Dave has been around the world with his camera in hand, but our lovely city of London remains one of his favourite places to photograph. Another favourite involves wild mountain gorillas! In his interview below, Dave gives us his best advice for first time visitors to London looking to photograph the city as a Londoner would see it, shares some of his favourite London restaurants and his best London discovery.
LLO: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
DG: I was born the Brackley, Northamptonshire, but spent my childhood and teenage years in a little village called Waddesdon, in Buckinghamshire. It’ll be well-known to fans of the National Trust, as its home to the famous Waddesdon Manor, a 19th Century stately home and farming estate still owned by the Rothschild family but administered by the NT. Both my parents and grandparents worked for the Rothschild Estate – my parents were horticulturalists growing plants, trees and flowers for the home’s public grounds, the Rothschild’s private use and commercially. My grandfather was a dairy farmer. My parents, grandfather and my sister’s family all still live in the village.
I was awarded my Honours degree in Ecology and Environmental Biology from Oxford Brookes University in 2004, but I was always local to home. I was passionate about nature as a kid and my upbringing drew me into the study of the natural world.
I always had a fascination with London; I was close enough that I was able to visit but was determined to base myself here. When I was small I had this notion of a distant, exotic metropolis and I’d get up at 4am so I could go with my Dad delivering plants in his lorry. I’ve lived just outside London in Surrey since I graduated in 2004 and I’ve had my ‘day job’ in Bloomsbury for a few years.
LLO: What was the role of photography in your family history and how did you become so interested personally?
DG: Before his job on the Estate my Dad was a Corporal in the RAF, where he was an official RAF photographer. He always explained it was a skilled job, and included active military and reconnaissance projects, engineering forensics and accident investigation, ceremonial and public relations work – basically anything that needed a camera. Although I never saw him in action (he retired from service three years before I was born) I did see some of his work. Interestingly he never really continued with photography but he always encouraged me and got me my first 35mm camera when I was eight.
My Great Uncle by marriage, Roy Sparks, began one of the first photographic processing companies in London. He established it soon after the War and ran it from his basement in Wandsworth, winding up in the late 1970s after mass commercial colour photography rendered his skills and technology obsolete. I always regretted that I never got to see the equipment, although my Dad said it was all very impressive!
My love of photography grew from a mix of ‘scientific’ observation and art. It was the form of art which I, as someone with a logical mind, could understand. The world is beautiful, and it took no stretch of the imagination to appreciate the beauty of the world around me in a simple photograph. This was independent of my family history, almost coincidental, although I was always encouraged.
LLO: Are you professionally trained as a photographer or self-taught? Do you find that your degree in Ecology and Environmental Biology influences your photography at all? If so, give us an example.
DG: I’m entirely self-taught, and I think I probably have some mannerisms and techniques which would make most professionals roll their eyes! I’ve always been an observational artist, focusing on great colours and compositions, or texture and light and not necessarily attempting to ‘interpret’ an image or create something conceptual from it. I have to say though that has started to come through naturally – I was always aware of the golden rules of photography and do try to consider them a bit more proactively now I’m attempting to take particular images.
I don’t think my education really had a honing impact on my techniques or my style. I’ve always had a fascination with the natural world, but conversely that manifests itself in different ways. My love of London is partly due to the mosaic of green and concrete – how in some instances urban development can enhance the world and is not always detrimental. Studying wildlife in particular gave me a very quick eye. I don’t miss a lot of things and I’m very observant of what’s going on around me.
I never set out to specifically be a wildlife or landscape photographer, although some of my most satisfying photography experiences have been in ‘wild’ situations. I also love urban photography but each subject matter has its own benefits and challenges. I’d one day love to submit a body of work to the Royal Photographic Society in an attempt to earn an LRPS.
LLO: You’ve been called a “postcard photographer”. What does that mean to you? Tell us a bit about your approach to your art.
DG: I never really knew whether that was meant as a compliment or a criticism, but it’s my style and I’m happy with my results. I was always open and honest about my style and my work – I’m not a conceptual or interpretive photographer. I take a picture of an object or a moment because it’s beautiful or interesting. While I think very carefully about composition and tone, I’m not trying to convey any other message.
