I came across a Top Twenty list of 1970s music which included tracks by the Rolling Stones, Olivia Newton John, and the Sex Pistols. To say it covered a broad range of genres would be an understatement, but it was the result of an online poll and probably a fair reflection of the musical taste of a population rather than of any individual. I knew almost every piece, but few of the tracks would have made it to my own list.
But the list got me thinking about the images I value above and beyond all the others, and prompted the question of what my own list would look like - the top-twenty list of my own photographs. When losing friends to the grave becomes frequent rather than occasional you start thinking about these things, I suppose. Selecting twenty was not so difficult, I had only to remember which shots had made the grade as the best I had ever done up to that point. Then I thought I would not be able to order them in increasing importance as twenty shots over forty years would inevitably cut across many different places, groups of people, situations and genres, and even my own artistic priorities would have changed from one period to another without necessarily progressing. Each of them is important in its own way irrespective of their chronology. However I realised that at least one of the shots would satisfy the criteria for being number 20, and perhaps the rest would follow on from there. Inevitably there was a fair amount of reshuffling along the way, (number 7 was particularly difficult to decide on) but in the end the list looks about right.
Above Kagbeni - Nepal, 1983
This panorama is a stitch of two Kodachrome slides that was thirty years in the making. I'd first made a stitched panorama of a place where I'd lived in France in the mid-1970s by taking three shots in a row and then cutting and pasting the prints together. Although I had planned to do something similar, in reality it was too costly to get the slides printed, so they were left and forgotten for a long while. I spotted them when I was doing some scanning for another job and decided to try my hand at stitching them digitally. This was taken at around 9000 feet above sea level on the way up to Muktinath, about thirty miles from the border with Tibet.
Ita - Meloneras Beach, Gran Canaria, 1975
I had borrowed a Kodak Instamatic and used the roll to shoot portraits of the people I was living with on the beach. This shot of Ita Tervaniemi, a Swedish teenager from Gotland, was the best of them, largely because of the even lighting created by the translucency of the tent. The colour was also just right. Oddly enough I was to run into Ita again five years later at a bar in Goa. It was a pity I didn't have a camera with me then as she looked absolutely stunning walking naked along the beach.
The Garden Camera
This is the only shot of things I have made to be included in the set. The so-called 6x7 Garden camera (it's smaller than a field camera) was the first camera I designed and made in wood and brass. I did this in 2003 while living in Singapore and it was intended as a trial run of design and making skills before attempting to build one for 4"x5" sheet film. It was also the first time I had to make some bellows for myself as the dimensions were not a standard size I could take from anything else. I made several large format cameras over the years, but many, many bellows for myself and for others - and this is where it started. The original bellows were black; the matte red are from a later date when I updated the quality and the looks.
Surf Dream - Dunraven Bay, Wales, 2012
It's a dream because it is an illusion - a double exposure. It wasn't intentional, but one of those things that can happen when working out of doors with a view camera and sheet film, forgetting to note if an exposure has already been taken or not. A sheet film holder contains two sheets for two shots, but in this instance I had taken three. However, I was pleased with it, the surfer standing alone in the water seemed like an Antony Gormley figure of steel on what is probably my favourite beach in Wales.
Candombe Dancers - Montevideo, Uruguay, 2010
I spent three weeks in Uruguay and a great deal of the time I was walking the streets of Montevideo with a camera. I was on my way back to a friend's house one evening when I heard drumming a short way ahead. I rushed on to find myself at the tail end of a candombe practice session parading up the street. There were several hundred people, either drumming or dancing and I made my way up towards the front snapping along the way. This shot seemed to perfectly encompass the joy of the dance on the hot evening. When I got back to the house my friend said, "Muy peligroso!" - very dangerous! It had been a potentially dangerous situation to be out there alone among strangers in a rough neighbourhood, but I think they were having far too good a time to be bothered by me.
Penny for the Guy - Totnes, England, 1982
Time was when every autumn young kids would make a 'guy' for the family bonfire on Guy Fawkes' night, and show it off in the streets to raise money to buy fireworks. I had just bought the camera brand new - it was a Pentax MV that I was planning to take on trek in Nepal and I went out to get some practice on the street with a couple of rolls of Ilford XP1. That Saturday morning in late October there were kids with their guys all around the town centre. Some twenty five years later, I submitted the set of photos to a photography magazine as I knew that this tradition had pretty much died away, but ironically another photographer had had the same idea that year and got in first with a more interesting series.
The History of Art - Koln, Germany, 1987
I took this shot of Max Pechstein's painting at the Ludwig Museum in Koln, Germany, in 1987, during a study tour organised by the art department at Cambridge College of Art. It was the besuited character standing in front of it that prompted the shot as he seemed to embody the male gaze, effectively encapsulating an entire history of art in the west, much of which has involved men looking at women. The man's posture, with elbows thrust outwards, seemed like an attempt to corral the model into his own domain, just as the painter had done some seventy-seven years earlier.
