Photography first caught my attention as a child back in the late 60's. Both my Father and Grandfather were keen amateurs, and I loved their 'magic lantern' evenings when they projected our family adventures in glorious Fujicolour (or Kodachrome in my Grandfather's case) onto a big screen. Back then our TV was a small Black & White affair, so seeing these big, colourful images made a huge impression on me. One of my Father's pictures remains vivid in my mind's eye to this day. Taken on an idyllic Summer's evening when fishing up in the Surrey Hills, he captured Old Bury Hill Lake's mirrored surface as the lowering sun set the water alight by searing the clouds overhead. This image ignited a spark that was to turn into my passion for photographing the wonderful relationship between light and water. On my tenth birthday I was given my first camera and it all went from there.
As a family, we holidayed extensively around the UK. Yet my parents always shunned the busy resorts and beaches. Instead they sought out secluded shorelines where we could swim, snorkel and fish to our hearts' content. Sussex, Norfolk, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Snowdonia, Scottish Borders and eventually, Cornwall: these adventures instilled a deep affection for the coast. Yet Cornwall was the revelation for me. With its vast golden beaches and crystal clear sea I fell in love with the place, and at the age of 13, I made a precocious promise to my parents that one day I'd live there!
At school the brilliant Head of Art, Mr. Bowerman made this my favourite subject. He took me under his wing and soon gave me free rein of the Art & Photography department. With an Olympus OM1, a well appointed darkroom and endless rolls of Ilford B&W film, I developed my camera and processing/printing skills. Experimenting in extending my photographic and artistic boundaries, I learned to use a camera as a creative tool and not a scientific instrument. Flouting the rules, I pushed the taking and developing processes to create my photographs. When it was time to leave 6th Form, Anthony Bowerman's shining reference secured me a place at Epsom College of Art and Design, and thereafter a career in London's Advertising industry.
I got to art direct many leading photographers and worked with top colour houses. I gained invaluable insights into alternative photographic formats, approaches and processes. My career was my driving force and I became a Creative Director and went on to set up my own design and marketing consultancy by the age of 28. I travelled extensively and always carried my SLR with me. Yet in truth, with constantly overseeing and doing studio shoots, the edge was taken off my photographic passion. Soon a burgeoning interest in outdoor sports took over and, apart from occasional bursts, my own photography took a back seat.
That was until 1987 when a mix-up with a girlfriend's passport curtailed a much anticipated, all expenses paid trip to the Cannes Film Festival. On a stroppy whim, I hefted her bag into the boot and we headed for the M1 in a stony silence. I had decided we were going to Scotland!
There's a colourful story about the evening a 'yuppie' in a red Porsche pulled-up outside a pub on the outskirts of Glasgow and went in with his filofax in hand to ask for directions. For after a frosty reception, let's just say the outcome was surprisingly good and having spent many hours with a crew of hard-drinking locals, I emerged the next morning with an incredible route around the Highlands that I was to retrace for the next five years. It was an inspired tour that was distilled from the many vocal suggestions of some lovely people. Just a few hours after saying our farewells, as I drove up through the Pass of Glencoe, I was quite honestly... awestruck! The magnificent scale and beauty of the mountains. The vast lochs and rushing rivers. And the wonderfully rich atmospherics that swathed the rugged vastness had a profound effect on me. With eyes watering and heart pumping, I had to pull over, get out, and gape at the simply breathtaking majesty of my surroundings.
I had reached at a turning point in life. Prior to this, I was in to the exciting adrenaline rush found in surfing, diving or climbing. Yet after this first Highland tour, I found myself truly moved by such wonderful surroundings, and my boards and ropes soon gave way to my camera gear. I yearned to be in Scotland and when I couldn't, I often headed for Cumbria and importantly, Cornwall. I reacquainted myself with the county's coastline, looking at it in a new light through my viewfinder.
