Gallery: As the shutter closes

For David Morris closing the shutter doesn't just mean it's time in his local, it's also part and parcel of his trade as a photographer.

Andrew Clarke

For David Morris closing the shutter doesn't just mean it's time in his local, it's also part and parcel of his trade as a photographer. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke met him as he opens a new exhibition of his work.

If you aren't a publican by trade then announcing that going to work means a visit to the pub usually raises a few eyebrows and a knowing smile. But, for photographer David Morris a trip to his local really does mean work as he compiles his on-going photographic study of life in Europe's bars and public houses.

David's latest exhibition is currently on display at The Digby Gallery, Colchester. For David, the exhibition is especially timely as he has just been voted Professional Photographer of the Year by Professional Photographer magazine - an accolade which he admits still has his head spinning.

For David, his on-going fascination with pubs and bars is centred on the fact that they are inherently atmospheric places but also places where people relax and let their guard drop. David believes that, as a portrait photographer, you get closer to capturing the real person when they are relaxed and amongst friends.

David admits however that you do have to be careful wandering around taking people's photographs. You have to get permission and can't invade people's privacy.

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“You go into a place. You're a photographer lugging a tripod and load of equipment so you are fairly conspicuous. I always ask permission to take photographs in the place. At first you stand out, you are unusual, you attract comments and barracking, you become a source of entertainment, so I normally just sit and watch, try and blend in. Then I quietly start taking shots.

“All life takes place in bars, from the funny to the sad, from the banal to the thoughtful. It's a great place for portraiture, from the body language of people at the bar, to close-ups of faces ragged with living. It's a place people come to be themselves, not to be judged, but to be accepted. To drink, to play pool, to talk, to think - a place where the mask can slip.”

He said that he had been taking shots in pubs and bars for the last 15 years since he took on a commission for Hook Norton Brewery and discovered that pubs were a natural environment for compelling and atmospheric photographs.

David says it's interesting to compare the drinking cultures between a garrison town like Colchester, a thriving cosmopolitan city like Amsterdam and a cultural centre like Milan. There are great similarities but also great differences and what David likes to do is see if people can spot these differences from the pictures alone.

He said he found it frustrating that pubs were becoming more alike and less distinctive as they became part of brewery chains. “They have become more like restaurants or cafes. The good old fashioned boozers seem to have gone. What I am after is are drinking establishments that have a character of their own.

“It is interesting because abroad they have much more respect for the individual nature of the bar - especially Amsterdam. They are much more respectful. I go back to the same bars year after year and basically they haven't changed much at all. Usually the furniture remains the same or if it is changed then something similar has been used to replace it. They put a high premium on comfort and dependability.”

Locally, he said that the George Street Snooker Club in Colchester was a glorious example of an old fashioned watering hole - but only old fashioned in a good sense. “It had character, it was individual, it wasn't trying to be anything it wasn't.”

He said that when he was an art student in Hull he first discovered the pub as a wonderful location. “We had an inspirational photographic lecturer and we were sent out to do stuff and I did a couple of shots in local pubs. They were instantly atmospheric. They had these big windows, so you got fantastic lighting and they were full of guys playing dominoes and darts, everything you'd expect to see in a pub and sadly no longer do.

“It stuck in my mind and I suppose, on some level I am trying to revisit that in my work now.”

He said that when he visits a pub he is not only after character in the faces of the patrons but also character in the bar as a location. “Technically shooting in a bar or a pub is very challenging because often light is in short supply. The lighting levels are kept deliberately low to promote a friendly and comfortable atmosphere. The advent of digital cameras has been a godsend because they capture so much more detail. Before I was having to bracket a lot in low light and then compare images in the darkroom when I got back and had processed the film. Now I can see almost immediately what I have and can make the necessary alterations - if any because modern digital cameras are very forgiving.”

He said that when he went into a bar he was looking for interesting compositions something that conveyed the spirit of the place that he was in and said something about the people who frequented it. “I quite like character studies and I quite like the bleakness you get in pubs.

“In the old days when they were filled with smoke, it always reminded me of being on a film set. I found myself using lighting as if I was on a film set because with smoke hanging in the air, everything was immediately so much more dramatic.

“One of the photographs in the exhibition features cigar smoke and that was taken in Amsterdam. There was an old guy sitting in a corner all by himself, looking rather morose, I was photographing him when this good looking, older lady came in, sat down and just blew this cloud of cigar smoke into the air. It was magic.”

He said that a calendar he was commissioned to produce for the Hook Norton Brewery has defined his approach to pub photography. “The brewery was a large Victorian building with large bright windows which quickly disappeared into virtual darkness inside the building. It was really difficult to meter a scene like that but if you got it right the shots were spectacular.”

He added that in recent years he had taken up the opportunity to teach photography abroad and used the evenings to extend his photographic survey into continental bars. “Being abroad in a situation like that you are Billy No-Mates and where better to go than a bar because there everyone is on the same footing.

“I find bars abroad are much more forgiving, much less suspicious of a man with a camera.”

He said that in Britain, even though he always asks permission of the landlord before he starts work, some individuals always take exception to having their pictures taken. “It's okay but there have been a couple of close shaves. You do have to think quite quickly but once people know who you are and what you are doing, once you have ridden out the banter then most people are fairly accepting of who you are and then they start to ignore you - that's when you can really start taking usable pictures.

“Candid shots are always the best. Catching people unawares is something you just can't replicate. But the downside of that is that there is always something in the way - bar stools or tables, something that spoils the composition so it's a question of balance and compromise. If you do move around too much, then you start drawing attention to yourself and you lose the that spontaneity.”

He said that his job has got a lot more difficult since 9/11 and the rise in anti-terror legislation because people are much more wary of being photographed and the police are more nervous of people taking pictures in public places.

“It's not as relaxed as it used to be. There is now a fear of photography that wasn't there before. The law has changed and you now have to give the police a reason as to why you are taking photographs in a public place if you are challenged, which is a shame because you are deemed to be guilty unless you can prove you are innocent. You can appreciate the terrorism fears and the police have got to do their job but I think there is an element of paranoia starting to creep in. Nine times out of ten it's just people photographing stuff, for crying out loud.”

As for future David is just delighted that he has been named Professional Photographer of the year by Professional Photographer magazine, winning the portrait section and was declared runner-up in the landscape category. “I'm so happy I can't tell you. I've just got the notification, so it's still settling in.”

David's latest career as a freelance photographer and lecturer follows a successful stint as an art director for an advertising agency in London. “Things changed in the industry and education, so I came out after 25 years, I had had a great time, now I've got a second go, a second career which is proving just as rewarding as the first one.”

Life Behind Bars: A Photographic Exhibition of Bar Life by David Morris is now on show at The Digby Gallery, Colchester, part of The Mercury Theatre.