“I think my spirituality is my work if I really analyse it closely enough.”
In this interview with the British photographer Barrie Watts we talk about his work in India, his perspectives on spirituality, the particularities of Platinum printing, and much more…
How did you get involved in photography? What is your background?
I’ve been a professional photographer for more years than I care to mention. I originally was an auditor and woke up one morning and decided I couldn’t do it anymore. It was a soul destroying occupation, I wanted to be outside and experience nature and not stuck in an office all day. I wanted to do something where I could pour all my energy into it. I did three years at College initially, and that gave me precious time to work on my portfolio. After that period I hit the streets of London with my portfolio and eventually started finding work. Initially I did anything I could find, including weddings when I couldn’t find anything else.
My main work then was in publishing, especially nature books, and during the time I was doing these I published over eighty titles that were sold worldwide. Then in 2006 I decided to only concentrate my own work and learn Platinum printing, I felt like I had at last found my calling. It was quite a profound moment.
Is there any other media you like -or would like- to express your creativity through? If yes, how does this combine with photography?
Underneath it all I feel I’m a frustrated artist, but I’m really useless at drawing. However I quite like the actual mechanics of photography. I love film and that’s what I grew up with photographically speaking, but the digital equipment we have now makes it possible to capture images we could never do with analogue gear. I’m about to embark on a film/video piece to go with an exhibition of mine that I’m also working on. I hope to work with a young friend of mine who is a superb sound artist. I look forward to see what we can both come up with by bouncing off each other’s ideas.
The series “Road to Kohima” was born from the death of your father and the desire to “get to know him better, even though of course, he didn’t exist anymore”. In what way photography enhanced this experience? Do you feel there are any psychological implications in feeling the urge to shoot your way through such a trip?
To be honest I went to India not knowing what I would find, both from the physical side of things as well as from the emotional and spiritual perspective. All I know was I felt the urge to go and find out for myself, indeed I wanted to go and find myself. I was emotionally at a very low ebb and it was a huge healing experience for me. Of course when your vision is a very tangible and physical one then exposing yourself to a continent like India is very likely going to be a life altering experience. It certainly was for me.
You describe India as a place that “embraces you and beguiles you, and nourishes you…. If you let it”. Have there been any experiences in particular that gave you this sensation? What have you found there that we definitely miss in the west?
Gosh, there have been so many. I suppose the spirituality of the place is a huge influence. You can’t help being emotionally moved by the religious aspect of everyday life in India, even though you might question some aspects of it. One stand out memory must surely be the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2013. On the main Royal Bathing Day there were over twenty million pilgrims attending, just on one day, so that was quite an unforgettable experience. The atmosphere of joy, dedication and release for them was incredible to witness.
What do we miss in the West that I find in India? I suppose the biggest thing is happiness with very few possessions. I found that owning more stuff doesn’t necessarily make you any happier.
Spirituality is a concept that comes up frequently in your work…How would you say it influences your art?
I think my spirituality is my work if I really analyse it closely enough. Over the last few years I have tended to look for subjects that provided me with Tranquility Of The Mind (Samatha), this truly was not a conscious decision of mine, it just happened. I have always believed it was critical to keep an open mind on art, music and religion to enable my mind to grow and be nurtured. Over the years I’ve been more influenced by studying painters and listening to music than looking at other photographer’s work. I suppose if I find the need to worship anything it would be Mother Nature. Being out with a camera and a clear mind is a very Zen like experience for me, it’s addictive.
In your series Samatha the trees are the subjects. What of this life form captures so strongly your attention and what inspired you to start this series? Based on what criteria you choose the trees you want to shoot?
Trees have always moved me, without them the planet as we know it would not exist. They frequently humble me and often I am in awe of them. Again it wasn’t a conscious decision to concentrate on them it was just a series that emerged out of my normal shooting pattern. It’s this almost subliminal absorption of other artistic influences that eventually emerge in other forms in my photographic output. You know, let’s look and listen to this exciting art and music, take it in and let it nourish you. I know it makes me a better person, and eventually a better photographer.
I can’t say why I take a photo of a particular tree at any particular time, it’s just a moment in time. It might be the light at that moment, or the state of my mind at that moment. I often go out with my cameras and come home without shooting anything, that doesn’t particularly matter to me, I’m patient and know when the time is right I’ll get the image I want. The thing that’s most important is that I do the subject justice and with due respect.
Both your works we have mentioned have a monochrome and a color part to them. On what basis do you decide what of the two forms you will use?
I often shoot my tree images in monochrome because I feel they look better that way. I feel stripping away any distractions with regards to colour concentrates the eye to their form more eloquently. Again it really isn’t often a conscious decision of mine to do it that way or this, it’s a gut instinct. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Of course in my India work colour is a vital component of the visual experience, but again it’s not a conscious decision to do it one way or another. One day it would be interesting to just go to India and shoot nothing but Black and White, that would be an interesting test and experience.
An important part of your work is that of being a printmaker. The Platinum Palladium printing process you use is considered one of the finest available ones…Can you tell us more about this method and why you choose it? What does this attention to the physical aspect of your photos tell us of your idea of photography itself?
I put a lot of effort and thought into my work so it was natural that I followed that through to the printing stage and actually did the printing myself. Getting up at some ungodly hour on a cold and damp morning, and walking many kilometres to get to a view or subject, and then handing the file over to get back a substandard print wasn’t on my agenda. So I learned to do Platinum printing. It is the finest monochrome printing process there is.
It’s a time consuming precise process that can sometimes be incredibly frustrating. I mean, it’s easy to do a Platinum print, but it’s not easy to do one that moves you to tears. And I am moved to tears quite often by a print that represents the exact feelings I had when I shot the image in the first place. There is nothing that equals a fine Platinum print, it glows, the image seems to be transmitted rather than reflected, and it seems to possess an inner light. A Platinum print like this can exhibit twice as many tones as a silver gelatine print, the delicate highlight tones are often a revelation. The actual image is embedded in the fibres of the paper and doesn’t sit on the surface like a silver gelatine print. Some people don’t like them because they’re not punchy like a normal silver gelatine print, but a good Platinum print is a sumptuous thing of beauty. Plus of course Platinum is one of the most stable elements on earth, so if you choose a really nice archival cotton paper your print could conceivably last a thousand years if looked after properly. Certainly as long as the paper it’s printed on anyway.
An artist you feel emotionally particularly attached to? Why?
Van Gogh is probably the one artist who I feel emotionally attached to. You can tell the raw emotion that he produced his canvasses with. The tension and passion is so evident. I try and emulate that in my work, I don’t think I’m there yet, but it’s something I consciously strive for. I don’t think he just did his work to make money, other than he sold some canvasses to just survive, so that he could carry on working. He had a passion, a mission. He didn’t play the system like so many modern artists do. I respect that enormously. He is a hero.
A photographer you want to give a shout out to? Why?
My good friend Jerry Young is someone who I would like to say thank you to. He does my website and we often disappear up to the wilds of Scotland for a few days when we can, especially in the Winter. I’ve climbed up and down so many hills with him I’ve lost count. It’s always a privilege to be out in the big outdoors photographing with him.
Thanks for your time! Want to add anything?
Yes, thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you. Also one last thing, a huge heartfelt thanks to my wife Julia, who makes it all possible. I couldn’t do it without her.