John Hannavy Interview
BooksfromScotland: You seem to be a very busy man, travelling all around the world in your work as a photographer. How do you find the time to write the interesting content that accompanies your photographs in Scotland’s Heritage?
John Hannavy: Despite appearances to the contrary, I’m actually not that busy these days, and I don’t really consider most of what I do to be ‘work’. A decade ago I seemed to be travelling all over the place like a madman, but today my travels are usually limited to France and Spain, writing and illustrating historical features for British magazines on those countries.
Since retiring from academic life, I only take on jobs I want to do – and that goes for books as well as magazine commissions. Books like mine are often the result of years of work, with several projects in development at the same time, and when a number come out in the same year, as has happened in 2012, it looks like I must have been working round the clock. The truth is very different. I take the pictures when the weather is good – obviously – but, as a historian (and the son of a historian), I am an enthusiastic researcher, so researching and writing the texts is every bit as much fun as making the pictures. I don’t see the two as separate. My writing and my photography take equal importance in what I do – they work together to tell their story. They are designed to complement each other and create something which, hopefully, is greater than the sum of their two parts.
You’ve seen many changes in photography. What was your favourite camera and what equipment do you use today?
Yes, when I first went into photography, colour film was expensive, and black and white was the norm. Film was slow, and the sort of highly detailed architectural photography which I used to do for a living required large format cameras, big tripods, and longish exposures. Photography today can do so much more. It can help the photographer realise just about any idea he or she might have. We can take photographs under lighting conditions which would have seemed impossible a few decades ago. Looking recently at one of a series of tv films I made for BBC Scotland in the early 1980s on the history of Scottish photography was quite amusing. What I was then using as evidence of how far photography had come since its invention in the 1830s now seems so primitive in comparison with what is available today.
The only thing which hasn’t changed is the science which underpins it all. If a photographer doesn’t understand the theory of light and the physics of the photographic image, then the best camera in the world is not going to be of any great help! He or she will undoubtedly take a few good pictures, but there may be an element of luck in that. A good professional understands how the system works, how to make it do what you want it to do, and how to correct errors when they happen. The photographic science which I was taught as a student in the early 1960s is every bit as relevant in the digital age as it was in the time of film.
My favourite camera has always been whichever one I have at any particular time. The camera is simply one of the ‘tools of the trade’, and as the camera’s capability has expanded over the fifty years I have been involved with photography, so has what I expect of my equipment. The only time I have felt my camera was an object of beauty was when I got my first Hasselblad in the early 1970s, but today it is what it can do that impresses. For the technically minded, my current instrument of choice is a 15 year old Contax 645 medium format camera, but now fitted with a Phase One P45+ digital back. The quality is awesome, and I do not see me growing out of it anytime soon. What I refer to as my ‘little camera’ is a Canon 5D.
How did you first get into photography?
Dr. Todd, my chemistry master at Morrisons’ Academy in Crieff in the late 1950s, introduced me to the magic of the photographic darkroom and I have never lost the enthusiasm for making pictures which he inspired. He believed I could do something with photography, and urged me to pursue a course photography and photographic technology in Manchester – against strong advice from my father who thought I ought to study something which might lead to ‘a proper job’. At that time, there were no photographic courses available anywhere in Scotland! Dad was reconciled when I started teaching the subject, teaching being ‘a proper job’!
I still miss the smell of the chemicals, but prefer the infinitely greater creative control digital gives me.
After a variety of jobs, and my first forays into editorial photography in the late 1960s, I taught photography and photographic history at college and university levels for more than 35 years, being appointed to a Professorship in the subject n the late 1990s.
Scotland’s Heritage features beautiful close up shots of standing stones and designs engraved into stone. What do you most enjoy photographing?
Rather than any particular subject, what fascinates me as much as anything is light – how the changing direction, contrast and colour of light can affect how we read a subject and respond to it. I am also a lover of heavy lowering skies, for they say so much about the experience of being in the landscape, especially in Scotland. The carved stones you mention are an obvious subject for photography. Under the right light they are three-dimensional and striking. Under the wrong lighting they are virtually unreadable. Textures and patterns, lines and curves, are the basic building blocks of a good photograph, and they all depend on the time of day and quality of lighting.
It’s very clear that Scotland inspires you but where else in the world do you like to shoot?
Send me anywhere interesting, and I’ll find something. My visits to Russia, China, India, Egypt and elsewhere have all inspired me – new experiences, new cultures, ancient civilisations, and different light.
Your next book is a reflective look at how Scotland was depicted in photographs and postcards 100-170 years ago. How did you come up with the concept of telling history through postcards?
It’s not just postcards. A postcard, like any photograph, is a record of a moment in time – a record of what inspired the photographer who took it, as well as a record of a world very different from today’s. As a photographic historian I have long been fascinated by what photographs can tell us about the lifestyles of Victorian and Edwardian times, and what we can learn by comparing the old with today. Postcards, of course, often have the added dimension of the message the sender wrote on the back, revealing things about their lifetime, their travel and holiday experiences, and so on.
I have actually written a series of books on Victorian and Edwardian times through old photographs – the most recent of which The Victorian and Edwardian Tourist and The Victorians and Edwardians at War (both published by Shire) also came out this year. My 2007 book Great Photographic Journeys – in the footsteps of pioneer British photographers took the idea further by comparing the journeys and the photographs of eight early photographers with my own images and my own experiences retracing their steps. Their pictures alongside mine told the story of change – changes in travel, changes in cultural relationships and expectations, and of course changes in photography itself, from cumbersome wet glass plates to modern digital.
I am currently extending that idea to Scotland with my current project Discovering Scotland- in the footsteps of great travel writers where I am recreating and illustrating the published Scottish travels of William Camden, Boswell and Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Bishop Richard Pococke, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Thomas Telford and many others – including my favourite 20th century travel writer the great H. V. Morton.
How did you source the material and did you have to work with the postcards and photographs to bring them up to a new quality for the publication?
I have been collecting and writing about early photography for over forty years, so I have amassed a huge collection of historic material from all over the world. I used to use it in my photographic history lectures to students, and now it’s the primary source material for much of my writing for magazines and books. Until it ceased publication late last year, there was a wonderful on-line magazine called Discover my past Scotland, writing for which gave me the opportunity to do some truly fascinating research into Scotland’s Victorian and Edwardian history. The Way We Were – Victorian and Edwardian Scotland in Colour has drawn heavily on that research.
As to preparing the images for publication, a high quality scanner and a deepening understanding of Photoshop are the vital tools. Restoring and digitally enhancing old pictures and postcards can revive images and help them tell their stories to a new audience.