Life in Portrait: Interview with Sheffield photographer Chris Saunders

For this year’s Sensoria Festival, you’ll be able to attend a free exhibition showcasing the work of renowned Sheffield photographer Chris Saunders. Specialising in portraiture, over the years Chris has worked with everyone from Noam Chomsky to Helen McCrory and last month met Exposed to discuss his career and the intriguing characters he’s met along the way.

Shall we begin with how you first became interested in photography?
When I was a teenager I wanted to be a musician, so I was playing in dodgy metal bands during the mid-to-late eighties. Around this time I had a cat that would sleep in all these really daft positions. A friend of mine had a proper SLR camera, which I borrowed off him to take some pics of the cat, and it had this really wide angle lens, and I had never looked through one before, so when I put the viewfinder up to my eye I just thought, ‘Wow’. I loved the pics of the cat, so I got the bug and started buying all the gear I could afford at the time. I did an A-level up at Stocksbridge College and then went to Norton College and did a B-tech there, where I learned the technical side of things.

Did you take to it quite well, the technical side?
I didn’t really know what kind of photography I wanted to specialise in, it was very much a general thing. They’d have you doing studio product shots and going out into communities and photographing people out there, etc. I did everything they asked me to do and over the two-year course, this was around 1991-ish, I started gravitating toward doing documentary stuff. I think I’d been out on some demonstrations and was gearing toward doing that, so after I finished my college course I applied to go to Manchester University on a documentary/portraiture course. I got on that but during the intervening summer they turned the course into a fine art one without telling us! I turned down a place in Newcastle as well, which really annoyed me because I hadn’t been able to decide which one, so I was stuck in Manchester, on a course I didn’t feel suited me.

Did you stick it out?
Yeah, I kind of floundered around for about a year. I wasn’t really working I just went out, and it was the early nineties in Manchester… it was alright!

A very interesting time for a budding photographer I’d imagine. Were you inspired to shoot any of the Madchester scene in full swing as you were out and about?
No, I didn’t. I was quite a shy character back then and moving to another city and trying to get into the local scenes was something I couldn’t contemplate really. When I was photographing demonstrations it wasn’t interacting with people and getting to know them, it was a fly on the wall kind of thing.

When did that begin to change?
It wasn’t until I was in my flat one night that a comedy show came on TV with this guy, Bill Hicks, and I’d never heard of him but his show blew me away. Couple of days later I saw a poster for a gig about him playing in Manchester, and I knew I had to meet him. Even though I was a bit apprehensive about meeting people at random, I knew I had to meet this guy because he had left a big impression on me. So I went down on the day of his gig, it was around tea-time at the backstage door and when he turned up I said: “I’m a photography student, can I take your portrait?” He was really surprised that anyone was interested in him to that extent, but I spent three quarters of an hour with him just talking about films and music and then did a few photos. The pictures came out alright and that was a really significant part of my development; I got a massive buzz being out of my comfort zone and coming away with results that I was pleased with.

“Even though I was a bit apprehensive about meeting people at random, I knew I had to meet this guy because he had left a big impression on me.”

In those days, pre-social media, trying to get your work out there was more difficult though?
I was still a student, but it wasn’t the first portrait I’d taken. I’d previously taken photos of fellow students and just tried to experiment with light. However, that was the first time I photographed anyone well-known. I decided I wanted to be a portrait photographer despite being a naturally withdrawn, shy character. I went to the Waterstone’s store on Deansgate in Manchester where they had loads of authors, film directors, poets and comedians doing book signings, and I saw that they had Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks, coming in for a signing. I am a massive David Lynch fan, so I went and introduced myself to the manager of the book store and showed him my picture of Bill Hicks. I asked if I could come in and take pictures and the store would get some prints. He agreed and that was what got me through doing the course in Manchester. I just did my own thing and scraped through with a 2:2, but in that time I managed to build up a bit of a portfolio with some really famous authors and directors.

Were you working part-time too?
Yeah, being a photography student you had to spend a lot of money on film, paper, chemicals, etc – a small fortune really – and I was going out a lot as well. So, for a few years after leaving university I only dabbled in photography a little bit. I worked in a record store for a few years and then came back around to it and started showing my portfolio around and finally got representation with an agency in London that would sell my work and occasionally get me some jobs. I did quite a bit of work for book publishers in London, but the problem with that and living in Sheffield was that I never really entertained going to live in London. I grew up in Sheffield, I didn’t really want to live in London, which presented a problem in keeping the work flowing in.

You were around in Sheffield during the ‘New Yorkshire wave’, which was an interesting time for the city’s music scene.
Yes, there were also a lot of interesting oddball bands to photograph like Kings Have Long Arms, Pink Grease, and loads of others, so it was a great time for a photographer – the subjects were often really eccentric or stylish. I got involved with Sandman magazine; I did a lot of stuff for them and photographed a lot of the bands in Sheffield. I got the chance to shoot either Arctic Monkeys or someone else who had been signed. Arctic Monkeys hadn’t been signed at that point and I had seen them play at The Grapes; I thought they were alright, but they didn’t really stand out at that point. So I photographed this other guy and a friend of mine went off to photograph Arctic Monkeys and then followed them around as they became bigger and bigger! The guy I photographed disappeared. Sometimes as with Bill Hicks I pick the right people to gravitate towards, and sometimes not!

