Starting out in photography, it can sometimes seem a little intimidating when you try and speak to photographers. There often seems to be a lot of misconceptions about specific genres or certain equipment, with more emphasis often placed on those aspects rather than the photograph being judged on its sole merit. What are your thoughts on this?

I can see how photography has been built up a little bit because it’s everywhere. 10 years ago, everyone was a DJ and today everyone is a photographer; some people now may get put on this pedestal and I think there is this weird association that people will be unapproachable. There is a girl who won the Eizo Student Awards, who works with me on various days now. She came on her first proper shoot the other day, we were doing an AUDI shoot, shooting stills and directing a small commercial on the same day. It’s been a long time since I started, so I forgot what it was like at that stage – she said she felt a bit intimidated and nervous until she realised that everyone was cool, and they just wanted everything to go smoothly.

There is a lot of categorising in photography, where certain things are put above others. For a long time, people who emailed me and sent CVs to come an assist, wrote that they wanted to be a fashion photographer and it was interesting to see so many people interested solely in that part. Almost as if all you saw of photography was fashion or press, when there are so many areas you can go into and specialise.

So, it’s quite a funny thing about what people expect and for people who are just starting out to ask the question about what camera you use, because it’s like asking a chef what knife they use. They are both tools, but there’s too much emphasis on the wrong things and the association with them. The advice I always give to people is to just shoot what you like and things that make you happy. You don’t leave school and go, ‘Right, now I’m a photographer.’ You don’t just fall into it. You need to work hard. So, if it is your choice to do that then your work resonates from you, because at the end of the day, you’re the only one who is going to make your work different from other people. If you’re interested in portrait photography or fashion, or technical science or medical photography, you need to create work that you can put yourself into so that when you’re showing someone your work, its more than simply a technically correct image, it needs to reflect you and your vision. Create a folio of work and when you’re commissioned, it’s based on what you’ve done because you enjoy it, otherwise there’s no point.

 

20190730-Ben-Nasa-Book-small
NASA PAST AND PRESENT DREAMS OF THE FUTURE
NASA PAST AND PRESET DREAMS OF THE FUTURE - DESTINY MODULE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION (ISS) TRAINER BOOK SPREAD
DESTINY MODULE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION (ISS)

It can be quite hard during university when you’re so focussed on fulfilling briefs and meeting deadlines that you start to forget about more personal work and then when you leave, you may not have the portfolio ready. What sort of advice would you give to those who are starting out, either at university or not?

It’s an interesting one. I think it’s almost like learning to drive. You do your driving lessons, you do the test and you’ve got your license. You can drive, but really, you have no experience of what to do when you’re in a situation. I guess it’s a similar thing coming out of college or university: there’s always that step of, well I’ve done this, this is the step I’ve done to get me to a point where I can go and speak to people. It is a funny one because every photographer has their own idea of what they want when they’re looking for an assistant and who they want to work with. The thing I always look for is motivation. Are you shooting on your own, shooting your own projects in your own time? It may not be technically brilliant, but you have that motivation. And when you’re in the studio, are you helpful? Are you looking for things to do rather than sitting back and watching the people around you do their thing? And when you do it, even if it’s something like cleaning a sink. Are you diligent about what you’ve done? You should do something well and if not, that says a lot about you as a person.

I think experience at university is great but when you come out and you need to work, there’s a different mindset. Some people are really good at studying and doing the whole university experience, but when it comes to leaving it’s a bit like, ‘Right, what do I do now’. A lot of people don’t end up doing anything related to photography, but the ones who have that drive and want to be a photographer may end up forgetting what they’ve learned during their studies because they’re busy getting on with work, because they are very different things. It’s all down to personality and who you are. If you’ve walked into it at the start wanting to be a photographer, then when you’ll come out, you’ll have that drive to get to where you want to be. But if you’ve started thinking you want to be in photography and you like the idea of it, it may not work out. It requires a lot of self-motivation and you have to just get on with it yourself, because if that’s not you, I don’t think it’s something you can instill in people.

MERCUTY CAPSULE FAITH 7 - SPACE CENTRE HOUSTON
MERCURY CAPSULE FAITH 7 - SPACE CENTRE HOUSTON

That self-motivation is an essential part of the experience then, particularly looking at long-term bodies of work such as your upcoming book, NASA: Past and present Dreams of the Future, which took you 9 years to complete.

