Landscape photographer Charlie Waite and his favourite Dorset views
PUBLISHED: 11:10 03 November 2016 | UPDATED: 11:10 03 November 2016
As one of the world's leading landscape photographers Charlie Waite lives his life in a state of wonder, fascinated by what he sees through his lens. Adam Lee-Potter talks to him about his favourite Dorset views
Even if you haven’t heard his name - and that’s a big if - you will have seen his pictures.
Charlie Waite’s work is as instantly recognisable as the peerless scenery it captures.
During a garlanded 30-year career, he has - from his Gillingham HQ - become our most celebrated landscape photographer.
A Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, he has held more than 30 solo exhibitions across Europe, the US, Japan and Australia.
A one-time actor, he is renowned as much for his painterly approach as his sense of theatre: a modern-day Turner tooled up with a 6 x 6 Hasselbad.
Charlie’s images celebrate natural beauty and resonate with light, shape and atmosphere. Most of all, they hum with curiosity and joy.
At 64, this is a man still fascinated by craft and subject. As he says: “It’s like I tell my granddaughters - life should be lived in a permanent state of wonder. Take part in the existence of things.”
That maxim encapsulates him perfectly: keen and kind as a labrador, wise as an owl.
For Charlie, a camera is a creative tool rather than a recording device. But isn’t a photographer, by definition, an observer, not a participant? Charlie all but hops into the air.
“On the contrary, you engage so much more profoundly with what you’re experiencing.
“When I take a photograph, I’m aware of the nature of clouds, their shape, the way breeze affects water, foliage, the nature of bark on a tree, ripples on the water.
“I forget everything else - hunger, whatever - and I come out exhausted, but I emerge with a marvellous sense of enrichment.”
It is perhaps little wonder that Charlie is also a gifted and generous mentor.
In 1994, he founded the worldwide photographic tour company Light & Land, leading trips from Brighton to Burma.
Three years later, he set up the prestigious Take a View Photographer of the Year competition. Thousand upon thousand of images are painstakingly whittled down, by Charlie and his fellow judges, to 160. The outright winner receives £10,000 in prize money - and huge profile.
The best work is published in book form and showcased at an annual autumn exhibition at London’s Waterloo station.
“We all need some luck,” says Charlie, with characteristic kindness, “and recognition.”
He was no exception himself.
After leaving school at 17, with “one single qualification to my name”, he joined a repertory theatre as an assistant stage manager.
Two years later, he became an actor, appearing in rep and on TV over the next 10 years. On stage, he met his wife Jessica Benton - best known for her starring role as Elizabeth in the BBC’s The Onedin Line - when they appeared in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Salisbury Playhouse, alongside Stephanie Cole.
Showbusiness - all smoke and mirrors - can be fickle but it led Charlie, quite literally, to the light.
“Acting is a marvellous profession - the rehearsal, the camaraderie. You can always spot an actor, the moment you meet them.
“But the work is precarious and turbulent. For me, there was never any sense of progression. I was always cast like Hugh Grant. I kept having to play versions of myself - middle-class, reasonable looking, ex public school. I yearned to play Slavic homosexuals or US gangsters.”
Fascinated by photography ever since his father - an RAF officer - gave him his first camera when he was 11 and - a year later - his own darkroom, he took to supplementing his income by taking profile pictures for his thespian colleagues as well as, in his spare time, indulging his love of landscape.
“As an actor, you’re completely at sea when you’re photographed. It’s really hard to convey an essence of yourself. I was very familiar with that. An actor is naked without props, dialogue or set. So I used to talk to them for a couple of hours to build up their sense of self-worth. An actor will always engage with another actor. It’s a natural instinct because when you’re acting, you might have to be kissing on stage half-an-hour after you first meet.”
Enthusiasm and chutzpah attract opportunity. House hunting in London with Jessica, the owner asked Charlie what he did for a living. He replied - “only partially truthfully” - that he was a landscape photographer.
The man turned out to be a publisher who was looking for someone to illustrate a National Trust book of walks around Britain. Within a week Charlie had his first commission.
He recalls it all with his trademark self-effacement. The story glosses over two givens. Charlie is not only one of the most likeable people you will ever meet but he is also a pro. Any job seekers take note: it’s an unbeatable combination.
It has not, of course, been all plain sailing.
Nearly 30 years ago, he came close to quitting photography, just as his new career was starting to take off.
“I was in France, putting together my third book, in a state of total despair. It had rained for five days, non-stop.
“I couldn’t see a single picture I wanted to take and I just thought to myself: ‘This is indulgent, I’m not doing anything for anybody. I’m not going to do this anymore, it’s pointless’.
“But then I literally turned a corner. It was as if someone had flicked a switch, as if some force had said, ‘We can’t have this’. And I was gifted the most amazing landscape, an overwhelming beauty.
