Visiting lecturer Tom Oldham came in to speak to us about his journey through his career of commercial photography and his work which has helped him get to where he is today.
In the beginning, Oldham was terrified of being a photographer and didn’t know what to do with it. He studied a two year national diploma in Plymouth which led him to become a working member of the erc in PCA. His fears of photography also included studio flash. His interests included music, as he liked to photograph what he saw. To start off, he photographed night events for local magazines to help his images get to a standard where they could be published. He aspired to be published in Sleeze Nation magazine, which was his favourite. This became his target when shooting. After a long wait, he finally found his urinal image in the magazine and later his image of nude men in the sea became a whole page spread in the magazine. He explained this as “the best feeling” he’d ever had. Following this, he decided to set up his own magazine in Brighton. He eventually got into photographing PR, events and parties which ultimately made him a freelance photographer which allowed him to pick up many jobs in London.
When getting into the depth of his career, Oldham started photographing famous people. Oldham said that in the words of Avedon, you photograph famous people to become famous. He suggested that you don’t always require a model release form when photographing famous people as they get the publicity from the images and you get the work, so it’s happy days for everyone. Oldham said it’s important when you come away with work, you should come away with a story from it too. One of his examples for this was when he photographed Ginger Baker. He let Baker’s dog out by mistake which led to Baker to lose his temper with Oldham and call him a “bloody idiot”. This gives Oldham’s images a background and something nostalgic to remember when browsing through the images. These images got published in a magazine.
Other famous people he has photographed include: Usain Bolt, who he described as an interesting individual, who he photographed for Puma and a sports magazine; Alicia Keys, who he waited 8 hours to arrive. He used 1 light to do this shoot; Nick Cave, which used a 2 light set up for Mojo Magazine; Dave Gilmore from Pink Floyd, with whom he only had 20 minutes to shoot with 1 light and 1 fill light as he hates having photos taken; Thierry Henry for Shortlist magazine; actress and singer Skye Ferrera, who was shot in a hotel room. Oldham had to produce 3 sets in 17 minutes using just a reflective brolly like Annie Leibovitz; Richard Branson, with who he only got 3 frames before he left; Blur, who said “good luck” to Oldham as he is difficult to photograph; 1960’s singer Smokey Robinson, who he said was an honour to meet; and the Arctic Monkeys, who he researched the style of to be able to include it in his images so he wouldn’t “fuck it up”.
When photographing John Cooper Clarke for the National Trust in Dorset, he had to use plates to create the image. This was something I had never heard of before. From what I could understand it is essentially when you photograph the subject and the background separately and then join them together in the editing process. For this he used just 2 lights. He has several retouchers as he isn’t the best at using Photoshop. Time and budget is important and these two factors determine which retoucher he uses for a job.
Besides the famous people, Oldham does a lot of personal work. He said that this is the work people want to see and illustrates where the photographer’s heart is within photography. One of his first personal shoots was his project on the “Durneys” which he has shot 4/5 times. He used old school retouching which he was proud of as it was his own, self-directed brief, which ultimately gives him more reward. To light the images he used either just 1 fill light or 2 elinchrom lights.
Another personal project was photographing artists before and after gigs which became a published book and exhibition. This was also on the homepage of the Guardian, NME, Kerrang and Times magazine. He also works for Puma to illustrate products being used by footballers, and takes part in commission paid work. Although commissioned, he owns all the copyright to the images but has to wait to publish them for a while. He also photographs public events such as Black Friday Mayhem so he can market himself as someone expensive, who does take part in generic photography too.
One of his most recent projects was photographing Gilbert and George for Time Out New York. One of his images got accepted into the Taylor Wessing Awards which he said was one of his best achievements yet.
Oldham explained that he works with various people and not just one specific publisher, which he manages to do through word of mouth, however he aims to have few clients that ask for regular work from him. He dreads working with people he’s never worked for before, which I can only imagine is because of the added pressure of getting things right, and the uncertainty of the person, but this is only my own opinion. To get himself out there, Oldham actively markets himself consistently through social media and blogs, although he said this is not always accountable.
Oldham suggested a few tips during his talk about what to say and do during photoshoots to ease tension and make the atmosphere more comfortable. One of these was to assess mid-shoot if it’s going well and if you think it is, show the model the images to see how they feel about them. He said however, that this is not as easy with females as they are much more image-sensitive. To disarm a situation, Oldham uses humour which essentially allows technical elements to work while still being creative with the client. He suggested that you have to know your stuff – not just technically but about the client too as you have to make them feel comfortable – no one WANTS to be photographed, and especially when you never get anything more than an hour to shoot, you have to make them comfortable quickly enough to get the desired shots and make the most of the time.
Oldham owns a Hasselblad H50C and 2 Nikons. He has managed to meet some real icons such as Smokey Robinson and the job has allowed him to travel a lot. Photography isn’t always worth the money you earn but gives you opportunities like the shoot he did with Leon Bridges for Time Out New York which only paid him £150 but he was published in a major magazine. Oldham said it’s not “easier” to photograph beauty. He never asks for autographs or “selfies” etc., so he can retain his professional stance with his clients, although on rare occasion he has done this. He uses a lot of battery powered lighting for outdoor shoots. Oldham earns a good wage as he is paid to take the photo and then paid for the usage of it, however he said this doesn’t last long after you’ve paid for your team and equipment – shoots cost money so Leon Bridges in Shoreditch, East London UKthe wage doesn’t last. He has had good years and bad years with work. All his team are freelancers and he promotes himself with a maximum of 2 or 3 people. He believes that talent is people’s skills and hard work and NOT photography.
Overall, Tom Oldham was a really intriguing and friendly guy to have listened to. I learnt a lot from him surrounding lighting techniques, plates, and just generally working with clients. His work is so interesting and aesthetically good to look at, and after hearing some of his personal stories from his clients it makes me wonder what other stories lay behind his images. I would be so interested in hearing from him again to learn some more about his work.