Paul Floyd Blake is a joy to talk to; polite, happy, relaxed and unfazed by the oh-so-noisy building works going on around me during the (unfortunate) timing of our interview. He has every right to be happy at the moment too; having just won the coveted Taylor Wessing National Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery for his picture of young swimmer Rosie Bancroft, doors of opportunity are suddenly opening for this former laundry-worker who decided to pursue his love of photography as a career only a few years ago. Paul’s work documents people and everyday life in a way which is illuminating and which draws the viewer in, wanting to discover more. His current project focuses on young Olympic hopefuls as they journey towards the ultimate dream of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Congratulations on winning the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2009! How did it feel to get the award? Did you think you were in with a good chance?
I knew it was a fantastic picture; I really liked the colours and I really liked the pose that Rosie had as well. So I was quite confident that it would get into the book but in no way did I expect it to win! Then I got a phone call while I was on holiday in Norfolk to say I’d got into the final four…so then I started thinking ‘I’ve won! I’ve won!’…until I saw the standard of the other entrants and then I started thinking ‘oh, well, fourth will be good!’. It was just fantastic to be in that final four and then to go along on the night was really exciting. I’d convinced myself by that point that I had come fourth and I was so surprised to be in that final four so to then actually win it was just fantastic. The spin-offs from it have been brilliant. I’ve already been approached by the Foreign Office to go off around the world taking photographs in other countries; that’s not been finalised yet but they’re still making enquiries to see how we can get that together.
How did the subject, Rosie Bancroft, react when she found out?
I invited Rosie and her family along on the night and she got herself a posh frock for the evening so that was lovely. She was really excited by it all and as they were calling out fourth place – then third – and it still wasn’t us yet we started to get very over-excited! So it was a really lovely experience.
You started studying photography as a mature student; has it always been a passion of yours and did you always envisage it as a career path?
When I was younger I wanted to go to art college but I was a pretty poor student really and more interested in playing football! So I just didn’t get the qualifications I needed to go to art school. I ended up in a series of jobs in the laundry business which was actually quite good experience in the end; for the last five years I’ve been driving around, meeting lots of people and by then I’d already started taking photographs and thought it would be lovely to do little project focusing on all my lovely customers. I didn’t really have the confidence or the time to do it then, what with trying to bring up two boys and do a full-time job. Then my partner and I moved and it was my intention to start the same line of work in the laundy business in our location but she said to me , ‘look, rather than do something that you’re not that bothered about, why don’t you do something that you really like?’. Then she shoved me off to college! I ended up doing the first year of the National Diploma and that’s when things started working in my favour. There was a photographer that I knew who invited me to assist him on a cultural programme on the Commonwealth Games. That was a six-month programme and he very graciously let me take photographs rather than carry the bags. Towards the end he was sending me off to do shoots on my own as he was so busy. It was that time that really gave me confidence and made me believe that I could actually do this. His name is Matt Squire by the way – I always feel I have to credit him because I’m that grateful!
You work for clients as well as heading your own projects and exhibitions. Which do you find more challenging; meeting the tight deadlines of others or ensuring your own work is successful?
I actually really enjoy doing both. If my client work dries up for a bit and I’m just concentrating on my own work, I can get a bit lost in what I’m doing so it’s nice to have the contrast. Likewise, if I’m only doing client work I get a bit worried that I’m not fulfilling my photographic yearnings if you like! So for me, they really work well in tandem.
How easy (or difficult!) is it to get your work into galleries and published? Is there any advice you could offer anybody trying to achieve the same?
In my experience, it’s having the front go just go and approach people and get talking to them! I’m always sending my work off to galleries and I’m always trying to meet people from that field. I’m not really a pushy person but when it comes to this I do think you just HAVE to meet and talk to people who work in that area. Even if they’re not going to give you an exhibition, they are going to give you advice.
What inspires you to document certain themes or aspects of life? Do you have ideas in your head or do you find yourself being inspired by a chance observation or random event?
I suppose I’m always thinking about ideas. When I was younger I had a couple of friends who were very funny and who were great observationalists; one of them’s an actor now and spending time with them made me appreciate all the little details and idiosynchrases of people and since then I’m always on the lookout for those qualities.
If you’re looking around you, you’ll always see beautiful things going on and I try and pick those out. Taking photographs sparks new ideas in itself anyway; you might take a photo of one subject and when it’s developed something else comes out of the picture at you and sparks off a new idea.
How is your current project On Track For 2012 going (apart from having just won a major prize, obviously!). Are you finding that new ideas are coming to you as it’s going along or have you stuck to the brief you originally had a the start?
