Q: Hi Ewan, welcome to Pellicola Magazine. Tell us something about your life and yourself.
I live and work in West London, with most of my spare time consumed by two young (and delightful) children. Photography happens in my spare time, whether it is travelling or part of my everyday family life.
Q: When and why did you start taking pictures and how does it fit into your personal life.
My family has always been very interested in photography and there were always film cameras around growing up, and now there are boxes and boxes of slide films and negatives telling our family history. My mother bought my father a beautiful Hasselblad 500cm when they got married and it has been ever-present during my life. I inherited an Olympus OM1 from my grandfather, which was my first experience shooting film myself, but it was when I first went travelling after university that I began borrowing the Hasselblad. I have now taken it to 5 continents and so far thankfully haven’t either lost it or broken it – though sadly I did leave the Olympus somewhere in Torres del Paine national park…
When I travel I tend to take both film and digital cameras and use them in different ways – documenting my travels with the digital one and reserving the Hasselblad for particular special moments.
Q: In your view, what does it make a great picture?
For me a great picture is one that makes me look or think twice about the subject, whatever it might be – seeing it in a new or unusual framing, or maybe a forgettable everyday object treated in a distinctive and loving way that elevates it into something more precious. Whilst it’s difficult to use a film camera without knowing one’s way around the basic technical elements of photography, I do not consider myself very technically minded, and I try to keep things as simple as possible. I find I spend the majority of my time thinking about composition, and tend to find myself wandering through cities or landscapes subconsciously thinking about potential shots that jump out at me, and thinking how I would frame them. Having taught myself on the Hasselblad, I am used to thinking about framing things in a square format, and particularly with landscapes it can mean you have to work a bit harder to find the right composition.
Q: Why do you still shoot film? What is your favourite set up lens/film/camera?
With film every shot is so much more special, and so much more unpredictable – the excitement of collecting your films from the lab, weeks or months after shooting them, hoping that they came out well, knowing you can’t go back to take them again. Also, shooting medium format isn’t cheap so you must use your film sparingly, waiting for exactly the right shot and taking time to really live in that moment, be present and think it through carefully. Knowing the stakes are higher with each shot makes you value the process so much more. And then there is the beautiful element of chance, when a shot comes out nothing like you expected but you come to love rather than fear it.
I am never happier than shooting with the Hasselblad – I take it everywhere with me, and occasionally to challenging environments so I like to keep it simple, just standard Zeiss lens. Then I have to make the most of whatever presents itself to me with what I have to hand, adapt and adjust the shot to make it work rather than just changing my equipment. I always carry two backs, one with Portra 160 for colour and the other with Tri-X or Ilford HP5 for black and white.
Q: In your bio you say you are based in London, but it looks like you travel a lot.
I had barely traveled anywhere before I finished university aged 22, but have tried to make up for it since. I am based in London but am lucky enough to travel for work several times per year, so I am always looking for a chance to use those trips as an opportunity to explore somewhere new, whether it’s a spare afternoon or weekend, or a week or longer. Now I have young children it’s more of a challenge to get to more adventurous places for as long as I would like, but I am happy with anything I can get!
Q: When I look at your pictures, I think that the world is an incredible place that we are going to destroy. Does this matter worry you, since your main subject is nature?
This haunts me nearly every day. So many extraordinary places to see, and the anxiety that not only might I not have time to see them all, but they may not even exist in their current state for my children. When you spend time in these places and really take time to inhabit them, it’s devastating to imagine that they may change irretrievably. I have an urgent desire to visit the Antarctic, purely to see it before it changes beyond recognition – and I want to take my children to these places as soon as they are able so they can experience them and see what value the natural world has and why it desperately needs protecting.
Q: What has been your most special project so far?
My trip to South America with only analogue cameras. The extraordinary range of landscapes – from the ice fields of Patagonia to the high-altitude deserts of Bolivia – with only a limited number of shots to record the breathtaking landscapes. To travel to such beautiful and diverse environments and to return with only 100 or so shots is a challenge of self-restraint, forcing you to immerse yourself in the place and time in a way you inevitably don’t when you have a digital camera. Now each shot carries the most intense memory of exactly where I was standing, what I was thinking, the colours and shapes as if it was yesterday, even years later.
Q: What is the most beautiful place you have visited?
Namibia! The desert was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen – the sheer scale of the dunes, and the magical abstraction of the shadows cast across them, with the most beautiful red sand. And then endless plains broken up only by jagged rocks and boulders. The sheer other-worldliness of it is perhaps only rivalled in my experience by Bolivia.
Q: People are very occasionally present in your pictures. In my opinion is more challenging making an interesting photo without a human being. What do you think? Is there a reason why you don’t shoot pictures with people?
I usually take so long to take a photograph that people would not be prepared to wait to be in it…! In many ways I find it much more difficult to take pictures with people in them because your presence affects their behaviour. A building or landscape is of course affected by the changing light, but otherwise it is a fixed subject. People’s reactions to having their picture taken can be very dramatic and unexpected and whilst this is part of the joy of it, it’s also a huge challenge for me. I am incredibly impressed with photographers who manage to capture life’s unguarded moments in portraiture or street photography. When I do take pictures of people it is almost invariably my children, who kindly allow for my slow process or ideally just ignore me…
Q: If you could meet a great photographer, who will he or she be?
Although a lot of my photographs are of landscapes I also love architectural photography, and I have always found the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher to be utterly magical – the loving attention bestowed upon otherwise undocumented industrial buildings, reflecting their subtle power and character. But if I could live the life of just one photographer it would almost certainly be Edward Burtynsky – his altered, monumental landscapes carry an eerie beauty that are at once monumental and elegiac, finding beauty even in the terrible devastation wrought by human development.
Q: Do you have any forthcoming projects?
Nothing concrete as yet, though I feel drawn back to the desert, either the Atacama in Chile, or Wadi Rum in Jordan. Other than Antartica, my ultimate dream project would be the island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea – the most extraordinary landscape, yet sadly it is currently too difficult to get to. One day…!
Q: Suggest us a film or an album.
Film – After Hours Album – The Trials of Van Occupanther, Midlake
All images © Ewan Thompson