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 such large, colourful images made a huge 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 alight 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 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. Shunning busy resorts and popular 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. For me, Cornwall was the revelation. With its vast golden beaches and crystal clear sea, I immediately fell under its wild and rugged spell. I was 13 and when it came to my parents dragging me home, I made the precocious promise that one day I would live there!
At school, the brilliant Head of Art, Mr. Bowerman took me under his wing and gave me free rein of the brand new 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 rather than a scientific instrument. Experimenting, bending rules and extending the taking and developing processes, I tried to create 'fine art' imagery that reflected the atmospheric dynamics rather than perfection of a technical excellence. When I left 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 manipulated and controlled - took the shine off my own photography for while. Instead a burgeoning interest in mountain and ocean sports took over. So apart from what I shot on my adventures, 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 we headed for the M1 in a stony silence. I had decided we were going to Scottish Highlands!
There's a colourful story surrounding the evening a Yuppie in a red Porsche pulled-up outside a pub on the outskirts of Kinross and went in in his Barber jacket with Filofax in hand, to ask for a room. Yet to cut things short, let's just say a very frosty reception turned into a heartwarming farewell. For after a 'lock-in' with a clan of hard-drinking locals, I left next morning with a spectacular route around the Highlands that I was to retrace and extend over 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 for the first time I discovered the true meaning of 'awestruck'. The incredible, rich atmospherics that swathed such magnificent vastness. All came together to overwhelm my senses. With eyes watering and heart pumping, 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 had come to a turning point in my life. Up to this moment it was the adrenaline rushes found in surfing, diving or climbing that I craved. The fact these thrills came amongst such natural beauty was a bonus. Yet now, I found myself profoundly moved, more than I had ever been before, by such majestic surroundings. On that day in 1987, my surfboards, fins and climbing ropes gave way to my camera gear.
My Highland 'fling' changed my outlook. Now, I constantly yearned to be amongst a remote wilderness. Trekking and camping with my SLR, I extensively explored Scotland's Inner and Outer Hebrides and the remote North West. When time dictated Scotland was too far away, I would head to Wales, Lake District, or, more and more, to Cornwall. Here 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. The 'Digital Studio' had ousted traditional methods to become the prime 'creative' production medium. Since 1985 I had started 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 struggle 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 costs - with its ugly silhouette, temperamental performance, shabby 1.4mb jpeg images and eye-watering £20,000 price tag, I was left wholly unimpressed. I worked with blue chip brands and refused to allow digital photography to extend beyond basic pack shot use. Insisting on film and high end scanning, my analogue photographic head was not for turning!
Yet the 'Digital Studio' continued to evolve rapidly. In a few short years Apple Macintosh had turned my Creative Department from a loud, bright, 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 as it drove down creativity, it drove up profits. Digital production was the far cheaper option and the agency 'beancounters' loved it. Newly formed 'Human Resources' departments handed out P45's to talented Designers, Visualisers, Typographers and Finished Artists and replaced them with a 'MacOperator'. I had reached the low point in my career and a challenging time followed.
However, it was not to last for very 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. So now, for previously unattainable creative imaging and graphics, the affordable congress of Apple Mac and Adobe software was a revelation. Digital now saw a second revolution. The big agencies suffered at the hands of newly formed, small groups of experts empowered with superior design and production attributes. I rode the wave and my new 'creative hotshop' in Covent Garden boomed.
The new digital assets also hinted at what was to come for my 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 the new 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 my 35mm film for another 16 years.
So now we come to the day in 2009 when I am hanging around Stansted Airport. In a bad mood because I will be late for a meeting in Paris due to a delayed flight, I am browsing the magazine racks in W.H. Smiths. Having flicked through the Motorbike and Diving magazines, I move on to the Photography section and pick up a title called Digital SLR Photography. I flick through a few pages and right there and then, my digital blinkers are removed and a wonderful new 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 excellence and versatility had evolved. It was time for change.
After much 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 would this move expand my commercial photography offering, but it turned my love for sea and landscapes into a passion!
For now I could be completely spontaneous down on the tideline. My new DSLR put me in complete control as it 'rounded the circle' with all the hardware & software I had hands-on access to. 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 kit bag with a superb EOS 1DS MKIII and my professional/personal work boomed.
I'm not interested in endless 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 Camera Raw. Yet I never present composite, stacked, merged or HDR images as I consider these assisted processes a step too far towards 'computer graphics'. I especially do not agree with the concept of letting the "camera and computer do the heavy lifting"! Instead, I capture an image through composing the scene before me in my viewfinder, manipulating manual settings and using advanced filtering and flash lighting techniques to capture the atmospheric dynamics 'In Camera'. Then, using only considered, refining, post processing, I create high resolution fine art images suited to reproduction at the large printed sizes I prefer. This is where the skill in digital photography lies, for me.
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 restrained to the capture the loaded 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, with the advent of superb in-house print technology, complete freedom reigns in the studio.
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 childhood magic lantern evenings that are so deeply engrained in my psyche. Maybe it was because my early education was limited to the process's monochrome capabilities. But today I never shoot for Black & White. Whilst I am more than aware of the impactful images digital black and white can readily conjure, I love to extol the natural hues I witness in nature. Mother Nature never messes her colour palette, and I want to extol this in my work.
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 ever-changing interplay with light, its raw elemental power fascinates and mesmerises me. I will watch the sea for hours on end and feel totally at one here with my cameras. The very nature of my chosen subject matter and approach means I usually shoot in wonderful 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. Hence I rarely dilute this by featuring people or man made structures.
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. My horizons broadened and I've been lucky enough to travel across the UK and extensively abroad, to shoot some fabulous locations. Yet through all my wandering, Cornwall's magnificent coastline and Scotland's majestic Highlands & Islands always call me back. I love to spend days on end amongst these stunning surroundings. 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!
In February 2013, keeping that precocious promise I had made forty years earlier, I moved to live on the Atlantic Coast of Cornwall. Now each day offers new photographic opportunities and to have such magnificent locations on the doorstep is a true blessing. This unfettered access helped towards my being shortlisted for Outdoor Photographer of the Year, two years in a row in 2015 and 16.
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 alongside my commercial commissions and fine art picture sales, I run Cornish Seascape Workshops. All inclusive, one-to-one residential courses 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 for home with stunning images, expanded skill-sets and fond memories. For me, nothing could be better!
© Chris Simmons - 2021