An eye for a winning shot

SUFFOLK photographer Paul Coghlin is living proof that you can teach technique but you can’t teach talent. Last year Paul entered his very first photographic competition and ended up being declared Britain’s Professional Photographer of the Year.

This is something that he still can’t quite believe. “It’s like a wonderful dream. Sometimes I think that I must have just dreamt it then I see the certificates and the trophies and realise that yes it must be true.”

In fact last year turned out to be such a successful year that he doesn’t have enough space to display all the awards he picked up. “We’re going to have to have a re-think in order to get them on show.”

Paul, a self-taught photographer, of Great Waldingfield, near Sudbury, originally entered the British Institute of Professional Photography National Photographic Awards to gain his Associateship (ABIPP), and was unexpectedly awarded not only five additional awards but was also declared The Photographer of the Year 2010.

He said that perhaps he should have detected the good omens earlier in the year when he found himself in the finals of an international event in Paris.

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“2010 was the first year I had entered anything. Then from June onwards it went completely crazy. I am completely self-taught. My training is in geology and I work two days a week at Suffolk County Council which helps pay the bills.

“I didn’t set out to make this year a career changing year. It was just that I felt that I had finally enough work of a sufficient standard to be able to enter a couple of competitions. It was that simple. Had I reached that point last year, all this would have happened then. It was that I have now discovered a style that I like. But I was very unsure about what would happen. I wasn’t even convinced that I wasn’t wasting my time putting them in the first place.”

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Paul’s first success of the year came in June at an international photographic event called PX3, held in Paris, where he came second. “This was my first competition. I had never entered anything before this and to come second in an international competition against hundreds of other photographers submitting thousands of other prints really made my year at that point.

“Then in June I entered my lion and elephant pictures into the Black and White Photography magazine Photographer of the Year competition and I thought ‘well let’s just give it a go’ but when the results were announced in September I had not only won Photographer of the Year but also digital printer of the year as well.

“So I was feeling pretty well on top of the world then, not realising what awaited me at the end of November. I had put in a panel of 20 pictures to qualify for my Associateship of the British Institute of Professional Photography. They were different subjects animals, landscapes, seascapes, flowers but presented in the same style – square, black and white and I put a couple for the national competition and didn’t think any more of it.

“My wife and I went to the presentations at Blenheim Palace at the very end of November and wandered through two or three rooms showing work, saw nothing of mine, and thought: ‘Well that’s it. We’ll just have a nice dinner and go home.’

“The other work was fantastic and I thought that I simply hadn’t made the grade. What I failed to realise was that the galleries I had walked through was for other categories that I hadn’t entered.

“In the end, in addition to collecting my Associateship I went up onto the stage six or seven times. By the end Dave Lee Travis, who is a fellow of the BIPP and was handing out the awards, was making gags about it.”

Paul said that there was a huge screen behind the stage projecting the prize-winning images as they went up to collect the awards which meant that his work was seen by some of the most accomplished photographers in Britain. “I still find it completely amazing. Had I tried to win something I think I would have just blown it. As it was I just entered the pictures that I liked. I decided to enter because I wanted to learn how to enter competitions, how to go about printing and framing and see what they were looking for.”

There were eight gold awards available and Paul picked up three of them along with a further silver award and The “Peter Grugeon Award” For Best Associateship Panel.

“I have to say my head hasn’t stopped spinning. I was fairly blown away by the PX3 award in Paris let alone everything else that has happened since. I can honestly say that I had no idea that this was coming. They kept calling my name out and when they had gone through all the awards I thought I can calm down and start breathing again and enjoy the evening. Dave Lee Travis from the stage said: ‘That’s it, thank you very much, we’re pretty much done here,’ then there was a pause and he produced one more A4 envelope. ‘ We have just one final piece of paper to hand out and that’s Photographer of the Year. I had no idea that they even had such an award. He said: ‘We’ve seen him a few times tonight and he read my name out. It was the most extraordinary evening , quite bizarre. It was fantastic but it was almost like a dream. Quite, quite extraordinary.”

He said that despite the object of entering the competition was to discover the rules of entering photographic competitions, he remains none the wiser when it comes to understanding what had given his images the edge over the other excellent entries.

