SF) Tell us about how you became a photographer, did you go to university or study photography?

TG) I didn’t go to university or to art school to study photography; I missed that particular boat having left school early. After various detours as a cleaner in London, au pair in Paris and apprentice footballer in Italy, I applied for a job as a film processor in a black and white lab which I saw in the back pages of the British Journal of Photography. The lab in question was Adrian Ensor’s, it was a real stroke of luck. Adrian was, and still is, a master printer.

Adrian printed for the land artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton as well as for many commercial still life and portrait photographers. I was offered the job and that’s really how I started. It was a baptism of fire, learning to load and process every type of film; learning how to make a decent print. I was there for a year or so then went to work as a photographer’s assistant. I put a portfolio together and gradually began to work for magazines. One of the first commissions was a portrait of the comedian and satirist Peter Cook for The Sunday Times magazine.

Toby Glanville, John Hurt portrait the south west collective of photography ltd
Toby Glanville, John Hurt
Toby Glanville, Portrait of Joe Tilson the south west colelctive of photography ltd
Toby Glanville, Portrait of Joe Tilson

SF) That’s an interesting story. Your journey to becoming a photographer was a very much a hands-on experience, which is probably one of the best ways to learn. When you started working as a photographer, the print-based industry was arguably at its peak. How easy was it for you to find paid photography work during your early working years and if so, how much did this influence your portraiture? Did you try different genres during this time?

TG) The print-based industry was on the cusp of major change in the mid-1980s, the period in question. This was just as Rupert Murdoch was secretly setting up his ‘new technology’ printing plant at Wapping in east London, thereby destroying the print unions and monopolising the British press in one fell swoop more or less unobstructed. Sunday Times photographers like Don McCullin were suddenly surplus to Murdochian requirements: they either shot soft furnishings or shipped out. It was a philistine moment. It was the era of the miners’ strike, of Thatcher’s demolition of the status quo. I remember the Sunday Times building occupied a site on Grays Inn Road which still had its printing presses in the basement: men in white coats and ink blackened fingers pushed hot metal on trollies. Staff photographers hurriedly marked up film length strips of still damp contacts with chinagraph pencils. All of this was set to collapse. It was another world. A politically brutal, violent time.

It wasn’t easy getting paid work as a photographer but it was probably easier in a sense than it is now given that anybody with an iPhone is essentially a photographer – the ultimate democratisation of the medium which even George ‘Kodak’ Eastman could never have envisaged. I have always been drawn to portraiture and people. It took me a long time to unlearn and discard much of what I’d picked up as an assistant. I eventually stripped everything back to the point where what interested me was the sitter’s environment (and as little intervention as possible on my part). This is still how I like to work. To move a teacup on a table from its given position is to upset the entire equilibrium of the frame. I was trying different genres but I tended to come back to the portrait, or it came back to me.

Toby Glanville, Lyla, London
Toby Glanville, Alexi, London

SF) Of course the 1980s were a politically turbulent era as you said. The global events, the Cold War, Chernobyl. It was a dark time. I suppose in many respects, the Murdoch revolution of the press almost reminds me of the end of the steam era, with the railway cuts that Dr Beeching implemented. Almost overnight, an entire industry was changed, with repercussions still felt to this day. When faced with this change, how did you adapt? At what point did you realise that things wouldn’t be the same as they were? Did you follow the same path as McCullin, or find a new strategy? What was the mood like for photographers then?

TG) Very true, it was a time of radical transition. Another seismic change came with the digital revolution, a turning point perhaps being the 2008 financial crash. Photography could be achieved in publishing without the costs associated with shooting film.

There is, of course, the counter-revolutionary factor to be considered. There still exists, as you know, a considerable movement for images made using analogue processes. Perhaps the effect of the (analogue) camera and its operation is underestimated, something to do with quietude. The paradox being that photography is all about time, yet we have no time.

