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From Art to Selfies

One of the first photographs I ever took was of Pete Townshend of the Who at what is now known as the band’s seminal concert at Leeds University in 1970.

I had been a drummer in a band that practised in my mate’s garage, fortunately a small venue as we were terrible. I thought that the next best thing to being in a band was to photograph my heroes – and none were bigger than the Who. I duly took the film into the local chemist and, a week later, I went to collect my works of art.

I opened the first sleeve and nothing, the next nothing, the next nothing and so on. I got to the end and, bingo, there he was, Townshend complete with Dr Martens boots in mid flight, framing Keith Moon perfectly.

This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life – I was in heaven. The trouble was I didn’t know how this particular frame had come out. I had moved all the dials in different directions during the gig and one combination collided to work.

Nevertheless, this fledgling experiment with the genre was enough to trigger a lifelong love of photography, something I get to explore in my three-part BBC series, Britain in Focus, where I travel across the country to tell the story of the evolution of the medium. I get to go back to see how the pioneers cracked the genre and to ask some giants of the game what they were trying to do.

The series begins in the summer of 1835, when landed gentleman and polymath Henry Fox Talbot was seen purposefully walking in and around his country house at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. He was carrying with him a small wooden box that his carpenter had made for him, trying to decide where to place the object. Fitted out with a lens from one of his own microscopes, Fox Talbot was trying to take Britain’s first ever photograph – something he succeeded in doing.

From here, the series moves on to, among others, Roger Fenton, a founder member of the Photographic Society of London, dedicated to raising technical standards but also to making photography into a fine art.

The most celebrated photograph that Fenton took was during the Crimean war –In the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Yet there is no fighting shown here, no dead bodies, just a landscape with cannon balls. But the power of the photograph is undeniable, you can sense the horror.

In 1860, Fenton returned to Yorkshire. Over 11 years, taking nearly 2,000 photographs, Fenton had wanted to elevate his medium of expression to the point where it could be accepted as an art form. But his life’s work was coming under threat because, by the 1860s, photography was not so much concerned with art but with commerce.

Evidence for a boom in commercial photography could be found on every high street – like in Lewes, East Sussex, where Edward Reeves opened for business in 1855. For Reeves, and others, the new wet-plate process had made photography a sound economic proposition. And as prices dropped, for the very first time in history, people of even modest incomes could afford to own a portrait of themselves. On reflection, and what impresses me most, is how far photography had travelled in the 60 years since that first experiment by Fox Talbot.

The focus on capturing oneself in photographs has taken on a fresh impetus in modern times. In episode three of the series, I meet 16-year-old Molly Boniface from Huddersfield who is one of 500 million Instagram users worldwide. With her smartphone, Molly takes snapshots and instantly shares them online.

This clearly isn’t just a hobby for Molly. She’s creating a commentary about her own life – almost in real time. Molly expresses herself through photography every day and the medium has never been more alive than in the hands of someone like her. And it’s the self-portrait that dominates her pictures. It’s become the most prevalent genre in the 21st century: now, the most important subject for the average photographer is themselves.

My own particular “moment” in my personal journey came when working as a sports photographer on the Observer in 1985. It was the European Cup Final, between Liverpool and Juventus in the Heysel stadium in Brussels. I wasn’t expecting anything like the horror that was about to unfold, and which I would capture on camera.