That’s a weird one, because in the first 5 years I didn’t shoot anything. I spent that time trying to get access. If you imagine constantly being told no, it’s not happening and then every time you make contact, 4 months later you get an email that’s pretty negative. But, there’s still enough there that makes you think, ‘I’m going to keep going’. So, until we did that first shot, it was pretty much no. Until we were actually inside of the international space station training mock-up, taking the first picture, I was still unsure as to whether it was happening. Then there was still 4 more years of photography, still having to go through the same procedure every time you wanted to go and shoot. And then that’s finished, retouching is done and then you need to design the book and raise money for the book. Then you need to create the Kickstarter campaign, start a publishing company, start a marketing company and then bring the finances together, get the printing done which is what we’re doing right now, going through the proofs and then once that’s done, distributing it, selling the rest of the copies and then planning exhibitions.

So that 9-year photography project is turning into a 12-13 year project as well as a company. And while I’m busy getting that organised, I’ve also got to work, doing commercial work whilst also balancing 4 other projects that I’m doing, including a small film series. A lot of the time when people think about what other photographers are doing and their work it’s easy to think ‘Oh that’s quite nice, they’re doing that and off they go’ and it’s not as it appears on the outside. Plus, there’s the financing. No one has paid for this, it’s all out of my wallet. It’s a financial drain, an emotional drain, time-consuming and it keeps me away from my family. All of those hardships and struggles that you need to get through and because of this I think you need to have a very strong sense of reality and vision when you’re doing things. But at the end of the day, these are all things that make me who I am and do what I want to do. Anyone coming into this thinking it’s light and easy, or this project is going to happen smoothly – start with that thought and hold onto it dearly because that’s what keeps you going when things are really hard and it’s a terrible time and you don’t think you’re going to get through. I think there were only one or two points where I thought ‘this isn’t going to happen, this is such a slog.’ It’s exhausting trying to motivate yourself for 4/5 years before you even take the first picture. It is hard but having a sense of reality and drive is a good thing.

VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BAY BEING FITTED OUT FOR SLS ARTEMIS - KENNEDY SPACE CENTRE
VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BAY BEING FITTED OUT FOR SLS ARTEMIS
SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY ENGINES - Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum WASHINGTON
SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY ENGINES
SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY NOSE - Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum WASHINGTON
SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS ENGINES - KENNEDY VISITOR CENTRE

Talking about your first trip after 5 years of trying to get in, what was that first moment like? In previous interviews you’ve spoken about your experience with the Hasselblad used on the moon, did anything else trigger a similar response?

At the moment, I’m running through all the shoots and dates, creating a chronological set of dates and as I said, the first one was the international space station training mock up. I didn’t believe we were doing it, even when we were at the centre waiting to go in. We’d got to the space centre sign in area to get picked up by our guide and he was late. I was thinking this isn’t going to happen. He met us and I still kept thinking it wasn’t happening, and it wasn’t until we’d set up the camera and I took the first picture when I turned to my assistant and just said, ‘Well I guess this is it right, we’ve started, 5 years to take one picture’. That was quite a moment. But from then on it was right, we’ve got a certain amount of time to shoot these items, come back tomorrow and shoot more, we have to do this.’ There are stages I guess, each shoot you can divide but this project is: get permission, make sure we can do it, shoot, doing that every time. There’s a sort of rise and fall of anxiety, excitement, reality, more excitement, more reality and then just getting on and each time you have to focus and get on with it.

Invariably, the answer about what we’re doing each time is that we didn’t really soak it up until we’d left and got back to London really. Moments like that you’d start to go, ‘Oh… we’ve just been in the international space station for 2 days.’ Moments like the Hasselblad, moments like that I was fully aware what was going on at the time and I was fully present when that happened. Thinking about it now makes me just as happy as I was then. Thinking about it, the first shot was definitely something that was kind of difficult to take in, difficult to realise what was happening because it had taken so long to get to that stage and so much work, dedication and heartache of wanting to produce something purely for the love and admiration of NASA. It’s not until much later that the penny drops and you start to think, WoW.

SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS ENGINES - KENNEDY VISITOR CENTRE

You touched on the fact that every time you wanted to go and shoot, you had to start the whole process all over again. From your side of things, what did that involve?

