February’s Featured Artist – Mark Wheeler
This month’s featured artist is an old friend of mine whose artistry is performed through his love of photography. When I first knew him, his interest lay in photographing aircraft and rock concerts. As you will see, life has changed his interests and the things he prefers to photograph today.
1.What’s your background?
I was born in Carshalton, Surrey but my parents came from Essex and when they divorced, my mother and I moved to Leigh-on-Sea (which, if you don’t know it, is just to the left of Southend-on-Sea on the map). That’s where I went to school, made some long-lasting friendships, saw my first concerts, got my first job etc. At 21, having got a job in London – which is where Alison and I first met (but that’s another story…..)- I decided I’d outgrown Leigh so moved to North London. Nearly 40 years later I live in one of the more affordable parts of Richmond-upon-Thames. Along the way, I bought a flat, got married, bought a house, had two children, bought a bigger one (house, not child) and pursued a moderately successful career in the civil service. I then experienced some ill health (physical and mental), lost my job, got divorced and moved home again. I’m currently semi-retired and, slowly, rebuilding my life.
For as long as I can recall, I have had an interest in art. I don’t pretend to know that much about it; my only formal education was in the 1970s at a grammar school clearly focussed on getting as many of us into Oxbridge as they could. If you didn’t fit that mould (and I certainly didn’t), the school really wasn’t interested. I also learned that beyond simple sketching, I didn’t have much natural ability and, to be honest, wasn’t that inclined (nor encouraged) to learn. Anyway, by then I had discovered photography.
I can’t recall when I took my first photograph, or what it was of, but I do know that I did so using a Kodak Box Brownie. In my teens, I saved enough to buy a Practica single lens reflex (SLR) camera, which due to its relative simplicity, affordability and use of the (then) popular M42 lens mount, meant that a bewildering range of lenses could be attached. I later graduated to the Pentax MX, at one time the smallest SLR available and thus very useful for smuggling into rock concerts. I once had dreams of becoming a music photographer but eventually decided on a more conventional, stable career. Whilst working for a charity which published a monthly newspaper (later a magazine), I met a photographer, Colin Fletcher, who taught me an awful lot about composition, black and white printing and Guinness. He also introduced me to the Nikon FM2 SLR, for which I am eternally grateful (I’ve been using Nikon cameras ever since), but we fell out over a woman…….
- What does your work aim to say?
I’m not sure that it does. My photography has developed from simply a means of recording and preserving images of what I see and/or what interests me, be that landscapes, urban situations, street photography or still life to attempts (and sometimes success) at creating a pleasing, often abstract, image by taking a slightly different view of something fairly ordinary or unremarkable and then “tweaking” it. In that respect, I’ve taken a new direction by experimenting with digital photography using an Android smart phone (currently I use a OneTouch 3T). One of the good things about smart phones is that, whilst there are obvious limitations in terms of lens quality etc., the fact that I (nearly) always carry it with me means I can respond to a situation immediately. For example, in London I quite often notice interesting interplay between light and shadows, or reflections and it is often (though not always) easier to capture this using my phone than to use my Nikon DSLR for all kinds of reasons. The rapid developments in image capturing software mean I can often make changes to the original image without having to use bespoke processing tools such as Photoshop or Lightroom yet still create a satisfactory result.
It also means I don’t have to carry a heavy camera bag around all the time. Over the decades I’ve pared down my essential equipment to the minimum, but it still weighs a bit plus if I use a tripod, especially in urban situations, I sometimes get hassle from security guards.
- How does your work comment on current social or political issues?
Again, it doesn’t. I don’t set out to comment on any social or political issue and I have no agenda that I’m trying to pursue. I take images of things I see and sometimes I try to do something a bit artistic or clever or which illustrates a slightly different perspective. The closest I have come, thus far, to commentary is adding a caption which is intended to be amusing, ironic or whatever, to an Instagram post! That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in politics (I defy anyone to work in the civil service for 22 years and not develop some view) or the state of the world in general. I just don’t use my photography in that way.
- Who are your biggest influences?
There are too many to mention, probably. As I’m interested in different areas of photography, there are numerous people whose work I particularly like and I may, unconsciously or otherwise, try to emulate their style or ideas. Some examples include: Norman Parkinson; Andreas Gursky; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Helmut Newton; Bob Carlos Clarke; Steve McCurry; Simon Marsden; Martin Pitt; Don McCullin; Charlie Waite….I could go on. David Hamilton, who was probably best known for his soft-focus female nudes, also produced a fantastic book on Venice. Some of his images capture the ethereal atmosphere of Turner’s paintings and I would love to try and re-create some of them.
- How have you developed your career?
