Ahead of his new Caught by the River column in 2018, former Buzzcocks member and photographer John Maher answers some questions put to him by Brian David Stevens
Hi John, I expect a lot of CBTR readers will be familiar with your previous life as the original drummer with Buzzcocks, but maybe haven’t seen your photography. Let’s change that. What was the first picture you took that really interested you, one that maybe opened the door to the work you’re doing now?
I began experimenting with long exposure night photography in 2009. That’s the point when I got into photography seriously. With exposure times running to several minutes, you’re well outside the realms of AUTO mode, so you’ve got to figure out how to use the camera’s manual settings if you’re expecting good quality images. There was an initial novelty factor when viewing my first night photos. The final image comes as a surprise because the camera records the scene differently to what I saw while the shutter was open. With practice, I got to the point where I could pre-visualise how I wanted the picture to look and set about lighting the scene to produce the result I was aiming for. This photo of an old fishing boat is one of my favourites from that period. It was taken a couple of months after I first started venturing out at night with the camera. It was around midnight, within a couple of days of a full moon. I locked the shutter open for three minutes, during which time I painted some light on to the side of the boat. Then I climbed aboard and lit the cabin with a red gel held over an LED torch.
What other photographers influenced you? Is there a particular picture that sicks in your mind?
It was American photographer called Troy Paiva who inspired me to investigate night photography. I saw him interviewed on a Sky Arts documentary. He was shooting old diners, abandoned buildings and wrecked cars in California, Arizona and Nevada. I thought his photos were amazing. At the time I had no idea how it was done but I was intrigued enough to buy a copy of his book, Night Vision. I was especially impressed to discover he was using relatively low-tech equipment. There’s not one particular image of his that comes to mind, but if you check out his work you’ll soon get a feel for what he’s about. Troy uses a lot of coloured light in his photos – it’s his signature look and has gone on to be much copied. You can clearly see that influence in my photo of the fishing boat above. My style has evolved since then. Now I rarely use coloured light in my night photos but those early experiments taught me a lot about using additional light and how it can enhance an image.
There was another American photographer on the same TV series who also inspired me, but in a different way. I saw Michael Eastman using a hybrid mix of analogue and digital technology to produce his ‘Vanishing America’ images, and that prompted me to use a large format film camera for some of the abandoned houses I photographed as part of the Nobody’s Home project. I shot the images on 5″ x 4″ colour film, then had the negatives scanned at high resolution, effectively turning the negative into a giant digital sensor. That allowed me to make large, high resolution prints, up to two metres wide, for the Nobody’s Home exhibition. It was a real eye-opener to see the level of detail and dynamic range captured within those large format negatives. Film is most definitely not dead! I could have got similar results with a digital medium format camera but my budget doesn’t stretch to £40k plus for the necessary equipment. Instead, I bought a 1960s large format monorail camera on ebay for £210! Yes, the film’s not cheap (around £50 for 10 sheets), plus processing and scanning etc, but the time and effort were well worth it.
What’s the last picture you took, and what series is it from? How do you work on projects these days?
The last picture I took was of an eco-housing project in Findhorn, Moray. I was commissioned by the designers and builders to photograph several of the houses they’ve built for a housing trust, the most recent being a block of six rent controlled one bed apartments. (More info & pics here)
I’ve also recently embarked on a new personal project – my first since Nobody’s Home. WORK: Outer Hebrides features portraits of people who live and work in the Outer Hebrides. It’s something I’ve had in mind for a couple of years but it’s taken me a while to settle on how I wanted to approach it, both technically and visually. The goal is to capture people doing ordinary things in an extraordinary place. I’m taking some of what I’ve learned from using multiple light sources in my long exposure night images and adapting that to day time use. I’m having to use powerful strobe lights – the kind of equipment you’d more often see in a studio. I work solo, without assistants, so some of these shots can be a challenge to set up lighting-wise, but the results are worth the effort. One of my favourites so far is this photo of Iain the bin man. The set up was done totally on the fly. I had to work quickly because I was interrupting his working day. From working out where to park the bin wagon, deciding on the composition, adjusting the lighting etc to completing the shot took no more than five minutes. I like the end result and more importantly, so does Iain!
Show us a picture that says ‘Home’ to you, and tell us about it
‘Home’ has a different meaning for me than it does for many of the islanders. They have an attachment to where they come from that many people born in remote rural locations share; which is understandable when you learn family connections with a particular area often go back several generations. ‘Home’ for me is the place I live, whereas to an islander, the word ‘Home’ has a deeper meaning. That’s something I began to understand more through the contacts I made when the images from Nobody’s Home became more widely known. So when you ask for a picture that says ‘Home’ to me, I’m probably coming up with a mix of what appeals to me visually, plus how the meaning of the word has changed for me since I moved here. The photo I’ve chosen is one of my favourites from 2017. I took it on the island of Vatersay, the southernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. As with many of my photos, I used additional light but rather than light the exterior, I hit on the idea of having all the light emanate from the interior of the house – imagining how it might have been when it was still intact and occupied i.e a ‘Home’.
Your project Nobody’s Home, seems the opposite of ‘Home’ could you show us a picture from the series and explain the project?
One of the most popular images from Nobody’s Home is ‘Bedroom and Chapel’. It’s the only house on the Isle of Ensay. In contrast to all of the other houses featured in the exhibition, this was quite a grand building in its day. You can see the bell pull on the wall that rings through to the servants’ quarters. There aren’t as many personal belongings in this shot compared to many of the others in Nobody’s Home but there’s something appealing about the faded grandeur. While I was looking around the house, this was an obvious candidate for a photo. There’s the voyeuristic feeling of pushing the door open and peering into the room, while also looking outside, through the window to the small chapel. It was one of those lucky situations where the picture composed itself.
In more general terms, the concept behind Nobody’s Home came about almost by accident. As I mentioned earlier, I first got seriously into photography by shooting long exposures at night. Sometimes I ventured inside buildings so I could light the interiors. On one occasion I noticed several personal belongings had been left behind. I went back during daylight hours to investigate further. Photo opportunities for my night shots were few and far between, being largely weather-dependent. I was restricted to working a couple of days either side of the full moon and needed relatively clear skies. And at our northerly latitude, the long summer days ruled out the months of May to August because it doesn’t get dark enough to achieve the kind of look I was after. So shooting abandoned interiors during daylight hours was an opportunity to spend more time behind the camera. What appealed to me was the almost Marie-Celeste type atmosphere in many of the houses. Although they hadn’t been occupied for years, or even decades, you still had a sense they were family homes by virtue of what had been left behind by the inhabitants. It became addictive, searching for more and more properties that had a story to tell.
As the pictures became more widely known, media interest started to grow and the whole thing took on a life of its own. (More info here)
How does the landscape you find yourself living in affect your photography; how much influence do you draw from it?
The Hebridean landscape plays a huge part in what I do, but I tend to use it as a backdrop rather than the main subject. So many of the images you see of the Hebrides portray the place as an uninhabited paradise of beautiful beaches, sunsets and crystal blue seas. Many of those pretty images contain zero evidence of human habitation. What interests me about a remote place like this is the fact people live here. What goes on? What do they do? I want to look behind the image on the postcard and learn more about the people and the place where I live. Maybe my photographs are a way of sharing that.