A Photographers Interview with Chris Brock

Please tell us about yourself as a person and as a photographer.  Where did you grow up and what sparked your desire to photograph?   Were you active with the photography department in high school?  Where are you living now?

I was born and bred in Reading, which is a town about 40 miles west of London, England, best known for its music festival, and as a place where Oscar Wilde and Stacy Keach were sent to prison.

I always took photographs ever since I was a youngster, but despite this I never thought about photography as a career, even though now it seems like it would have been an obvious choice. Instead I ended up working as a journalist for eight years, in London and in New York, thinking it was the creative outlet that I was looking for. But it wasn’t and it was only when I got frustrated with journalism that something clicked – I just wish it had clicked years earlier.

We didn’t have a photography department at our school. I guess many schools don’t see it as a serious subject, although for me I can’t think of anything more important in my life, apart from my family. Now I live in South London, working fulltime as a commercial portrait photographer – and I love it!

Can you describe the defining moment or image that made you want to become a photographer?

There are lots of defining moments that lead me to becoming a freelance photographer. The last time I got shouted at by my boss; that time I was on holiday with my friends and truly discovered what “good light” actually meant; the moment that I finally understood how aperture and shutter speed related to each other.

Probably, though, the real defining moment was when my father gave me a decent camera for my birthday. He’d always been interested in cameras as objects, but never got into photography. He died a couple of years ago, and I like to think that he’d be proud of the decision I made to go down this route.

© Chris Brock

What was the first camera you ever owned and how did you come across it?  Was it a hand-me-down, purchased at a garage sale, found on the side of the road?

I’ve had an array of cameras over the years, starting with a Kodak Instamatic that I’d begged my mum to buy for me from a jumble sale when I was probably less than ten years old.

I was always a curious youngster so couldn’t resist taking the Instamatic to pieces to find out how it worked. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to put it back together again and it remained in bits for the rest of its days. After that I progressed to a Kodak disk camera (remember those?).

I’ve got quite a collection of old cameras now, as I’m sure many photographers have, and it continues to grow. The collection isn’t worth anything really, but I love these objects and can only wonder about the special memories and moments they’ve captured. Just the other day I picked up an old Instamatic 25, and the memories came flooding back.

What was your first paid photography job?  Did you enjoy it?  Were you scared?  Did you make any mistakes?

My first job was photographing two schools for a brochure. I was commissioned by the publishing company I had quit just the day before, so clearly they had confidence in my abilities – either that or I was cheaper than any of the other photographers on their roster.

I wasn’t scared, mainly because it was a full two days of shooting, so I knew that even if I took some bad pictures, there would be enough good ones to make up for it. Also, one of the first things that I was taught when I studied photography was that you must always appear confident. Even if everything is going wrong through the viewfinder, the client doesn’t need to know, as long as you keep up appearances. This gives you the freedom to rectify any problems, and deliver good results, and no one is any the wiser.

Yes I made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes at every shoot I’ve ever done, and will continue to make mistakes at every shoot until the day I die. I think creative people are perfectionists – there will always be something that we think we could do differently or better, given the same situation again. Though while these are mistakes to us, they may be perfectly acceptable – even happy accidents – for others.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Fortunately I’ve never done anything too devastating (touch wood!). The worst situation came from not extracting a clear enough brief from a client. I shot some portraits that I was really happy with, against an almost perfectly white background, and was convinced that the client would be over the moon. Instead they came back to me, saying “we can’t use anything on a white background – I thought we made this clear in the brief”. Fortunately, I’d taken the time to shoot some other photos in a different environment which did the trick, but weren’t nearly as good.

© Chris BrockI did learn an important lesson from this, though. The more information you can get from the client, the better. In fact I do my best work when there is a clear vision of what is required from the very beginning – whether that’s my vision or the client’s.

I have done a few shoots that I’ve come away from feeling disappointed with. In most cases this is because I’ve not thrown myself into it with all my energy and enthusiasm, and I think that comes across in the pictures. The last time that happened, I promised myself that it would never happen again.

