Future of Photography Q&A No.4 – Derek Ridgers

Oomska’s ‘Future of Photography’ Series continues…

We presented our interviewees with a set list of questions, and left the matter of in what format and at what length they should answer entirely up to them. Here are Derek Ridgers’s responses.

The question I most get asked, more than any other, and which fits this Q&A well enough is: “How can I get started as a photographer?”

In the digital age this question is probably more pertinent than it’s ever been because there is so much less printed media around and so many more photographers.

My answer would be: know and research well your market and then look for gaps which aren’t currently being addressed.  Obviously there may be good reasons why those gaps aren’t being covered but there will always be opportunities for people who can see things that other people don’t see.  If you want to shoot ‘me too’ type fashion or glamour or kids or nature, fine.  But just don’t expect to get a career out of it.

In other words, don’t follow the crowd, look for something new which you can make 100% your own.  And if it’s new enough and interesting enough, people will beat a path to your door.

1. How and when did you first become interested in photography? What was the trigger which led you to take a serious interest? How different would that trigger be now, with all the changes – technological and otherwise – in photography during the intervening years?

I think I’ve always been interested in photography, ever since I was really young.  But far more in looking at photographs rather than taking them myself, that came much later.  Initially, the trigger for actually taking photographs was working for an ad agency with a camera account (Miranda) and being asked to familiarise myself with the camera.  A couple of old school friends were keen amateur photographers and I took a borrowed Miranda and tagged along on a couple of photography jaunts with them.  Far more for the social aspects of taking photos than the requirement of an actual end product.  We’d spend the odd Sunday clambering around bombsites photographing rusty cars and the like, then go to the pub for a couple of hours.  When I got fired from the agency with the Miranda account, I worked for a while in the advertising department of a photographic company (Hanimex) and began to get a bit more interested.

So, given that I started my working life in the advertising business, the trigger wouldn’t be any different in the digital age at all.

2. Photography is often described as a mixture of art and science. It’s also a medium. How has digital technology altered the way these elements combine to produce what we think of as ‘photography’? Has technology altered that balance?

I must admit to being slightly confused by this particular question.  All those adjectives may apply plus several more.  I can’t see that digital technology has changed that.  Obviously it’s possible for anyone to take a decent photograph nowadays, even on the most rudimentary of cameras.  Or sometimes not even camera but a camera phone or even a personal organiser.  But there is still plenty of craft to it if you want there to be.  And technically there are far more software tools at one’s disposal than there ever were analogue ones.  I don’t think the balance is altered much but there’s far more choice.

3. Prior to the introduction of digital, how much did the equipment you used change over the years? How has digital changed the way you use equipment? How would today’s technology, if you could have used it earlier, have changed your relationship with photography?

Pre-digital my equipment changed very little.  I started off using a Nikkormat and ended up using, mostly, Nikon FM’s.  When I had a job that required me to shoot fast, I’d go for a Nikon that I could fit a motor drive to or one with an integral motor drive, like the F4.  If I was doing a studio shoot, my mainstay for the best part of 30 years was an RB67.  In 2005 I bought my first digital camera and I’ve hardly shot a frame of film since.

It’s much harder to say exactly how the digital age has changed the way I actually use my equipment because, of course, it’s different equipment.  I don’t bother with using a light meter any more, that’s the main difference.  I was never a photographer that used a lot of equipment anyway and I suppose I use even less now.  I was never really at home in the studio and other than a camera my favourite piece of equipment, if one could characterise it as such, is the sun.

Where digital has made an absolutely huge difference to me is in my quality of life.  And this includes a digital camera’s ability to give instant results – which you can examine in detail on a computer whilst the shoot is still in progress, if you wish.  You may say well “what about using Polaroids?” –  I did and it was seldom 100% satisfactory because of the critical aspect of ambient temperature.