While some may consider that to be ‘lazy’ photography, I receive appreciation from others. After all, a good image is evocative. People have looked at my work and explained that it reminded them of a memory or experience of their own – the “I wish I’d taken that” mentality, which is great. It’s connected with them in their own personal way, and that immediate unguarded reaction is better for me than someone attempting to interpret what I’m trying to express in an image.
I’m a bit of an impulsive photographer – I don’t often set out with a particular image or series in mind. I have my camera and I keep my eyes open. I don’t want to miss a thing and I’m very observant as a result. I look at clouds, shadows, shapes and forms everywhere I go. The sign of a passionate photographer is getting annoyed with yourself when you see something you know would make an amazing photograph and you don’t have your kit with you!
I’ve learned to hone that more now I am doing some work as a photographer, covering events, portraits and commissions. It requires you to focus, plan ahead and ensure you get the images established in your mind before committing to it. I find both aspects interesting, but the artistic side of my work will always been the part I’m most passionate about. I love seeing my work on peoples’ walls.
LLO: What’s in your camera kit?
DG: My camera kit is still fairly basic – I’ve only ever had the one digital camera, which I bought in 2008. Until then I was still using film. My last 35mm camera was a Nikon F75. I was a bit of a purist – anyone could take a decent image with a good enough digital camera, and I still think that’s true, but I also think it raises challenges by itself. You need to see things differently, think about and interpret the same image differently. Twenty people could take the same image of Big Ben for example, but what can you do with it to make it different?
My move to digital was reluctant, but practical. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep getting the images I wanted with a film camera – not least that I wasn’t able to see what I was taking – but also I couldn’t afford the financial costs of processing all my films. Although I have to say that some of my original 35mm have been digitised and are still among my favourites!
My current kit is a CANON EOS 400D DSLR 11mp with CANON EFS 18-55, CANON 50-200 and CANON EFS 18-200mm stabiliser lenses and an EOS Speedlite 270EX II Flash Unit. I also have a VELBON 347GB lightweight tripod. I’m currently saving for a new CANON EOS body.
I also have a SAMSUNG Galaxy EK-GC 100 16mp 21x 23mm ‘street camera’ which I try and carry around with me everywhere in an attempt to improve the ‘journalistic’ side of my work – taking those images that appear out of nowhere. I actually won the camera in a competition run by Time Out London in January of this year, and probably wouldn’t have considered having a non-DSLR for everyday use, although it’s a great piece of kit and convenient to carry around.
LLO: Do you have any advice for first time visitors to London who would like to photograph the city, but approach it in the way a Londoner would?
DG: Two simple suggestions – look up, and sit still.
While everyone wants to take pictures of landmark sites and the skyline, and you should (I still do!) it’s important to keep an eye out for the more subtle things that makes London fascinating. A prime example is Regent Street. Everyone walks along it at least once during their visit, but everyone looks down, or ahead of them. It’s all about the shopping and the crowds. But if you look up at the facades you realise you are walking down one of the most beautiful streets anywhere in the world. The colonnades and the massive sweeping layout of the street down to Piccadilly is stunning, and you can get some very good perspective shots.
Also, look for detail. Pay attention to the particulars of architecture, intricately planned gardens and squares and the meandering of the streets. London is made up of a web of little villages, and if you pay attention to that, it becomes apparent. Think of something you would like to focus on, and you’ll suddenly see it everywhere.
LLO: You’ve travelled quite a bit. What was your favourite destination to photograph and why? Least favourite and why?
DG: From an urban view, nowhere beats London. The mix of historical sites with gleaming new skyscrapers, the Thames, old winding streets and a vibrant cultural scene make it the best place to take urban images in the world. We don’t know how lucky we are to be here. A close second is New York, mainly due to the grandeur of the skyline and some great street perspectives.