Nuns - Bologna, Italy, 2011
After spending five years there, Bologna became my second home and I went back every couple of years to walk the streets with a camera. For the most part I was looking for formal arrangements in how people interact with their environment, the streets, the bars and markets, and so on. It was never intended as 'street' photography, more a recording of the day-to-day. One time I was walking with a photographer friend and we came across this scene right in front of us. The box held a video display that you could only watch by looking through small holes in the sides. The group of nuns were intrigued by it and they were clearly enjoying their experience. This has always been listed as the 'most interesting' of my shots on Flickr.
Haffa Sunset - Salalah, Oman, 1998
For about ten years I focused more on sculpture than on photography, but the emphasis started to change when I went to work in Oman in 1997. I was living on the edge of the Indian Ocean about 100 miles from the border of Yemen. It wasn't like being in Europe at all, but also the light was quite different with the sun staying higher in the sky during the winter. The high altitude dusts from the Sahara meant that the sunsets could be very dramatic. No filter was used on this shot, it's just straight Fujicolor negative emulsion.
Bike Back - Cardiff, Wales, 2013
It's the strangest thing to photograph an event that takes place on just one day each year. Stranger still, on that day I have less than an hour to grab as many shots as I can of the cyclists while they are preparing themselves for the ride. What is not particularly strange is that the cyclists are all naked, at least it doesn't seem strange when you are among them as this is the Cardiff arm of the World Naked Bike Ride. I covered the ride for seven years, with at least one engaging shot from each meeting.
Self Portrait - Pontardawe, Wales, 2010
The only self-portrait here. I had a couple of frames left in the Rolleiflex and needed to finish the roll, so I set up the lights, added a close-up filter and tested the focus distance and parallax compensation. And I was quite pleased with the result, with the light catching on the loup I was using and the open shutter clearly visible. I was 57.
Dunraven Bay Pinhole - Dunraven Bay, Wales, 2011
Over the years I made a lot of pinhole cameras, usually involving some sort of conversion of old or broken camera parts. This was a wide angle 6x9. Like the beach scene in Oman, the effects are a product of the light, though it is also a double exposure that includes the cliff behind me. I took four shots before rushing off the beach, soaked by a sudden rain shower. This shot was published in a book of pinhole work in 2017.
A Portrait - Pal-y-Cwrt, Wales, 2010
The features of the face are taken as a unique identifier, hence the natural assumption that a portrait will show the face of the person with the subject fully aware of the photographer's action in taking the shot. In this portrait the face is not visible and the subject is not named, though she would be instantly recognisable to anyone who knew her. It is an expression of individuality rather than identification.
Claire Foy - Bridgend, Wales, 2010
I worked on the set of the BBC's production of 'Upstairs Downstairs' to take the stills that would be used in the third episode. Although she was delightful to work with, Claire Foy was in character as the Lady Persephone with a sort of hungover-psychotic expression on her face. But when I asked her to smile she did, just the once.
Eddie Rockstar - Pontardawe, Wales, 2008
When you have a new camera to try out, in this case a restored 1910 Whole Plate camera, and some friends visiting for a few days, you try and combine these parts to create a memorable occasion. Eddie was five and a half at the time and already an aspiring musician, though I believe the violin became his instrument of choice later on. I was fortunate in the shot being selected for the cover of an exhibition catalogue and also being the subject of an article in Black and White Photography magazine.
Meridian Tower - Swansea, Wales, 2012
Using the tilts and swings of a view camera allows for selective defocus to isolate the subject. This 4"x5" view camera was put together with bits and pieces and scrap materials, but it had a good lens with a venerable history. It was a Zeiss Tessar 135/4.5 that I had picked up at a camera repair shop in Singapore, the first classic lens I ever bought.
Peggy's Chair - Venice, Italy, 2015
On one of many trips to Italy I had the chance to stay for a couple of days with a friend in Venice. I wanted to go back to the Guggenheim Museum as it had been nearly 30 years since I first visited. The great throne was still in the same place in the garden and my friend fitted into it very comfortably. The softness around the borders of the image is due to the effect of the single meniscus lens.
Truan at Newport - Newport, Wales, 2010
Organised Kaos youth circus director Nic Hemsley invited me to shoot a performance designed by firemaster Goffee as part of the Big Splash Festival in Newport in 2010. I'd had practice with Kaos over the previous year and got to know their star actors quite well so it was easy to work with them close up inside the arena. There were many great shots but this one in particular caught the earthy and primitive feel of the fire performance.
Harp Player - Bologna, Italy, 2008
Another shot from Bologna makes it into this list. Street musicians generally choose their pitch with care so that they can play undisturbed for their public. The spot becomes their stage. In this case, there was very little light on the harp player himself but the backdrop of the basilica and the square created an excellent silhouette.
Meniscus Nude - Cardiff, Wales, 2013
I'd had it in mind to do some defocused figure work for a while and designed a specific lens configuration to use with a twin lens reflex camera. I had the perfect model to work with and we did several sessions over the years. The lens is a single meniscus rear element taken from a 1950s camera, but on a TLR I had to have two identical lens elements. It's at number 1 because ... well, I'll let you decide.
A top-twenty of shots selected from over forty years, cutting across many different places, groups of people, situations and genres. So it goes. Photography is necessarily and inevitably an autobiographical art and while not a chronological list or fitting a neat timeline, the images are an accurate reflection on where I was and of who I was over the time.