Photography first captured 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 onto a big screen in glorious Fujicolour (or Kodachrome in my Grandfather's case). Back then TV was a small, grainy, black & white affair, so seeing such large, colourful images made a huge visual impression. One of my Father's pictures remains vivid in my mind's eye to this day. Taken on an idyllic Summer's evening when we were fishing up in the Surrey Hills, he caught the mirrored surface of Old Bury Hill Lake being set afire as the lowering sun flared in the scudding clouds overhead. This image sparked what was to turn into my burning passion for photographing the mesmerising relationship between nature, light and water. On my tenth birthday I was given a 35mm Kodak camera and it all went from there.
As a family, we holidayed widely around the UK. Yet shunning busy resorts and beaches, my parents always sought secluded shorelines where my brother and I could swim, snorkel and fish to our hearts' content. Sussex, Norfolk, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Snowdonia, Anglesey, the Scottish Borders and eventually, Cornwall; our adventures instilled a deep affection for the coast. Yet Cornwall was the revelation. With its vast golden beaches and crystal clear sea, I immediately fell under its spell. I was 13, and when it came to going home, I made the precocious promise to my parents that one day I'd live here!
At school the brilliant Head of Art, Mr. Bowerman, took me under his wing and gave me free rein of the Art & Photography Department. With an Olympus OM1 SLR, a well appointed darkroom and endless rolls of Ilford B&W film, I developed my camera and processing/printing skills. I learned to use a camera as a creative tool and not a scientific instrument. Experimenting, bending rules and extending the taking and developing processes to create 'fine art' imagery that reflected the atmospheric dynamics rather than a technical exercise. When it came to leaving 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.
As an Art Director I worked with leading photographers and top colour houses, gaining invaluable insights into alternative approaches, formats and processes. I travelled extensively and always carried an SLR with me. Yet overseeing constant studio shoots, where every highlight and shadow could be controlled, took the edge off my own passion. Instead my burgeoning interest in mountain and water sports took over, and apart from occasional bursts, my photography took a back seat.
That was until 1987, when a last-minute mix-up with a girlfriend's passport curtailed an all-expenses-paid trip to the Cannes Film Festival. On a stroppy whim, I hefted her bags into the boot and headed for the M1 in a stony silence. I had decided we were going to Scotland!
There's a long and colourful story surrounding the evening a 'Yuppie' in a red Porsche pulled-up outside a pub on the outskirts of Kinross and went in his Barber jacket with Filofax in hand, to ask for a room. Yet to cut a long story short, let's just say a frosty reception turned into a heartwarming farewell. For after many hours locked-in with a clan of hard-drinking locals, I left next morning with a spectacular route around the Highlands that I was to retrace for the next five years. It was an inspired tour distilled from the vocal suggestions of some lovely people who were immensely proud of their country and wanted to share the best parts with a cocky sassanach. A few hours after saying our farewells, I drove up through Glencoe and was, for the first time in my life... awestruck. That was the only word for it. The wonderfully rich atmospherics that swathed such magnificent vastness. All came together to overwhelm my senses. With eyes watering and heart fluttering, I had to pull over, get out, and gape open-mouthed at the breathtaking majesty of my surroundings. I instinctively reached for my camera.
I came to a turning point in life. Before this moment, it was the adrenaline rushes found in surfing, diving or climbing that I craved. The fact they came amongst such natural beauty was a bonus. Yet now, I found myself profoundly moved by such majestic surroundings, and my boards, tanks and ropes gave way to my camera gear.
Thereafter, I constantly yearned to be amongst a Highland wilderness. Trekking and camping with my SLR, I extensively explored the Inner and Outer Hebrides and the remote North West. When time dictated Scotland was too far away, I would head to Wales, The Lake District, or more and more, to Cornwall, where I reacquainted myself with the stunning coastline. Yet now, looking through my viewfinder, I saw it in a new light.
Times were also changing at work. Digital had become the fundamental production medium. Since 1985 I had been using Digital retouching suites that cost millions of pounds and charged like wounded bulls, yet took just an hour to do what traditional colour houses would have struggled to do in a week. 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' imagery popping-up on to a laptop screen - so no more polaroids, film, processing and scanning - with its ugly silhouette, temperamental performance, shabby 1.4mb jpeg images and eye-watering £20,000 price tag, I was wholly unimpressed. I worked with blue chip brands and refused to allow digital photography to extend beyond pack shots. Insisting on film and high end scanning, my analogue photographic head was not for turning!
Yet the 'Digital Studio' was rapidly evolving. In a few short years Apple Macintosh had turned my Creative Department from a loud, bustling garret housing a colourful array of talented artists, into a hushed, dark, basement 'computer room'. Dynamic creativity and inspired design was undermined by limited computing skills, glitchy software and low processing power. Yet digital was destined to win. For while it was driving down creativity, it drove up profits. Digital was the far cheaper option and the agency 'beancounters' loved it. A revolution swept through Advertising and a new department called 'Human Resources' appeared, seemingly to oversee the handing out P45's in the Creative and Production departments. I reached the lowest point in my career and a challenging time followed.
However, it was not doom and gloom for long. Because digital hardware and software evolved incredibly quickly. New Power Macs soon let an amazing programme called Adobe Photoshop take flight. It's phenomenal image processing capabilities quickly made the multi-million pound digital retouching suites obsolete. I was fascinated and eagerly learned my way around its labyrinth of layers, tools and filters. For creative imaging and graphics, the affordable congress of Apple Mac and Adobe software was a revelation. Digital now saw a second revolution and the big agencies suffered at the hands of small 'Creative Hot Shops' and my new consultancy in Covent Garden boomed.
