Sunday, April 26, 2009

Denis Waugh

Searching the Thames

Slow craftsmanship
Fred Gandolfi started working for the business of his father Louis in 1919. His brother Arthur Gandolfi followed suit in 1921. That’s how it went back then: once you were 14, you had to go out to work. When Fred retired in 1986, a few years after Arthur, he had been working for 67 years.

In a London workshop that was barely bigger than a garage, with paving stones on the floor and hand- and foot-powered machinery, the Gandolfi brothers built cameras that would become some of the finest ever made.
Each camera consisted of ten separate wooden sections and a hundred steel, copper, zinc and aluminium parts, all of them produced, cut, sawed and finished by the brothers themselves. The leather bellows came from a supplier, as did the lenses, which were left to the discretion of the photographer. A storage case would be built upon request, made from the same wood as the camera. Until the trade embargo prevented them from doing so, Fred and Arthur preferred to use Cuban mahogany, sawed roughly, bundled into packages and left in the workshop to dry for at least five years. Later they used mahogany from Honduras, as well as teak, rosewood and walnut. The choice was always left to the customer. After being sawed to size, planed and glued, the wooden parts would be put aside for a year, before being French polished by Arthur; this explains why the production time for a Gandolfi was two years. That period doubled when Arthur was hit by a London bus and confined to his home. Lord Lichfield, photographer and cousin of the British Queen, tried to rely on his royal connections to skip to the top of the waiting list, but he met with a stony refusal and was sent to the bottom. Fred and Arthur, two ‘grumpy old men’, were utterly unimpressed by power or status.

Slow photography
On 7 June 1997, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her silver jubilee and the whole of Britain joined in. Opposite the gates of Buckingham Palace stood a human pyramid: hundreds of photographers from throughout the world were crammed together, trying to take the photograph of a lifetime. It was a forest of 35-mm cameras with motor drive and long-focus lenses. And in their midst – like a bird of paradise amongst starlings – stood Denis Waugh, alongside a tripod holding his large, somewhat archaic-looking, wooden Gandolfi with a wide-angle lens.
When the Golden Coach left the palace gardens, the wall of cameras erupted with clicking and zooming. In the time it took the motor drives to send one film after another hurtling through those cameras, Denis Waugh took just two shots: open cassette, click, close cassette, change cassette, open cassette, click. The better of those two shots was published and selected by Life Magazine as one of the finest photographs of the year.

Landscape and portrait
Denis Waugh had moved to London from New Zealand at the start of the 1970s, together with his wife Priscilla. He went there to study photography at the Royal College of Art, while his wife planned to learn the trade of journalism. Denis focused on landscapes and portraits, and on the use of the large format camera. The wooden Gandolfi worked to his advantage: this cumbersome piece of equipment suggested a man of serious dedication. People became curious, watched what was happening and then went on their way again, leaving Denis to carry on unnoticed.

His first serious commission came from Bruce Bernard, the legendary picture editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. Commissions from other magazine, including Life Magazine in America, followed. He later received commissions from the advertising world, when the trend was to make ads that didn’t look like ads at all; at that time, large format photographers like Denis Waugh, Peter Lavery, Kenneth Griffiths and Rolph Gobits were being hired to give ads more of an editorial appearance. For instance, Denis produced a portrait of Freddie Heineken, having a beer at the bar of CafĂ© Hoppe in Amsterdam. However, things went downhill in the 1980s. The rise of commercial television undermined the hegemony of the magazines and advertising budgets shifted from printed media to TV commercials. In the meantime, Priscilla was causing a stir as a travel reporter for the British newspapers The Independent, Telegraph and Guardian, as well as a series of international magazines.

Slow journalism
At the start of the 1990s, Denis and Priscilla had the idea of creating a book about the Thames. Getting the go-ahead wasn't easy. In the UK, just like everywhere else, photography books are expensive to produce and the market for them is small. Bruce Bernard put the couple in contact with book designer Derek Birdsall , who thought that their book idea was wonderful and put together a dummy copy. This helped sell the concept, and a publisher was soon found.

The couple worked independently, although they consulted each other constantly. Denis followed the 346-kilometre long river by car (because of all the equipment), while Priscilla did so by bike. From her writing you get a very real sense of her making her way along the banks of the Thames through lush, thriving nature, places where nobody had ventured for centuries. She took the time to note the tiniest details, however trivial, absurd, subtle or grotesque. Her writing is poetic but not woolly, informative but not patronising, and dreamy but not verbose. Some sentences unfurl slowly, in others the words come tumbling out, but always her prose remains fresh and clear like the river itself.

Denis and Priscilla married when they were 21 and 20 respectively – young by today’s standards. By the time that they embarked on the ' Searching the Thames' project, their marriage was long since over. However, although they lived and worked separately after their split, they retained a certain mutual fondness and still understood each other intuitively, even when they weren’t in close physical proximity. Consequently, the writing and the images in this book blend together beautifully in a harmonious union.

Searching the Thames
The long exposure times slowly bring everything that moves to a standstill. The surface of the water appears mysterious, in places even slightly viscous, while the clouds contrast sharply with the blue sky. The photographs were taken throughout the year by Denis, a man of all seasons, just as comfortable on a cold winter morning as on an early spring night.

On 19 August, it will be 170 years since the invention of photography was announced to the world. It is truly fascinating that, in the decade that digital photography came into its own, Denis Waugh was using his Gandolfi camera to take roughly 80 photos, works of true craftsmanship created in the classic traditions of a medium that continues to develop.

Denis & Priscilla Waugh: Searching the Thames - a journey from the source to the sea’.
Book design: Derek Bridsall. Aurum Press 1999, ISBN 1 85410 620 1 (Although no longer available from the publisher, the book can still be obtained from some book sellers.)

© Pim Milo, 2009