial images on my website or in my book that are comps or that there isn’t value in that kind of work but it’s not me so I try to make images for commercial work that reflect who I am as a photographer.
I have a mixture of commissioned work and personal work in my book, I always have had it this way. I think for the most part it's good to show potential clients what you have done in the way of ads as it gives them context for your work and showing what you love to shoot helps them see how you might tackle the job, A lot of the time art directors will look at a book for inspiration, it used to happen more often but these days there is such a wealth of imagery and reference at the touch of a button most art directors are getting it elsewhere. For that reason I put a lot more personal work on my website, which really is your main marketing tool these days.
I like to try and create as much as I can in camera I think that’s the challenge I know some people who will shoot every element separately and then put it together in retouching, but I prefer to try and craft as much in camera as I can.
To me creating or construction the image in post is not photography it's a well designed collage, and that’s not what I’m interested in, my personal work is only ever color graded and cropped, I never comp personal work, I don't see the world that way.
How has the GFC last year affected advertising, editorial and photography in general?
It's had a huge effect, especially in Europe and the US, it’s made it so tough for not only the young guys coming through but a lot of the established photographers as well, and it’s been tough to stay ahead of the game.
I do some think clients use it as an excuse to get more for less.
Fewer clients are taking bigger risks and money over craft has become the defining factor.
A lot of the clients have been cutting corners to save money, where years ago jobs would have required travel to a location to shoot a lot more these days stock shots will be selected and something shot in the studio to comp in to it, but I think that’s part of this obsession with retouching at the moment, if you put the retouching budget back into the shoot chances are you could do it for real. Luckily I don't get asked to do this very often but you see it all over the place, personally I feel it takes the spontaneity out of the work and you just keep seeing a variation of the same image and technique over and over, it doesn't help educate clients about what great original work costs. We are also at a time when print advertising isn’t as important as it used to be, new media is being explored and we don't have the same traditional ways of communicating, so in that sense you would think clients would want to put out a uniquely crafted piece of work but a lot of clients just want to get something on a page for the least amount of money.
America was hit really hard, much harder than Australia, a lot of clients are just re running old ads, and I read an article where it said the New York Times advertisers were down 80%. I think the business has become a harder place to make a decent living.
What about new techniques and equipment, how does it impact on the craft?
I guess the thing that everybody is talking about now is the effect of CGI and the Red Camera and how clients will start to take stills from the TV or motion picture to use in print. I'm sure it will happen. As I mentioned most clients aren't that concerned with paying for craft, if they can save a buck or 2 they will opt for that, but I think it's up to Ad Agencies to educate their clients of the reality of the situation.
A lot stems from the fact that so many people are watching low quality streams on places like youtube and the quality is good enough because it’s a novel thing, but as bandwidths get better and streaming becomes easier I hope quality will follow.
As much as I'm intrigued by the red camera and cameras like the Canon 5D Mll and the possibility of shooting moving images, personally I don't see how it can work in taking stills frames for every job, the energy and the way you construct a stills shot is not the same to how you would for a motion picture shoot, the lighting and the way a talent is directed and the energy is completely different, but having said that the reality is if a client can get something shot for next to nothing on the back of a motion picture shoot and then spend hours working it to within an inch of it’s life in retouching, 9 times out of ten they will, and if the image isn’t as good as it could have been most people won’t recognize that. The thing to do is to not get caught up in that kind of scenario rather concentrate on showing clients how important your original imagery is to their brand, buy adding value to you and what you do.
Digital has been great for me it's reinvented my excitement in photography to a new level, and I’m probably shooting more than ever, whether it be commissioned or personal work, but with all things it has its downside too, one of them is that everybody feels they can get to fuck with the image afterwards, I've had clients (and when I say Clients I mean the Ad Agencies clients) start to play art director at the retouchers, no offence but the reason they are in marketing is because they have studied it (well one hopes) and they are good at what they do, what they aren't good at generally speaking is photography, so when you have a client asking you to swap one head from a body that is looking right to a body that is looking left it's sometimes hard to hold your tongue. After all I never had these people in a Darkroom with me telling me how to print, so to me nothing has changed, if you want an image that has my signature on it then let me do my thing.