I had a shoot in London at the weekend and I got lost and then when I got to the venue it was one of these breeze-block-and-corrogated-iron structures with no natural light – generally a very sad venue! I really struggled to get a nice picture with that set-up and after days like that it’s quite demoralising. But generally it is going well and the ideas that come out of it are developing. When I started it was just to capture a shadow of these people and to see them grow up and hope that one of them would get to the Olympics. But as time goes on I’m starting to see a lot of other themes coming out of the work. The ultra-professional world that these athletes live in, the amount of time and dedication – not only for the athletes but for the families as well – and the different relationships between the coaches and the athletes; all of these things are coming into the project. I don’t know if I’ll be able to convey all these elements within the pictures but they all affect the way in which I take the pictures now. The core of it is still seeing these youngsters grow up; it’s fantastic! You start to feel part of their lives; I was there when Rosie Bancroft beat her personal best and I was there when Matt Roberts jumped his personal best and it’s so special to be there. Even though I see them once, maybe twice, during the year, I do have dialogue with them throughout the year as well and try to get them to write about their experiences as they go along so for me it does feel like I’m getting to know them pretty well. They’re letting me into their lives so it’s a big deal on their part too. And I hope that’s good for both of us!
How long does it take for a project or exhibition idea to take shape? Can it develop over months or do you get an idea, decide on that and start to shoot it straight away?
They vary really. For example, the ‘Show Us A Sign’ series (a collection of photographs of signs outside churches taken round the country) took a long time. It was really enjoyable hunting down and finding these signs, some of which were very funny! I’ve got over a hundred of those now and am hoping to get them published. From seeing and photographing the first sign, adding a couple more to the collection and then realising one day that this could be a great project – that was a couple of years.
But sometimes it’s really nice to do a short project and sometimes that is the best way to do it. If a project goes on for too long I find I can start going all formulaic with it. The enthusiasm for it can wane as well. So again I think it’s something that works best if there’s a mixture; one-day projects for some and others which take a whole lot longer!
You shoot with a large format 5X4 Wista Field Camera; have you always used this type of camera and what do you like about it? Does it particularly suit the projects that you do for any particular reason?
First and foremost it’s got fantastic quality to it. So for definition and information in the image it’s brilliant. Photographs taken with it have a very distinctive look to them which is another appeal. It is actually quite difficult to use; they are the old-fashioned plate cameras – you put in one sheet of film and it takes time to set it up and to focus it and so on. The other side is the cermony of it; when you’ve got a digital camera and you’re holding it up to your eye and firing away it’s reminiscent of the paparazzi! People react differently to that style of shooting than they do to this camera because I have to go under a blanket and they see me using the bellows and so on and it seems to them to be more of an occasion. They’re less afraid of it and more giving in their poses!
What has been your favourite exhibition or series that you’ve produced to date and why?
Well, you’ve got to enjoy doing them all really! I suppose the one so far that I got the most enjoyment out of was the first one that I did which was called ‘Changing Faces Of Yorkshire’. I was just starting a degree and started to explore the Pakistani community there. That led me to explore other communities of Yorkshire so it was fantastic, going to meet the South American community in Leeds, the West Indian community in Doncaster and so on.
It was a fantastic way of meeting lovely people and when I put the exhibition on in Halifax, loads of people came to see it. And these were people who wouldn’t normally even consider going to galleries so to them it was a real occasion; they all brought food and drinks and it was a really beautiful experience. Whilst I want to make beautiful and intriguing images, I also want to make very accessible images that everyone can enjoy.
What place do you feel photography has in today’s society when it comes to documentation? Do you feel it’s sometimes trivialised by paparazzi and society’s obsession with celebrity?
Everyone takes images now, don’t they? There are mobile phone cameras and digitals and so on…I must admit that I do think it’s a shame when people are at a gig or a concert and rather than take it in and watch it they’re standing there holding their cameras or phones up to take a picture. You should just enjoy what’s in front of you in the moment! I think there is a boom in photography; it seems to me that there are more photography competitions and contests going on and lots of organisations being established which promote photography and not just instant snaps. That can only be a good thing; as far as the ‘celebrity shot’ is concerned, it does seem to be a bit of an obsession or a phase that society is going through at the moment! For me, I’m not at all bothered about celebrity. I’m interested in people and if they happen to be famous, all well and good but I wouldn’t photograph them purely because they’re famous.
Do you aim to provoke a certain response from your audience with your photography?
It’s difficult because when you take a photograph, you always want to produce something that’s special and which isn’t just a straightforward image. I find it hard to create a sense of intrigue or vagueness in a picture. So I’m sure that I’ve still got loads to learn and a long way to go but I’m enjoying trying to make my way there!
Are there any downsides to the job?
It’d be horrible to say that there are because it’s just such a fantastic job! So….no!
Would you recommend photography as a career to others? How might you suggest somebody who is interested get started?
Try to assist someone; that’s always worth a shot because you get so much experience. Sometimes people make photography out to be far more complicated than it really is. I think that if you just put yourself in a position to take lots of photographs, you can actually really surprise yourself. Just take photographs! I learn from taking them and the more I take, the better I become. I always make sure that I don’t go too long without taking some.
What do you love about your job?
It’s fantastic to be creative and it’s awe-inspiring when you take a picture and see the finished result and think ‘wow…I took that!’. Even more fantastic than that is the great excuse it gives you to go and meet lots of people! You can dip into their lives and make friends with them and so on. For me, that’s the best aspect of it.
I’d like to thank Paul for his time and his allowing us a glimpse into his inspirational career. You can see more of Paul’s work and his other projects at his website: