Prolific photographer Peter Dazeley was just fifteen years old when he left the safe predictability of secondary school to try his luck on London’s Fleet Street in the Swinging Sixties. That decision led to a rich career spanning six decades and multiple industries, resulting in prestigious awards recognizing outstanding ability such as the Fellowship by The Royal Photographic Society — the highest distinction of the RPS. His upcoming book, Monochrome, utilizes the centuries-old practice of the platinotype method in order to create delicate, ghostly images of natural specimens such as plants, animals, and flowers that seem to be pulled directly from a dream.
Monochrome, printed on high-quality paper with metallic inks and casebound with a ribbon, will be available fall 2023.
How long have you been a photographer and what initially drew you to the profession?
I went to a school that had amazing facilities — gymnasiums, woodwork, metalwork, engineering, domestic science — but it also had photographic studios and dark rooms. I had no idea at the time, but I'm wildly dyslexic and was just floundering through school. Photography discovered me, is probably the best way of putting it.
Over the Easter holidays, I saw an ad in the Evening Standard in London for an assistant photographer. And so at age 15, I went along for an interview with my mom, and they gave me a job. I never went back to school again. That's how I started out. I've been working as a photographer for 60 years.
You started off your career in the 1960’s on Fleet Street. How has this affected your view on your work and approach to creativity?
I'm from a different age. At school and in my first job, we worked with photographic glass plates. I mean, it wasn't just film. At my first job, we printed from glass plate negatives. It’s such a tiny speck of time going from getting your hands wet and working in a darkroom to where we are now with digital.
Film was never the exciting thing that people think it is. I have to be careful because that's slightly controversial. People love the quality of film but when you've got a picture that you really like on film, the first thing you do is scan it. So it then becomes second generation. Whereas the digital file is like a negative. It's just a starting point with tremendous opportunities.
You’ve said that dyslexia should be seen as a superpower. How does it help you see the world differently and aid you in your work?
I suppose one thing that's controversial is the fact that I'm also an advertising photographer, and advertising photographers and fine art photographers are not something that go together.
But I use what I think is my superpower in problem solving. In advertising, when you’re shooting ads for things, a lot of the time you have to problem solve. And for the clients, you have to solve their problems, not be the problem. Dyslexia makes things easier to work out or think about things in a different way.
What was the impetus behind creating Monochrome after focusing on photographing London in your most recent books?
Sam [Landers, Trope’s Publisher] inspired me. Sam approached me and was really keen on the idea. We talked about it and he came to London. The work in Monochrome are images that have been produced over a number of years going back in time. Not very much of it is recent.
I'm always interested in experimenting — in trying new processes, new lenses, new techniques, new lighting. I love the idea of experimenting for example from x-rays and mammograms. A lot of my work starts as a clean piece of paper or with a model and we just see what happens, although there are no pictures of models in the book.
The fact that the platinum process goes back in time, to the 1800s, makes it absolutely the opposite of AI. Heaven help the next generation. It’s unclear whether we will need the photographers or if AI’s going to take over. My photography is taking it back to its origins, and the platinum process is such an amazing thing to see. There are details about that in the book. In the old days, the paper would be exposed to daylight, but it's now done with ultraviolet light. It’s all the same process.
In the 20th century with bromide prints, you would see it coming up in the developer and you could take it out early or leave it in to get a bit darker. With platinum it's there instantly, as soon as you put it in the chemical solution.
How did you first become interested in the platinotype method and what was it like to learn? I was very interested in what you said about how this is essentially the opposite of AI and and what that means for the future.
I always mess around with different camps. I like experimenting and trying to do different things with lenses, processes, lighting, all sorts of different things.
I am sure a lot of photographers don't even know that this process exists. It dates back to the Victorian age. How did you find out about it? How did you catch on to this process?
Lots of famous people used it in the past. Lots of artists used it, as well. It’s this archival process. It’s not like a digital print — it’s got wonderful tones to it. It adds value to what I'm doing.
It's much more personal when you're so involved in that process. You're not just taking the picture but you're involved in the creating of it actually coming to life as well.
I like getting to watch but I do leave it to the masters! It's produced on French watercolor paper and the art of it is to apply the emulsion with a goat's head paintbrush without any drips or lines or anything. That alone is an art form in itself.
That seems very difficult to achieve. I keep getting stuck on this idea that this process is essentially the opposite of AI. Why do you think it's so important to go back to our roots in this way?
We live in a world now where everybody's a photographer. Everybody with an iPhone can take amazing pictures. Over Christmas, I was in Florida and we were on a beach at sunset and I was taking pictures with a very expensive Nikon camera. My family were also taking pictures on their iPhones. And their pictures were better than mine.
With the iPhone, there are in excess of 800 engineers working on the camera alone. If you're the boss of Nikon or Canon you must be having nightmares. With a Nikon or Canon camera you can't send the image anywhere, unlike phones where the images can be shared instantly.
It’s just the way that the world has changed, and phones are remarkable for making something look very good, very simply. The 20,000 kids who are studying photography in the UK are going to find it quite difficult to monetize what they do. That’s the downside.
Something that slightly amused me is that somebody just won a photographic competition in the UK. And then they announced that they actually created the photograph completely with AI. It was a picture of two women together. In this picture they’ve got fingers like sausages. I don't know whether you've noticed, but in the old days, a lot of painters weren't very good at fingers. None of this matters, because AI doesn't forget, it only learns. It will only get better and better and probably take over the world.
But I think there's something else that can be said about the heart and the mind of the photographer in the work as well. I'm thinking of the director Agnes Varda. She was a photographer at first, and that really comes through in her films through how the shots are composed. I'm just hoping that AI can never actually grasp what it means to do that as a human.
I had to give a talk at my son's school this week. I was talking about dyslexia to these kids. Lots of them were dyslexic, and I was explaining about problem solving. So I told AI that I was going to a school and needed a speech about dyslexia, I just gave it three words: School, Talk, Dyslexia, and I got a speech. I mean, how difficult is that? I can have it create an image of a blonde and a man on a beach in Portugal at sunset and you know, it'll be there.
With all the hype that's going on about AI, I do think it's nice that we talked about taking photography back to its origins.
Going back to Monochrome, what is different about the process of photographing these natural specimens versus a cityscape scene?
It comes from looking. With my way of making a living, I’m always looking for interesting people, interesting places, and interesting things. With these different projects, I choose something to hit on and then move on. I’m just always looking for interesting things to do.