Fifteen, twenty years ago ‘An Evening with Steve Crawley’ was an annual treat at PhotoCraft, but I guess there are very members from that time who will remember them. I always looked forward to his talks and still remember his professional advice on how to illuminate a small object to photograph it. How do you adjust the lighting so that the textural qualities of its surface look so convincing you feel you can touch it? After one such talk, I went home and built a frame out of old curtain rail with some net curtain stretched across it to simulate the kind of diffuse light you get from a window. It worked. So it was good to hear him again giving us this time an account of his long professional career.
In the early 60s when Steve enrolled at the Ealing School of Photography, it was not considered one of the ‘respectable’ career choices. The school was on the top floor, with the School of Art below that and the School of Catering on the ground floor. He learnt all aspects of the subject, the chemistry, the physics, taking photos, developing and printing, and once a week had to attend a PrintCrit session where the students’ work, if substandard, might be torn up in front his peers and tossed in the bin. In those days students received 40 hours a week of lectures. The average on courses today is about 4. One of his teachers was Michael Langford who has published a number of books on the subject. I still have a copy of his ‘The Darkroom Handbook’ first published in 1981, in my view a classic, and one that first stimulated my interest in old photographic processes like gum bichromate printing.
His first job was at the Photo Centre in Shelton Street, London. Because of his 3 years training, he was the only person paid there; everyone else had to pay to use the studio which they did with his assistance. He found he needed DIY skills 3 or 4 times a week for building room sets to photograph for commercial catalogues etc. They used plate cameras (5 x 4, or 10 x 8), an expensive business, so discipline was required at the taking stage to make sure everything was perfect for the shot. My, how things have changed with digital.
While at the Photo Centre he got experience of a range of genres including model shoots for fashion magazines and covering fashion shows. Olivia Newton John was one of his clients, and he introduced Twiggy to the trade press. Apparently, Joanna Lumley was a very good corset model. Happy days, eh?
After this, the studio succeeded in getting the DuPont account where much of the work included photographing Lycra garments trending at the time, and plastic items such as door handles, toothbrushes, and wrappings for pharmaceuticals. For Ford, he photographed car engine parts that were increasingly being made from plastic. The imperative for this kind of photography is to ensure that the item looked like what is made of. This is true of most commercial photography and comes down to the skill and experience of knowing how best to light the subject.
At around this time, Steve started working for Dunhill, really a manufacturer of luxury goods and fashion items, not the cigarettes most people associate with the name.
In the fashion shots, he was instructed that the model’s face had to be obscured so that all of the viewer’s attention was concentrated on the clothing.
It would take some courage to put a picture like this into one of our competitions, wouldn’t it? Instinctively, you look straight at any face in a picture and you try to read the expression. It’s the same with text in a picture – you look straight at it and want to read it. But both can be a distraction if they are not what the picture is about. I have learnt to my cost that deliberately making a face hard to discern to encourage the judge to appreciate the rest of picture doesn’t earn you credit!
(I’ll let you into a little secret… but don’t spread it around. There are no rules to photography. They were made up by a consortium of judges to make their job easier. It saves them the effort of having to figure out what the picture is about.)
The owner of Dunhill also owned Cartier leading Steve to the challenges of photographing jewellery. One contract for Cartier involved photographing the Mercedez Benz McClaren racing car famously driven by Sir Stirling Moss, and equally famous for being worth 14 million bucks. Apparently, Cartier needed the picture to imitate the car’s styling in the design of their high-end trinkets like cufflinks.
Steve mentioned many other manufacturers of high quality products he spent his long career trying to satisfy before taking us on a tour of the showroom of Guives & Hawkes of 1 Savile Row. They are tailors to the rich and famous, from film stars and celebrities to royalty. They specialise in uniforms and have a display case of an ornate military uniform owned by Earl Spencer. Putting this in the shade, however, was the most elaborately brocaded jacket imaginable that they had tailored for Michael Jackson.
Finally, he showed us a short A/V called ‘Christmas in July’ prepared to advertise the products of Aspreys of London.
Steve ended by saying that he didn’t consider himself a great photographer, just competent enough to make a comfortable living out of it.
I am interested in ceramics. Some are purely decorative and meant just to be put on show and enjoyed. Others are purely utilitarian, meant for use and nothing else. But the best pottery is both beautiful to look at and perfectly functional. Steve’s work is like this and I wouldn’t hesitate to put any one of his pictures on my wall and enjoy it forever.
So thanks Steve for a wonderful evening and we hope to see you again in the near future.