How can a life as an art director in the early 80s influence your photography skills?

This week on the blog, we answer this question with an exciting interview with British photographer Alan Burles!

Discover his fine art moments in 15 photos powered by Prodibi!

A few words about you, how did you start photography?

I knew very early on that I wanted to pursue some sort of art and through my school years I concentrated on getting into art school. There must have been some connection with photography however as I was taking a camera to school even at the age of 9. I would photograph my school friends including some action sporting pictures - and I even took a selfie when I was 11. This is back in the late 60s and 70s.

You started your professional career as an art director, how does it help you with your photographs?

The tutors on my foundation year at art school were pushing me towards fine art - which I loved but I sort of knew that it would be a precarious career so I went and did a week’s work experience in my uncle’s advertising agency in Bristol. I was told that an art director called Bill would look after me and that I should just follow him around. So I followed him to the pub for lunch 5 days in a row and learned that people in advertising drink a lot!

But I did get a bit of work done, enough to make me feel that I might enjoy this job. I put a portfolio of rough ads together and managed to get into to Manchester Art School to do a BA degree in Graphics/Advertising. We had a fantastic tutor who would push us to visit the best agencies in London as often as possible - which resulted in creating a portfolio that got me my first job in advertising as an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi. I was there for 10 amazing years during the 80s and 90s.

My years at Saatchi & Saatchi were a fantastic investment in working with great people (and great photographers) and especially in learning about both the power of simplicity and the power of the idea. I then moved to Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the learning curve in excellence continued there. Later on I also worked at one or two agencies that weren’t so good and that was no less educational in that I saw people optimg for the mediocre because it was easier.

I definitely think my time in advertising has been a huge influence on my photography. I learned that a style is an effect but an idea is something concrete and I try to take photos with an idea as opposed to an effect. I learned to edit ruthlessly, one great ad was better than 3 mediocre ones - and I learned that ‘good’ isn’t good enough, so yes, I certainly still feel the effects today.

You have a very spontaneous style, can you explain your creative process for a great photo?

Haha, I can’t, no, it is something of a mystery to me - apart from "Have A Camera With You"!

I say that because I don’t work at it, I don’t take a thousand photos and hope, I don’t (often) set myself up to watch and wait to see what happens, I don’t do research and visit places, I just go where life takes me and ‘listen’ with my eyes - and if you want to know what that means, the seeing happens to me, I do not 'do' the seeing - in the same way that we do not 'do' listening but still are aware of the sounds that surround us.
Life is all around us all the time but we don’t necessarily see it. This is summed up beautifully by this question: ‘What’s water?’ asked the fish.

Are you inspired by the work of other photographers or artists?

Inspired and humbled.
It is amazing that we are able to see so much art and photography and I hope that it seeps into our hearts and souls for no other generation has been so privileged.
In art I love everything from early renaissance with their radiating angels and beautiful Virgin Marys draped in that vibrant blue cloth to Rembrandt to the Abstract Expressionists - and beyond, far too many to mention.

And in photography, again, I love all sorts. If I have to name a few, Andre Kertesz, Erwin Blumenfeld, Diane Arbus, William Egglestone, Irving Penn, Andreas Gorsky, Wolfgang Tillmans, spring to mind but the list goes on and on. And of course Elliot Erwitt, my street photography hero for having the determination to make street photography and humour his lifelong project when fame more often comes from photographing war and misery.

About your photography gears, what are your favorite tools?

I started with a Brownie as a kid and then used my grandmother’s 2 1/4 square Rollei which I now realise took really good quality pics. But the first camera I bought myself was an Olympus XA pocket camera that shot 35mm film - I wanted a camera that I could take everywhere. Then I went travelling and thought I also needed an SLR with a long lens so I bought a Nikon FM2. By then my pocket camera was a Minox which got just as much use!

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When digital came along my favourite for a while was a Canon G11 and then upgraded to the G12. Now I have a Nikon D750 for professional shoots with 24 - 200 lens. I hire any other lenses I need.

I was very fortunate to win the Leica / Street Photography International 2018/9 Award and the prize was a Leica Q! It does not fit in my pocket but it has become my ‘go-everywhere’ street photography camera. I also have a Contax 645 film camera with 140, 80 and 45mm lenses which is sublime, especially for portraits.
I really don’t care how a photo is taken or what on, ‘is it a good photo, does it have presence on the page?’ is my only question. Phone cameras these days are amazingly good but it is still how you see things that makes the difference.

Do you have projects for the future like workshops, personal series or travels?

I am working on having more exhibitions, here in the Uk and also abroad. I would like to blur the line between photography and art and it is possible that Europe and America are more open to that possibility.

I am always open to travel, but nothing planned at the moment although it has been suggested to me that I should visit Iceland. Any travel is perfect because there is nothing else to do except walk with a camera.
I have never held a workshop but this summer might be the time to try it.

To see more from Alan:

His Website

All photographs copyright Alan Burles and used with his permission.

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