Focus On The Photographer: Steve Hollier

Steve Hollier Travel Photojournalist

"the most enjoyable thing about photography is being able to speak through pictures" Steve Hollier Travel Photojournalist

Welcome to Focus On The Photographer, the first in our series of interviews with notable photographers with diverse interests and lifestyles who share a common love of photography and Cumbria. Photos by Steve Hollier, text and interview by Charles Paxton.

The series kicks off with an interesting insight into the photographic work of Steve Hollier, the international travel photojournalist. Steve’s very extensive travels range from Southern Africa, through Europe and the Middle east and he currently resides in Baku, Azerbaijan where he’s writing for a journal and an excellent blog entitled Steve Hollier’s Blog – Slowly Around The World.  I have greatly enjoyed his writing and would like to direct you to two of his articles that I particularly enjoyed Lahij village of coppersmiths and Time travel does exist.

There’s a refined selection of his images to view on Flickr. Perusal of his Picasa Web albums, will take your breath away too, and because there are fifty-one up-loaded so far, and because anoxia is bad for the brain – it’s best to take them in stages. His shots are pin sharp and picture postcard perfect and taken from perspectives that testify to his powerfully cultured intelligence.

Steve says “When you look at a photograph, it tells you more about the photographer than the subject. That means that when people look at your images, it is a way of communicating something about yourself and your world view. All art is a means of communication and for me, the most enjoyable thing about photography is being able to speak through pictures.”

 Steve has captured the hardy Black Face Fell sheep

Steve has captured the hardy Black Face Fell sheep

When asked how he first became interested in Photography he explained, “My first camera was my Father’s 1927 Pocket Kodak camera that had been a gift to him from his brother. It had been hanging, disused and unloved on a hook in a cupboard at home so one day in 1970, I just picked it up, bought a film and started snapping away. I wanted to make images of the world around me, especially those things that seemed to be fading away like local shops, the countryside around my part of West London, old people and the like.”

How does he see himself as a photographer? “I love to travel, so travel photographer seems to fit the bill these days. I write for a lifestyle magazine in Baku, Azerbaijan and illustrate my pieces with my own images.”
The big breakthrough in his development as photographer  “was the advent of digital photography. Once I bought my first digital [a 4 mega pixel Fujifilm s5500], I started using it to aid my work as a garden designer in the UK, documenting environments. That got me hooked. I took it to Jordan, Ghana and Cyprus before upgrading, then regretted that I didn’t do it early enough. ”

There’s a sentiment that many of us would share, I’m sure!
“Over the past few years, I have been travelling and working out of the UK and this has caused me to broaden my range. I’ve photographed deserts and swamps, cites and townships, exotic animals and family friends! Next month I have a travel piece coming out, illustrated with photographs of the Caucasian mountains, village life and a portrait of a blind harness maker [taken with his permission, of course].

These days he’s moved over to Nikon, but still uses an old D40x camera with a 55-200 mm zoom and another general purpose lens. “I think I have everything I need, with the possible exception of a good portrait lens. Once you start buying cameras, there is no end to the upgrading process. I will certainly upgrade my camera body in the next year or so and get something like Nikon D90 but at the end of the day, once you have committed to a particular platform, the rest is down to the person behind the lens rather than the latest gadget.”

Hollier then identifies his influences and motivating factors in his development as a photographer. He trained as a potter originally and has always had an eye for design. “I think that this formal training has stayed with me as a photographer, as I always try to “edit in the can” as far as possible. I tend to compose my shots in the field rather than sitting in front of a computer screen with photoshop open in front of me. Not to say it isn’t a useful tool!”

There are plenty of photographers that he admires from Mann Ray to Tony Figuera and Olwyn Evans but, he explains “eventually, you have to find your own way and develop your own style.”

Every photographer enjoys moments of triumph and Steve was kind enough to share one of his. “Animals are always a challenge. You don’t know from one moment to the next what to expect. I was fortunate enough to visit Amani Lodge just outside Windhoek in Namibia where a family of orphaned cheetahs was being raised, before release into the wild.  They were very lively while they were being fed. They kept grabbing pieces of meat then running off before I could take a shot. I was desperate to get one good shot of a brother making a warning cry to fend off his siblings. I was shooting and shooting and kept missing the exact moment. I was about to leave when he did what I hoped. He stood his ground and rumbled. I had him in focus, my finger was on the trigger and I finally got the image I craved.”

The Cheetah stood his ground and rumbled by Steve Hollier

"He stood his ground and rumbled" by Steve Hollier

“I think a lot of photography is like that. You need patience and you need to keep trying. Don’t be satisfied with five shots when you really need fifty to find one really good one.” That ties in with my experience that it’s so often that last, extra 10% of effort that yields the best results.

Is there a particular image that Steve is especially thrilled to have captured? “Yes. I was particularly excited to have captured an image of a priest at Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia, holding the ancient cross of this monolithic church beside him.”

Powerful portrait of a priest at Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia, holding the ancient cross of this monolithic church beside him, by Steve Hollier

Powerful portrait of a priest at Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia, holding the ancient cross of this monolithic church beside him, by Steve Hollier

How about the one that got away?
“My partner Sandra and I lived in Namibia for two years but never got to the northern part of the Skeleton Coast to photograph some of the five-hundred or so wrecks that lie there. ”

The interview then went on to discuss his plans for exciting projects. “I was fortunate to visit Ethiopia in 2008-9 and shot many stunning images of that beautiful and mysterious country. I plan to turn the best of them into an exhibition. Other than that, on my doorstep are the Caucasian mountains which are just as unknown as Ethiopia to most of us in  Europe. I look forward to getting to know them and their people properly over the next couple of years.”

Wind ruffled water

Wind ruffled water of Windermere by Steve Hollier

So what is it about Cumbria that appeals to the photographer? “Apart from the combination of rugged green mountains and broad stretches of wind-ruffled water, it’s got to be the light.” Any  places or themes that have featured in his Cumbrian photography? “The light, always the light. Clouds over Buttermere, sunrise over Kendal.” The principal challenge has been “Taking photographs in the rain!”

Superb play of colour in rock and water by Steve Hollier

Superb play of colour in rock and water at flooded quarry near Ambleside by Steve Hollier

He fondly reminisces about ” a breakfast of wild mushrooms taken with my Cumbrian friend Derwent Dawes [yes, his real name!] outside the art gallery in the woods at Ambleside, followed by a good long walk with views down on Windermere.

Skillet of wild mushrooms

Breakfast, gathered by Derwent. A skillet of wild mushrooms by Steve Hollier

So how does Steve prepare himself and sustain himself in the field? “It sounds trite but I always make sure I’ve got decent boots on and have a slab of Kendal Mint Cake in my pocket!” That’s sound advice and here’s some more for all those of us who plan to head out into the Cumbrian Fells:

“Bring a spare battery and a memory card when you are on a shoot, slip a compact camera into your pocket when you’re not.
You can get some great effects shooting toward the sun but never look through the view finder to do so, always use the view screen!”
Also “If you get the chance, have a pint of Jennings at The Kings Arms, Hawkshead.”
Last but not least, “When photographing cows close up in Cumbria don’t forget to wear wellingtons! You won’t be looking at your feet…”

I understand that Steve Hollier’s images are available for licensed commercial use at various higher resolutions and publishers are encouraged to contact Steve via his blog about the possible use of his images and also about the possibility of associated story text. I’d like to thank Steve for the opportunity of learning more about his work on Better Cumbria.