Unlocking the Artist | Colin Prior

Unlocking the Artist | Colin Prior

What does it mean to be a professional photographer today when everyone is a photographer? With over 37 years of professional experience, landscape photographer Colin Prior tries to answer this poignant question.

Words by Colin Prior


What does it mean to be a professional photographer today when everyone is a photographer?

How does one make a living when the currency of photography has been devalued? These are poignant questions and are as relevant to me, after 37 years in the business, as they are to an aspiring newcomer – how do you get noticed and more importantly how do you make money?

Despite what you may read in the photographic magazines or online, there are very few photographer’s out there ‘who are living the dream’. I discovered very early in life that if something sounds too good to be true, then it usually is, and I’ve encountered this again and again in photography.

What most artists seek is recognition for their work and sufficient money to survive on; and of the two, the latter is the one that matters. For without financial stability it’s near impossible to create the environment which nurtures creativity – we just need to think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – we can’t reach self-actualisation if we can’t pay the bills.

Recent commission by Transport Scotland of the new Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (Aberdeen Bypass).

Most professional photographers, by the nature of what they do, are living other people’s dreams and not their own.

At the heart of all photography is a desire to express the way we see the world, to reveal the hidden artist within. It’s important to separate what we need to do to make money from what we want to shoot for ourselves.

Our aim should be to create an environment where we can afford to follow our own passion and pursue our own projects. I have often said that ‘making a living’ as a professional photographer gets in the way of taking photographs and for the first ten years of my career, I took few photographs for myself and concentrated on growing my business.

I never lost sight of what I wanted to do but it would have to wait.

Samburu Warrior, Samburu Nature Reserve, Kenya for British Airways.

In this respect, those with a regular income are often better placed to begin that journey than are many professional photographers.

Great photography is always the result of an individual’s passion for a particular subject or some aspect of life which he or she wishes to express through their own eyes. This point is really important – it’s almost impossible to find original subject matter that hasn’t been photographed extensively before but it’s what you, as a photographer, can bring to that subject – a new interpretation and vision that’s important.

My own path as a photographer followed this path and my business has undergone a metamorphosis since I began.

I’ve lived through the digital revolution and survived, having had the best years of film photography where I ran a successful business as a commercial photographer. After the initial ten year period, the business had sufficient momentum to allow me to begin developing my own work and purchased a specialised panoramic camera which delivered an image 3:1 in proportion.

Few photographers had used this camera and its unique format for landscape photography which I came across in the US, where it had been used successfully for advertising photography, and recognised its potential to capture Scotland’s mountains in a new and exciting way.

The camera used 120 roll film and captured four images on a single roll of film, so it ate film, on top of which film processing and scanning costs of the few selects, were incurred.

Back in the early 90’s no one had really seen panoramas like this, and the photographic press developed a healthy appetite for publishing the work in magazines. Following an exhibition in London, entitled ‘The Scottish Visual Experience’, I picked up a publisher and eventually a commission that would lead to me shooting four corporate calendars for British Airways.

With briefs that took me around the world many times, I photographed some of its remotest corners and many of its indigenous cultures. I roamed the Argentinean pampas with gauchos, lived amongst the Himba in Namibia’s Kaokoland, survived a week in a ‘bush camp’ with aboriginal Australians, and documented the life-long relationships between Sri Lanka’s mahouts and their elephants.

Inevitably, I have had a few scrapes – I flew from Kunming in China to Perth, Australia with a fractured skull having survived a taxi accident and spent five weeks in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains with a herniated disk - the consequences of food-poisoning, neither of which I would like to repeat.

The first panorama I shot with the 617 camera from the summit of Ben Starav in Glen Etive, on November 3 1990. Although at the time I didn’t realise it was an epiphany which would change my life.

Now, I was living the dream, but nothing is forever. At this point in my career, I had sufficient momentum in the business and diversified into publishing my own work, initially with large format prints and then a few years later I added calendars which I’ve now been publishing since 1999. Constable published seven books which included, Scotland – The Wild Places, the World’s Wild Places and Scotland’s Finest Landscapes which is the only book currently in print.

Much has changed publishing too over this period, most significantly the demise of independent retailers which has ramifications for every photographer seeking a publisher – Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace has led to the inevitable demise of bookshops, and the ability of publishers to sell books.

The last panorama I shot on midsummer’s eve from the summit of Blaven on the Skye Cuillin, on June 26 2012. A heavy rain shower just before sunset created spectacular condition.

Notwithstanding that, I am a firm believer that there is nothing to beat a well printed, well designed book. I believe that we interact differently with photography on a printed page which is a far more immersive experience compared with viewing images on a screen which we are all too quick to dismiss.

And it is for this reason that I continue to strive for the highest quality imagery that will communicate in the two-dimensional world of photography.

Still photography shares a parallel with conventional art forms such as drawing and painting – the desire of the artist is to work in a two-dimensional space and it is for this reason, alone, that I have no desire to produce films. Since the hybridisation of cameras into video cameras, brands have been driven towards moving content for their websites by the fact that, for the first time in history, moving content can be produced inexpensively.

What has been overlooked, or perhaps is unknown, is that the human brain is incapable of storing moving content and stores images in the memory in still frames. Powerful single images are stored easily and more importantly, for advertisers, can be recalled instantly, something that a video cannot. Normally, it’s a stored image from a sequence that is memorised and when recalled triggers the memory of the movie.

How often have you sat and watched a film thinking that you haven’t seen it before suddenly a stored image is recalled from memory, and you realise that you’ve just wasted another hour of your life watching a film that you’d already seen?

About Colin Prior

Colin Prior, born in Milngavie, Glasgow in 1958, is a landscape photographer.

Prior takes panoramic landscape photographs of Scotland and around the world. He uses the 617 panoramic format extensively in his work shooting Fuji Velvia generally in the "golden hour" at dawn and dusk. To date, Colin has worked on four calendar commissions for British Airways and has had several solo exhibitions, most notably The Scottish Visual Experience, Land's End and The World's Wild Places.

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