I finally got the nod to say ‘Ok, come and shoot’ and then each time you’d have to reapply for the dates you wanted to shoot, the area you wanted to shoot in and then they would delegate whoever they had to say yes. So, you’d be set on these dates and sometimes they’d be moved, but you’d be there to shoot what was agreed on beforehand. If you saw something on the way or you wanted to shoot another area while you were there, you’d invariably have to reapply to come back at a later time to photograph those things. Yeah, it was a lot of work, a lot of logistics. I think if I’d have known everything that I would have to be doing to get this project together, I would thought, ‘Oh God, this is massive’. So massive. And then doing everything on top of the book.

I did speak to a publisher about designing the book, but in the end, I decided I wanted to do everything myself. It didn’t feel very honest, doing all that work and then handing it over to someone else. They were great designers, but it’s not what I wanted to do. That wasn’t the way to finish this project so to think about how much effort has been put in is crazy. We’ve got 384 pages, over 200 images and I’m writing the text and laying out, doing the specs. It has been a lot of work but I’m glad I’ve done it myself because it’s a great thing to do. In the end, it looks the way it looks because I’ve done it myself and it’s come together because of me, whereas if I’d given it to someone else it wouldn’t have been as honest. But don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great help and support along the way, some amazing people at NASA and at home and at WIRED UK who ultimately helped me gain access when production was stalling.

EXTRAVEHICULAR MOBILITY UNIT (EMU) SPACE SUIT HELMET - JOHNSON SPACE CENTRE
EXTRAVEHICULAR MOBILITY UNIT (EMU) SPACE SUIT HELMET

The photographs are phenomenal. You really get a sense of the magnitude of the project in the work you’ve produced, but I imagine the production process must have been quite complex.

Well yes, yes and no. We have to be really organised before we shoot. We know what we’re going to be shooting before we go, whether it was the inside of the vehicle assembly building which used to have 3 space shuttles inside. It’s a massive building. So, we’d plan the shoot and because you’re on such a limited time slot in each location I always try and travel as light as I can, bringing as little as I need so that we’re able to move quickly. But then what we do have is exactly what’s right for what’s there. Some of it was shot on an Alpa field camera, a very technical camera so we have to be precise about how we set things up. My assistant had the laptop, we’d have a bag of spare batteries and kit and then a bag for the camera, the lenses and a few other things. Then for things like spacesuits, gloves and other smaller items we would light those, but everything else we shot was simply available light.

ROBONAUT HAND - SPACE CENTRE HOUSTON
ROBONAUT HAND - SPACE CENTRE HOUSTON

But I imagine your retouching process must have taken considerably longer to maintain the quality of images and create that clean look across the collection of photographs.

Yeah, I think our retouchers worked for 3, 3.5 years on this. Maybe even 4. But it’s been a lot of logistics to make sure everything we were doing was right. We had certain rules, like not changing any colours or making any amendments. The initial idea behind the project was to shoot a set of spacesuits and print them at a size that when you see them printed on the wall, you have this sense of awe and reverence to them and you’re blown away by the object itself and what it stands for. A spacesuit isn’t just a piece of cloth with a helmet, it’s something where someone goes inside and those two, the man and the suit, become this iconic character, an Astronaut there to explore. That is the great adventure of humanity: exploring. I wanted to focus on this heroic figure, around 6ft11 on a 9ft sheet, one ft above the ground so you’ve got 10ft of this enormous character. I wanted to concentrate solely on that object, nothing peripheral because that’s irrelevant.

But it’s not just a question of removing the background. You need to shoot it in a certain way so that reflection is cut down and that there’s no interference in the shot. We also needed to balance colours and exposures, removing anything that wasn’t supposed to be there and emulating this idea that it has been shot in this open white space. We also elevated certain objects, so for anything that would fly we took the floor away and put in a shadow to give this sense of purpose. Then with locations like mission control, I shot the whole thing – they are what they are, that building is what is important. So, there are two types of image in the book, the singular object and location shot. And they both have their own technicalities and rules that I would apply, leaving things in and taking anything out that is superfluous. Technically, we had to set up perfectly. This was because there is nothing you can do after in that respect. Even when using lighting, it had to be minimal, using it only to illuminate generally so we could see where it would sit in the collection. So, throughout the entire process, shooting and retouching, every stage is important, some just take longer than others.

