IN CONVERSATION WITH Tim Hall
Landscape and travel photographer Tim Hall reflects on a sustained 'speculative' career in which he evolved from a London-based freelance performing arts photographer to one of the leading lights in romantic fine art mountain photography...
Interview by Nick Smith
I like to describe myself as a contemporary landscape and travel photographer,' says Tim Hall. 'But I think that I fall into the romantic side of that category.' By 'romantic', he is of course referring to the artistic and intellectual Romanticism movement of the early 19th century, whose leading lights - Wordsworth, Turner, Beethoven et al - drew heavily on nature as their subject material.
This romanticism comes from his days as an undergraduate at the University of Manchester studying the history of art, where he fell far more under the spell of painters than other photographers. 'Certainly my later work, in terms of composition and atmosphere, as well as the sort of environments I'm attracted to, comes from a more painterly aesthetic.' But, he says, 'I went to university with the knowledge that when I came out of the other end of it I was going to be a photographer. So, within the history of art course, I did a course on photography theory, studying the American 20th century photographers, including Ansel Adams and Paul Strand: all the black & white masters. It was very inspirational.'
First tracks. Gstaad, Switzerland.
Beyond that, he remembers 'looking at the romantic "Grand Tour" artists that travelled across to Europe.' These influences were to comeinto Tim's photographic work when he started to shoot on medium format film, 'wandering the mountains. This was when it all fell into place. I like to think that I have become part of a tradition rather than forging a path. I have ended up in places realising that I have been crossing paths with artists however many years later, without specifically or consciously following them.' Tim remembers precisely the instant he wanted to become a photographer. It was his 18th birthday, when his father gave him his first camera, and I knew straight away that this was exactly what I wanted to do. That was the light bulb moment.' While at university he got a summer job as an in-house printer with the renowned music photographer David Redfern, who was to offer a job to the aspiring photographer after he graduated. 'I literally finished my exams, went to London, got in Redfern's car and drove to the Nice Jazz Festival in France, where I ran his tee-shirt stall for two weeks while he went to take
Above The refuge. Verbier, Switzerland.
Below Wosterhorn, Arlberg, Austria.
pictures of the bands that were playing. I was into jazz at the time and so I started shooting the concerts with him, eventually becoming his in house photographer.' He'd be in the darkroom half of the night developing film and, apart from on one occasion when he got Redfern's antifreeze mixed up with his fixer, Tim learned quickly. In the mornings, prints would be dispatched by courier to syndication agencies. 'How things have changed,' muses the 50-something photographer.
After three years of 'learning while I was shooting', Tim woke up to find that he'd had enough of 'being beholden to concert lighting, and so went freelance just as the recession was hitting London in 1991. I was sitting in my rented room thinking oh gawd, why have I done this?
I was just waiting for the phone to ring. But eventually it did and it was a friend asking me if I wanted to do a book on Cambodia. So I said "yes, where's that?" I got on a plane and spent six weeks shooting and putting the project together.' The Cambodia book became the watershed between photographing the performing arts and moving into travel and landscape in fact most of my career has been speculative freelancer to an established 'name' in fine art photography has been based largely on the saleof books. 'I'd go out in the morning, take pictures, then come back, put on a suit and go to meet people from the likes of Pepsi and Shell. Along with a friend of mine, we'd sell the idea of a book that we hadn't made on the back of books we had made in the past, which of course we hadn't. But we created a lot of sponsorship for these projects and ended up with a string of another three or four books.' At the age of 24
Tim was, he admits, 'creating a myth about our experience. But in those days it was easier to get in to see people. Also, these big companies were very involved with projects to show that they were backing the country. So it was good timing. And we ended up doing a Richard Avedon-style piece on Burma, which became an exhibition. I then did the same in Vietnam and Hong Kong.'
People started to buy these photographs and I got a bit of a following in the art world.' But, perhaps he is being slightly modest, as the London-based photographer's latest book Mountains - Beyond the Clouds is from a leading German photography monograph publisher. It's a project that has been 10 years in the works, originating from a commission to provide hotel interior imagery for a place in the Alps. "The guy asked me if I could photograph the local Austrian mountains, and although I'd only really done seascapes before, I said 'yes, sure.' But I've been a skier all my life and so it didn't seem too much of a problem. The area around Lech is spectacular and I got lucky with the weather.
Out of which I self-published a similarly-titled book called Above the Clouds.' A stroke of serendipity followed in that the chief executive of teNeues publishing ‘had a place in the area, and he asked if I had enough pictures to make a book of the Alps, as he'd like to publish it. So it was partially luck, but it was based on a permanent exhibition at the hotel that was the talk of the town. I was doing 10 guided tours of it a day.
Tim says that he's usually got a clear idea of when his photography is working well. 'I know what I'm trying to capture. When I'm walking through the mountains I'm absorbing an atmosphere and I'm in the moment, looking through the lens. What I'm trying to achieve is to transpose that feeling on to the final image. I'm often told that my photos transport the viewer to that place, or a similar place that conjures up memories for them. Even though I can't expect every shot I take to have that effect, I will end up selecting an image that reflects what I was thinking at the time.'
One of the keys to this transmission of feeling for Tim is that 'I don't really do anything special photographically. I'm pretty traditional in that I'm drawn to certain types of weather. If there's bright blue sky, in common with a lot of photographers, I won't even get my camera out of the bag. I like moody, cloudy skies. That's what I'm interested in. Sometimes it's when the weather is on the verge of rain, either just before or just after. When I print images it's on matt textured paper, which reinforces the painterly quality. I still sometimes shoot on film, although I haven't done that for a little while.'
As for the future, Tim is taking a moment to reflect. 'I don't have a "next big project" to speak I've recently taken to wading through my archive and noticed that I've got gazillions of pictures that need to be put to work. My main project at the moment is going through the archives and finding pictures that I've overlooked and to try to put some collections together. After all these years, I've started to realise that there are quite a few themes with themes going on. So I'm quite keen to develop things that are ongoing.'
The idea of revisiting the catalogue and hunting down new ways of arranging ideas is central to the considered nature of the way Tim works. 'It's a moment of artistic reflection
You can carry on shooting until the cows com home and you're not necessarily going to get any better. I do find that, because of the whole digital phenomenon, the entire world is swamped with imagery. I know I am. It's a moment of pause before I move into the next era. What's interesting is that all this time has passed and I have this amazing archive that I've ignored for years. You can't just keep adding
You've got to put what you already have to work
Below Bodenalpe. Lech, Austria.