“I don’t know what they saw in them. Was it because they were black and white? Was it because they weren’t overtly commercial? Maybe because I was in the fine art section my pictures echoed the way that black and white pictures used to be. Or maybe I have a lot of textures in my pictures.”

One of the aspects of Paul’s photography which he loves to bring out in pictures is to produce a desire within the viewer to reach out and touch the subject of his work – whether it is the fleshy petals or leaves of a plant, the rough hide of an elephant or the smooth hairs of a lion’s mane.

“I love texture. It’s something I try to bring out the detail not only on the computer during printing but also when setting up the lights and composing the shot.”

He said with his flower shots he tried to give the petals a 3-D effect which made them look as if they were made out of crepe paper. “It was a small variety of tulip but it looked like an alien plant. And the elephant I love. It seems that you can reach out and feel the wrinkles on his leg.

“Strangely a lot of textures appear to soften when you take a picture. What I try to do is bring it back and maybe push it just a little bit. What I don’t want to do is over do it. You want to push it so far that It looks like its been forced.”

Paul said that he discovered photography when he was 12. “Cameras have always fascinated me. My parents got me an instamatic Agfa 126 camera for my 13th birthday and I was away. I got the classic box brownie from my grandparents, we then bought some tanks and developing equipment and I picked up my skills as I went along. I remember I took over my Mum’s airing cupboard to print my pictures because it was the only dark place. It was tiny, as you can imagine. I suppose that health and safety would throw their hands up in horror now but that was 30 years ago and that’s how I started.”

He said that although he continued to take pictures he gave up developing and printing them until recently. In fact he only bought his first 35mm SLR in 2005, having used a medium format or borrowed a friend’s 35mm to get the shots he saw in his mind’s eye.

“Studying at university and then moving around the country for work, meant that the opportunity was never always there so perhaps the pictures I am taking now are a form of release, shots that have been bottled up for all these years.”

However, sometimes the world doesn’t always comply with the view provided with his mind’s eye. “I was taking some seascapes the other week. I had my big heavy tripod with me because they require long exposures. I had this picture in my head but I could never get my camera and tripod in the right position to get the picture. By the end I was almost screaming: ‘Isn’t there someway for me to take what I can see in my mind’s eye? Sometimes the camera gets in the way.”

He says that he uses both traditional film and digital cameras to realise his stunning images. “I have no problem with digital cameras at all. I use a 35mm SLR all the time. The quality now is absolutely stunning. I only use a traditional film camera for large format work because the digital versions of those cameras cost an absolute fortune. You are looking at something in the region of �15,000 for a fairly basic model.

“Because, many studio photographers are now switching to large format digital, they are selling their old film cameras and because so many are flooding onto the market, you can pick up a good quality, fairly new camera for very reasonable prices.”

He said that the increase of large format film cameras by independent photographers means that there are more labs willing to process the film.

He says that when he prints the pictures he uses computers in the same way that photographers of old used darkroom techniques like holding back and burning in to get the desired effects. “Except with a computer you save a small fortune on paper because you can see what you have done and don’t have to make a print until it is absolutely perfect. Thank goodness for the ‘undo’ button.”

Although he was brought up in the New Forest and originally worked in Plymouth he moved to Suffolk in 1993 when his wife got a job in the county. “My degree was in earth sciences and I have had a number of jobs with a scientific slant. I now work for Suffolk County Council dealing with mapping data.

“Two of three years ago I made a decision to go part time and devote the rest of the week to becoming a professional photographer because the images were starting to take shape. I had finally got the feeling that perhaps this was more than just a hobby.

“I did a bit of work building up the business, doing jobs here and there. Getting myself known but from the point of view of my fine art work, this year has been the one where everything has taken off.”

He said that most people benefit from a shift in career at some point in their life and now is the perfect time for him. “I now find it easier to take good pictures than getting my brain around some complex scientific problem, so it’s probably a good time for a change.”

He said that at the moment he is producing pictures for Sea Pictures Gallery in Clare and for a photographic gallery in California which is currently showing Paul’s pictures as part of a six week exhibition.

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