RUBBER STAMP USED ON ALL NEIL ARMSTRONGS SPACE SUITS - JOHNSON SPACE CENTRE
RUBBER STAMP USED ON NEIL ARMSTRONGS SPACE SUITS

As I said before, the images are phenomenal and even those you’ve uploaded for your Kickstarter campaign look momentous. I think you have achieved your aim of creating this sense of awe. If I think about visiting the Science Museum when I was at school, it was always really cool seeing everything, but because of all the visual and general noise, you didn’t always have that full appreciation. Whereas your photographs successfully convey the scale of these objects, physically and symbolically.

Some people have said similar things, talking about the sense of scale, magnitude and magnificence. That’s the point. That thing of, exactly as you say, going to a museum – whenever anyone goes to see the Mona Lisa the common phrase is, ‘It’s much smaller than I thought’. I wanted the exact opposite at the exhibition, for people to walk away and say, ‘Oh wow, this is enormous, I feel overwhelmed by it’. Using varying print sizes at large scales, I want to have the public to have the chance to observe these objects and get this impression of beauty, without all the crowds and the distractions you’re normally surrounded by.

You’ve balanced this incredibly clean and minimalist look with the surreal beauty of this technology. It’s quite incredible to think about how these were all designed by people, essentially with scratch – what do you make of it all?

I talk about that in the book. All of this has been made through necessity. The mission is to go to the moon, but how do we get there? These are the things we need to build, and this is what we need to practice and no one has done this before. So up you go, in this tin can, and we’re going to launch you with these explosives so that you can go up and come down, burning through the atmosphere. Every time someone talks about space exploration and they reduce it to, ‘Oh we’ve done this for a while and it’s safe’. It’s not safe. It’s a controlled explosion launched at around 24,000 miles an hour, orbiting at 17,000 miles an hour and to resupply, you need the exact same speed and angle for the two objects to dock properly. It’s tricky. And everything they’re doing is through necessity because of the things they want to keep doing. It constantly involves learning new sciences and technology all the time. It’s bloody amazing.

NASA PAST AND PRESET DREAMS OF THE FUTURE - EXTRAVEHICULAR MOBILITY UNIT (EMU) BOOK SPREAD 3500 X 100 copy
NASA PAST AND PRESENT DREAMS OF THE FUTURE
GENE CERNAN'S APOLLO A7L SPACE SUIT TRAINING GLOVE - JOHNSON SPACE CENTRE
GENE CERNAN'S APOLLO A7L SPACE SUIT TRAINING GLOVE

Have you had much response from NASA throughout this process?

Yeah, erm, NASA are quite funny because they’re a government body, so they do what they do with me and others in return for PR. People must understand that this project isn’t supported or paid for by NASA at all. They have enabled for me to gain access, but everything else is of my own volition. Whenever they’ve seen the shots they say it’s really cool, but they see cool stuff all the time. Certainly, some people have said they really like it and I’d love to do some work for them. Doing more for them would be great and I’d love to get some positive comments back from NASA once they see the physical book. Often, it’s quite hard to get your head around things you’re only seeing online or on a screen, whereas it’s much easier when the final item is in front of you. They are why I started this, it’s that admiration of an object, all to do with NASA. I hold them in such high regard, I’d consider it an honour if someone gave it a nod.

LUNAR TEST ARTICLE 8 (LTA8) - SPACE CENTRE HOUSTON
LUNAR TEST ARTICLE 8 (LTA8) - SPACE CENTRE HOUSTON

I was watching the campaign in its final week, looking at the updates as you gained more support. How did you feel reaching that target before the deadline?

On the first day it went from £0 – £55,000, which was just nuts. I got all these texts and emails from people asking when it was starting and it was lovely. It was so exciting, I was absolutely euphoric! And then it started to go a bit icy, around £6,000 a day and then there was the whole Facebook issue with flat-earthers. You can see on the sales chart that I just plateaued for about 4-6 days, where we had hardly any sales but just a few small rises here and there. That very nearly destroyed the campaign but luckily I managed to find someone who was good at social media marketing and we used their account to carry it on after Facebook shut our campaign down.

Tell me a bit more about the flat-earthers and Facebook.

