Tim Hall in conversation with Sophie Benge, 2007
SOPHIE BENGE: What is immediately striking about your work is its rich painterly quality. Would you agree?
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 work?
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 person?
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 co-operative?
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 appropriate.
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 to shoot?
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 an abstraction.
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 systems—the core. 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 so much.
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 development?
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.