"Get An Apprenticeship!" - An Interview With Portrait Photographer Damian McGillicuddy

With a hugely successful career spanning three decades and an unapologetically old-school approach, Damian McGillicuddy is all about the three Ps – practice, practice and practice. We caught up with him to find out when his passion for photography was first sparked and why he loves to print…

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How did you first get into photography?
My uncle was a keen amateur photographer and I used to go out with him on his shooting trips. By the age of 11 I’d saved enough pocket money and “odd job” money to buy my own SLR and not just watch but shoot as well. I became the proud owner of a secondhand Ricoh KR-10 from Camera in Cottam Street in St Helens. I then shot one roll of 35mm film a week. I sent it to Bonus Print because they sent you back a free roll with the prints. How times have changed!

Where do you look for inspiration?
Literally everywhere and anywhere. Books, TV, movies, music, lyrics, art… the slightest word can trigger a creative thought that spirals out of control into a full-blown conceptual image.

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What essentials are always in your kit bag?
I always try to have three lenses – a standard lens, short telephoto and a bit of a wide. Usually a 35mm, 50mm and a 75mm/90mm, or if I think I can get away with it something around 135mm. I prefer primes to a zoom. I also have at least one flashgun – you never know when you’ll need to add light.

What’s your best and worst memory from a shoot?
The best is easy – every time somebody loves what I’ve created with or for them. 

The worst is also easy – I shot Graeme Souness’ portrait at Anfield when he was the manager. The portrait is more than acceptable but it was myself and the client experience that was lacking. I’m not a football fan so was slightly lazy in doing client research. I had very little to say and “uhmmed” and “errred” through the shoot. I still have a framed portrait of him on my desk, just to remind me that always, in every circumstance, no matter my personal beliefs or feelings, I should ALWAYS do my homework and give my client 100% of me and the best experience possible.

If you could shoot anyone in the world, who would it be?
I’m too late! It was my goal to shoot my hero Muhammed Ali who has now sadly passed. I’ve shot Barry Lategan, a famous Olympus photographer in his time, just before an “Audience with” event. I’d love to shoot David Bailey if I got the chance – I’m sort of collecting fashion/Olympus icons!

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What advice do you have for someone looking to turn photography into a career?
Don’t turn to YouTube or universities to learn. Try and get an apprenticeship, even if you have to pay for it – that is a much wiser investment in my opinion. It’s a shame we got rid of all the technical colleges, but learning from a real, honest pro has got to be the best way to go. Failing that look at www.mentormeonsteroids.com, the CPD course I’m involved in teaching and the closest thing we can give to an apprenticeship. In 11 years we have mentored 25 people to ‘Photographer of the Year’ titles.

Once you’ve learnt to do things properly then you must practice, practice, practice. When you’ve finished practicing then practice a bit more! Things need to be unconsciously competent, real second nature so you miss nothing.

Why do you choose to print your work?
That’s a very simple answer – until it’s off your hard drive and on a tangible piece of paper it just isn’t a photograph. Photographs don’t live as ones and zeros in computers and tablets; they need to be seen, printed, framed and hung.

There’s something really magical about seeing your image in print and my wife Lesley and I (Lesley does most of my printing) are big fans of the quality and variety of PermaJet papers – there seems to be a paper for every image. What more could you want? Once you start to print it isn’t long until the bug bites and you get hooked.

Damian McGillicuddy is a PermaJet and Olympus brand ambassador and a commercial and portrait photographer with over 30 years’ experience. He shoots all genres from fashion to footballers, products to politicians and musicians to motorsport, and has amassed over 700 international awards, 12 Photographer of the Year titles, 11 fellowships, a double Grand Masters and a Grand Master with Double Bar. See more of his work here.