There seems to be very little time invested in teaching young art directors craft these days, which is a great shame. I think it's because a lot of the generation they should be learning from don't understand the technology so no craft at all is passed down, and sometimes the art director doesn't start art directing until they have the images in front of them at the retouchers, for a photographer that can be very frustrating.
I miss working with Art Directors who are passionate about images and typography and how they work together, for me the best art directors to work with are ones with a strong art or design background.
How do you see the way forward now as opposed to say 10 years ago?
Again a tough question I wish I had the answer to that.
For me it will be a lot more personal work to distinguish myself from the pack, photographers have to brand themselves and have to have a unique product that the client wants.
I'm kind of frustrated with the amount of control I have lost with the images I shoot for Advertising so I'm interested in doing more editorial work.
There will always be a need for great image-makers so you just have to move with the times and try to stay as close to the front as you can.
What inspires you for personal projects and do your personal projects ever inspire your commercial work?
Just about anything and everything inspires me, I'm a photographer who does advertising images for work, so advertising is my day job and finances my personal work, photography is my life, apart from hanging out with my son it is the thing I love to do more than anything.
So I'm always taking images, and need very little inspiration to pick up a camera if I don't pick up a camera for a couple of days I start to go a bit crazy, just ask the people around me, I have to do something to do with photography every day, I can't switch off, even if I go to a movie I'm asking my self how they light this shot what lens they used on that, I think in pictures it's they way I release everything in my head, and trust me there is a lot going on up there!
I think what has happened from being in the US is that I have started to think more about body’s of work more, and how they will eventually become one large body of work, that’s not to say I have a plan for what that is but I think a lot more about the images I take now and the context of how they work together, it’s almost like my life’s work is a book and each body of work is a chapter.
But sometimes I’ll just head out with a camera and see what the world brings me, I might see something that I shoot that day that inspires a new body of work, that’s one of the most exciting things about what I do, you never really know where it will lead you and the images you will find on the way.
As you know, I love your exhibition of "Melt" images. What was involved in that project, how long did it take?
Yeah Melt is very close to me it has been so rewarding on so many levels and to be honest I think it will be a tough act to follow.
Melt was borne out of a fascination I have with the roads that we choose in life, how a decision we make today can affect our future.
I had a revelation for want of a better word when I was on a commercial shoot in Thailand, I was staying at this incredible hotel had been flown business class from NY, growing up in England I had a very simple up bringing, my father is a poet so it wasn’t the most financially stable home, but we had what you might call a more bohemian childhood.
So coming from such a simple background and now being someone who gets flown round the world to do what I love, some time you ask yourself how did I get here, what choice did I make that has me on the road I’m on and for me it really started when I was 11 years old an I did a painting of the titanic hitting an iceberg, that painting lead me to taking up painting seriously and then a couple of years later photography.
I wanted to use that metaphor in a body of work somehow, my first thought was to shoot the shipyard where the Titanic was built and the port where the Titanic was bound for, but on researching the disaster I read about the Iceberg having drifted through a place known as Iceberg alley, just the name of the place attracted me to it, I did a bit more research and found that the Iceberg would have broken off of the Glacier long before the titanic had even been finished being built, the thought that these things were on a collision course once the Iceberg started it’s journey and before the Titanic had even been finished being built just fascinated me, so I decided then the Icebergs would be the metaphor for my journey.
That was about 3 years before I actually got around to shooting; logistically it was quite tough to organize. The Icebergs are only accessible in that area in the early summer, and traditionally that’s a very busy period for me with my commercial work, so the project went on to the to do list for a while.
But I got to the stage where I just had to do it and basically took a large chunk of 2008 off from commercial work to do the project, it was a bit of a risk as things were already slowing down in the US but I just had to do it.
I shot off the coast of St John’s in Newfoundland first, I organized with a dive company who operated there to stay at the lodge and charter their rib boat, to get on to the water everyday, Rick the guy who owns the place was amazing each day we would hook up the boat to the trailer and go in search of Icebergs, it was incredible.
After I shot in Newfoundland I was going to edit the stuff and plan a trip to Greenland for the next summer but I knew then that I just had to bite the bullet and go then, the project had a life of it’s own and I didn’t want to break the flow, so on very short notice I organized a trip up to Greenland, this was the only part of the project I had help with, it’s tough to get last minute flights to Greenland so I had a specialist travel agent based out of Nantucket organize it for me.
