An interview with Steve Thornton.
A fully accredited AoP and NUJ award winning photojournalist and documentary photographer
By Loop Magazine
Life as a Photographer – Steve Thornton
What is your photography story – how did you get to be where you are now?
It’s been a ‘yo yo’ ride. Feast or famine. Still is in fact ! My grandad let me use his camera when I was about 10 to photograph our family picnics. 50 years later, I still remember taking them. Childhood has so many influences of what you see as a photographer in later years. It comes out in your style. It’s what you see quicker than other subjects, and are more in control when shooting them.
Having spent most of my life earning a living in the commercial world, my main focus now is personal projects. I have 2 running at the moment. One is called Fish Town, which I started 30 years ago of which I have now revived and am making a new exhibition, book and fine art print sales titled; FISH TOWN. The EU years. 1990 to 2020. The other is a project called 4SQ Miles. Both of these are published one this website. I have others in production too.
Which photographers influenced you and how?
Strangely, none really! I find looking at photographer books distracting. Although, I have to say the work by Webb, Salgado, McCurry, Avedon, Penn and Ami Vitale are my favourites.
How would you describe your personal style?
Documentary. I love to document things. Say for instance it’s a magazine feature for 6/7 pages on location. I pretty much know exactly how I’m going to shoot it before I arrive. A quick catch up with the art director or the writer (if he/she turns up) will confirm it and off I go. If the pictures are not coming together, I will stage the scene like a film director and let it play out. I find this works all the while when time is limited, and it doesn’t look at all staged. On a personal project, I’ve done the research, got the necessary access if needed, done the budgeting, then Im free to work on it without any stress. Either of the 2 above examples are the same photo style in the end. Keeping it as real as possible.
What motivates you to continue working aside from your economic needs?
I just love making images, working on personal projects. It’s like a drug. I’m always looking at light and shapes, it makes me nervous because something may happen, and I have no camera available. It’s a nightmare! Even going for a dog walk, I’m considering which camera and lens to take with me.
What is your strategy when approaching something you need to shoot?
Preparation and planning will make a good shoot production 70% of the time. The last 30% is energy, compassion and empathy. And, that bit of luck will make great images.
How and where do you find inspiration?
Books. Not photo books but; autobiographies by media personalities and noted journalists. And books by the likes of; Schwiebert, Hemingway, Attenborough, Darwin. Magazines such as; National Geographic, Newsweek, Time… All these give me inspiration to make images. Like I mentioned earlier. Photo books confuse my mind so I tend not to buy them.
How has having a digital darkroom changed the way you shoot?
It hasn’t changed the way I shoot at all. The only time I’ll look at the cameras display is to check the histogram and format the cards. I use Nikon D5’s and used to have the film equivalent, Nikon F3’s. So, actually shooting is the same. However, I do favour the digital darkroom over the wet one.
Briefly, what is your workflow?
Get up, walk the dog, breakfast, days work, walk the dog, dinner, bed, repeat…
What tech do you take with you when you travel?
Funny… Everything. As much as I can possibly get away with. If it involves a plane journey, it’s like an SAS operation getting my gear through without it having to go in the hold or being whacked for being well overweight. My roll-on camera bag weighs 25kg. I don’t use everything, I pick and choose what I need for the days shoot and leave the rest in the hotel room. If I’m travelling to a shoot I’ll take the lot. Assistants do come in handy…
Most embarrassing moment working as a photographer?
A couple come to mind.
Firstly, in the 90’s I got a call from Vogue in London to look at my editorial book. I walked into the big, posh, lift with my big, posh, heavy flight case of prints. ‘Go to floor 4, they’re expecting you’ I was told. The ping alerted me to floor 4 as I adjusted my tie. Yet the doors stayed closed. I fidgeted for a while, hearing voices and then laughter as the ping sounded again, closing the doors behind me. Realising they were giggling at the daft bloke in the lift, I was too embarrassed to go back.
Secondly, I was beaten up by a Swan. I didn’t realise its nest was just behind it. The male Swan took 3 wing beats, smashed into me, knocking me into a river with a new Nikon D5 and new Nikon 85mm. £7,500.00 quid feathered its way to the river bed. I turned to my Spaniel for help only to see him tailing it down the road. 30 minuets went by before the Swan allowed me to dive in and get the camera out.
What is your favourite picture you’ve taken, and why?
There are more but these two spring to mind. These are from 30 years ago. Shot on the FISH TOWN project. The silhouette of the man looking like the world has ended . Titled – The End of an Era. This image captures the end of an era for the fish dock’s as it entered into European ruling. ‘Lots of small companies went broke’. The frame before this one was shot horizontal with another person walking to the seated man. I quickly made a vertical image before the person stood up and walked away.
The other is a busy fish action. Titled – Leaving the Auction. I saw a chap looking at me and making his way out of the frame. When he peeped from behind the other fellow, I had him just were I wanted.
What would be your dream photographic project?
A worldwide shoot covering CORN. It’s a historical global product with such a deep story of diversity. Corn has effected; wealth, poverty, global economics, human food, animal food, bio fuels, chemicals. And more.
What advice would you give anyone entering the industry in 2020?
If you want to be rich ! Forget it. If you want to be famous ! Forget it. Find out who you are, what you’re passionate about and shoot it. Keep shooting it and more. Eventually, reward will come!
Just read, well, read it 3 times actually… A book titled; It’s What I Do. A photographers life of Love and War. By Lynsey Addario. Other good reads are; Avedon; Something Personal. Avedon; What becomes a legend Most. Bailey; Look again. Don McCullin; Unreasonable behaviour. Harold Evans; My Paper Chase.
Podcast – A Small voice by Ben Smith. Ben’s an excellent interviewer. Easy listening, conversations with photographers.
Escape from reality with a Hollywood movie. Rambo 4’s good ! (The last but one movie).