A Trick of the Light - July 2019
Rob Farrands Interviewed by Richard O. Smith
Like a lot of photographers, Rob Farrands has always been one. One of his very first paid jobs was being a smudger – a long gone photographic profession he decodes in our interview. Even when other responsibilities distracted him from his first love photography (being called to the Bar in 1974, and later setting up his own consulting company with his wife Bridget, could fairly be described as distractions), he acknowledges: “I became committed to photography early in my life.”
This perennial has once again re-flowered into his full-time profession. Indubitably, photography is the job he always craved. “Since then I have determinedly professionalised my commitment to photography by qualifying as a professional photographer through the British Institute of Professional Photography [BIPP], of which I am now an Associate,” confirms Rob.
Not that there haven’t been other interesting jobs/distractions along the route. Unlike most photographers and artists, Rob found himself in a position with a licence to print money. Literally, given he oversaw the introduction of the polymer substrate banknote when working for the Bank of Canada.
But you can be forgiven upon meeting Rob to conclude these were merely secondments from pursuing his consuming calling for photography. As he observes: “Photos demonstrate a commitment to a certain idea about the goal of a photographic image that arises from a basic orientation of life.”
“An image can open us to the world by creating a special way of experiencing a phenomenon – that is a place, a person or a thing, “ says Rob. “[My images] differ from photojournalism: aimed towards a fuller experience, even if that means undermining understandings and creating bewilderment.”
He encapsulates the philosophical essence of photography rather articulately for someone who admits preferring cameras to keyboards as a form of both truth-seeking and truth-delivering: “I believe that a photographic image can be a means of achieving both these things more directly than writing about them.”
There’s an undeniably painterly quality to some of his images – particularly the landscapes that take on board an almost ethereal quality in B&W. Elsewhere his works possess an expansive range in tone and subjects: some ponderously lugubrious, others knowingly witty and upbeat. Plus he’s not afraid to be daring: one recent exhibition was compiled of images deliberately shot straight into the sun.
“At the moment I look at my work and tell myself that I am seeking to create images that are monuments to the unusual as it bursts out of the usual,” clarifies Rob. “In my mind I have an idea of ‘artistic validation’ being the point where written explanations fall away like scaffolding from a building, because those viewing the images can see my vision without being told – in short the images will speak for themselves.”
ROS: How did you first develop (no pun intended) a photographical habit? When did you become interested in photographic art, and crucially realise you were good at it?
RF: In 1968 while at University my friend David Sawyer introduced me to photography, teaching me how to use a camera and a darkroom; also appointing me as his assistant on the Lancaster University newspaper. His photojournalistic style and the necessity of working to deadlines helped familiarise me with the practicalities of producing usable images with the minimum of fuss. I quickly learned how to work with the light and make exposure assessments without a light meter. David also encouraged me to carry a camera with me at all times ‘just in case’, which taught me to use my life as the centre of my photographic world. To support a “shooting from the hip” early style I bought a second-hand Leica with a fold out lens that fitted neatly into my pocket (at the time rangefinder cameras were cheap because of the huge interest in new Japanese SLR cameras).
I was naturally quite shy. But I learned through necessity not to be so when I had a camera in my hand. The camera became an aid (prosthetic?) to seeing the world differently, which in turn led me to see myself differently, or more fully: or perhaps these things happened vice-versa?
By 1969 I was convinced that I wanted to make my life as a photographer. During the long vacation I worked as a “smudger” for a local photographer on the Morecambe sea front, approaching complete strangers to take photographs, which they collected the following day from the studio in Queen Street. In April 2017 I returned to Morecambe for the first time since 1969, visited the old studio (the photographer who had first employed me was dead, but the studio was still there being run by his daughter Mandy Lee) and spent three days revisiting old locations.
ROS: How long have you been a dedicated, serious photographer? And exhibiting?
RF: In April 2016 I travelled to Toronto for a workshop with the professional photographer Thorsten von Overgaard. I took another programme with him in October of the same year. The two workshops constituted a crash course in digital photography and processing. At the same time I befriended a hugely experienced and successful Oxford photographer Douglas Fry, who has continued to coach me in my transition to the new technology. In December 2016 I exhibited a series of 30 colour photographs of Oxford at the John Radcliffe hospital. In February 2017 I moved the exhibition to a new location – a business school – and in May of that year I held my first Oxford Art Weeks exhibition at my home in Iffley. Basically I flung myself into showing my work and listening for the reception it received.
In 2017 I was licensed by the BIPP. At the end of the year I successfully submitted my work for examination and became an Associate of the BIPP.
ROS: You’ve taken a striking image of a grotty car park entrance that resonates both comedy and tragedy. Nearly everyone else would have walked past the scene blind to its inherent photographic potential. How have you trained your artistic eye to identify what can deliver a great image?
RF: The eye, even an “artistic” one, is of course part of the body and it is the whole body that alerts us to the possibilities of vision. In this case I was drawn towards the oddly angled entrance gate by a wave of inexplicable sadness. You are right to see the humour in this! I imagined the Styx just beyond, with a crumpled boatman holding his hand out for a coin.
“Trained the eye”? I don’t really know. A set of beliefs have permeated my being and are slowly finding expression through a practice that is based around a simple piece of recording technology.
ROS: How do you approach taking pictures? Do you visit locations specifically, allocate a set time, or are you always “on” with equipment ready?
RF: I used to carry my camera everywhere, but now I am more likely to create a project to deliberately set me off in a particular direction and then evolve the project in the light of what comes. For example my latest exhibition arose because my wife was going to Norfolk to attend a painting course. I went with her and spent the daytime ambling the coastal borderland. The mix of direction and openness is more likely to produce a pleasing set of images with a shared theme underpinned by a feeling of inquiry.
One aspect of being open to the world is quite passive – waiting to be touched, ambling the world; another aspect is more active – focussing in, grabbing the shot. I try for a rhythm that accommodates both aspects.
ROS: You give your work the intriguing tag line: “Moments of unique stillness amid the rush of life.” It’s a bold objective, but one your captivating photography delivers – in both your colour and B&W pictures. What are looking for when creating an image? How much of your work is planning and how much is spontaneity?
RF: I plan for spontaneity. Beneath the cleverness of that statement is an appreciation that the world is in a constant state of becoming something else (spontaneity is given!). Even the repetitions such as the seasons are never exactly the same. There is no natural stillness. The camera’s uniqueness lies in its ability to record a split second in the life of the visual field. Maybe, just maybe, that is a way to alert us to the wonder we take for granted, because we are so fantastically well adapted to it all. In this sense photography is contesting assumptions of approximate seeing – approximations are good enough, because we fit so well. I plan – put myself into situations with a general intention – so that I can record moments of stillness as they arise: each one is bound to be unique.
ROS: What’s your selection process in deciding which of your photos to include in an exhibition?
RF: An exhibition requires high quality prints. I pay special attention to the technical qualities of the photograph: tonal range, sharpness (where relevant), impact for size (some pics come into their own when enlarged), that kind of thing. Also I look for a series; an exhibition is best when it’s thematic in some way. Each photograph needs to have a pleasing composition.
ROS: How often in your work have you benefitted from a happy accident?
RF: All the time.
ROS: In one of your latest exhibitions you feature compositions deliberately shot into the sunlight. There’s obviously considerable technical expertise required to shoot directly into the sun and yet produce such balanced, expressive pieces. What are the technical challenges of shooting into direct sunlight? And how did you overcome them?
RF: Treat the sun as a super bright object and adjust the exposure accordingly. Then be prepared to deal with the darkness that descends on the rest of the image. This requires some artistry in post processing as the darkness is brought back to light. Working digitally is intriguing in this respect. The “Lightroom” software provides a digital brush with which one can paint the light back in. A problem is that there appears to be no natural point to stop. How much to lighten the underexposed parts of the negative is a judgement one is forced to make.
ROS: What are some of the biggest obstacles you’d had to overcome in your work?
