John Pirrie Interview
By Christopher Hester

John, how did you get into photography?

I was interested since childhood, but it was when I went to be a Diagnostic Radiographer that it started getting serious. For our course we had to learn all about film and its characteristics and my tutor gave us each a 35mm SLR (some kind guy had bequeathed the hospital his camera collection). We were given a roll of B&W film each and sent out into Norwich to take pictures and present our tutor with 3 10x8 prints within the week having been shown once how to use the camera, develop the film and print the images. Steep learning curve!

I was hooked. I saved up my grant (48 per month) and soon was the proud owner of a secondhand Praktica with a 50mm lens all for 25 pounds!

Is it true you once gave up and threw away all your photos?

Yes... I was not satisfied with my images. I sat down and looked at my results and had an artistic tantrum, because to me they were all at best mediocre and at worst boring. I had wanted to make pictures and all I had achieved were photographs. I filled two bin liners and took them down to the local tip. I then did not touch a camera for about 5 years. In retrospect I guess I could not at that time accept that I would never be world class. I wanted other people to gasp at the quality, composition and imagination of my creations, but I was on a hiding to nothing as I did not have the quality of equipment, the imagination, the resources, the knowledge or the skills to do it. All of which are still true today, but it doesn't matter so much to me.

What gives you the inspiration to carry on?

Sheesh... hardest question yet!!! I guess it's the triumph of hope over experience! Mark Sadan gave me the inspiration to try again when I did a course with him about 3 years ago having been persuaded to attend by my wife. He convinced me that if other people like what I have done then it is a good picture whether I see faults in it or not... And if I like the picture who cares what other people think? A win/win situation. So I started taking pictures again. I have a few pictures that I consider tolerable.

Isn't it costly to be an amateur photographer?

Yes. BUT I only have to please myself, although that is extremely hard to do. I could not be a pro photographer because my work is not consistent enough and as I have aged my imagination has diminished. I do not smoke or drink, my main pleasure is photography so I can justify the expense to myself

Do you feel models are good value for money?

Most of them are. In fact, some are bargain basement! Models do not have an easy career in my opinion. If they are not seen enough then they are unlikely to get work. If they are seen too much then they are again unlikely to get work, so they cannot win. The most famous models are not always the best to use, but at least you can be sure that you will come away with something half decent. Some very well known models just go through a routine set of poses on auto-pilot and never engage with what you want to do, but most models I have worked with really want to be involved with making a picture.

Many of them have far more experience than I do, and when the experienced speak, the wise listen.

Which model would you love to work with most?

The one I have yet to find with whom I can build a long term working relationship, like John Sherrat and Wendy Jane. I want to work with Red Lilly some time. She has a wonderful pre-raphaelite look.

What does your wife feel about your work?

Not keen on the pictures of girls. She quite likes some of my landscapes and holiday snaps.

What type is your current and next-to-buy camera?

Current... Canon EOS300 because my eyes are not as good as they were and I need the excellent auto-focus. I also have 2 Canon A1s which are still going strong although I have had them for twenty years and they were second hand when I bought them. Next? Well Medium format would be nice and is currently cheap as pros switch to digital. But probably will be an Olympus E20 or a Canon digital SLR.

How do you feel about digital versus film?

Digital cannot produce the resolution quality of film. Grains are smaller than pixels. However, how often do you see 20x16 prints these days? Digital is getting to the stage where it is very hard to see a difference at normal enlargements. When the worst part of the system is the lens it won't matter if you are using digital or film.

With no processing costs unless you choose to make a print, digital has the potential for huge savings for amateurs like myself, which means more money to spend on models and studios/locations. YAY!!!!

Where do you see photography in 10 years time?

Hmmmm... Well film will become scarcer and harder to get processed in the high street. Fewer prime lenses will be made, fewer SLR 35mm sized cameras will be made. Apparent picture quality will improve with increasingly sophisticated software. But the main factor behind a picture's artistic merit will still be the photographer's eye. I think people will tire of heavily manipulated images. The majority of people like images to be lifelike, hence the gap between contemporary fine art and the average citizen.

What gear do you use in the studio?

Depends what effect I am trying for. I use Worksop Photographic Studio virtually exclusively as it is very reasonably priced, the models on the register there are excellent, the advice given is spot on and the atmosphere friendly. I usually start with the two soft boxes at about 60 degrees to the backdrop. I haven't the faintest idea what the lighting system is, all I can tell you is that there is infinitely variable power on each of the main heads and they ARE powerful. F16 or f11 at 100 ISO is usual.

What advice would you give to new starters?

Get the best lens you can afford. Take as many pictures as you can as often as you can. If you like the pictures you take then it is worthwhile, if you don't consider joining a camera club or do a course at your local college, although this may make you hypercritical of your own pictures. Remember one man's meat is another man's poison. Just because you don't like your own work does not mean that no-one else will either. Look at other people's photos, analyse why they work. Never be afraid to ask for advice or opinions. Be realistic in your aims. The pictures you see in glossy magazines that a pro has taken all day with a team of heaven knows how many aides to achieve, you are not likely to create similar quality in an hour.

Which photography websites do you visit regularly?

Inspiras photography, The Models Club, Tony Dodd's forum, Lucy Zara's forum and Model Heaven.

Who are your favourite photographers of all time?

Man Ray. Karsch. Norman Parkinson. Julia Margaret Cameron. Bill Brandt. Bob Carlos Clarke. Patrick Lichfield.

· · · Visit John's website for more information and photos · · ·