The Journey Part 1 – The Early Years

Hi, my name is Leigh and I’m a photographer.

It’s been a long road to get to where I am today and I can honestly say that I’ve photographed pretty much everything along the way. Weddings, kids, pets, prime ministers, royalty, a few thousand cruise ship passengers, numerous inanimate objects from sides of ham to computer printers, pens with catchy slogans, the odd jet plane and speed boat, even Lord Patrick Litchfield! And all of this before finding my niche in the genre of the nude and the erotic. If you’ll indulge me a little I’ll give you the story of my journey and how an ordinary boy came to have what many perceive as most men’s dream job.

Sitting in my parents’ kitchen aged sixteen I could never have dreamed what lay in store for me when in a moment of desperate inspiration between school finishing and dinner starting, I told them “I wouldn’t mind being a photographer.” Following on from that momentous decision I dived head first into the world of the negative, which considering my lacklustre approach to most things in my teenage years was most apt.  I began buying the magazines and teaching myself everything I could about apertures, shutter speeds, ISO…and eventually settled on purchasing my pride and joy – a Pentax MEsuper complete with a Tokina 80-200mm lens. That was possibly my first mistake.  A standard 50mm kit lens would have been a far better option and would have saved months of despair as roll after roll of expensive film came back from the equally expensive processing house with the vast majority of prints blurry and useless.

Undeterred I gained a place at college to study a City & Guilds Photography course…then swiftly turned it down in favour of a job in a local studio.  I was truly proud to have been offered the position given my lack of experience – although I later learned I was the only applicant for the job. So at sweet sixteen I began my photography career as an assistant to a high street photographer whose main line of business was schools photography.  I say assistant – hair groomer, tie straightener and light entertainer of pre-teen children would be a better description. Putting my hand up the rear end of a cuddly monkey puppet in an attempt to elicit smiles from kids was not how I had seen my future photographic career developing. I moved on quite quickly…OK to be completely honest, I was moved on quite quickly.  I guess my employer had even less enthusiasm for me than I had for the job.

Next came a stint at another studio/shop/one hour processing lab. I was the only applicant so the job was mine!  The twelve mile round trip commute by bicycle come rain or shine still haunts me though. I think they call it character-building. The job actually wasn’t too bad. I got to spend hours in the darkroom learning all I could about processing and printing black and white film.  Sepia Toning was performed still using the chemicals that reeked of rotten eggs.

During my year or so there I did get to assist at a wedding or two and even managed to get into the studio on a handful of occasions. Disappointingly though I learned little about photography. I did become fairly proficient at developing and printing film, serving customers in the shop all mostly with an obligatory cigarette burning away next to the film processor!

Thankfully after a tip off from an old school friend I heard about a vacancy at a camera shop a couple of miles from home. The reduction in commuter cycling miles alone was enough to tempt me.  After a successful interview I was given the job…although I later learned that again I was the only applicant so perhaps don’t read too much into my interview success rate.

On my first day as the new Shop Assistant I was asked by the owner’s mother what I planned for the shop and how was I going to turn things around.  After a millisecond of contemplation the dawning realisation that I had now been promoted to Shop Manager hit home.  It was an impressive if somewhat daunting start but my seventeen-year-old self was up for the challenge. I had little fear in those days. In fact lets just clarify that. I was pretty cocksure of myself and, as with most teenagers, I was confident I knew everything about everything so what was the problem? How hard could it be?

As it turned out I was right!  Well, right enough. I made a pretty good fist of the shop and before long it was making a reasonable profit and customers were returning. There was a good sized studio at the back which was not in use but had a plethora of gear including lights, Hasselblad and Nikon cameras, backdrops etc. and the owner decided to put it all to good use and employed a full-time photographer – not me though.  He didn’t work out so another was hired – still not me though.  After the second was dismissed almost mid-shoot I was asked to step in and re-shoot a dozen wedding cakes. My big break! I agreed to do it but played down my ability and suggested I do the shoot out of hours and treat it as a test shoot. I liked my job and I didn’t want to go the way of the last two poor victims! In truth I had barely even touched a studio light before let alone a medium format camera. I had read about infinity curve backdrops but only had an inkling about creating one. It was a long night but supported by my good friend Polaroid I made it through. Fortunately, I was able to hide the ridiculous amount of Polaroid film I used in the shop stock-take later that week. What I would have done for access to a DSLR in those days.

Luckily the shoot was a roaring success and next on the agenda was shooting meat pictures for the local butcher.  Slightly less Polaroid stock this time but once again I came through unscathed and with now two satisfied customers I was officially installed as the resident photographer. So as well as my original role as shop assistant, I was now shop manager, studio manager and studio photographer.  Baby portraits, family groups, inanimate objects and even a model portfolio followed but I still wasn’t fulfilled enough to want to continue down that road.

Now this company also ran a small video production company from the same office. I was in awe of the luxurious edit suite with its bank of a gazillion TV monitors, U-matic video players, buttons, knobs and dials galore!  I spent many an evening sitting in, watching the edits unfold unaware what a valuable learning experience I was getting. I was itching to get involved in video production, it felt new and exciting and before too long I was given the chance. I was taken on location for a small local shoot basically to carry gear but also to act as sound engineer. Never done that before but How hard could it be?  Actually, quite hard as it happens but I muddled through and now I had another role to add to my ever growing list. I was spreading myself pretty thinly now, decisions had to be made. In truth they were partly made for me.  For the second time I was working for a family business and for the second time I was experiencing the politics and pitfalls of family business life. So shortly before my 18th birthday I decided it was time to move on.  The job was fine, the people were nice enough if a little eccentric, but the politics, the rows, and the money were shite. I’d only been left school for the best part of two years but I’d already been through three jobs, a few different roles and had amassed a good deal of experience but not really in the field that I wanted to be in, (although to be honest  I still didn’t really know what that field was).

I did fancy travelling though and best get that out of my system before I got too old. I was after all eighteen now you know! To be continued…