The next in our series, Photographer Interviews, Nomads on the Road is profiling documentary photographer, Steve Gray, as he gears up for the launch of his new book, Borderland: Where England meets Wales’.
Documentary photography and film photography is making somewhat of a resurgence, one of those photographers leading the revival is Steve Gray, a contemporary documentary photographer living in Herefordshire, close to the border with Wales.
Steve has been holding a camera since a family holiday to the Channel Islands, his memories are of walking the beaches and photographing the shells, rocks and waves. He says that as a young boy, it seemed a ‘magical process’ that a film could be sent away and come back as these photographs. The vast majority of his childhood was spent outdoors, this had a huge impact (professionally he works in environmental conservation), while also leading to a deep love of landscapes and the natural world
This love of the outdoors fuelled the initial interest in what Steve’s describes as ‘traditional landscape photography’. “I used to spend hours meticulously planning each outing, with an exact condition in mind I was hoping would appear, to provide the optimum opportunity to capture the scene I envisaged.”
Yet a couple of years ago, despite years of trying, his traditional landscape type photography let him cold.
“Whilst I had become technically proficient, they didn’t feel the way I wanted my images to,” he recalls.
It was at this time that Steve started to experiment with photography in a different way, leading to his documentary-style landscape photography that we see in his new book ‘Borderland’.
Borderland: Where England meets Wales’ is a collection of photographs from the area close to Steve’s Kingstone, Herefordshire home.
“I started photographing ordinary things in a way that captured what they actually looked like the majority of the time.”
“I have spent years exploring the remote hills and valleys along the border between Herefordshire and South Wales and this is the subject of the book,” he explains.
While the book is about the landscape, it not a book full of beautiful misty mornings or golden sunsets. ‘It is more about the influence of humans of this rural hinterland and how the land is changing.’
Steve says: “I started photographing ordinary things in a way that captured what they actually looked like the majority of the time.”
The idea behind Borderland (which Steve is self-publishing), stems from the desire to explore the hidden borderland between England and Wales and capture the everyday scenes and items he encountered.The title encapsulates the fact the area which is featured in the book is often overlooked and it is a land between – not quite Wales and not quite England.
“It’s really a visual story about change: from one country to another, from lowland farms to dramatic hills and also change in terms of a way of life fast disappearing from these remote uplands,” he declares.
While Steve is still an admirer of more traditional landscape photography, he believes that many photographers are capturing a sense of place in their work, in an approach that pushes the boundaries of what we know as landscape photography. Merging landscape with other genres, portraits, documentary, photojournalism.
“I see this as a very good thing, as ultimately there is really only photography and the categories are just labels we apply to certain themes or types of work. I’m not sure this is necessary. What’s most important is to photograph what you know best, what’s around you and enjoy the process,” Steve says.
Borderland is not Steve’s first project. On his website, there are a few others highlighted. Postcards from Cambridge, MA, Postcards from Snowdonia and Beneath the Dreaming Spires, I asked Steve about these projects, where his inspiration comes from and why does he think projects are vital for his style of photography.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked entirely on a project basis. I can’t work on individual images and don’t really see how they can tell the viewer anything.
“It is through a series of images (carefully paired and sequenced, which is why I love the photo book format) that I think you are able to say something through your images,” Steve explains.
With Borderland, at the time of the interview, in the final stages of design and shortly off to the printers, Steve is now focusing on a new project. With the tentative working title of ‘Beneath The Dreaming Spires’, this project will focus on Oxford but aims to capture a different to the city, away from the world of academia and the architecture the city is world famous for.
Steve’s previous projects include his ‘Postcards’ series, where he has focused on a particular location but has just a few days to photograph.
Projects play a huge role in Steve’s photography and while ideas for these projects come and go, he finds that the premise of projects allows him to keep his photography fresh and exciting.
He states: “It can be a challenging way to work, but ultimately I find it extremely rewarding.”
Steve’s work, as previously mentioned, is a mix documentary and landscapes, he believes that while his work is documentary in style now it does allow some leeway to bring the landscape in as a subject. He remarks: “I guess the difference is that for me now, in the way I work, the landscape itself is a place where events happen and things can be found that I would like to photograph (however small or inconsequential they may seem, rather than being the subject in itself.”
Putting a label on your photography is something a lot of photographers feel they have to do, is it travel, or landscape or street? Steve doesn’t believe it is important to put such labels on your photography. But when pushed, described some of his work as contemporary landscape photography. “I think it captures the fact the landscape (both rural and urban) is where my photography takes place, and I have a contemporary take on the genre as I am not really interested in the landscape itself but more the everyday and ordinary things I find when exploring it.”
With such a range of genres on display within his photography, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Steve’s influences stretch beyond the lens. Bruce Chatwin, a travel writer best known for the inspiring ‘In Patagonia’, is one such influence. Chatwin’s brilliant ‘On The Black Hill’ is a major influence for Steve’s ‘Borderland’. Chatwin’s book tells the story of brothers who are born, grow up and farm on the Welsh side of the Black Hill.
He says: “It is wonderfully written and very evocative of the area I now call home. I read and re-read this book many times during the course of shooting the images for ‘Borderland’.”
What goes into making a great photograph has long been debated but Steve’s take is simple. A great photograph will convey the feeling the photographer had at the time. “It isn’t really important whether anyone else likes it. Undoubtedly there are moments with light, timing and technique combine with a subject to create an image that stirs a strong emotional response from the viewer – this is probably as close as I can get to a definition of a ‘great photograph’.”
Steve has an instinctive approach to his photography, working quickly with his 35mm compact film camera, a Yeshica T4. Shooting handheld and using Agfa Vista 200 film, he is able to hone in on what caught his eye, photograph and move on. With this approach, Steve forgoes researching a location. “I used to do this, but I can honestly say I don’t be research anymore. The process is just to go somewhere, walk around and see what I see. I never have a set route: if I see a road or track that looks interesting, I will take it.”