Back at work, times were also changing and the word 'Digital' was entering the creative vocabulary. Since 1985 I had been using digital retouching suites (costing millions of pounds), that took mere minutes to do what standard film photo-comping would have struggled to do in a day. In 1991 I was in a photographic studio off Oxford St. looking sceptically at a new-fangled Nikon/Kodak DCS 100 hybrid camera. Even though it boasted immediate results popping-up on to a laptop screen - so no more polaroids and film processing - with its ugly silhouette, temperamental performance, shabby 1.4mb images and eye-watering price tag (+£20k), I remained wholly unimpressed. I was working with blue chip brands and refused to allow digital photography to extend beyond 'pack shot' use. Insisting on film and high end scanning, my analogue photographic head was not for turning!
Yet now the 'Digital Studio' was evolving. In just a few short years Apple Macintosh turned my creative department from a bustling, paper-strewn garret that housed a colourful array of talented artists, into a grey and sterile computer room. I watched helplessly as dynamic creativity, talented design, inspired typography and finished art finesse was undermined by limited computing skills, low processing power and trendy design fads based around the software limitations of this emerging technology. Yet it was destined to win. For while digital was driving down creativity, it was a far, far cheaper option and the beancounters loved this. So a new entity called the 'Human Resources' department was formed in agencies to hand out P45's to the Creative department.
However, it was not all doom and gloom. For digital hardware and software evolved incredibly quickly. New Power Macs soon let an amazing programme called Adobe Photoshop, with its stunning imaging capabilities, take flight and it quickly made the multi-million pound digital retouching suites outdated. I was fascinated and eagerly learned my way around its labyrinth of layers and filters. For graphics and imaging Photoshop was a revelation and my newly set up, streamlined consultancy boomed.
For my own photography Digital also hinted at what was to come. For now all I had to do now was get my 35mm film processed and contact sheeted. Thereafter I could scan my negatives using my desktop, hi-rez flatbed scanner. Then, after taking them through Photoshop, I could print my images using the new desktop inkjet. OK it was a bit of a prolonged process but it was good to have control. So I steered away from digital SLRs and apart from a couple of Sony 'point-and-squirts' for family snaps, I doggedly stuck with film for another 16 years.
So we come to the day in 2009 when and I'm hanging around for a delayed flight in Stansted Airport. In a dark mood because I would be late for my meeting, I am browsing the magazine racks in W.H. Smiths. Having flicked through the latest Motorbike and Diving mags, I move on to vacantly pick up a title called Digital SLR Magazine... And there and then my photography world is rocked! For I am looking at page after page of superb 'Raw' file imagery.
While my photography head had been wrapped up in film, a whole new dimension in digital imaging brilliance and versatility had evolved and it was time for change.
After in-depth investigation, I e-bay'd my beloved Minolta semi-digital set-up (for a pittance!) and dived headlong into Full Frame DSLR. I went for a Canon EOS 5D MKII, which at the time was a field leader, along with a range of lenses. Not only did this move expand my commercial design and marketing offering, but it turned my love for landscape photography on its head.
Freed from carting rolls of assorted film stock around, or sending off film for developing and then sorting through endless contact sheets. My DSLR now put me in complete control. I already had all the digital hard & software assets to get the best from Raw, so now it felt like I was back in the 6th Form dark room. I could shoot as many exposures as I wanted, and 'develop' them just the way I wanted. A new window of opportunity opened-up and I jumped through. I quickly expanded my gear with a superb EOS 1DS MKIII and my commercial and personal work boomed.
I'm not interested in conjecture around which format is better. I learned my craft using Film, then evolved to Digital. I got to grips with manual camera operation using the constraints of film and now extend this knowledge and skill through the expansive freedom of digital Raw. The digital medium truly sets me free down on the tideline. Yet I never present composite or HDR images, as I see these as 'computer graphics' and not true photography. Instead I capture what is presented before me 'in camera', through manipulating manual settings and advanced filtering techniques. Then, using only considered, refining post processing, I create high resolution fine art images suited to reproduction at the large sizes I prefer.
For my seascapes, digital Raw has no equal. There's no more hesitation and missing 'the shot' because of the mental shackles of frame counting. Or loading film on a storm-swept beach. Or being tied to a particular image that the film ISO can achieve. Now I can change the ISO at will... what a blessing! The Exposure Triangle is wholly manipulable at any time. Digital is made for the tideline where the instant and exciting spontaneity really gets my adrenaline flowing. What's more the gear is so robust. If it gets splashed or frozen, it's rugged enough to cope.