So, I have no problem with flat-earthers or lunar deniers. If that’s what you want to believe, then fine. I fully understand their anger and frustration if they were receiving ads for something they don’t believe in. When you make your ads, you have to tick boxes of who you’d like your ads to be seen by but also who you don’t want it to reach, so conspiracy theorists, lunar deniers, flat earthers and all the people who will get annoyed, quite rightly, because why would you want to keep seeing it. But clearly they were still receiving these ads. There’s something aimed at those who are being harassed by ads they don’t believe in, where they can click if it’s false or misleading. They kept clicking misleading, and after just over a week we finally got a response from Facebook telling us the ad account was frozen. This was their final say because they had received enough complaints to say that the ad was misleading.

When you make your ad, you have to submit it for approval, so they approved it and then said it’s misleading. Which it’s not. We’ve said it’s a book, about this subject and here’s where you buy it. The book is not misleading, all of these objects exist in museums. Really, Facebook, screwed up on their own issues. But I was lucky enough to have supporters who came to the call to say they’ll help me where they can. Members of the aviation community used Instagram to help launch it and the New York Times picked up the story which ran on the last 5 days. Thank God for that, that definitely helped. Because of the blanket of that week, I think we lost around 50,000 in sales, which was more towards where we thought we’d be able to make more books and offer other things to backers like postcards. Bit of a shame but it was successful. And the people who have supported it have been so enthusiastic, leaving lovely comments and saying well done. It’s incredible! Occasionally, you get some moans but it’s what you expect from social media.

It definitely was a huge learning curve making a book and going through Kickstarter. Kickstarter is an amazing service, it lets people produce and make things that they ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to without a high-interest loan from the bank. If you don’t get funded, you probably won’t sell it, but if you do, then it’s a good product. You do have a very short time to build up your marketing strategy but it’s a great service and really accessible. We started off with a massive target compared to other books, but I didn’t want to scrimp on anything, so everything is as good as it gets.

ROBONAUT VALKYRIE R5 - JOHNSON SPACE CENTRE
ROBONAUT VALKYRIE R5 - JOHNSON SPACE CENTRE

And lastly, now that your book is currently in print, can you tell us a bit more about the exhibition or your other projects?

We had hoped that the exhibition was going to take place this year, however we’re looking at potentially setting it up for late spring. Once it’s confirmed I’ll be able to announce more concrete details, but the idea is to open it to the public, showing 5x4ft prints to prints potentially at 30x20ft. It should be an interesting plan if it works, but if not, we’ve got some other ideas and you’ll be able to see them soon enough hopefully.

I am also working on a film series with a photographic project alongside it, we’re just finishing up the last 2 films to go into edit and then that will be sent off to some film festivals. I’m starting a project with an Icelandic artist, which is a bit controversial, and that exhibition will be announced shortly, and then I’ve got one more, but I’ll be able to talk more about these later on.

Photographer: Benedict Redgrove

Images by Benedict Redgrove

Website: http://benedictredgrove.com/

Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/the-nasa-project/nasa-past-and-present-dreams-of-the-future

BIOGRAPHY

Benedict Redgrove was born in 1969 near Reading, England.  His career began in graphic design,  a foundation that is still-evident in his image making which is renowned for its clean, graphic and sophisticated aesthetic.   He has been a lifelong lover of innovation and industry, and a dedicated proponent of modernism.  Redgrove’s 20+year award-winning career has been established shooting global campaigns and editorials for major automotive and aeronautical companies including BMW, Audi, Aston Martin, Red Bull Racing, BA and BAe; technology giants Hewlett Packard, IBM and GE and media brands Sky, Sony and T-Mobile.  To counter balance his commercial projects, in his personal work he seeks out vast bodies of land, sky and sea.  Through these endless vistas he sees both detail and beauty, focussing – often to the point of obsession – on subjects that verge on the banal.   Redgrove recently staged his first solo exhibition of expressionist cloudscapes in London, and has participated in group shows in the UK and Europe.   For the past few years he has been shooting an ambitious project with NASA,  which is scheduled to be complete in 2018.  He currently lives in London, dividing his time for work and family between LA, NYC, Paris and Rome. 

Article by Collective Photographer Loui-Marí Basson

If you enjoyed this Interview by Lou-Marí Basson, check out another Collective interview with Photographer Donald Weber: https://thesouthwestcollective.co.uk/donald-weber-talks-about-photographing-the-radioactive-landscapes-of-chernobyl-and-fukushima/