And when I think about all the wasted time and expense of having clip tests made prior to getting the bulk of my colour film processed, I think I must have been mad.  Plus whenever I did a shoot in a country where there were no professional photography labs, or they were inaccessible, I had the constant worry of whether my exposures were right and the added worry of getting the film back to the UK safely.  There often used to be arguments at the airport x-ray counter and I was once, coming back from Senegal, thrown off a flight after refusing to let them put my film through a particularly old-fashioned looking x-ray machine (my hold baggage had already been loaded).  I don’t miss those days at all.

Therefore the digital age has probably added several years to my life expectancy.


4. How would photography’s great pioneers have embraced and utilised today’s technology? Might Ansel Adams be using software to stitch together panoramas of Yosemite? Would Garry Winogrand be using an iPhone? Would Eadweard Muybridge be experimenting with HDR?

Well I can’t see why Muybridge would be especially interested in HDR, he’d be more likely to be using a very high speed film camera surely? For HDR Ansel Adams would be the man and I believe he wrote about being eager to embrace all the coming technologies.  I’m sure he’d be stitching together panoramas too.

I feel sure Winogrand would have used an iPhone because it’s very light and easy to conceal.  He might even have pretended to be using it for something other than taking photos whilst stalking his subjects – mostly women.  I love Gary Winogrand but some of his photographs (for instance the ones taken in the Ivar Theatre) suggest that he wasn’t necessarily always thinking about the art.

5. In some ways, digital seems to have ‘won out’ over film. Digital photography is everywhere, while companies such as Nikon and Fuji are discontinuing some of their films and film cameras. Is this process irreversible? Should we care?

I think it would be more correct to say that camera companies have discontinued ‘most’ or ‘all of’ their film cameras rather than ‘some’.  Would that it were only ‘some’.  There is only one film camera currently listed on the Nikon UK website.

I would imagine that this process is irreversible because the camera market is now geared toward the occasional, amateur, and semi-pro market.  It’s becoming harder and harder these days to earn a living as a professional photographer and the number of them that are left don’t represent a big enough market sector.

Whether we should care or not, I don’t know.  I don’t particularly care myself.  As with all the technologies that have had their day, they will always have their adherents.  Just as there are still people riding penny-farthings and lovingly rebuilding and driving steam engines. And I think there are even some people who still communicate via short wave radio.  Good for them I say, to each his own.

6. Are there some qualities or aspects of film photography which digital will never be able to replicate or replace? If so, will these aspects of photography die with film?

Possibly.  And there are certainly some styles and working methods that are hard to replicate.  Lith printing on Oriental Seagull paper was a style that was popular for a while and which can’t, as far as I know, be decently replicated digitally.

Not that it is necessarily missed but the use of the half filter was very popular in advertising photography in the ’70s and ’80s.  It was a very, very unsubtle effect.  In digital, if you want to do the same thing you can be as subtle as you wish and no one ever need know that you’ve done anything.

And because cheaply produced zoom lenses, with fairly small maximum apertures, are so prevalent in a lot of amateur photography in the digital age, you see far less shallow depth of field work nowadays than you used to.  More’s the pity.

7. Will the ‘camera’, as we (still) think of it, even remain as a distinct device? Or will ‘camera’ become just one of a plethora of multimedia features people expect to find on any number of hybrid consumer appliances?

As of June this year, the most popular camera used on Flickr is now the iPhone 4.  So I would have to say that the rise of the hybrid consumer appliance will probably continue.  But there will probably always be serious cameras, for serious users, of some sort.

8. A few years back, Magnum photographer Eliott Erwitt was quoted as saying: “Digital manipulation kills photography. It’s enemy number one.” He also disdained digital in general, for its ability to produce “an image without effort”. To what extent would you agree or disagree with these sentiments?

I don’t agree I’m afraid.  Ever since there’s been photography, photographers have manipulated things in ways the viewer might not realise.  I think everyone agrees that digital manipulation of news photographs is a bad thing.  But who with any sense would do that?  Also stretching bodies to make celebrities look thinner is highly dubious and it almost always looks wrong.  But what about taking a hair or bit of unseen fluff out of a fashion photograph?  Or removing a zit that a model probably only ever had on the day of the photograph?

