In Conversation with Tom Oldham | September 2019
Our next Fable & Folk interview is with portrait photographer Tom Oldham. Tom has done many personal projects - from “The Last of The Crooners” to “On:Off” to “Becoming a Father”. He has worked with hundreds of celebrities including Jose Mourinho, Alicia Keys, Noel Gallagher and Usain Bolt. Tom has also exhibited his work nationwide and has won awards such as the 2018 Sony World Photography Award for Portraits in the Professional Category and being part of both BJP’s Portrait of Britain (2018) and the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (2015). Tom is also very active on social media and recently, through Twitter and Instagram, collected hundreds of photobooks from the photographic community to donate to the photography departments at two state schools.
We wanted to interview Tom because he has a lot of experience in photography in several different genres - music, portrait, documentary - that we can guarantee will in some way, help you with your own photography. He is extremely passionate about photography, a very kind person and his work is exceptional.
Fable & Folk: Firstly, thank you Tom for letting us interview you, we really appreciate it! I’d like to begin by asking if you could possibly give us a little background about yourself & how you first got into photography?
Tom Oldham: You’re very welcome and thank you for the interest in me and my work. I was born in 1970. My dad was a farmworker in Dorset and I spent my first 17 years very rurally, happy but dirt poor. We had no cameras in the house that I remember and I didn’t actually get my hands on one until my 21st birthday (insert late developer joke here). I did a night class with John Ralph at Shelly Park in Bournemouth to get to grips with the thing and it soon became apparent that photography could be my ticket, as options seemed perilously thin at the time. I then managed to get on an ND at Plymouth College of Art and the whole thing really started to make sense when I got a job as a technician at PCA, working in the stores handing out the kit and mixing up darkroom chemistry. I was around it all day and started shooting music at night, not just to get in free but also because this was 1991 and significant changes were happening culturally in the UK. I avidly checked magazine as outlets for this work I was producing and started sending in my shots to London based titles and you know, started to get traction, even though I was just hanging out in dives in Plymouth most of the time.
F&F: Many of the people who follow Fable & Folk are aspiring to turn their photographic practice into their career. Did you encounter any challenges whilst doing this yourself and do you have any advice based on these experiences?
TO: I feel as though I’ve met every challenge one could possibly meet along the way and listing them would make for a very long, boring and probably fairly irrelevant feature. We have to tackle challenges case by case and only hard work, perseverance, dogged determination and your ability to deal with crushing lows alongside stratospheric highs will allow you success as a photographer, I’ve found anyway. Lots of people have this role handed to them on a plate but it’s a title that’s earned; hard won and harder to keep.
F&F: Many of our audience know you from your most recent project “The Last of The Crooners”, which won the 2018 Sony Work Photography Award for Portraits in the Professional Category. Could you tell us a little about that for our audience who might not have heard of the project?
TO: It was a portrait of a pub that has steadfastly refused change over the last 40 years, here in East London, a place that has seen colossal shifts in demographics in that time. I’m a regular at the pub and I asked them if now might be a time to document the jazz musicians who have performed there for four decades, a question to which they thankfully agreed.
F&F: What inspired you to start the project?
TO: The increasing sense of imminent change locally really made the push a shove. It’s now surrounded by new build luxury flats where once there was warehousing and my relationship with them was close enough to confidently make the ask as they knew and trusted me.
F&F: Did you have an idea of how the project would look before shooting or was that something that developed as the project progressed?
TO: It was a portrait project and not a documentary project, it’s probably important to add, which meant the actual shooting took place over a day and a half. Much planning went in on top of the 16 years of trust, to get all the performers in place at the right time. With a project like this there are many stakeholders, each of which have a rightful claim over the work so the look and feel had to appeal to the artists, the landlords, the regulars, the hipsters and me of course. It had to be truthful and respectful to the heritage of the place. The aesthetic was very clear in my mind from the outset because of this.
F&F: As mentioned, this fantastic series is award winning. Do you have any advice for people looking to enter their work into competitions?