“it was a great time for a photographer – the subjects were often really eccentric or stylish.”

You managed to get the Alex Turner shot eventually though, albeit with Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley too.
It’s become quite a well-known picture now, but the editor got wind that all three were going to be in London at the same time so he arranged an interview and we went down and got that shot of them. It’s often been described as an “iconic” photo, which is nice!

There’s a bit of a longstanding relationship with you and Hawley, isn’t there?
The first time I photographed him was for Sandman; we got over to the Washington and he was already three pints in and we took the photos outside in the back garden and then that followed was a long afternoon of drinking. It’s known in the trade as “getting Hawley-d”. I’ve photographed him loads of times since, including the covers for his last two albums.

Why have you largely stuck to portrait work?
I’ve pretty much only been interested in photographing people, I think they’re the most interesting subject and I haven’t got the patience to wait for the right light with the natural world or photograph inanimate objects!

Are there particular things that you aim to show in your portraits?
Depends on who I’m photographing really; I’ve been photographing a lot of artists and sculptures recently because I like photographing these people with their work. There was someone I photographed recently who was aware of how I was talking to him and directing him (which is in a very precise manner) and he said it was like I was taking a still-life of a person, which I thought was perceptive. That said, I do tend to try and talk about things we might have shared interests in – which hopefully relaxes them a bit! There’s all this stuff about how a portrait can capture someone’s personality, but people are complicated and only one side of a person can be caught in a photo. If there is a subject in a photo laughing or smiling or whatever they might look really friendly, right? However I can show you a picture of George W. Bush where he looks really friendly, and I’m sure he can be, but on the other hand he’ll happily bomb the fuck out of somewhere with little thought of the consequences. So for me it’s not about capturing someone’s personality, it’s about capturing a moment if anything, and it can be just a slight change in the subject’s expression that makes a shot for me.

“So for me it’s not about capturing someone’s personality, it’s about capturing a moment if anything”

As a big Twin Peaks fan, photographing David Lynch must have been a proud moment for you?
Yeah, as far as creative people go, he was at the top of a list of people I wanted to photograph that I’d created while still at university. Before the internet I somehow found out where Lynch’s production office was in Los Angeles, I wrote a physical letter first to his office asking if I could photograph him when he was over here but of course didn’t hear back. With the internet, I found out his assistant’s email address and I started emailing his assistant, persisted, and five years later it actually happened – as a commission as well.

How did the shoot go?
It was in the Sanderson Hotel in London, which is quite a posh hotel, and I went on their website and in the lobby there is a lot of Phillipe Starck furniture, a big chair with horns sticking out the back, a sofa in the form of lips, etc. His assistant said I could have half an hour with him, so I made this military precision plan where I would photograph him in this chair, then move him on to this sofa over here and then in front of these curtains and I got about four different set-ups planned.

So, come the day, the assistant told us we couldn’t use the lobby after all for some reason; we had to use Lynch’s hotel room and only had five minutes. Lynch was really friendly but the room was absolute chaos: really untidy, stuff everywhere, a TV crew just packing up – nowhere to do a reasonable shot. So we went out onto the balcony and I had to set up there. The balcony was partially enclosed by a privet, so I put him in front of that, eventually got him sat down and there was that moment when you finally look at someone through the viewfinder and get the shot, and it was quite a moment given how long it had taken to get him. A couple of years later I get a call off my agent and he said: ‘We’ve just had David Lynch’s people on the phone; he specifically wants to use your picture of him to promote his first music album. Are you okay with that?’ I’d been of fan of his since I was a teenager so for him to do that was great. He’s also recently used it in his latest book of artworks.

Chris’ photo from Phlegm’s ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’ in Sheffield

Let’s talk about the upcoming Sensoria exhibition. What can people expect to see?
At first I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know whether to go down the political route, as I’ve photographed the likes of Corbyn, Chomsky, Harold Pinter; I’ve also photographed the Sheffield tree protesters, the people who were moved from living beneath the Ski Village, drag artists, firefighters, etc. But eventually I settled on creative people: Hicks, Lynch, Cillian Murphy, and some of the more well-known writers and directors I’ve photographed. A big part of the show, though, will be of street artists, painters, and sculptors based in Sheffield; there’s a vibrant art scene in the city and I feel like there are some people here whose work is underseen, so it’s been interesting for me to discover these people.

Chris’ exhibition ‘Shine A Light’ will be held at Trafalgar Warehouse Sat 28th Sept – Mon 30th Sept. Head to sensoria.org.uk for the full events programme. 

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