But my favourite places overall have been ‘wild’ destinations. I was lucky enough to visit Rwanda in 2011 and the entire country is a gem – beautiful and green, with an amazing landscape. Best of all were the gorillas – I was able to get some amazing close-up and portrait shots of wild mountain gorillas during a two day trek into the Virunga Volcanoes. As a nature-lover, those moments will stay with me forever and some of my favourite images came from that trip. Another place that will stay in my head are the Iguazu Falls, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, which I visited in 2010. A series of 275 waterfalls over various levels across 2km of river, it’s a deeply visceral, moving experience just to stand amongst it all. It’s one of those places were photographs never quite do the scale and the sensation justice, but I was very happy with the images I came away with after a few days there.
As controversial as this may sound, my least favourite places are ‘other’ major European cities. London is far and away the best for photographers – I don’t even particularly like Paris. Crowded, grubby and monotone. I’m not a big fan of Rome (although I have some good images from there) or Madrid. They all seem to blend into that ‘you could be anywhere’ cliché and very few lack distinguishing features or a ‘vibrancy’, save from one or two landmark sites. If you’re looking for good portraiture or street scenes, they are all effectively the same, for the most part. The only places that appeal to me to return as a photographer are Budapest, which is an incredibly beautiful city, and Barcelona, for it’s almost New World style optimism mixed with some quiet European corners.
LLO: Most inspiring place to take your camera in London? Why?
DG: Without a doubt, Waterloo Bridge. It’s cliché I know, but the views from there are incredible, and it’s amazing how the same view can change each day, or even several times during the same day. I walk across it most days on the way to work, and it is still one of the most breathtaking urban views in the world. It’s dynamic, dramatic, busy and yet romantic – stand with your back to the traffic, facing either direction, and you can easily lose yourself in that moment.
The Thames is often overlooked I feel – ‘liquid history’ as they say, and any images which can incorporate the river always have a certain resonance to them.
I also love the heart of the City at weekends. How a bustling, vibrant place can suddenly become so quiet is fascinating. You can explore the tiny side-streets with great names, stand in the middle of the road (carefully!) and take great perspective and architectural images, and enjoy the mix of ancient and new. I’d recommend a Sunday afternoon walk from St. Paul’s, looping through Bank and Bishopsgate and then back down Fenchurch Street to Tower Bridge. Even the pubs are closed.
LLO: What’s your best London discovery?
DG: The ‘natural’ aspect of London fascinates me, and so I love to take the time to walk around the parks and open spaces. They’re well known to most people, but it’s always nice to find a little place all to yourself and spend time there. I also love the old London squares – my favourite is Bedford Square, tucked away between Bloomsbury and Euston.
I love walking along the Regent’s Canal too, and again although a lot of people know about it not many take the time to walk it – Little Venice is beautiful in the summer.
I’ve also recently been introduced to the beautiful residential areas around Pimlico and Victoria – it reminds me of some of the residential areas of New York or Scandinavia. My personal favourite is the ‘Checkerboard Estate’ (if you live around there you’ll know what I mean!), and I’m hoping to take my camera around there very soon!
I’m always amazed that even in the heart of a city of 9 million people you can still easily find some peace and quiet.
LLO: Give us your favourite London food and drink recommendations, away from the tourist trail.
DG: I am a huge foodie, as any of my friends will agree! I like a lot of the smaller venues that are scattered over town, where there are no reservations necessarily, but it’s worth the wait – my favourite of these is Spuntino, a little non-descript place on Rupert Street – amazing macaroni cheese, sliders and boiled eggs! It also has a sister Italian restaurant Polpo, on Beak Street.
On a sunny day, I love walking through Regent’s Park and stopping off at the Honest Sausage – some of the best bacon and sausage sandwiches in London!
Overall, however, my favourite restaurant in London at the moment is Duck & Waffle on the 38th floor of the Heron Tower in the City. Great food and amazing views, and a variable 24-hour menu, so you can enjoy the sunset or the sunrise from there! There are lots of places on my list to try though, so we’ll see how long it stays at the top.
I also strongly recommend everyone visits Bourbon Coffee, on the Charing Cross Road near Leicester Square station. Bourbon was founded by a Rwandan entrepreneur in Kigali as a place for businessmen and expats to enjoy a modern coffee shop environment in Rwanda. I visited several branches during my stay and last year a branch opened here in London, one of the first examples of expansion into the UK by a (non-South African) African business. Rwandan coffee is very good!
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