Photography & Inspiration: Tony Shelley

All images in this piece belong to and are copyrighted to Tony Shelley.

Every time I want to write about somebody who I find inspiring and amazing I am at a loss on where to start. I want to do these people justice and showcase why they are so inspiring to me but then I get stuck worrying that I won't find the right words. But I don't need to find the right words the work that these people do speaks for itself. Art is always personal - the artist creates a piece of work that comes from his or her heart; the person who comes in contact with this piece of art then interprets it in his or her own personal way.I can just tell you why someone inspires me, and let their work inspire you in the same way.

My mother's best friend from when she was a child (these ladies go back so far I don't even know if they remember when they actually met) put me in touch with Tony Shelley earlier this year. She thought that we would enjoy each others photography and also thought that we had a lot in common - and she was absolutely right! The first time I browsed through Tony's Flickr pages I was mesmerized by the depth of the images I saw; each photograph formed words in my mind that I wanted to develop into a story. Tony now focuses on Pinhole images, constructing his own cameras as well as converting others to create beautiful images. He has an exhibition coming up in a couple of weeks, one that I really wish I was able to go to, called "Needleworks", and will be held at the Leicester People's Photographic Gallery. The exhibition will showcase some of Tony's pinhole portraits that he has taken since 1998. For me, many of his images have a dream-like atmosphere, hovering somewhere between photograph and painting.

Tony has spent time looking through my own work of photography over the past few months and has provided some wonderful feedback that inspired me to continue when I was a bit bored with my own work. I've been wanting to write a piece on him for a while and he graciously agreed to respond to some interview questions I put together. Not only is Tony Shelley a wonderful photographer and artist, he also happens to be a wonderful and kind human being too. Here are my questions and his answers, and some of my own comments in italics.

JAH: Tell me a little about yourself (where you were born, grew up, education, passions etc).
TS: I was born on October 17, 1953, the year that chocolate rationing ended in the UK after World War 2. I grew up on the notorious council estate called New Parks, which is situated in the west district of Leicester City, deep in the heart of England. I hated school from day one. I was in the peculiar position of being a bright kid, who wasn't interested in being educated. Being overweight, I was constantly bullied, so I escaped into books, writing, and in 1966, I acquired my first camera. Somewhere, I have six negatives from my first-ever shoot, aeroplanes in Nottingham.
I left school at 16, and went into the printing industry and was there for seven years. For the first time in my life I had money, so I quickly acquired a taste for booze, drugs, music and live gigs. It was the beginning of a twenty years addiction, and at the age of 36, the excess of all those years beat me into the ground and I hit rock bottom with two attempts at suicide. When that didn't work, I went into rehab, and never had a drink from that moment on.

(I think my own follow up question to this would be: did photography "save" you or did sobriety just make you more intent on creating more images? I know that's a tough one to answer because I can't answer it myself!).

JAH: How were you drawn to photography and/or was there an event that lead you to start taking your photography seriously, i.e. as more than just a pastime?
TS: Photography came into my life in a big way around 1980. In my sober times, I began to write freelance for small time music magazines, or 'fanzines' as they were known. I found out I could double my fee if I provided pictures, so I purchased my first serious SLR, a Canon, can't remember the model and two lenses, a 50mm and a 135mm. I used to develop the films in the family kitchen or bathroom. It was a bit hit and miss, but I began to enjoy the photography more than the writing. Back then it was very difficult to get a camera into a gig, so I devised various ways to smuggle my gear in. It was a lot of fun, and with the images, I got a unique souvenir of the night: my own pictures.

(In 1993, Tony got a call from the manager of Ainleys Records in Leicester saying something along the lines of "oh, this band called Radiohead are coming to the shop today, I've never heard of them but if you wanna come down and shoot pictures". Pretty cool, right?!)