TO: There’s a lot of negativity towards paid for competitions currently and I can understand why, but the Sony prize, which is free to enter, is just looking for the best work and doesn’t come predetermined with its own aesthetic. I really respect this and would advise anyone considering competition entry to consider if it’s worth it or not for their project to be exposed in this way. I really dreaded entering my Crooners project as I was so proud of it and really loved what it became and had to ask myself – did I want it tarnished by another rejection from a photo comp? At the eleventh hour I dragged and dropped a selection of images from the series and forgot about it. Doing so had without doubt a huge impact on my career, but again, one ought to consider the potential down side of all of these actions too.
F&F: This project, amongst others in your portfolio, looks like it uses off camera flash/lighting. Is this integral to the work and do you have any tips for photographers wanting to achieve this look?
TO: Well, we all have a dynamic we want to hit and flash enables mine successfully on most occasions I’ve found. It’s how it’s wrangled into shape that really makes it count I think – not just getting light on your subject in the right density but how it’s shaped, balanced, toned, nuanced and so on. It’s usually the opposite to the direct approach that you imagine will work that serves the requirement best I’ve tended to find.
F&F: You have photographed many high profile people and presumably, this puts you under quite tight time constraints. How do you deal with that pressure?
TO: The obvious answer I’m afraid – preparation. Being practiced, rehearsed, professional, warm, generous, calm, in tune with your subjects - all that stuff is a load more important than your lens choice. Having a solid team who all know what you’re trying to achieve. A subject with whom you’ve communicated your intent, that helps to eliminate pressure, will build confidence and enable an environment that can allow an exchange to occur, for a portrait to be given to you. And always offer tea, just to put space and time in between them arriving and you starting the process. Fresh breath helps. I could go on.
F&F: I imagine sometimes the high profile people you work with can be quite difficult to photograph whether that’s because they don’t want to be photographed or don’t like being photographed. How do you get the job done under these conditions?
TO: See above really. Sometimes I’m photographing them because they’re musicians or authors on the promo trail and they know they have to do it because this is how they sell their wares. We still have to do the dance, but there’s an agreement in place already and everything else is just faffery really, which often it’s my job to just absorb, decode, manage and then wrangle into a photoshoot everyone will consider worthy.
F&F: When you first started out as a portrait photographer, how did you start getting into contact with celebrities? Do you have any advice for young photographers hoping to go into portrait photography?
TO: I always aligned myself with a publication who could provide me the access I needed to be near the people I wanted to shoot. It worked but it was then doubled down through working hard for designers that recommended me, picture editors I had worked with, creative teams that knew I’d nailed my last job with them – these are the people that will change your life. And it takes time. So much time. It’s frustrating to have to wait but good work with always come back to you. Buy lunch, bring cakes to the office, meet for coffee, maintain relationships like friendships. Being nice and friendly in person is woefully undervalued I think.
F&F: Something that I think isn’t talked about enough between photographers is cost. Lots of people work from commissioned jobs that fund their personal work, others take up part time jobs to pay the bills. What path did you take and do you have any words of advice for young photographers looking to fund their work?
TO: You don’t know any photographers who have done more shit photo jobs for no/low money than me. I’m working class remember? My first inclination is to say yes to paid work, inherently. When I was starting out I did so much schlepping around and I tried anything and almost everything. It all helped and gave me a great grounding in servicing client requirements and working to a brief. It’s been brutal at times but all of it enabled me to do my own projects that I chose to do when I had the time. This is the greatest luxury of life – to be able to choose how you spend your time. The real benefit of which is to be able to shoot your own work and tackle the projects and stories you want to tell, that you bring your look to and because you both care and see the value in it. I meet so many young photographers and assistants who have the privilege of be choosy, who seem very career focused and therefore super selective about what they work on. They’re not the ones for me – I want the ones who have the enthusiasm to work on anything, treat every gig like it’s Wembley and just enjoy the process of delivering imagery on demand, for money. Those are the ones who will have the longest careers in this ever-shifting business.
F&F: To build on that, have you applied for grants or any funding in the past? If so, how do you come across these and what was the application process like?
TO: I have not. I won a Sony Grant following my win, for my next project ‘Shoot An Arrow and Go Real High’ but I find them very time-consuming and frankly, they never seem to go to people like me. I’m less of a concept kind of photographer and those are the people grants love.