When I got to Greenland I didn’t have any contacts or any way of getting out on the water so I went down to the dock and found a local fisherman to take me out, but he wasn’t that reliable with time, eventually I met I guy in town who is Italian and has lived there for 20 years, his son Christian was visiting him from Italy and they own a couple of boats so Christian would take me out on this tiny boat.
I was there was during the midnight sun which at that means you get 3 hours at night when the sun is just below the horizon, 3 hours of dusk, the light was amazing, I had already decided I didn’t want to shoot in bright sunlight so we would head out to the Icefojord at around midnight and shoot for about 3 or 4 hours.
All up I did 20 days of shooting, but the project was 3 years in the making and it took the best part of 6 months to edit.
I would spend at least 5 hours a day editing the images and collating them, there is no retouching and not much in the way of cropping, just color grade and some burning and dogging so in that respect it was fairly easy, the hardest thing was putting it together as a cohesive body of work.
Once I got it to a place where I was happy I decided to let some one else assist me with the refinement, I have 2 people I trust to look at my work subjectively one is Sean Izzard and the other is my Father both gave me great feedback, which without I’m sure it wouldn’t be as strong as it is.
Melt’s life is intended to exist in a book, as much as I like showing the work in Galleries a book is where it is at it’s best, I get to show it in the order it is intended and direct the viewer in a narrative way that you can’t in a gallery.
Are you working on a project at the moment, or planning one for the future, that you can tell me a bit about?
Yeah, I’ve got a couple I’m working on.
I have an incredible fascination with the Ocean and have been taking pictures of the Ocean and coast line for quite a few years, without going into it to deeply it’s to do with boundaries and how they can be broken, although that is more of an ongoing project.
One of my other passions is Football I’m a self confessed Football Nut, when I say football I mean what you guys and the Americans call Soccer.
I’ve been known during the world cup to have large screen TVs put into rental studios where I’m shooting if there is a game on and if Chelsea are playing an important game and it clashes with a job I’ll arrange the shoot around the game.
Who would you say are your greatest influences?
Without a doubt my biggest influence in everything has been my Dad, he is a Poet and Librettist, He, more than anyone has shaped who I am today and my view on everything in art and life, by just being who he is, he gave me the biggest thing that any one can ever give you and that is the ability to have an emotional connection with what you do, it’s a realization that I was talking about earlier, I don’t work as a photographer I am a photographer, his continued support to me as a person and to my work is immeasurable.
Like I said I’m quite easily influenced (my school teachers would have agreed to). But people’s work that has had a huge impact on me would be, Albert Camus, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Turner, Marc Rothko, Edward Weston, Horst P Horst, Avedon, David Bailey (I love David Bailey’s work!!) probably to many photographers to mention, and no inspiration list would be complete without The Clash.
On a personal front Sean Izzard is my closest friend and a constant source of inspiration, Sean is one of very few people whose opinion I trust, and he has an uncanny ability to call me on my shit.
I just had the pleasure of meeting Lewis Morley recently, what an incredible man he is, it was truly an honor to meet such a wonderful person and it’s people like him that restore your faith in humanity, and inspire me with their humility.
What are your thoughts on social media sites, like flickr, myspace, facebook, twitter, etc.?
Apart from wasting far too much of my time, they are cool, I like the information sharing aspect, it’s great when someone posts a link to something you might never have seen, then can be a lot of rubbish to sift through, having said that I only really do Facebook.
It’s part of the future so may as well embrace it, it’s funny but quite sad but some people I deal with these days for work are incapable of holding a conversation on the phone, they are so used to doing emails or texting, it can be frustrating sometimes when you just need a quick answer and to have to write a ten page email when it could be covered in a two-minute call.
How about your thoughts on stock libraries and image usage?
Stock libraries are becoming much more prevalent in a market today and for quite some time they have not been the cheesy crap that it used to be in so many stock libraries.
Most of the top shooters these days have work at stock libraries it’s just important for the heath of the industry to make sure the image rights are managed properly.
Your view on agents / producers?
They are an absolute necessity in the industry other wise it just turns in to a backyard operation.
The trouble is when backyarders masquerade as pros.
I think there is a tendency in Australia for Agents to be Agents slash Producers (reminds me of Zoolander Model slash Actor)
Personally I think Agents should be agents and producers should be producers, I'm just not into this whole agent/producer thing, it's a completely different job and requires completely different skills.
I love working with passionate people I like the collaboration and working with the right people can only make me better at what I do, so they are an essential part of what I do, the hard thing for most people is finding the right fit, go with the wrong Agent and the work dries up, and work with the wrong Producer and the job is at risk of being compromised, and if that person is an Agent slash Producer then, well quite frankly you're screwed.
I've been very lucky over the years and especially with the team we have at POOL now, they are what a team should be, a team, we work really closely and they have a great understanding of all the photographers needs and whims. I figure if someone can work out what I want when I can’t they must be good.
You're sort of between Sydney and New York at the moment. How long have you spent in New York and which city is home now?
Yeah I do wake up quite often and have to remind myself where I am and that’s not anything to do with alcohol.
I’ve been in NY for 12 years and that’s very much my home, it's a city I feel very compatible in, it’s an incredible place to live and work, I love the fact that at any time I can visit some of the best collections of art in the world, you have some of the best Operas and Theater on your doorstep, the city and the people you meet are such an incredible constant source of inspiration.
But I love Sydney as well, I came out here when I was 21 I was traveling at the time and fell in love with the place and stayed 11 years, I had an amazing time here it really launched my career and not to mention have some wonderful friends, I love the Aussie outlook on life.
I spend a lot of time in Oz these days mostly because my son lives here, and to be honest I can't stand being away from him for to long, so it started out as every school holiday I would come back but now has extended to a couple of weeks either side of school holidays and any other time I can get back over.
And I’d rather hang out with him than anyone else.
The past year it's been quite a lot of time in Oz, I’m always here for most of Dec and Jan and I finished working on Melt at the beginning of last year and then had a show in Toronto in April of that year, straight after I was in LA shooting and had the option to do a Levis shoot in either London or Sydney so knowing Sydney as well as I do I managed to persuade the Agency to shoot here I then took some time off to spend with my son. I have a lot of friends here in the industry and picked up a couple of jobs and really enjoyed working back here again.
Over the years I've done the odd job or 2 but haven't really perused work here, what tended to happen was someone would find out I was in town and offer me a job, or people would want to come over to NY or LA to shoot and they knew my work from here.
Sean Izzard, who as I mentioned is my closest friend and also someone I have massive amounts of respect for, asked me to get involved with setting up POOL so I’ve been here a lot recently to help with the logistics of that.
Both Sean and I are committed to setting up a creative agency for photographers run by photographers, Photography has been very good to both of us and we have talked about a way of giving back for quite some time. It's also very healthy to be around people who are at the beginning of their careers, to see the excitement and energy reminds us constantly how lucky we are, and if you loose that your in trouble, keeps us young if you like.
What are the big differences between the New York and the Sydney 'scene'? Positives, negatives?
It’s impossible to compare them really, I know it's the same industry and the basics are the same but they just operate on such a completely different level, it’s the same differences that exist geographically, with both places to get the good you have to take the bad as well, that’s the compromise.
I think for the most part the photographic scene in Sydney is incredibly under valued and not just by the people who commission work, there are photographers who are established who are just giving the work away which is making it tough for everyone.
I heard the other day there is one guy in town (I'm not naming names) who is really well established who is charging the same money he was 12 years ago, it's makes it really tough on the future of the industry when you have people like that.
In NY it is strictly business and people are aware of that and the responsibilities and costs that go with it. I had someone in Sydney tell me my fees were too high the other day, when I told her they were a fraction of what I charged in the US, her reply was “well different market” to which mine was “but it’s the same product” i.e. Me, I just don’t get how some people's minds work, you want world class for the price of local, and I’m not being vain, there are a lot of world class photographers in Oz, just look at the work of photographers like Michael Corridore, Sean Izzard and Ingvar Kenne to mention just a few and they are expected to charge what Joe Average charges, what I’m saying is some people think on a local scale too much, for example you can’t buy a Mercedes for cheaper in Oz just because it’s a smaller market, in fact they cost more than they do overseas!
And generally speaking photographers' overheads are higher in OZ than they are overseas, gear is far more expensive than it is in the US, so running costs are higher and fees lower, go figure?
