Continuing with the View from the Fells Blog, we have an interview with Gez Gethings, all round nice guy and fellow Northerner. We caught up with him last week in his studio for a quick run through of his work and love of Country and Rock. Hope you all enjoy it....
Hi Gez – for those that don’t know, could you tell us who you are & what you do?
My name is Gerrard Gethings. I’m a photographer from the North of England, working in London with my assistant Baxter, a nine year old Border Terrier. He is very much the brains of the operation, like the cat in Hong Kong Phooey. We specialise in formal portraits of animals..
When did you first decide you wanted to get into photography?
It was really a slow process for me. I studied Fine Art at Sheffield University and moved to London to become the finest painter in the whole of England! I stumbled upon a small studio in Mayfair (which was still something you could do in 1997) and set up shop in the next room to Terry O’Neill. I started working for him shortly after moving in. I was with him for ten years and in that time I suppose I picked up a few tips, though I still didn’t see myself being a photographer. I continued to paint and ultimately moved into his studio to save on rent. I imagine there are still painterly fingerprints all over his negatives. Although I didn’t take photographs professionally at this time the seeds were definitely sewn.
What made you choose animals as your main subject? What’s special about them to you?
I’ve always loved animals. If I see one I have to touch it. When I was a kid I would try and catch every creature I ever encountered. I was forever coming home with young birds and hedgehogs. I had snakes in my bedroom and a plastic hamster crate full of crayfish in the yard. There was a toad in the slate pile, a quality Street jar filled with stick insects next to my bed, and I secretly raised a magpie in my friends shed. I could tickle trout and name every British bird by the time I was at primary school. I dreamed of having a Kestrel, but even in the easy going 70’s this was highly illegal. Not that this would have bothered me but my mother was the police in our house and the police said NO.
Spending my life outdoors chasing animals, which I think more kids did back then, it was a no brainer that I would want to work with them, but It took a long time to work out how to do it. The eureka moment was when I found a book by Tim Flach, the heavyweight king of animal photography. It had never occurred to me that you could take creatures into a studio and light them as you would a human subject. It was a proper revelation. Finding this book, and getting my dog Baxter, who became my slightly unwilling subject, were really the decisive moments.
You must have had some pretty difficult photo shoots? Can’t imagine the subject does as you ask? What’s been the most difficult to shoot so far?
Unless it’s someone’s pet the shoot is always tricky. The most difficult things are livestock. Pigs and cows are huge, have no training, and are pack or herd animals. They really don’t like being on their own. When I try and take one off to a quiet corner of a barn that we’ve turned into a studio, they think their number is up. They get nervous and slam on the brakes. It’s impossible to move a stubborn cow and when they are nervous they can be pretty scary. Pigs are interesting. They are intelligent and wary, but also really greedy. You can sense this inner monologue; A battle between their instincts and their stomach. Fortunately, like most of us, their stomach always seems to win. So you can lead them off to the necessary spot by dangling a bucket of grub under their nose.
In September you held your exhibition in Shoreditch, London called ’Ordinary Creatures’ – what was the reaction to that like?
The reaction was amazing. The idea of the show was simple: To invite people to take a closer look at all these undervalued animals. Almost everyone was surprised by just how beautiful a pigeon is when you light it in a studio and blow it up to the size of a swan. Or just how colourful a chicken is, or by the incredible texture of a donkeys muzzle. These everyday animals are unbelievably interesting when you get close and yet a lot of them; the pigs, cows and chickens, have been commoditised to the point where they are treated with no more importance than vegetables. I’m not on a crusade or anything, I’m not even vegetarian, but I do believe that there is more value in these creatures than simply as ingredients. Milk costs about the same as water. A chicken the same as a bag of spuds. I just don’t get it. So I hoped that the show would maybe make people think twice, or look twice. Or that maybe by shooting the animals in the way we did, and trying to make them appear sort of monumental, we could lend them a sense of importance.
Which is your favourite photo from your current collection?
The bees were the most enjoyable to shoot so they’d be my favourites. I bought a bumblebee hive, pointed a camera at the entrance, set up some lights and a remote control, then sat watching them for days. Whenever one flew in or out I’d press the trigger, hoping for the best. It was fun because I couldn’t control it. I could wander in and out and have a brew or a snack. The bees would just get on with it. We all fell in love with them. I Strongly recommend getting a hive. Watching the bees fly in and out is hypnotic and gives you a sense of doing something for the environment. In reality of course you’re just eating biscuits in the sun.
