Gallery: A portrait of Suffolk under snow

Photographer Tony Pick woke up, saw the snow on the ground and knew that here was a magical morning.

Andrew Clarke

Photographer Tony Pick woke up, saw the snow on the ground and knew that here was a magical morning. He spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about his winter landscape exhibition.

For Tony Pick, photography is in the blood. It's a family tradition. His Dad was a newspaper photographer and he started off his professional life as one - consequently he knows a good opportunity for a picture when he sees one. Such an event happened in December.

Living in Orford, working in Aldeburgh, he knows that snow on the ground along the coast is a very rare thing. Waking up early one morning before Christmas, he threw back the curtains and saw snow on the ground. His old newspaper training kicked into action - “Get the picture before it disappears” - grabbing his trousers and his camera, he was out of the house before the sun had risen above the horizon.

During the last ten years, Tony has successfully reinvented himself as a landscape photographer. Working from his Coastal Images gallery in Aldeburgh High Street, he sets out to create evocative pictures of familiar scenes. You may have seen the view before but you will not have seen it the way Tony sees it. That, he says, is the essence of his work. He captures the familiar in an unfamiliar way.

On that morning, he recognised that snow does a brilliant job of changing the face of a familiar landscape. He knew he had to get out and capture a couple of scenes before it all melted. As he dashed about capturing what he thought would be a transient moment as the sun rose, little did he know that, not only would the snow linger for the best part of a month but it would get a lot worse.

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This gave him a rare opportunity to take a series of pictures which showed the Suffolk coast in a different light.

He said photography for him means capturing those special moments which mean something to people - whether it is a portrait or a landscape. The picture has to speak to the viewer. It has to find its audience.

Tony believes that communication through photography take him back to his roots and the lessons he learned from his father. “My father, Geoff, was a professional, press photographer all his life and he taught me the ropes. I started out freelancing with the Observer group of newspapers in Hertfordshire. Then I went onto work in London.”

He said that this then led to an invitation to form a news agency, Impress Photography, with four other young photographers. “We had a staff of about ten guys running all over London doing jobs - lots of news and commercial jobs like company brochures. We also did a lot of sport. I did a lot for BAA at the airports. We built a picture library exclusively for them, which the agency still runs.”

Although he enjoyed the hectic, high pressure, deadline focused lifestyle of a London photographer, Tony opted to leave the agency after three years following the birth of his eldest son, Ollie. “Two weeks after he was born, I quit the agency and moved up here. Suffolk had always been special, a weekend retreat, but Lizzie and I thought it would be good to move out here full time because it would be a great place for Ollie to grow up in.

“Everyone in London thought we were absolutely mad. We didn't know a soul here but we found everyone very welcoming. Besides I love the sea and I had always harboured an ambition to run my own gallery and exhibit seascapes and here was an opportunity to make it happen.”

He said initially he thought he could split his time between Aldeburgh and London, but that proved a non-starter and so he threw himself into his work as a landscape photographer.

“The first six months were spent just taking pictures, building up my own local picture library, getting to know the landscape, the skies, the light. Getting to know how all the elements combine at different times of day and times of the year.”

Then in February 2001, he had the opportunity to turn the Old Boat House on the beach front, also known as the South Look-Out Tower, with its spiral staircase, into a very distinctive looking gallery and Tony leapt at the chance. It was derelict at the time and by the time restoration work was completed and planning permission secured it was July before it was finally open to the public.

“I was delighted by the way that people responded. I only wanted to show local seascapes and both local residents and holiday-visitors really took to my work.”

He doesn't own a studio, all his work is outdoors. For his portraits he tries to get to know his subjects and capture an element of their personality in much the same way he tries to capture a feeling for a location in his landscape work. His favourite assignment are family portraits - they are also the most taxing because not only does he try and get to know his subjects he also tries to capture the dynamic in their relationships with one another.

“I am looking for an informal picture which captures personalities. I want the kids to forget I am there. Put them on the beach, have them splashing through the surf or have them enjoying a picnic, or sitting relaxed, talking and then you see the true family relationships come through. You have to put them at their ease.

“I love getting them in the sea. In the summer months we all dive in there. I'm in there as well. We are all splashing around, having fun and it shows in the finished picture - happy, relaxed people enjoying one another's company.”

He said because all his work is out on the beach, this helps to avoid any tendency for people to adopt, stiff formal poses. “I love outdoor work because it gives the pictures atmosphere. You keep the detail in the skies, use off-camera flash to light the subjects and you can come up with some lovely, relaxed shots.”

He said that much of his work has come through word-of-mouth. “All my work has come from invitation really. I opened the gallery, hung my work on the wall, people liked it and the offers have flowed from there.”

He said that all his work is driven by the beach which remains a constant source of inspiration for him. The vast majority of his work is shot during the hour before and after sunrise and the same in the evening during sunset. He calls them his golden hours.

As with his portraits he likes to incorporate people into his landscapes and he meters for the sky to retain the interesting light and cloud formations and prevents the foreground from becoming a silhouette with some powerful off-camera flash, mounted on a tripod.

“It's all in the planning. I do a fair amount of recce-ing but on the other hand you need to be able to react when something unexpected happens. For example I was taking some pictures up by the Brudenell (Hotel) and the sky was pitch black with rain clouds. Just then the sun broke through and there was this perfect rainbow. I grabbed the camera and shot it. I have taken loads of rainbows over the years but this was special because I was able to get the complete arc in the frame.”

He said that during the snow he was like a kid in a sweet shop. “When I knew that it wasn't going away over night, I knew I had a remarkable opportunity to capture the look of the whole area and not just grab one or two pictures. Then I found myself planning. I was out everyday scouting for locations and then going back at sunset or sunrise to take the pictures. I was looking at the weather forecast, planning ahead, looking for a bit more extreme weather or rough seas, something to give me something a little bit different.

“Once I have seen the forecast then I am thinking ahead, working out where I need to be to take advantage of the particular weather which is heading our way.” He said that even when he is not planning for something special he is always on the look-out for that one killer shot. “Simple is always best. There might be one post in shot but the light may be breaking through the clouds in an unusual way or the cloud formations themselves may be very interesting or it might be a combination of factors which when combined create that special shot.”

He said that simple shots were invariably the best and he liked to get people in the scene if at all possible. “Because the landscape is shaped by people and we are products of our surroundings. A lot of work in this exhibition has people in the background, enjoying the snow or just trying to get about.”

He said that he loves working in black and white but adds just a hint of colour just to warm up the image. Although he enjoys working in monochrome there are times when the skies just cry out for colour and he is happy to put some filters over the lens and capture the scene in all its glory.

“I am always very critical of my work. I am always looking to improve on the last picture I took. I will go back to favourite locations and try and improve on the last picture and because the light and conditions are always changing, the pictures are always different.”

He said that he liked large format cameras because they slowed you down and made you think about the picture you were taking. “Also the image quality is fantastic. I get some people coming into the gallery and they want something six, eight foot across for their wall and the only way to deliver an image that big is to have a large format camera and thankfully digital is now able to deliver images of that size and quality.”

He said that although he remains critical of his own work, he is pleased with the images in the exhibition. “There are always niggling little bits and pieces that I would want to change but by and large and I am delighted with the way it has turned out. I think it really captures the look of Aldeburgh and the surrounding area during the snow in December and January and conveys a sense of the fact that it was the worst weather we had experienced in a generation.”

He said that a signed limited edition book of the exhibition would also be available.

The hardback book was limited to 50 copies and cost �75. It was available from the gallery or online at www.coastalimages.co.uk