Updated: Suffolk photographer could be Sky Arts Master of Photography 2017
- Credit: Archant
Could Suffolk photographer Gillian Allard be Sky Arts Master of Photography 2017? She’ll give it her best shot.
A fan of the show, I want to avoid spoilers; but I have to ask – is that her telling off another contestant outside a café in the series trailer?
“You’ll have to watch… It would spoil it in a way. It’s one of those things that’s been taken out of context,” says the mother-of-two, originally from Ipswich but now living in Stonham Aspal.
“At the end of the day I am who I am and I dealt with the competition no matter how far I got as I am. Perhaps it’s to do with my age; I’m quite self-assured.”
I got that watching episode one’s travel photo challenge.
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She ignored guest mentor David Alan Harvey, picking a different photo of Ragusa, in Sicily, to put before the judges - American documentary photojournalist Darcy Padilla, Guardian weekend magazine picture editor Caroline Hunter and acclaimed and controversial Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani.
Toscani thought the eccentricity of her picture was amazing, adding “everything is off, very good”. Hunter disagreed, saying it didn’t intrigue her enough to make her want to find out more about the location.
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“He’s lovely,” Gillian says of Toscani. “I took it (as tough love). He has a very assertive way of speaking his mind and sometimes it comes across as brutal. I don’t think as English people we’re used to that, we’re quite dumbed down in terms of saying exactly what we think. Italians will which is refreshing.”
One of 12 photographers from across Europe taking part in the series, simulcast across five countries; thousands of amateur and professionals applied.
Those chosen spent eight weeks tackling tasks designed to test their abilities, skills and instincts in a range of styles and disciplines including street photography, celebrity portraiture and erotica – with €150,000 up for grabs.
Winning would mean a great deal to Gillian, who would invest in new equipment, improve her studio space, exhibit more broadly and ideally publish a book of her work.
Happy to have just been chosen, entering was more about getting her work seen by a wider audience.
“Certainly since I’ve had the kids it’s been harder to get recognition for my work. You can build websites and all that sort of thing… I’ve felt rather isolated artistically over the past few years, but I’ve worked hard to maintain my portfolio and pursue new ideas.
“I choose quite unusual subject matter. I think a lot of women move more into family life have children and often artistically let that side of their lives go. If they don’t let it go they have to withdraw from the community they belonged to before.
“You might carry on with your work, you might be absolutely brilliant but you have other things going on in your life and you have to really push yourself to get your work out there.
“Unfortunately alongside all those other commitments your confidence goes a bit, so I was really pleased to enter and be selected because it forced me out into a bigger arena.”
Was it about clawing a little bit of herself back?
“Absolutely,” she laughs. “Not being unkind to myself but I’m no spring chicken, it’s not like I’m a young mum; opportunities that come my way now I grab them.”
Gillian, who studied at London College of Printing, Royal College of Art and University Suffolk, almost missed the application deadline; entering with three hours to spare.
“I was making a video of myself at 9pm to upload. I’ve got children, a job... I’d uploaded the pictures about a week before.
“Because I put myself under such a ridiculous amount of pressure I thought I’ll get nowhere,” says Gillian who teaches A-Level photography to 16-18 year olds at Stowmarket High School.
A few months later she got an email saying she’d been shortlisted, then another saying the series’ makers were keen to interview her via Skype from Italy.
“It was nerve-wracking. I assumed I’d messed the interview up because it ended really abruptly. A few hours later I got an email saying please arrive in Rome on January 4. I was gobsmacked... I think 4,000 people entered last year and it seemed the competition would be ridiculous. To get the email to say I was through was crazy.
“To fly out to Rome was a big leap. I had to think of my job, my children. I have lovely kids on my course… I was very lucky everybody rallied round and was very supportive.”
Sons Stanley, 15, and Albert, 13, are very proud. Being away from them was very strange.
“I thought about childcare and things like that. You don’t anticipate how it’s going to be actually leaving them. It wasn’t easy for them or me. It’s something to talk to their friends about, something very different. Because young kids are much more involved in TV and social media it leant itself to their interest in a way rather than being stuck on a wall in a gallery.”
Gillian was nervous but mostly excited about taking part in the series; looking forward to meeting everyone, gaining new experiences and having the opportunity to photograph, as yet, unseen places and people.
“I hoped to stretch myself technically and creatively and prove to myself that anything is possible… In actual fact you’re constantly in competition which is a very different way of approaching photography,” says Gillian, who thinks a good photographer is somebody who shoots from the heart and expresses their soul.
Being in front of the camera as well as behind it didn’t suit her.
“I’m a very not spotlight person. The premise of me going on there was about gaining more recognition for my work. Quite stupidly your photos don’t really talk for you in that situation, you have to talk for yourself and that’s quite tough
“It’s marvellous to be chosen but it’s very pressurised as you’d expect any reality TV show to be. There were pressures you don’t anticipate (but) it was an amazing experience, like going to another planet.”
Gillian began her photography career at Northgate school aged 14. Using only black and white film, she found printing her photographs in a dark-room a “very magical experience”.
“That inspired and enthused me… I later learnt how to fine-tune my printing skills to help me further express ideas that until that point, I had not been able to visually express,” adds Gillian, whose inspirations include Andrea Modica, William Klein, Giacomo Brunelli, Bert Hardy, Bill Brandt, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus and John Blakemore.
Enjoying photographing people, she studied photojournalism at the London College of Printing. This led her to work freelance for London-based publications.
She continued her own photo-stories while doing her masters at the Royal College of Art. These included shooting famous faces like Sir Paul McCartney during a recording session.
“I’m quite an investigative person. I used to love documentary photography but when I moved away from London and got into teaching my lifestyle changed.”
Moving back to Suffolk and beginning to teach photography broadened her photographic palette, exploring the landscape using both film and digital technologies.
She exhibited this work in the UK, including The Photographers Gallery in London, and had articles published in national photography magazines.
“Photography for me is like an enduring relationship. We have had our ups and downs and at times we have parted company, but our passion, familiarity and ability to grow together means we will never be parted.
“Even when the kids were small I was photographing all the time; when I had my first son I had a big show in London. It’s always been my bit of me,” says Gillian, who feels photography is about being alone in the moment, being able to explore her visual imagination and connecting with an inner dialogue.
Taking part in Master of Photography has given her more confidence and made her realise her work is part of a bigger world.
“You realise you’re not just shuffling round with your pictures, you’re actually part of a much bigger… I don’t want to use the word family but you know what I mean. You become part of a community.
“It’s a really good experience, a really good learning curve and a good social experiment. It’s probably made me view myself and my work differently; broadened my horizons for want of a better expression.
“Having moved out of a wider arena into a kind of narrower life in a way I got some really lovely compliments when I arrived from the judges about my work and that was amazing.”
Phil Edgar-Jones, director of Sky Arts, said the show was delighted to have such a prestigious and exciting line up for Master of Photography’s second outing.
“Today’s connected world saturates us with snapshots of fleeting moments, but the photographs that last are the result of skill, dedication and hours of hard work behind the lens.
“We hope this programme will demonstrate just how powerful and important photography remains, and that we bring some extraordinary talent to light in the process.”
• Master of Photography continues at 8pm Thursday.