Having said that sometimes the laid back attitude in Oz allows for more creative work, I do think people try harder here as they are always comparing themselves against the world stage, and things are easier to get done quickly because there aren’t so many people involved, I remember my first shoot in the US I had a crew of 50, it was a joke every assistant had an assistant, I can’t do it like that, it just hinders how I shoot, all you need is the right people being paid the right money.
In the US it is nothing to travel for a shoot, “where do you want to shoot this” is almost the first question I get asked.
It is a very different way to operate, like I say it’s a business, the clients are spending money and every dollar has to be accounted for and everything needs to be signed off, you spend a lot of time on conference calls talking about the images you are going to make, which makes it hard to be spontaneous on shoots sometimes, and I love that spontaneity, I guess people trust me a lot more in Oz but part of that as to do with the fact the budgets aren’t so big, so in turn there is less to risk.
One of the things that has always amazed me about Oz is the lack of internal travel on shoots, there are some of the most amazing locations in the world in Oz, people come from all around the world to shoot here, but for a local production to be shot outside of the city it’s commissioned in is quite rare.
When I worked here I would quite often get asked to shoot a job on location in Sydney in the middle of winter regardless of weather you would have models freezing their butts off when a hour or two flight up the coast you will get amazing locations and won't be battling the weather, but it’s just not done like that here, I find that aspect quite bizarre, again it comes down to clients not really being educated in spending their budgets wisely, everybody knows if you buy cheap stuff it doesn’t last, but to risk a shoot on a weather day rather than travel for a couple of grand seems nuts to me.
But like I say it’s about the good with the bad and when I do work in Oz I always shoot good work and have a great time doing it, I love the attitude of crews on set (apart from the odd disgruntled assistant who thinks the world owes them immediate success) being as it is it gives me a chance to work with some great people and allows me a certain freedom you don’t always get elsewhere.
Is your current set up something that you are happy with?
Yeah I love it, what’s not to love?
I do miss my son terribly when I’m away from him and I miss seeing my family in England all the time, I do whine about airplanes and hotels, (that’s because I’m English) but yeah, I love my situation and to be honest if I didn’t I wouldn't do it.
If you look at it from an outsider’s point of view, I’m doing what I love and traveling round the world whilst doing it, there really is nothing to complain about.
Looking at whatever problems you might have from the point of someone less fortunate than your self is a very good way to get a reality check.
I think I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet.
That doesn't mean it's all rosy, I do wish for a certain stability that just isn’t possible right now, I'd like to have a dog and not get on an airplane as often as I do but I guess that will come as I get older.
You mentioned your involvement in mentoring a young photographer. This sounds really positive and rewarding. How are you finding it?
Yeah it’s something I’ve done before and found hugely rewarding, there is something about passing on knowledge that helps me better understand who I am and what my work is about, it makes you stop and really analyze what you do, apart from the fact of the contribution to the other person -- seeing them grow -- is a fantastic feeling.
It’s fairly a simple structure really I tend to take people back to basics and get them to shoot a few specific projects I’ll give them constructive advice along the way and then I’ll have them learn how to critique their own work, it enables them to look at their work in a way they might not have thought of, 9 times out of 10 it’s about putting the person back on track. It’s very easy as a photographer to become derailed and not know why everything is going pear shaped so really mentoring for me is about helping people focus their attention on where they want to go and carefully guiding them on how to get there.
It’s one of the principles behind POOL, and although the person I’m mentoring now isn’t directly associated with POOL its part of the big picture.
POOL is in it’s infant days but both Sean’s and my dream for the place is that it is a living portal for a creative hub that serves everybody who contributes, quite simply you put something in you get something out.
Is there any advice you would give assistants or anyone first starting out in photography?
Just shoot what you love worry about the work, and everything else will fall into place find your style and stick to it, the only way to stand out is to show the world who you are.
If you want to be successful you will have to work hard, photography isn't a job it's a life style, and by hard I don’t mean long hours, they are a given, you will have to live eat breath photography not just for a few months or years, for the rest of your life.
The one thing I say to everyone is you have to love photography not be in love with the idea of being a photographer.
Learn as much as you can learn the craft, be a sponge and make mistakes, lots of them and when you done making mistakes take risks and make some more mistakes.
And when you move on to shooting commissioned work don't undercut no matter what, value yourself so other people can.
All Images © Simon Harsent
All Images © Simon Harsent