JAH: Tell me more about your specific type of photography and how you ended up focusing on pinhole. If you could explain what your work entails from beginning to end that would be great! Do you print your own photos?
TS: In 1997, having shot pictures of bands, landscapes and all kinds of subjects for many years, I found myself becoming bored with shooting pictures and was close to hanging up my camera altogether, when by accident I happened upon a BBC TV documentary called 'An Italian Dream' which showcased the work of Irish photographer David Gepp, and his project of photographing Venice with a 5 x 4 pinhole camera. That programme was my own personal road to Damascus. I was completely hooked, and the following morning, I constructed my own pinhole camera and I've never looked back. Sometime later I met David Gepp in person and we became great friends. At the moment I'm using three different pinhole formats: a 10 x 8 wide angle camera for paper negatives, a converted Russian Lubitel 6 x 6 for film, and also a pinhole bodycap on my Canon EOS 20D digital. The latter has been introducing some amazing results. By and large, I still develop my own film, but 95% of the printing is done at a local print shop.
JAH: Have you traveled for photography? Where has photography taken you to in the world?
TS: Not so much with pinhole, but I have traveled a little with my photography. In February 1990, a year into rehab, I gave up my day job at the printers, and traveled to Nicaragua, to photograph the elections over there. It was a fabulous trip, and when I returned to England about a month later, I had an exhibition at a local gallery. Prior to that I'd been to Leningrad, a couple of years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I've also photographed in Ireland, France, Spain, Rhodes, Samos, and Italy. In Rome, I was mooching around the Vatican when my girlfriend at the time pointed out some commotion going on, and it turned out to be the actress Bridget Bardot. I managed to get a few shots, that was a real treat.
(The Leningrad images are some of my favourite that Tony has on his Flickr pages. They evoke many different emotions in my opinion, and I adore the choice of black and white for the starkness. These are the type of images I aim to be able to produce one day).

(Leningrad, 1988)

JAH: Do you have any specific experiences while you were shooting where you felt moved/scared/upset?
TS: In the 1980's I photographed a lot of political demonstrations, many of which turned to violence, fueled by agitators spewing out flaming rhetoric. Seeing this mindless pest take hold scared the hell out of me, and more often than not, I walked or ran away. After a couple of years I couldn't take any more of this crap, and I gave up shooting demos altogether. Something which I have no regrets in doing. After this I concentrated on more gentle subjects like people, landscape, the great wide open... It was a wonderful healing process if you like, just me, the countryside and a couple of cameras: Heaven.

JAH: How did the upcoming exhibition come about, and what is the main focus?
TS:My latest exhibition, 'Needleworks' (pinhole portraits), is really a little bit of a retrospective of many of the face studies I've produced since 1998. It's being held at the Leicester People's Photographic Gallery, which is a beautiful building, a converted library with lots of space and good lighting. The exhibition is also something of a healing process for me. It's being dedicated to a couple of close friends, a brother and sister who have died in the last few years, the former in 2007 and the latter just before last Christmas, however I don't want to elaborate on their deaths. It's been hard work putting it all together, and Cathy, my wife, has provided enormous encouragement and support.

JAH: How did you go about choosing the pieces for your exhibition? Was it an arduous task?
TS: It was a little difficult knowing what to put in and what to leave out. In the end, I concentrated on my 6 x 6 negatives, as most of the portraits were shot with the Lubitel. There's more black and white than colour, and there will be three large pinhole digital portraits. You have to step back to really appreciate these. However, the centrepiece will be a portrait of a baby elephant I photographed at Chester Zoo, about fifteen years ago. This image has to be printed 'big' to appreciate it.

JAH: Are there any places that you dream of going to just to photograph?
TS: The one place in the entire world I would like to photograph with a pinhole camera is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Firstly because I've seen the images Ansel Adams made in the 1930's when it was under construction, and I was knocked out by them. Secondly, Grace is the location where one of my favourite LP's was recorded (in part anyway) 'Gandharva' by Beaver & Krause in 1971. I still play that possibly more than anything else in my collection, and it would be great to stand in the structure where one side of this masterpiece was put down on tape. It's an ambition I really hope to fulfill.

JAH: What do you look for when you take a picture? I myself see an image in my head and it surrounds itself with words, and I try to recreate the same with my camera. I feel that every image has a story behind it, but a story that people can make their own.
TS: I'm always looking for images, every day when I walk to work, I see several possibilities, even though I take the same route three days a week, a change of light or sound; something is always there, and that's the same everywhere I go. The thing is I don't always shoot. It's the same with people, on my days off I usually go early into Leicester city centre, and have coffee and porridge at Cafe Nero, close to the market. I just sit and look at the faces coming and going, most of which I know I could make a great picture. You just have to be always looking, always.

JAH: Do you have any tips for photographers who are looking to move further with their work?
TS: The only advice I would give to any photographer is 'be true to yourself': find out what you like, and stick with it, work it to death and more. Don't buy photographic magazines, which are mostly padded out with futile crap, just take your camera and shoot.
(I think that's what I find the hardest to do: focus on what I like. I'm narrowing it down somewhat, but it's still hard to find something unique to focus on... Or maybe that's just me being lazy!).

You can see more of Tony's work on his Flickr account HERE, and you can also visit his photo blog HERE.
If you live in England you can visit his exhibition in Leicester at the Leicester People's Photographic Gallery from June 18th. For more information on the gallery you can go to their Facebook page HERE.
For more information on Pinhole photography, check out the Wikipedia page on the subject HERE.