November 17th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
This article is part of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.
Giles McGarry is an IT consultant during the day and a photographer in his spare time. For Giles photography is an escape from the long hours of work. His long exposure photography, initially inspired by the work of Michael Kenna, is a way of slowing things down, seeing what can’t normally be seen. I hope that makes sense. And if it doesn’t, I’m sure it will after you read the interview.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
For me this is difficult as it’s something I’ve never really thought of before – let alone had to put into words. I think what I’m trying to do with my photography is capture images of fairly ordinary scenes but in a way that few people see. I guess I’m attempting to abstract life from reality a little, trying simplify my surrounding and reduce the chaos that lies within.
Name three photographers you like and why.
Only three? There are so many that I like.
Irene Kung is the most remarkable photographer I’ve come across. Her architecture work is truly outstanding, isolated, dark and mysterious. This style continues in her other work whether that be horses or waves – in fact there’s the most stunning wave on the front page of her website. If I could buy any photo and have it on my living room wall it would be that one.
Christopher Thomas takes the most amazing photos. His work, especially New York Sleeps, really resonates with me. The way he depicts his landscapes devoid of life and people, calm and serene. His images utterly captivate me. A definite favourite on my bookshelves.
Both these photographers have published amazing images of the Flat Iron building in New York – yet to look at them, you wouldn’t know it was the same building.
And finally, Harry Callahan. I’ve only recently really been aware of Harry Callahan’s work, but after a trip to the library it immediately struck a chord. It instantly inspired me, especially with his experimentation with other techniques and his use of repetition and uniformity.
Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?
For me photography is an antidote to my real life. An escape if you will. My real life is busy, stressful, long hours and little sleep. Long exposure photography through necessity makes me slow down, makes me stand still, makes me look, watch and see, when I’m shooting I manage for a period to jump off the treadmill. You could say it’s my way to relax.
As for the photographs, the thing that most attracts me is the simplification that long exposures can provide, breaking up the complexity of waves or clouds that create a background rather than taking over the subject. On occasion they also add a certain sense of drama that might not otherwise be there.
Why black and white – what is the appeal for you?
It’s interesting. I never started out taking black and white at all. In fact looking at my work from Hong Kong and Shanghai it was the colour and its vibrancy that I was trying to capture.
However after a few experiments with black and white I began to see more. With colour, it was just the colour that I was seeing – not really seeing the scene beyond. What I saw with black and white was somehow greater than with colour. Previously hidden details and textures began to shine through, not to mention subtleties that would have otherwise been lost. That’s really what got me hooked.
There are a lot seascapes in your portfolio. What is the attraction of the sea for you as a subject? What is your favourite place to take long exposure photos?
I’ve always loved the coast, how in the summer it’s so calm and relaxing, and yet in the autumn and winter how powerful the sea can be and it’s constantly changing too. In my quest to escape and to relax it was a natural place to go – and I’m lucky living thirty minutes from the east coast of the UK. So I would spend my hours standing and sitting watching the sea – and whilst doing that I was shooting too – totally relaxing. I head to the east coast a lot as it’s close but it’s not the most interesting of coast lines. Having been to Dorset for the first time last year it jumped straight to the top of my favourite place list. Which reminds me, I must get down there again!
You also have a lot of architectural photos. How does photographing buildings differ from the landscape? In what ways is it similar?
Architecture photography is so very different to landscapes and seascapes. I find it easier to find a subject in the city and create a composition I like, although I still have to work hard at it. I can shoot in the city and find something that’s not been done before. I guess it’s the strong lines and the geometry that appeal to me and these are often absent in landscapes.
So whilst it’s easier to find and compose the shot – actually executing that shot is far more difficult physically and mentally. It’s more of a challenge. Often the camera is at odd angles. Often you’re wedged tightly against a wall, or dodging traffic and pedestrians, not to mention security; occasionally lying completely flat on the ground looking up.