“Like with a piece of music or ballet, I was transported by that valley. It was a little after dawn, full of autumnal, amber colours, from screaming canary yellow to a deep orange. There was a hint of mist in the distance and all the shapes just fitted in.”
Again, the doubt and epiphany are typical of Charlie.
“Insecurity should always accompany any artistic endeavour,” he says. “If you beat your chest and say ‘I’m really good’, you’re almost certainly not.
“But if you take 12 pictures a year that you can be truly proud of, you’re doing well. Photography is - like any creative art - fraught with uncertainty. You’re all alone and you can’t get the sky you want.
“We have never taken more photographs than we do now but the one thing that’s most elusive for all of us is that one cohesive, coherent composition.
“Most photographs are converted into disappointment. Take a rainbow. How often do you take a picture of a lovely rainbow but the image fails to capture your initial emotional response?”
He adds: “But get it right, and the still image has power, gravitas and pathos. It can still tell a massive story in a way that moving film can’t.”
So what does make the perfect photograph?
“A picture can be hugely improved by manipulation, to reveal and conceal. The old line that the camera never lies is, of course, a fiction. Some people are able to use software incredibly skilfully. But I prefer to get it right in camera.
“I think the relationship between image and viewer is compromised or broken if the viewer suspects that something doesn’t ring true. A sunset is pretty red anyway. You don’t have to add another 20 per cent.
“If you have to ask, ‘Was it really that colour?’ That moment of distrust can’t be rectified.”
When it comes to choosing subjects, Charlie is equally meticulous.
“You have to invest and respond. Be visually agile. Really interpret the scene before you even get your camera out and then interpret. Rather like, I suppose, Mozart hearing the music before he wrote it down. That’s the key: recognition and pre-visualisation blended together in one moment of awareness.
“Landscape photography is a meditative process. Attend and intend. No painter would ever just say ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten the sky’. The more you think about the ingredients, the better the flavour.
“And a Rolls Royce won’t make you a better driver. Even if you’re taking photographs on a smartphone, you can still care about composition.”
It is no surprise to me that a landscape photographer would choose to live in Dorset, Charlie’s home for more than 30 years.
“We’re blessed. My wife just rang me up one day back in 1984 and said ‘we’re moving’. I was in France at the time but she was bang on. We went from a basement flat in Ladbroke Grove to a mill on the Stour.”
The house was the home of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the composer and conductor.
“His father said to Jess, ‘you’ll have this place, lass, it’s for you’. And he was right.”
It would be remiss of me not to ask Charlie what his favourite Dorset landscape is.
“Durdle Door and Chesil Beach are not cliches. It’s terribly important not to write them off. They’re new for the people who arrive and put up a tripod for the first time.
“The Jurassic Coast is - despite the questionable name - the most marvellous thing. The iconic scenes are as good as they’ve always been; the castles, Sherborne, Corfe. I’m particularly fond of Win Green, the other side of Shaftesbury.
“But I love the little unsung corners - one field of stubble, a little outline of hills in the distance, the play of light. That is what satisfies me.”
Charlie’s 5 top tips
Light: A photographer must be acutely aware of the nature and quality of light, and how the light is falling on the subject. Light is everything! See the way it is reflected and absorbed by various different surfaces. Have a love affair with light.
Sky: If the sky is too bland, too blue or too grey, try leaving it out. If the sky is good, let it have its say. Squint to evaluate brightness range: it’s the best way to see whether it is too great for the capacity of the sensor or film too handle. Try devoting three quarters of the image to the sky if it is remarkable. Include whole clouds if possible. With reflections, try to include entire clouds. Don’t accept the prevailing sky, look above and behind you to see if there is a better sky on the way.
Engage: Attend to everything within the image and everything in your image, you intended to there. See your photograph as a production not just a photograph. Consider all the component parts.
Emotion: Define your objective, try and pre-visualise how you want your photograph to appear. Omit the redundant elements that you feel are not relevant. Try and convey your emotional response to the scene before you so that the viewer will receive a high percentage of what you felt at the time of ‘making’ your image.
Timing: Try not to photograph expansive views in the middle of the day with top light unless the design and warrants flat light. Consider the structure of the photograph and take into account the following: Geometry; Design; Pattern; Relationships; Recession; Dimension and Balance.
Take a Dorset view with Charlie
Charlie Waite offers 1:2:1 Tuition in Dorset, over one or several days, to help you reach a greater understanding of the discipline and art of landscape photography.
For more information email Charlie@charliewaite.com.
Light & Land photography workshops
Light & Land are offering Dorset landscape workshops commencing Spring 2017 with Landscape Photographer of the Year Winner, Andy Farrer, leading the workshops.
To find out more call 01747 824727 or visit lightandland.co.uk.
Landscape Photographer of the Year
Landscape Photographer of the Year: Collection 10 featuring the winning views is published by AA Publishing. The London exhibition of the winning images is in November. For more details and other venues visit take-a-view.co.uk.