RF: Becoming technically proficient, especially in respect of digital technology. The rest of my professional life. Being open is to be open to distraction and runs the risk of being undisciplined and self-indulgent.
ROS: There’s a ...... image you took (snapped outside Lincoln College Library in Oxford’s High Street). It depicts a Lowry-esque bus queue, taken from inside a bus. It’s one of the most potentially unpromising settings to have produced such a wonderfully balanced composition. How did you get this shot? Are you perennially on the lookout for something/someone/somewhere being composition-worthy?
RF: I was on a bus at the stop. I saw her [the subject] out of the corner of my eye. As I turned towards her I saw that she was differentiated from the crowd by the windows of the bus. I had a feeling that being separated was significant for her. I felt a movement inside myself and raised the camera. She saw me and looked away. I recorded the moment. The bus moved off. I thought about Cartier-Bresson.
ROS: How important is your Oxford location to your work?
RF: It’s home, my everyday. I love my everyday.
ROS: You’ve taken photos of potentially extremely unpromising situations (a door hinge, the cutlery station in a café) that make incredibly effective photographic statements. How do you find great shots in such mundane environments?
RF: Things reach out. I respond to them as they become visible.
ROS: Are there any rules you generally abide by in framing shots?
RF: Not enough. My compositional skills need working on. I look closely at other photographers such as Saul Leiter and Bill Brandt. I’m looking for an advanced course on composition.
ROS: Your recent exhibition of Norfolk coastal photos features a superb image of a distant windmill shot with swaying rushes placed in the foreground. You rejected the available bold colours offered by sky and golden wheat, instead opting for B&W. And you decided correctly – it works magnificently as a monochrome image. How and what does B&W contribute, rather than take away, from an image?
RF: The picture, framed in that way, would not work in colour, because the attention to the foreground would look wrong, or odd, and/or because the colour would likely place attention elsewhere. B&W fascinates me because it is all about the light fall. It’s a kind of Zen. Colour is about colour which is quite different.
ROS: Your picture paying a slight homage to Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ was taken in Observatory Street – and therefore containing a knowing witty nod to the photographer as an observer. Neil Simon said the core skill of being a very good writer is to be a very good observer. To what extent is the same true of an artistic photographer?
RF: To observe – to look, is a part of the story. To receive – to be open to the cry of the other thing, place, person is the other part. Writer and photographer have to feel the presence of the world. The senses are the doors through which this feeling comes.
ROS: What aspects of your life/work outside of photography inspires your creativity?
RF: I’ve been heavily influenced by phenomenology, especially the phenomenology of perception as elucidated by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I don’t make a thing about this because I’m still struggling to produce images worthy of such a high-flying connection. I’d like to reach the position where people can see what I am rather than have me tell them. The influence shows up in my practice though. I seek to open fully to the world, which means to allow myself to be moved and touched by the everyday, through the interconnected sensory apparatus with which we are blessed.
ROS: What satisfies you most in your work?
RF: It’s a phenomenological practice.
ROS: Which fellow photographers’ work do you admire? Seen any good exhibitions in recent years? And what other art forms do you enjoy?
RF: I’ve mentioned Saul Leiter already. I enjoy his later colour work, but am moved to tears by his early B&W. Bill Brandt was a poet – some of his landscapes are simply mind blowing. Also the vitality of a stream of Americans: Robert Frank, Walker Evans, William Eggleston. I admire Turner and Van Gogh.
Most recently I saw Don McCullin at Tate Britain. Amazing! Actually quite overwhelming in the variety and energy. What a man. Exhausting to look at. What an unerring eye! I admire him, but know I cannot emulate him.
ROS: After frantically getting your Norfolk series ready for what was an impressive exhibition titled ‘Borderlands’, what project are you working on at the moment?
RF: I’ve been asked to submit a portfolio to the BIPP for examination as a possible Fellow. I might shoot something special for the BIPP but not sure yet. I’d like to visit Japan – they seem to have a special aesthetic.
ROS: And what would you like to do in the future?
RF: Save the world! Show us what we are missing everyday!