Post-Landscape Abstraction - An Interview With Landscape Photographer Doug Chinnery

Fotospeed photographer Doug Chinnery talks us through his journey from traditional landscape photography to ICM and multiple exposure, as well as his advice for experimenting with abstract imagery and the importance of seeing your image in print.

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On the early days and those first steps into abstract…

I started young thanks to my parents. I was given one of those Bakelite Kodak Brownies as a youngster – around 7 or 8. Then when I was about 12 years old my stepdad gave me a twin lens reflex Russian Rolleiflex rip-off camera called a Lubitel. He taught me all about apertures, shutter speeds, and the fundamentals of photography with that camera. From then on, I never looked back. I went from the early days taking snaps, through to becoming a more ‘serious’ landscape photographer where I built a reputation.

Like most photographers, I have made a journey with my photography. I think some move a certain distance down a path, soon find a point they are comfortable with and settle there. I found that I was constantly restless and always searching for other ways to express myself creatively. This feeling lasted for decades. Then I came across the work of Chris Friel and his images changed my whole perception of what a camera could do. Since then I have been on a totally different course, seeing my work become gradually more abstract and informed by artists more than photographers. My work is now almost entirely abstract and I feel I have found what I have been searching for all of my life.

On not restricting yourself in the name of creativity…

I purposefully don’t label myself because I want people to see in my images whatever they want to see. I think this is one of the important things about abstract work – it leaves so much space for the mind to wander, to write its own stories. Certainly, the majority of my images are made in the landscape, but there is often no sense of perspective or scale, nor are there recognisable features. I think it would take a huge stretch of the imagination to see my work now as ‘landscape’. I am more interested in shapes, form, colour, contrast, patterns… in stimulating the mind and creating places for the imagination to run free.

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On finding inspiration…

I’m always looking for new locations, but I’m equally excited to return to familiar places. I can make images almost anywhere, in almost any light and weather… I decry this need some seem to have for golden hours and certain seasons. I work with details so it’s easy for me to exclude that which might cause others issues. I can work in scrap yards, on industrial estates, in charming French villages, on a remote beach, scruffy areas of wasteland, in vibrant cities, hidden woodlands, and summer meadows or in my kitchen. I see images everywhere I go. I feel very blessed in this.

On looking for something that is not necessarily there…

Sometimes I see the full potential of the location before I begin. Sometimes, with multiple-exposure images, I sense there’s potential but I have to experiment with the camera, often for 30 minutes or more, and see what happens. Sometimes I get something I think is working and then it needs finishing off on the computer and it’s not until I get back to the studio that I know if I really have something. Often, I go out and work and come back with nothing. Above all else, I tend to look for colour and try to capture colours that inspire me – often accompanied by beautiful light or strong shapes.

On his advice for experimenting with the abstract…

I think the most important thing is to let go. Don’t be constrained by the ‘rules’ of classic photography that are imposed upon us by the photography police. Forget it all. Be prepared to do whatever you want to make images work. Move the camera, keep it still. Forget the rule-of-thirds, or use it. Do whatever you want. And look at art for inspiration. Go to the abstract impressionists, for example. See how they used shapes, colours and textures. They were rule breakers and created some astounding works that shook up the art world. Pinterest is a great website for searching for art and inspiration.

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On the biggest lesson he’s learnt during his career…

I have learnt that to make good work is hard work. Don’t expect to go on a couple of workshops with a photographer you admire and then just be able to make images like them. They will have worked and worked and worked – for years and years – to do what they do. So many photographers focus on gear and technique. They need to get over this. Yes, we do need to know our gear (and have gear that can do what we need it to do) and we need to know some techniques, but these are the least important things. The most important thing is to go out with the camera and make images. To fail and fail and fail. And not give up. Then go out and fail again. Forge your own creative path – we all have a creative ability inside us. Cultivate it and gradually your work will show what is inside and will be unique. It is so exciting to gradually see your own creative path emerging.

On getting the most from your images…

I tend to shoot in small sets with the aim of producing a collection to go on my website – ideally, I’m looking to produce a minimum of five images from a location that sit well together and ideally about nine, maybe 12 on a very good day. I’m a very selective editor so try and keep my Lightroom catalogue as trim as possible. I also usually don’t process my images for several weeks, or sometimes months, after shooting. This allows me to be more objective in how good they actually are.

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On the significance of print…

I like to say that art needs an artefact, something physical. To think that something beautiful is just ones and zeros on a hard drive is really quite sad, especially when you see just how beautiful they are printed on fine art papers. To me, an image isn’t finished until it’s printed. To hold something tangible in your hands that you shot in the field with care, then lovingly processed and prepared for print, is a magical thing.

On having a paper designed for his work…

I was so privileged to be able to work along with the technical guys at Fotospeed and have a paper designed to my own specification. I think for all photographers it is a real dream. It took quite some time and they were very patient with me as we fine-tuned the specification but the result, Cotton Etching 305, is just about the perfect paper. It’s heavyweight, the base is white, and it has a high cotton content but it’s made in such a way that it doesn’t shed the cotton fibres. I also wanted a matt paper which was capable of producing deep, rich blacks. Valda Bailey and I have our own print service for photographers and artists on our website and we now use Cotton Etching 305 almost exclusively for most of our clients’ prints.

Doug Chinnery’s Signature paper, Cotton Etching 305, is available from Fotospeed.