Photographically there are also challenges especially with the weather, the cloud formations and the light, and not really knowing or being able to predict exactly how a shot is going to turn out.
There are similarities – when doing long exposures whether at the coast or in the city you become a bit of a magnet. Total strangers come up and ask what you’re doing and why. Sometimes they understand, other times they think you’re barking mad, and occasionally you just get someone jumping in front of your lens!!!
What is your approach to long exposure photography? Do you plan the shoot first, and try to take an image that matches your vision? Or do you go out without a fixed idea, and respond to what you find?
For seascapes I do plan before hand. I try and get an understanding as to what a place might be like before I visit. I use Google Maps and Street View a lot to get an idea of the area and do quite a lot of preparation just on the internet. I also look at the weather and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which I often use to know where the sun is going to be.
For architecture and cityscapes it’s different and very much more opportunistic – at least in London. I have a fabulous camera bag from Lowepro that allows me to get my work laptop, notebook etc plus my camera gear and tripod all packed away in the bag itself, so I can go to work as a normal commuter without it looking like I’m on a photo expedition.
This means I can carry my kit everyday – and I do, which means I can react somewhat to the weather and conditions. I still look at the weather forecasts the night before. If the conditions look good then I’ll get up and catch the earliest train I can and shoot before work. Or I’ll shoot after work, again depending on weather.
I also have a list of places that I’d like to shoot that I’m constantly updating. These generally come from architectural magazines and blogs rather than from Flickr or 500px. I do love Flickr and 500px but I find that the images on those sites influence me too much, or worse still block me from what I want to do. So I get an idea of a building or an area, but from then on in it’s just wandering around looking for the right angle, or the convergence of lines and shapes.
In fact I guess that characterises how I shoot. I will wander round first just getting the feel of a place and trying to understand the light, the shapes and that interplay between the two.
How important is light in your imagery? What types of light do you prefer for long exposure photography?
I don’t really have a great amount of time. I would love to have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the perfect light, but I just can’t – so I sort of make do with whatever light I have at that moment. So I’ll shoot dawn, dusk, midday, middle of the night.
Is there a best time? it’s difficult to say, unlike many of my contemporaries I actually like strong direct light, especially for architecture. I love the contrasts between the shadows and the highlights. It is difficult shooting in this light, and actually not that common in the UK. More often than not it’s completely overcast – which certainly flattens everything but can also make architecture seamlessly blend into the surroundings.
There is a strong design element in your compositions – an awareness of geometry, graphic design and negative space. Do you agree? How would you sum up your approach to composition?
Yes I think I would agree. I constantly doodle at work especially in meetings without really looking at what I’m drawing. But when you look at the doodles they’re all very geometric, angular and sharp, there’s also repetition and uniformity. I think that’s what I look for in my composition but it’s all really quite subconscious. I don’t think I’ve ever thought hard about that side of things.
I believe you attended a Michael Levin workshop in Brighton last year. How was the experience and what did you learn from it?
I’ve been on a couple of Michael Levin workshops now. Michael is so open and honest and he tells you things how they are – good and bad. He also has such experience. He’s got to where we all aspire to get to, and he’s totally open about how he got there. Not to mention the mistakes he made on the way.
Michael also really helped me identify my strengths, my weaknesses and helped focus me on where I should be aiming. In fact what he did was listen and make me listen to myself. What he really picked up on I knew deep down already but I just didn’t realise it. He also gave me a real boost in confidence too. But to Michael’s credit, the workshop wasn’t all about Michael. Actually it was a catalyst for some like minded photographers to come together, to chat, to drink and to inspire each other.
Here is some more of Giles McGarry’s work:
If you’d like to learn more about long exposure photography, my ebook Slow takes you through the creative possibilities of using slow shutter speeds, from blurring motion with a shutter speed of 1/30 second all the way to long exposure techniques using shutter speeds of five minutes or longer.
All photos in this interview are protected by copyright. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.