Looking back, I was just trying to find my own way forward. And although the way in which McCullin was treated by the paper he had served for so many years at such personal risk was shameful, it was only a reflection of the shallowness of the times (pun intended). I was young and excited to be working and took on pretty much anything to survive. It was all a learning process and still is. I was trying to combine commercial work with my own projects and felt that each fed the other, that it was all about the act of being in the world.

SF) You touched on the notions of the “iPhone Photographer”. Would you say that photography is almost a dying trade? Everybody has a camera now, how do we operate as photographers and differentiate ourselves from the self-proclaimed iPhone artists?

TG) Photography is not so much a dying trade as a fast-changing one for reasons touched on above. Whether a wonderful image is taken on an iPhone or a 10×8 plate camera should really be neither here nor there. But I think that there is a kind of madness, a hamster on the wheel syndrome in play. In the realm of social media, to paraphrase Descartes, ‘I post therefore I am’. The situation is symptomatic of the general state of things. We are allowed so little time to sit and breathe.

Since we live in an exploitative capitalist society, why should the world of images be immune to its fallout? I think it would be wrong not to celebrate the gains and deal with the losses. I think it was John Cale who said that you have to go to war with the army you have.

Toby Glanville, Gary Oldman the south west colelctive of photography ltd
Toby Glanville, Gary Oldman
Toby Glanville, Rhine Chefs

SF) You discuss stripping everything back to a point that interested in photography, which was the sitter’s environment. How does one get the confidence to begin to work with people? Portraits are often very intimate and personal; do you believe it is your role as the photographer to calm your subject? You mentioned “As little intervention as possible”. What is your approach from meeting your subject to the picture?

TG) I’m not sure it is about confidence; I think it is about taking pleasure in meeting people and being curious about new places and other lives. Diane Arbus had a brilliantly perceptive take on making portraits. I sometimes think that her writing on photography is more interesting than the photographs themselves.

She said:

“I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

And that really is, I think the secret about portrait photography – possibly all photography. You leave the subject alone. Like a glass of water which stops quaking after the train has passed by, you need to let yourself find your own point of stillness or balance. Nothing I can say or do will alter the way another person is in their own body and mind. So why make the attempt. Why ask somebody to fulfil your own (most probably selfish) criteria as to how they ought to be. I suppose that’s what I mean by noninterventionist photography.

SF) The notions of non-interventionist photography are perhaps a style that as photographers we should adhere to; as it makes for a more natural type of photograph?

TG) I’m not sure that the non-interventionist approach is necessarily more natural a style than any other type of photography simply because a photograph is an intervention by definition. Perhaps it is a question of degrees. As soon as one looks through the viewfinder one is making decisions as to what to include and what to leave out. One’s very presence in the room inevitably changes the feel of a place.

Toby Glanville, Hailuoto Swan

SF) Your work has been published, recognised and exhibited internationally. Your work is held in collections ranging from the Victoria & Albert Museum, The National Portrait Gallery and The Bruce Bernard Collection. How did this come about and what were you doing to get in touch with these organisations?

TG) The process of becoming a photographer has for me been a slow one on many levels. I didn’t come off the blocks with speed or a great sense of direction, and I think that that’s ok. It has been, and continues to be, a question of time. Something we have too little of these days. think it’s important to keep on keeping on. I have been lucky enough at certain moments to have had my work picked up by extraordinary people like Bruce Bernard who was the picture editor of the Sunday Times Magazine in its heyday in the 1970s.

In 1980 he published the groundbreaking book ‘Photodiscovery’, a collection of rare a marvellous images culled from the invention of the medium up to 1940. The last image in the book, by Bill Brandt, is one of the most haunting. It depicts an elderly woman in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields sheltering from a bombing raid at the height of the London Blitz. Bruce was a wonderful writer on art and photography, and also a brilliant photographer, particularly of his artist friends Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach.

