BENGE: What is immediately striking about your
work is its rich painterly quality. Would you
TIM HALL: I have always been
influenced by painters as much as by photographers,
especially [Mark] Rothko and [Joseph Mallord Wiliam]
Turner, and my work is definitely moving away
from the literal image into something more abstract.
I like a painterly photograph because it can be
more expressive and emotional. I think I am quite
romantic in that respect, nostalgic even in my
approach to my work.
SB: How does this nostalgia infuse your
TM: While I was living in Asia for 10
years, my focus was very much towards aspects
of life that I felt would not be there forever.
I was so aware of time passing that it was important
for me to capture the old stuff. My India work
is very much in this genre. I see photography
as a document of its time but it also needs to
stand the test of time.
SB: Would you say you are a nostalgic
TM: Day to day, I wouldn’t say
that I am. But the whole medium of travel photography
has always attracted the traveller, the explorer,
the romantic in me—the idea of going out
in the wide world alone and discovering . . .
SB: What has been your most exciting place
of discovery from a personal and professional
point of view?
TM: It’s got to be Varanasi.
It’s left the most lasting impression. For
me personally I found it to be a place I couldn’t
wait to leave, but then couldn’t wait to
get back to! As a photographer, the fascination
of Varanasi was finding so many different facets
of Indian life in one place. It was a very rich
picking ground for capturing the essence of India,
as I see it—such history and spirituality
where reality and myth seem totally blurred.
SB: How did you feel being immersed in
such a spiritual place?
TM: A complete outsider, which
is why I went back on a second trip. My approach
to my work was very different the second time.
My first set of India images are pre-arranged,
more stylized, more about creating a beautiful
image. And they’re about a photographer
and subject relationship.
SB: Can you explain this?
TM: I used my ‘portable
studio’ technique, where I set up my subject
against a white background and shoot in black
and white. As India is so full of colour I went
the other way. Black and white can be more powerful
and again is nostalgic. This way I can create
contemporary images with a vintage feel.
SB: What about your subjects? Are they
TM: Almost always. In Asia, where
I have worked a lot, I came across people—especially
in Burma—who had never seen a camera. It
was an adventure for them as much as for me and
this made them wonderfully un-self-conscious subjects.
This picture: ‘Holy Man’ was a funny
experience. I found a lot of ascetics in Varanasi,
many of who were real and many of who were dressed
up for the occasion. He [the man in the picture
entitled ‘Holy Man’] was extremely
happy to sit for me; so willing that I wondered
if he was actually for real. He walked away refusing
money and then quickly turned and told me $10
would be fine!
SB: And your second trip?
TM: I used a documentary style
. . . reportage . . . where I’m more removed
and I’m not affecting the situation. Except
this one time in Varanasi when I obviously did—I
was spinning about on a boat in the Ganges watching
a man performing his pujas. Feeling protected
behind my lens I got carried away until I was
interrupted with: ‘It would be polite to
ask you know.’ After that I didn’t
use the shots I got; I thought it wasn’t
The second time I went I felt more comfortable
with the very public private moments of prayer,
of death, with the intense assault on my senses.
I felt less of a barrier and more comfortable
shooting this open way of life.
Along with this I started to introduce muted colour.
This was also inspired by the god-given mists
that surround Varanasi and fit quite naturally
with my oeuvre.
SB: And how do you achieve this ethereal
sense of muted colour?
TM: I use a particular type of
film with a muted tone and carefully chosen aperture.
SB: Is there an absolutely right moment
to shoot, in your opinion?
TM: The decisive moment, as Cartier
Bresson says, is completely instinctive as are
compositions. I naturally know what works for
me. It presents itself to me and I believe that
it will. Of course, sometimes this doesn’t
happen and I move on. In India especially, there
is something interesting going on all around me.
I have learned the art of self-editing. I remain
focussed and stick to my plan.
SB: You say that Varanasi was such an
assault on your senses, how did you decide what
TM: I look for a beautiful image
that translates the atmosphere and captures the
way I feel about the culture I am observing. Yet
I want my images to work on another level, as
part of a series, the idea of a story unfolding,
hence my series title, Pilgrimage. The images
work as a whole around a theme as well as alone.