Eliott Erwitt, in particular, might have benefited from a digital camera.  And I can’t see what effort has to do with it.  The key is either the idea or an ability to visualise the photograph that you are about to take.  Neither of which would be effected one iota whether digital or analogue.

9. We’re all thoroughly weary of the ‘fix it in Photoshop’ approach. But defenders of digital post-processing often say, “Well, it only does what you used to do in the darkroom.” Is this a valid argument?

In my view, yes.  But then I’m not thoroughly weary of the ‘fix it in Photoshop’ approach.  For me it’s whatever works.

Besides, the ability to dodge and burn in darkroom printing was something that not everyone did very well.  If you look at some very famous pre-digital images you will often see really ham-fisted dodging and burning.  Or masking or bleaching.  Some of it seemed to look okay at the time but maybe, back then, we just didn’t know any better.  Nowadays, some of it looks awful.  Photoshop has shown us all how it should be done and brought all those darkroom techniques that took years to learn within the reach of everyone.

This isn’t a defence of bad Photoshopping, far from it.  My view is if you can see what’s been done, it’s bad.

10. For how much longer will the general conception of ‘photography’ refer exclusively to static, two-dimensional images? Imminently, 3D is looming, and ‘convergence’ – meaning not just the ability of modern DSLR’s to capture high-definition video, but the compulsion to make use of that functionality – is a current buzzword. Does this trend – photographers becoming film-makers, and vice versa – ignore the important divisions between static and moving images?

Personally I don’t see how anyone can be good at both disciplines simultaneously.  I think it’s a right brain, left brain thing.  Or maybe some people can be good at both but not great?  In the early ’90s I briefly tried to make some films myself but I quickly realised that it wasn’t for me.  In order for me to do anything interesting, I realised I was going to have to place my own personality into the equation, centre stage as it were.  In stills, I can stand on the edge of things as a wistful observer.  That is a position I am far more comfortable with.

11. Cinema historian David Thomson, in his ‘Biographical Dictionary of Film’, wrote the following, regarding Marilyn Monroe: “She gave great still. She is funnier in stills, sexier, more mysterious, and protected against being. And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of media. For stills are more available to the imagination.” How much more of a contentious statement does that seem today?

Well I thoroughly disagree with David Thomson regarding Marilyn Monroe.  Many (heterosexual) young men may look at images of Monroe from the ’50s and ’60s and wonder what the fuss was all about.  You only have to see a clip of her in action (in a film like ‘Niagara’, or ‘The Seven Year Itch’) to immediately get it, in my view.  Often braless and almost chubby by today’s standards, she moved through her scenes with a tangible sexuality like no other, before or since.

I suppose I do agree about the “available to the imagination” part.  Just not in regard to Monroe.  I think a static image can still have more power than a moving one because you can live with it and study it and let its whole being seep into you and fix itself into your brain.  I have many photographs on my walls.  Both my own and other people’s.   They’re all fractions of a second in people’s lives preserved forever, there’s a real power in that aspect.

Born 1950 in Chiswick, West London, Derek Ridgers lives and works in London. He studied at Ealing Art School from 1967 to 1971 and then spent ten years as an advertising agency art director.  He became a freelance photographer in 1981 and has since worked for, among others, The Face, Time Out, Sunday Telegraph, NME, The Independent on Sunday and Loaded.  He now runs the Derek Ridgers Archive.


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3 comments to Future of Photography Q&A No.4 – Derek Ridgers

  1. [...] ➢ Read the full Ridgers interview at Oomska The snapper snapped: Derek Ridgers at last December’s party at the Beat Route reincarnation to launch somebody else’s photobook We Can Be Heroes. Snapped by Sandro Martini [...]

  2. [...] Ridgers was recently interviewed by Oomska on the future of photography, the fourth in (so far) a five part series so far includes Ed Swinden,, George Plemper, Steve [...]

  3. [...] >> Go to Part 4 – Derek Ridgers Q&A [...]

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