How did you decide to make photography more than a hobby?  If photography is your full time job, how did you make that decision?  What was your backup plan if the photography career didn’t take off?  Any regrets?  If you are not a full time photographer, what is stopping you?  What is your full time job?  Any plans to become a full time photographer in the future?

I am a full time photographer, and I love it. The money is terrible, the hours can be horrific, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Why? Because it makes me happy – and that’s what it’s all about.

The decision came about when my father died. I’m not one for sentimental stories, but I was in a job that was making me really miserable and I couldn’t see a way out. It was affecting every aspect of my life, and I was in a pretty dire place.

Then my dad had a stroke, and was in a barely conscious state in hospital. One day I was sat next to his bed feeling pretty sad, and one of his former work colleagues come to visit and, looking at my dad, said to me “you’ve got to make the most of every day, haven’t you.”

That’s so true and it really struck a chord with me. You only get one life, and one chance to make the most of it. And if you spend your life doing something that doesn’t make you happy, then you’re doing it wrong.

YOU are the boss of you. Nobody else is. No one can tell you what you can and can’t do. That’s your decision to make and yours alone. After that moment, I realized that if I wanted to give up my job and do something else, then no one could stop me.

I have no regrets, and I didn’t have a backup plan. I had no doubts that it would work out, because it felt right. And so what if it hadn’t worked out – I’d just go and do something else.

Life really can be that simple sometimes.

What was the last straw, the final decision maker to make you go digital? What do you miss about film?

I still use film, but mainly for my own personal projects. Digital is great because it makes things so convenient and so fast. Clients love this because I can turn round images much faster – and it keeps costs down a great deal.

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for a client? What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for yourself?

For many of my jobs I don’t get a chance to do a test shoot, and often I won’t know what to expect until I get there on the day and need to get shooting quickly. That’s half the fun sometimes, but it can create a bit of pressure.

I think the real hardest part of the job for me is that period of time between sending the finished images to the client, and getting their feedback. There’s always that self-doubt, where you think “I hope they’re happy with them.”

The hardest part of the job when shooting for myself really comes down to resourcing and planning. When I shoot for myself, I don’t have any budget to speak of, so that makes things like finding locations difficult, and so you’re always challenged to find a workaround.

Do you try to help others learn about photography?  If so, please explain how.

I’m involved at the college where I studied photography, and help the next lot of students learn what it’s all about. This can be people with a genuine interest, youngsters with no interest at all who’ve been sent along by their parents or by their school, or people who just want to know more about photography. We also do workshops for homeless and disadvantaged people, to show them some of the option available to them in life.

© Chris Brock

What and/or who inspires you in life and photography and why?

Inspiration is all around us all the time – we’ve just got to be in the right frame of mind to see it, and I think that’s the hardest par. I get a lot of inspiration from illustrators and movie-makers, which is probably why some of my work has a slightly dark edge to it. I love Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock, but I also love the visual style of Michael Mann, Michel Gondry and, perhaps most of all Chris Cunningham – his work with Aphex Twin in particular amazes me.

I like to try and create a mood and a feeling in my pictures, and I think this is something that all these artists do incredibly well. There’s always a sense of something going on, even if the story itself isn’t apparent.

I spend a lot of time looking at other photographers’ work for inspiration, too. There are so many to mention, but I love the work of Chase Jarvis, Joey Lawrence, Jacques-Henri Lartique, Jill Greenberg, Annie Liebovitz, and Mario Testino.  I love Charlie White and his monsters. I can’t get enough of David LaChapelle or Albert Watson. Gregory Crewdson is a true master of creating atmosphere.

The list goes on, and on, and on…

Do you consider yourself an artist first before thinking about the job ahead of you?

It depends on the job, but I always try and insert a bit of myself into everything I do. Whether that means going totally off-brief at the end of the shoot and doing something that is just my style, or whether I’m given total freedom to do my own thing from the start, I always try to remember that I’m a creative, not a technician.

What is the best advice you would give a photographer just starting out?