For the most part, I am self-taught. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different genres of photography; different types of film; switched from colour to black & white and, finally, made the transition from film to digital cameras. About five years ago – while I was temporarily out of work – I enrolled at my local adult education college and went on to gain a BTEC Level 1 (Distinction) and, subsequently, an NCFE Level 2 in Photography. In addition to the qualifications, I learned an incredible amount about technique; got first-hand experience in studio work and really began to appreciate for the first time how DSLRs work.
I stumbled onto a career path in media relations which has served me well enough but, realistically, is now coming to an end, so I’m looking for ways to keep active, both mentally and physically. I will continue shoot ‘conventional’ images for my own personal pleasure and if I organise myself, set up a website etc., I might even sell a few prints. If I continue with the abstract images (and I see no reason not to), I will need eventually to get to grips with the mathematical and technical aspects of the Android format and/or whatever supersedes it. My ‘analogue’, i.e. film photography taught me the limitations of the media, so I know instinctively how large an image can be printed before it loses definition plus the variables that can affect that (film ‘speed’, lens aperture, focal length etc.).
The digital era has brought us ‘noise’, which is the modern equivalent of film grain. If I take a photograph using a smart phone, which probably uses an image sensor smaller than that on my DSLR, how large could I print that image and retain what I set out to achieve? At the moment, I don’t know the answer. The other, logical, step is to try and adapt the Android techniques I’m using currently for my DSLRs. If I’m successful I should be able to produce much higher quality images which could be enlarged without losing the integrity of the image.
- How do you seek out opportunities?
Currently, I only look for opportunities to capture images. I used to carry a camera with me at all times; now I use the phone instead, though sometimes this is just to provide a visual or texted reference, so that I can return at a later date with the DSLR, tripod etc.
- How do you cultivate a collector base?
At this point, I don’t but I am being encouraged to look more seriously at this and will do so this year.
- How do you navigate the art world?
Well, I don’t consider myself an artist or part of the art world, merely an interested observer, so my “navigation” consists mainly of trying to keep abreast of what is going on. The great advantage (and disadvantage, too) of living in greater London is that there’s always something interesting (and sometimes, too much) happening somewhere. In spells between contracts, I make efforts to combine, say a meeting at a recruitment agency or a job interview, with a visit to the National, NPG, Tate Britain, Tate Modern etc. I often restrict myself to just one room/gallery, so I don’t get overloaded. My daughter is very keen on art (and very capable, too), so l go to exhibitions I wouldn’t normally consider with her.
I’m a member of the National Trust, so I visit their properties, which often have a lot of art on show. I have an Art Fund card, too, so I get free admission into numerous venues and exhibitions, plus reduced rates at others. I read the Art Quarterly magazine, Time Out, the arts/culture supplement of one of the Sunday nationals.
- How do you price your work?
At the moment, I’m not actively marketing my work, so the short answer is that I don’t, but it is an area that I am very aware of and something I will be working on as well this year.
In the past, some of my photographs have appeared in print because I worked for the publishers or arrangements were made on a quid pro quo basis, i.e. I didn’t always get paid as such. In the 1980s, I flat shared with a music journalist (I’d known him since school), who would get me a photographer’s pass for concerts. He reviewed them; I shot them. The most impressive of these was in Brussels, where I saw (and photographed) Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana performing at a very wet, muddy football stadium. I once photographed David Bowie and Paul Butterfield (the blues harmonica player) together at a London venue and sold a print of that to the Evening Standard.
More recently, after I started posting images on Flickr, I was approached by a publishing company who asked to use an image I shot in Venice but didn’t respond when I enquired about their standard rates of payment. Eventually, they stated that they had no budget to pay for photographs. Having determined that they were affiliated to a large cruise liner operator, I reminded them in writing that all my images were (and currently still are) posted on an “all rights reserved” basis; I wouldn’t grant them a licence and would pursue them for any unauthorised use. I never heard from them again. In contrast, I had a nice approach from a start-up company producing tourist maps. They had found an image I took of the royal barge Gloriana being fitted out at Richmond and asked for permission to use it. They were very honest and upfront about their lack of budget, so I gave them a single-use licence in return for a copyright credit plus three copies of the published map.
- Which current art world trends are you following?
Anyone who knows me will know that I’m not a great one for following trends, be they in art or anything else. I’m not actively following any art trends; there’s plenty of art – be it drawing, painting, sculpture, multi-media installations or photography – to see and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I did take my daughter to see the Venice Biennale d’Arte last year; we were there about two weeks before the flooding and there was some very interesting work there. Equally there was some that left me completely cold.
All of the above images were taken using a smart phone. If you are interested in any of the images Mark put his work up on Flickr or you can contact me and I will pass messages on to him.