Digital also hinted at what was to come for my personal photography. For now, with Photoshop, instead of having to pay for expensive printing, all I had to do now was get my 35mm films processed and contact sheeted. Thereafter, I could scan my selected negatives using my Hi-Res desktop, flatbed scanner. Then, after taking them through Photoshop, I could print my images using the new inkjet printer. I was gaining control, yet I still steered away from Digital cameras. Apart from a couple of Sony 'point-and-squirts' for family snaps, I doggedly stuck with scanning 35mm film for another 16 years.
So we come to the day in 2009 when I am hanging around Stansted Airport. In a dark mood because I will be late for a meeting in Paris with Rémy Cointreau due to a delayed flight, I am browsing the magazine racks in W.H. Smiths. Having flicked over the Motorbike and Diving sections, I move on to the Photography section. I pick up a title called Digital SLR Photography, flick through a few pages and there and then, my blinkers are removed and a wonderful wide horizon opens up! 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. It was time for change.
After in-depth investigation, I e-bay'd my beloved Minolta semi-digital/film set-up (for a pittance!) and dived headlong into Full Frame Digital. I went for a Canon EOS 5D MKII - a field leader at the time - along with a range of lenses. Not only did this move expand my commercial photography offering, but it turned my love for landscape, and particularly seascapes, into a passion!
For now I could be completely spontaneous down on the tideline. My new DSLR put me in complete control as I already had all the hardware & software to get the best from Raw. 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 liked. A new window of opportunity opened-up and I jumped through headlong. I quickly expanded my gear with a superb EOS 1DS MKIII and my professional 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. Yet I never present composite, stacked or HDR images, as I see these as 'computer graphics'. Instead, I capture the scene before me 'in camera' through manipulating manual settings and advanced filtering and lighting techniques to capture the atmospheric dynamics. 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 the mental shackles of frame counting are gone. No more loading film on a storm-swept beach. No being tied to the capture a film's ISO will allow.
Now I can change my ISO at will and the Exposure Triangle is wholly manipulable at any time... What a blessing! Composition, filtering and lighting considerations now come to the fore and such exciting spontaneity really gets my creative juices flowing and adrenaline pumping. Moreover, complete freedom reigns in the studio. Yet, as I have already stressed, for me the skill in photography lies in capturing the essence and atmospherics of the scene in the viewfinder, in the Camera. I am always aware that it is easy to overcook an image file, so I will strive to memorise the colours I see before my camera and reproduce them faithfully in my works. I will never drop in a sky, or go for a 'button-click' process like stacking, merging or HDR.
When 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 'refining' tool available in my digital studio. Then I select the print settings and paper stock that will render my 'fine art' Seascape image exactly as I saw it in my mind's eye.
This brings me to the question of Black & White vs Colour. Maybe it was those magic lantern evenings that are so deeply engrained in my psyche, but I never shoot for Black & White. Whilst I am more than aware of the impactful images digital black and white can easily conjure, I love the hues in nature. I see a scene in colour. Nature never messes up a colour palette, and I want to extol this in my works.
As for my choice of subject matter, I love to be out on the coast. For the sea draws me like a magnet. With its infinite moods, states, and interplay with light, its 'predictable unpredictability' fascinates and mesmerises me. I can watch the sea for hours and I feel totally at one here when alone with with my cameras. The very nature of my chosen subject matter and approach means I usually shoot 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 because such detail dilutes my 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 use this combination to create large 'vista' imagery that stands more than a second look. So I carefully match the pervading weather conditions and sea/tidal state to choose the right time at the ideal location. Here I safely position myself to gain dynamic, graphic compositions using my trusty 16-35mm wide angle zoom and my 24mm Tilt Shift lenses for the majority of my vistas.
Likewise, I also like to focus in on the sea itself. The raw power and vital energy of a huge Atlantic Rogue. The fluid, flowing textures and reflections created in a surf line. The churning, roiling aggression in a tempest. The soft, serenity in a balmy, becalmed sea. The changing colours and reflections in the ever-evolving light. Here I employ a long lens - 70-200mm or 100-400mm - and my EOS 1DS MkII, with it's high image capture rate and light handling capabilities, to capture the dynamic energy and motion.
My horizons have also broadened and I've been lucky enough to travel across the UK and extensively abroad, to shoot some fabulous locations. Yet through all my wanderings, Cornwall's magnificent coastline and Scotland's majestic 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 along the shores of a Highland sea loch. I love to spend days on end amongst these stunning surroundings, seeking out new perspectives at locations I know well. Climbing towering cliffs, wading deep margins or perching on surf-battered rocks, waiting... watching... hoping for those split seconds when the elements to come together in a split second of visual magic!
Back in 2011, I was delighted to win the annual 'Cornish Point of View' photographic competition with a shot I took at Porthcurno. This was the first competition I had ever entered and the resulting coverage and positive impetus my work gained spurred me on. I concentrated on seascapes and in 2012 I enjoyed success with my first solo exhibition. All this along with growing sales from my newly launched website, urged me onwards. In February 2013, keeping that precocious promise I had made forty years earlier, I moved to the 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 activities often go hand-in-hand with my passion for seascape photography. Much of my work appears in stock libraries, travel directories and marketing communications materials. And in line with my move to Cornwall, 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 very successful and hugely rewarding. It is a thrill to see so many clients, of all ages and experience levels, leaving with stunning images, expanded skill-sets and fond memories. For me, nothing could be better!
© Chris Simmons - 2020