Do it for yourself, and never stop doing it for yourself. There will be times, particularly when you’re starting out, that you’ll have to do jobs that’ll leave you saying to yourself “this isn’t why I got into photography”. But if you keep doing work for yourself, whether it’s paid work, or just something you’re doing in your own time in between client stuff, eventually you’ll develop a style that’s all your own, and you’ll keep yourself motivated and job-satisfaction will remain high.

And, over time, people will start coming to you because they like your particularly style of photography, rather than just because they need “a photographer”.

The key to creativity is…

Doing it for yourself. Using your imagination to create a vision, and working out how to realise that vision. Remember, it’s not a job. It’s something you’re passionate about.

© Chris BrockWhat is your favorite camera that you have used or owned?  What camera and lens combination do you use most of the time when photographing for a client?  What about when photographing for yourself?

My favourite camera has to be my old Rolleiflex TLR. It’s a thing of beauty and sometimes I just love to stare at it as it sits on the shelf in my office. Unfortunately, though, that’s where it spends most of its time, as I do most of my shooting with my EOS 5D, which is my workhorse.

My lenses depend on the conditions I find myself in. A lot of my client work takes place in quite confined spaces, so I tend to dig out my old 22-55mm, which gives me a good wide angle if I can’t back up from my subject enough. Generally, though, I love to use my 50mm or my 85mm lenses. I just love the colour tones that I get from them, and the flexibility with depth of field that they give me.

I don’t really keep up with all the developments that are happening on the technology side of things though. It seems like Nikon and Canon are bringing out new cameras and lenses every week at the moment, and you can even do things like shoot video and take pictures at crazy ISO settings. For me, it’s whatever works, and whatever allows me to create what I had in mind. The gear comes second to that.

What is your favorite time of day to shoot outdoors?

I must admit I prefer to work indoors, so I’ve got more control over all the variables (particularly wind, which has sent more than my fair share of umbrellas and soft-boxes flying off into ditches and streams). Ideally, though, I like to shoot in late afternoon or early evening – particularly in the Spring or Autumn. That soft sideways light is great to work with.

How do you deal with rejection of your work, losing a job, not making a sale or a negative comment?

I don’t have a problem with rejection – that is something that I learned early on when I was a journalist, and ultimately when doing something for a corporate client you are producing a product and can’t get too precious about it.

In terms of negative comments or criticism, I don’t mind it if it’s constructive or coming from a source that I respect. The only problem with the photographic “community” is that there are lots of big egos floating about who like to throw their weight around, but when you look at their work you wonder what their “expertise” is really based on. I’d rather try to make a name for myself through the work I do, rather than trying to be a pundit, or a self-styled photography guru.

Do you prefer RAW or JPG and why?  If RAW, would you prefer a system that uses the DNG RAW format?

Like I said, I’m not really big on the technology side of things, although I always shoot RAW. It just gives me that little bit more control over the finished images when it comes to editing. I worked with DNG once early on when I borrowed a 40D for a month. Back then it wasn’t massively supported, and was actually more of a hindrance than a help.

How do you protect your camera when not in use?  When traveling?  When on the way to a job? Any specific brands you love more than others?

I tend to keep everything stored away in a huge Lowepro bag, locked in a secure cabinet when I’m not using it. When I’m traveling my camera bag is never out of my sight, and generally I have an arm or a leg looped through one of the straps – just in case. I’m paranoid about security, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. I’m not too bothered about brands, although I do have quite a few Lowepro bags, and a couple of Crumplers for when I want to be particularly trendy.

Do you clean the CCD yourself or send it away somewhere?  If you send it away, where to and how much does it cost?

I clean my gear myself, with the greatest of care. I have a Giotto rocket blower which is great for getting rid of dust, and then for a thorough clean I use a wet swab system. I tend to avoid compressed air systems, because I’ve heard that they can leave a residue – although I’m not sure if that’s true or not.

What music sparks your creativity?  Do you listen to that when shooting a job?  Do you listen to music at all?  Do you listen to what the client likes?