When I'm giving a talk, what I say to those who protest digital can make a bad shot good, is that they can't have seen what colour houses did with film! In much the same way as top photographers manipulated their film imagery in developing, I will consider every tool available in my digital studio. Then I use a paper stock choice and print settings that render the image as I saw it in my mind's eye.
As for my choice of subject matter, the sea draws me like a magnet. With its infinite moods, states, and interplay with light, the sea fascinates me. And maybe it's those childhood magic lantern evenings that are so deeply engraved in my psyche, but I never shoot for black & white. I love the colours in nature and I want to extol them in my work. Nothing excites or challenges me more than when nature is playing-out in my viewfinder and I'm exploring different ways of trying to capture the energy. Going back to Anthony Bowermen's teachings, this considered experimentation means my camera handling is still based on creative freedom rather than a strict, technical exercise. I enjoy trying to capture the texture of a rushing wave... or a freezing a sun-lit crest as it explodes over barnacled rocks... or detailing the billowing ranks of clouds as an Atlantic storm brews on the horizon... Composing with the light, reflections, colour and textures... And knowing there is a rhythm to the sea that can be manipulated to find order amongst chaos... Watching the elements meeting the tidal state and predicting and preparing for what will be happening in a few hours, minutes and seconds... All in the hope of everything coming together in a single, fleeting moment. This is what inspires me.
By the very nature of my subject matter and approach, I usually witness such moments in wonderfully detached solitude. Therefore I strive to impart the same feeling of splendid isolation in my images. To draw the viewer, 'in'
to the picture by conjuring the same sense of visual tranquility or dynamism on an exclusive level. So they too witness the moment 'alone'. Hence I rarely feature people or man made structures in my seascape photography. Because such detail dilutes my visual message.
Technology also evolves and my EOS 5DSR with its high definition 50MB capability and Photoshop CC, lets me produce incredibly detailed works where natural colour comes to life. I like to create large 'vista' imagery that stands a second look. So I like stunning, unspoilt locations and dynamic composition. I also use a powerful flash gun to bring out the true colours and balance the lighting of a scene, especially through the golden hours. Second Sync flash can be used in tandem with varying ISO and f stops to add definition, freeze action and bring forward foreground details. Add to this a wide selection of filters and processing refinements and my seascape approach is ever evolving.
My horizons have also broadened and I've been lucky enough to travel right across the UK and extensively abroad, to shoot some fabulous locations. Yet through all my wanderings, Cornwall's magnificent coastline and Scotland's glorious Highlands & Islands always call me back. A thrill runs through me every time I set out with my cameras to wander across a deserted Atlantic Coast beach, or through a remote Highland glen. I love to spend days on end amongst these stunning surroundings, seeking new perspectives. Climbing towering peaks, wading deep margins or perched on surf-battered rocks, waiting with my camera... watching... hoping for those split seconds when the elements to come together to create magic!
Back in 2011, I was delighted to win the annual 'Cornish Point of View' photographic competition. The first I had ever entered. This spurred me on, I concentrated on seascapes and in 2012 I had encouraging success with my first solo exhibition. All this along with growing sales from my website, urged me onwards. In February 2013, keeping that promise I had made to myself as a boy, I left London and the Home Counties behind and moved to the tucked-away village of Crantock on the Atlantic Coast of Cornwall.
I pinch myself every morning when I look out my studio window. For each day offers new photographic opportunities and to have such magnificent locations on the doorstep is a true blessing. As is going out to explore new places around the county's remarkable coastline. It was this unfettered access that helped towards my being shortlisted for Outdoor Photographer of the Year, two years in a row.
Today my commercial photographic activities now often go hand-in-hand with my passion for seascapes. Much of my work appears in stock libraries, travel directories and in the marketing and communications materials. And in line with my move to the Cornish coast, alongside my commercial commissions and fine art print sales, I run One-to-One Cornish Seascape Workshops for photographers wishing to further their own camera, post processing and printing skills. This venture has proved hugely rewarding and many clients, of all ages and experience levels, have left with stunning images, expanded skill-sets and fond memories, and for me, nothing could be better!
© Chris Simmons - 2019