What can we expect from you in in 2017?
In 2017 I plan to do more of the same, but much more. The reaction to the exhibition in terms of print sales has been amazing so with a slight tweak I plan to take the exhibition to a few different parts of the country. The theme will be similar to the London show but I’ll shoot creatures that are relevant to that particular place: We could replace the pigeon with a seagull if we’re near the coast. Highland cattle in Scotland instead of a Friesian cow etc. I also plan on shooting some more exotic creatures to go into the on line print store. A flamingo and a wolf are at the top of the list so if you know anyone who has one, do let me know.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Absolutely everywhere. Now we all have phone cameras it’s mostly a matter of keeping your eyes open and gathering what you find. I look to fashion and interior design for colour inspiration, because ultimately I want my work to end up in people’s walls. The pigeon print from my exhibition is a good example of how this works. The backdrop colour is one of the more popular farrow and ball greys, as are the pigeon’s wings. This is my best selling print and I suspect that it’s because it sits nicely in a living room, rather than because people love pigeons. I also collect photography books. I get them out and take snaps on my phone to put in various mood board folders. I do the same with social media. Every time something interesting pops up I pap it and sneak it into a file. Instagram is great for this and is also a really useful place to find subjects. If you needed a donkey in the old days you would literally be knocking on doors. Nowadays it’s hashtag donkey, and you’re away.
Due to your chosen subject would you class yourself as an Outdoors Man?
Very much so, though I rarely shoot outside. The backdrops and lights just can’t cope with the weather. This having been said, I am never happier than when outside with the dog, surrounded by green stuff. I just got back from a bleak cottage in Cornwall. It was incredible and will be off to Scotland and Cumbria for Christmas and New Year. I’m a huge fan of outdoor clothing too, so going to the countryside is a perfect excuse to buy some ‘essential’ pieces. I love anything well made and durable.: Camping gear, motorbike gear, cycling gear. I have a lovely old Belstaff Trialmaster that I bought from scooter den in 1999. It’s absolutely knackered but I feel like Steve McQueen when I wear it. I probably look like a tramp.
Favourite city to visit and why?
Tokyo, because it’s absolutely bonkers and has amazing food.
Favourite item in your wardrobe?
Ah I’m very fickle. My favourite item is always the most recent thing (usually a jacket) that I bought. I love jackets. At the moment it’s a ridiculous Mammut Goretex, in bright orange. It would look amazing on Scafell Pike but is probably a bit much for Stoke Newington.
Favourite brand on The Northern Fells Clothing Co?
I’m going to have to choose a few: I’m a big fan of Nobis because it feels like a million dollars. I’m loving Adsum NYC for the taped seams and I can’t resist a garment dyed, casual sweatshirt, so Hawksmill Denim Co too. My wife bought a lovely shirt of theirs recently but it’s annoyingly too small for me to borrow.
What do you pack on a weekend away?
Lots of film cameras and too many clothes. I don’t’ get to shoot film at work so always take a few analogue bits and pieces on trips. A 35mm Leica or Olympus and a medium format Bornica are always in my bag. It’s a real buzz getting the pictures a few weeks after the holiday is over. Oh and I always have my trusty Victorinox Swiss Champ pen knife in case I need to open and emergency bottle of wine or remove a stone from a horses hoof.
What 3 things can’t you live without?
My camera, dog and hiking boots. All three of them are 100% reliable, get me out in the countryside, and are never, ever annoying. I’ve had the same pair of Scarpa hiking boots for 25 years and they are still going strong. I couldn’t bear to part with them.
Best bit of life advice?
Do something that you love and surround yourself with bumblebees and dogs.
What twelve tracks are you listening to at the moment?
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to the new Cohen album, so it seemed even sadder when he passed away last week. I’ve been a life long fan and even proposed to my wife in the Chelsea Hotel as a tribute to the song. So, apart from the usual Cohen, Waits, Dylan, Cave obsessions that I guess everyone has, I listen to a lot of random, shameful stuff. I love Country, metal and musicals. I couldn’t decide what to include so I made two playlists. There’s something for everyone in these bad boys:
Cowboys Don’t Cry - https://open.spotify.com/user/viewfromthefells/playlist/4bP97jZRAVlXpTExwCCe4u
Northern Fells Big Night Out - https://open.spotify.com/user/viewfromthefells/playlist/5Ko1WTA0H7y4HJoCPdoUg4