Bruce introduced me to the work of John Deakin through an unforgettable show which he curated in the early 1980s at the V&A. The exhibition was called ‘The Salvage of a Photographer’. Deakin, a friend of Bruce’s, had died a decade earlier, all but forgotten, though he had made these superb images for Vogue in the 1950s.

I had never before seen portraits like Deakin’s. Francis Bacon thought them the best since those by Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron. The show was an electrifying education and helped me to understand how photography could, at its best, equal other art forms in its ability to convey real emotion.
I think that in terms of working, elements of luck and goodwill are essential. Both were in play when photographs of mine were included in the collections you mention. I had a show early on at The Photographers’ Gallery in London which was a great boost. And of course, at various moments you do need to be knocking on doors, even if they never open. I think that often the intent is enough for something to shift even if it happens in an unexpected place.

SF) It is fascinating to hear about, in such depth and detail, about how your exhibitions and work has come about, which I’m sure will be a great help to photographers of all ages. That work has led you to a point today, with some of your latest work, Bus Portraits, which was a sublime commission for the K6 Gallery in Southampton. The commission leads you and poet, Ella Frears, to create work based on Southampton bus routes following on from the footsteps of the original project, which was commissioned by Southampton City Council 25 years ago and was created by Nancy Honey and Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. This, I expect, provided you with a particular challenge; how does one create good portraits on a busy moving bus when you only have limited time with strangers? We all see how antisocial people these days are glued to their phones and devices, how did you approach this project?

TG) It was a fascinating project to be involved in and wonderful to work with the brilliant poet, Ella Frears. The commission took place last winter over a particularly light-starved period. We were assigned to a bus route which started in the centre of Southampton and ended in the suburban hinterlands an hour or so away. An interesting side effect was to observe the change in attitudes to photographing in public since the original project twenty-five years ago. I think that perhaps it is less tolerated these days than it was.
Our every move today is so oppressively surveilled by cameras that to compound the injury when one is occupying the relatively private arena of a bus is yet another kind of violation. I shot a lot of images from the bus looking out, because to look out onto the world from a moving platform is the most fascinating thing to do. Our public/private theatre, all the world’s a stage. Over a period of several weeks, I returned to the city keeping an eye on the weather forecasts. There was a break of one day when the sun shone and the difference was that of day to night.

Toby Glanville, K6 Bus Portraits
Toby Glanville, K6 Bus Portraits
Toby Glanville, K6 Bus Portraits

SF) The attitude of the public towards photography is something that we cannot ignore. Photographing on a public bus in an environment where many of the populous wouldn’t expect to find or see a photographer working. The camera as an object, as Sontag quite rightly mentions in I think, Regarding The Pain of Others, says that the use of the camera as an object is in many respects the same as a weapon, the method of pointing something at someone is intrusive and unnerving, photography, which was a thing of curiosity, has taken on a new form in the modern world as you mentioned. What did you learn about yourself when taking on K6 Bus portraits?

TG) I learnt that sometimes it is better to be looking out than looking in. Of course, this could also be a definition of the medium itself. We seem to live in an age of super heightened voyeurism.
Our images are collected by the state no more or less than by ourselves.

SF) What are your plans for the future and what are you currently working on?

TG) I plan to keep taking photographs. I am working on two new book projects. One is on the EU Parliament in Brussels, the other is a series of images made in Rome over the last twenty years

Toby Glanville

Toby Glanville’s photographs have been published and exhibited internationally and are held in collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Bruce Bernard Collection; The British Council & The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Toby Glanville Photographer


Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tobyglanville/

Conversation Piece by Collective Owner, Samuel Fradley

If you enjoyed this conversation, check out a Collective interview with Photographer Guy Moreton: https://thesouthwestcollective.co.uk/guy-moreton-discusses-landscape-thought-and-his-methods-behind-picture-taking/


SF = Collective Owner Samuel Fradley

TG = Toby Glanville

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