So I also shoot my images to speak on my chosen
theme. For ‘Praying to Buddha’ I left
Varanasi for Sarnath. It was important for me
to capture the place where Buddha gave his first
sermon after Enlightenment. Such a calm contained
place after that sense of life being worn on your
sleeve in Varanasi.
SB: Yet all your images possess this
wonderful sense of calm, despite the overwhelming
thrust of Varanasi. There’s an absorbing
sense of peace in them all: ‘Walking in
the Ganges’. ‘Morning Prayer’,
‘The Ghats’—it’s a real
feature of your work.
TM: It’s true. A lot of
my clients have never been to India but the pictures
hit a note internally. They find solace in them.
With my recent seascapes, even stormy ones, my
work has always been calm. It’s important
for me that they hold a breathing space. It enables
the viewer to think more about themselves. It
is more about reflection than what is in the images.
My work does that for me and if it does that for
someone else, it’s a successful image.
SB: So your pictures can be seen as meditations?
TM: Yes. I think this is for
various reasons: My exposure to Asian cultures
and my interest in their religion has infiltrated
my work. I like the idea of taking responsibility
for oneself; introspection is the way forward
and if my work encourages that, good.
SB: The calmness then, becomes almost
TM: I think you are closer to a meditative
state if you take the image away from what you
know of that subject—like in my views of
Varanasi. In doing this you are reducing the subject
to colour and form and distilling it to your belief
In my 18 years as a photographer I have always
related to the less-is-more idea. The understatement
is often the more powerful statement and this
instinctively comes out in my work. I like the
whole idea of the empty space, which can speak
SB: Despite claiming not to be a spiritual
individual, your work is very much this way.
TM: Perhaps it comes out in my work,
rather than in my consciousness. I probably would
be spiritual if I lived in a hut on the seashore.
So as a city dweller, my photography is my reason
for being, my escape from urban claustrophobia.
The whole experience of being away, especially
in nature is exaggerated for me now. This partly
explains why people become diminished in my work
now. As I develop, I see more clearly the power
of the natural environment. Hence my recent series
of the coastline, the desert, the sea . . . Yes,
water brings out that calm in me.
SB: And the human element now?
TM: I hope the human element
in my recent work is in fact the spiritual experience
the viewer feels when looking at my work. I see
my work as human in this sense now. In many ways
it’s more human. I think a bit of introspection
is the way forward.
SB: How do you feel personally when confronting
such a powerful natural setting as in the sea?
TM: I get really excited actually. The
calmness comes at a later stage. It’s all
about the moment: the right weather, the right
moment to shoot, the right momentum. Then excitement
spills over into even choosing the right paper,
the right way to print the image, how best to
frame it. There are lots of processes in taking
the right picture but I know them so well now
that I am confident the end image will be calm—because
this is what I want.
SB: Can we talk a little about your printing
process? Your images have such a painterly quality,
as we said before.
TM: I use a fine art printer who mainly
does artists’ prints because they really
understand the necessity for perfection. This
is art and I want museum quality, not lab quality.
It was the printing that really made my desert
series for me.
SB: How was that?
TM: I found the desert particularly sensual.
I saw female forms in the sand everywhere and
I used the printing, with strong contrast on the
sinewy line to hint at a curvy woman’s body,
without the viewer being quite sure!
SB: So how important is the viewer in
the success of a photograph?
TM: The way an image is perceived is
absolutely the lure of photography. And one of
the greatest joys for me is the reaction of the
viewer. And they are always so different. It is
easy to think of a photograph as a mechanical
thing but it obviously isn’t. The composition,
the subject matter and idea must work in harmony,
then the personality of the photographer will
be the final influence on the outcome.
SB: Do you have visions of your future
TM: I’ve been lucky in the scope
of my work: the travel, the people and nature.
I feel what I am doing is the culmination. I certainly
love to travel and am glad to have travelled now
so close to home. I’ve been surprised at
how uncompromisingly beautiful Britain is. But
I certainly want to go back to India. I will always
want to return to India.