I don’t often use music when I’m shooting as often I’m working from a picture in my head and don’t want to be distracted. When I’m post-processing, though, I like something up-tempo to keep me moving along. Techno is great for getting a job done!

What is your favorite band? Movie?  Book?  Museum? Website? Who is your favorite photographer?  Artist?

My favourite museum is the National Portrait Gallery in London, followed by the Photographer’s Gallery. In terms of artists and photographers, I think I’ve already mentioned a few above. Chase Jarvis is great for his commercial work, his words of wisdom and his business acumen.  Charlie White has a great imagination, and both David LaChapelle and Gregory Crewdson are both amazing at setting the mood – just like the artist Edward Hopper.

In terms of books, well I don’t have a favourite as such, but Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward is amazing because it’s so far out there, and it requires you to really call on your imagination to set the scene.

© Chris Brock

What is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?

My favourite photo changes almost constantly. I did a shoot in a launderette that came together exactly as I pictured it in my head, and for that reason it’s high up on the list. There is also a photograph I took of legendary British MP Denis Healey, which is really solemn and thoughtful. People have said that it captured his solemnity perfectly, but in actual fact he was joking around and having a great laugh in between shots, so that has to be one of my faves too.

What is your favorite photograph from another photographer?

Right now I’m loving a shot of Nicole Kidman that was taken my Annie Liebovitz. She’s standing on stage, and the light is catching her dress in a magical way. Conversely, there’s a shot by Charlie White of a huge monster chasing Japanese school kids through their cafeteria which is just nuts – I love it!

Is there something you always ask yourself or think just before you push the shutter button?

This isn’t a particularly inspired answer, but I always ask myself “how does this look?” This can go one of two ways. If I can say “yeah, it looks good” then I know I’m onto a winner. But if I say “meh!” then I know I need to try something else. Generally this question is asked in the context of what my overall vision is, though, so I’m already applying any post processing that I might be planning on doing, and also all of the exposure settings, the light, the mood I’m trying to create etc.

If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead? What new thing would you try?

I just want to create beautiful images that tell a story or capture a mood. I want my pictures to be like movies, but in a single frame. I think most of all I want the viewer to come away with questions like “what just happened here?” or “what’s going through the model’s mind at this moment?” Whether that’s because it’s a completely surreal scene that could never happen in real life, or because of the expression on the model’s face, I want to try and capture more in the picture than just the picture itself.

Do you find yourself always looking at the World wondering how it would look as a photograph?

I’m sure many photographers do, but I don’t really. The world is moving, and the context is constantly changing. You often find that you see something that you would like to have captured, but by freezing it in a single frame it might lose all meaning. But I do sometimes yearn to be able to capture the beauty of, for example, a wonderful, cloud-filled sky, or the wonder of a special moment in someone’s life, but I know that a photograph could never do it justice.

If you could only shoot one thing over and over, what would it be?

People. I love photographing people. Particularly men, whose faces seem to tell much more of a story than women. Women are always trying to hide their lines and the creases on their faces, but for men you can almost read their whole biography in the crags and crevices of their skin. Samuel Beckett is a perfect example of this.

Although, that said, I would love to photograph Lilly Cole over and over and over. She’s really beautiful in an almost alien kind of way.

When you meet someone for the first time and they find out that you’re a photographer what kind of questions do you get from them relating to photography?  What is the strangest question you’ve been asked from someone you just meet for the first time?

“Photographer” is such a broad term that it can take some explaining for people to understand what it is that I actually do. The biggest problem I have is with people trying to sell me space in the Yellow Pages, or search engine optimization and they can’t understand why I’m just not interested. They think “photographer” and immediately think of weddings, family portraits and babies. Trying to tell them that’s not what I do can be like banging your head against a wall, so I usually end up putting the phone down on them.

When I meet people face to face, they often ask me what the most glamorous shoot I’ve done was, expecting me to come out with the name of a celebrity or something like that. When I tell them it was probably a campaign I did for Ford, or a shoot I did in the British Houses of Parliament, they often end up with a quizzical look on their face.

I did get an email from a gentleman asking me to photograph his wife. He went into great detail about what an amazing body she had, and how great her boobs were. He wanted some photos of her “for their personal enjoyment.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but it gave me the creeps so I politely advised him to try a different photographer.

© Chris Brock

Do you prefer big lighting, a strobist style lighting or mostly natural light?

At the moment I prefer big lighting, just because I can do so much with it. But it has major drawbacks, mainly because I generally shoot on location, and these things aren’t particularly portable. So I’m about to move into the strobist style, mostly for the sake of convenience. I just hope I’m making the right decision!

What radio sync system do you prefer? (PocketWizard, Radiopopper, etc)

I’m not really into the gear too much, so I generally use cheap Radiopopper knock-offs from Hong Kong. They’re cheap and cheerful, but they do the job. I do tend to think that photographers get ripped off quite horrendously. For example, I bought some photography clamps from a professional camera store and they were something like £12 for two. I saw exactly the same product in a hardware store for £2. Similarly, £300 for PocketWizards, or many thousands of pounds for battery packs to take your light outdoors just seems like profiteering to me.

What was the most challenging photography job you ever had?

One of the most challenging jobs I ever had was, strangely enough, photographing a cat. At first glance, the cat was the perfect model. I had her lined up in the viewfinder as she sat, perfectly posed. And just as I was about to take the picture, off she’d trot. I spent about three hours following that cat around the house, and took about 200 shots just to get the one that worked. And it was worth the effort.

What do you do to challenge yourself?

I’m always looking to try new things with only minimal resources. I see how far I can push it while still producing convincing work. And I keep learning. I’m always picking up hints and tips from every source possible. By speaking to others, reading books, going to workshops, and generally keeping my eyes and ears open. Often new ideas come together perfectly, and sometimes they don’t. But if they don’t, I’ve still learned from the process, so it was never a complete waste of time.

Any projects you are working on currently?  Anything planned for the future?

I am working on a couple of projects at the moment, but I can’t really go into too much detail right now. Needless to say one has a futuristic sci-fi element to it, and another one is based on Britain’s religious diversity. You’ll have to wait and see!

For someone really considering a major life change is it worth it to quit an office job with a fixed salary for freelance photography?  Any advice on getting started?

Firstly, you should ask yourself, what have you got to lose? I didn’t have anything to lose when I quit and went solo – I didn’t have a mortgage, no wife and kids to support, so really it just came down to whether I wanted to be happy or being unhappy for the rest of my life. It was a no-brainer.

Secondly, ask yourself, what do you want to get out of it? Can you get what you want from photography without quitting your day job? Could you build up your photography business while still at work, until you’re ready to go it alone?

Thirdly – and you have to be really honest about this – are you passionate about photography? If you eat, sleep and dream about taking pictures, then go for it. If not, then maybe becoming a full-time photographer isn’t the job for you.

Anything you would like to add for our readers?

For me, photography is the greatest thing in the world. It’s my true love, and you can do wonderful things with it. If I’m not taking pictures, I’m looking at them, or thinking about them. I hope that it can be the same for everyone else as I feel I’ve found something magical and special. There is something like this for everyone out there – whether it’s photography, writing, medicine or even maths! And you’ll know if you’ve found it. But once you’ve found it, grab hold of it and don’t let it go!!

View more photographs by Chris Brock: chrisbrock.co.uktwitter.com/chrisbrockphoto, flickr.com/photos/cjmbrock

Thank you for reading the interview. This interview was presented to the photographer with questions asked by me and submissions from other photographers. The photographer is asked to answer only what he/she is comfortable with. If you would like to contribute to future interviews, please submit your your questions to me on Twitter, Facebook or on the Interview intro blog post, What would you ask a photographer?. Thank you for reading and enjoy the interview.  …………………………..

Some questions supplied from the following Twitter users:
@pjtaylorphoto, @ishootinraw, @donkeymaster, @GrfxGuru

Some questions supplied from the following Facebook users:
Brian Walter, Faylin Myhre, Leslie DeLorean, Patrick Connor

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