Photoopportunities

Amanda Lake meets four young photographers and discusses how their different backgrounds are reflected in their work and aspirations

Jules Merton and Eric Gauster make up the photographic duo Merton Gauster. The couple have been working together for seven years.

Merton went straight into a commercial photographers’ studio as an assistant after school as “college really didn’t appeal to me”. Later she moved to London to become a freelance assistant to “try to work with the best, as London is where it’s at”. After six months she started up as a photographer on her own.

Gauster was on the same wavelength. He didn’t want to go to college either, but opted for a short course in Reading. Merton says: “There wasn’t even the festival when Eric went there.” Gauster laughs, then recalls: “I thought it was going to be like Fame.” But it wasn’t. Gauster went on to be a photographer’s assistant too. “Swept floors and stuff”, he grins. He followed by setting up his own studio.

At the end of 1989 the partnership was formed. Merton says there wasn’t one reason for the duo to get together, like she’s told this tale about a million times. The main reason was because “it just made sense.” Gauster adds: “It was a good idea. It was no big deal, I had worked with Davies and Starr, a man-and-wife team, previously, and I liked the idea of a partnership. If it hadn’t worked we would have split.”

It did work, although the duo had to deal with some prejudice at the very beginning. “Nobody could understand why it was a team of two photographers, people were wary about it”, Merton says. Now Merton Gauster has a client list as long as your arm. The duo has worked for advertising and design agencies, music labels and magazines. They have produced award winning work for Leftfield, and the infamous Renaissance press campaign with Dolphin. More recently they collaborated with Tomato on a book by Albert Watson.

Merton and Gauster feel that they have achieved their position for a couple of reasons. The first is because of changing attitudes towards still-life photography. Once still-life photographers were thought of as little more than technicians. Now there is more credibility attached. Also the “classic” still-life images have moved on. Merton laughs at the image which springs to her mind “like bottles of whiskey and pheasants hung up beside shotguns”.

But that’s not the only reason. “It’s because we still have an edge,” says Gauster. “People want to see that in their commission.” The pair continue learning and pushing themselves so as not to be stale. “We push ourselves as far as we can, till we hit the brick wall. What have we to lose?” Merton says. “When you are established, if you push yourself, your portfolio expands and you produce a wide range of work.”

It’s been a good year and a half for the couple. “We haven’t had a single duff job,” says Gauster. But what of the future? They are currently pushing down the beauty/accessory avenue. And perhaps commercials later in the year, though they wouldn’t disclose any more. “We think it’s the right direction”, Gauster says confidently.

“At the moment we’re in negotiations with a French agent,” says Merton. “For some types of work you have to go abroad.” Not many of the French and Italian fashion houses like Chanel and Gucci look towards England for ad campaign work. A European agent, as well as a London one, may raise the stakes.

Gauster points out that photography is a very fickle business. “I hope we’re not just a passing phase,” he says. I very much doubt it.

Kjell Ekhorn

Norwegian-born Kjell Ekhorn graduated in 1996 from Central St Martins College of Art and Design with a degree in graphic design. He left to become a freelance graphic photographer, which may seem like a bizarre move. To him this was the natural thing to do, having first got involved in photography while he was at Central St Martins. “Gradually I found myself working more and more with photography to solve a graphic brief,” he says.

So, a year on, is he still having fun? “Yeah absolutely. At the moment I’m trying to get as many interesting projects as possible.” He is determined not to produce any traditional bread and butter work. “I will do anything that is interesting, as long as people are looking for something special or different. I have no particular desire to do documentary work,” he says.

Ekhorn has a number of commissions already under his belt: notably Unity 3 for Polydor, (to be in this year’s Communication Art Photography Annual); work for the launch issue of Traveller magazine to be published by Condé Nast; book covers for Vintage, Cape, and Pimlico; and images for Media Front and Marks & Spencer, to name a few.

Ekhorn acknowledges that when you first come out of college it’s all about surviving. But because of the number of commissions he’s been offered, he’s had the opportunity to approach things in the way he wanted. When asked how he feels he’s doing, he jokes: “Well, I don’t have the bank manager running after me.”

This may be partly due to his agent Alan Wickes, who he chose last September, through recommendation. “There is no point having an agent for the sake of having an agent,” says Ekhorn, “unless they really appreciate what you are doing and try to get you the kind of work you want.”

Ekhorn has set ideas about photography and where he is going, and it’s probably his varied career that has given him such insight. After leaving design school he went to work in a number of advertising and design agencies, where he started off as an art director’s assistant.

After four years he left to concentrate on graphic design. He spent a further three and a half years travelling in Asia before opting for the course at Central St Martins.

“I’ve always tried to approach photography from a different angle. By experimenting, rather than finding out how it’s supposed to be done, you learn so much more,” Ekhorn tells me enthusiastically. “You find your own way of doing things. Part of the buzz is producing something in your own way.”

Does he gain inspiration from anything else? Yes, Japanese poster design. “I like their approach – they use a totally different visual language.” Eckhorn does look at what other photographers are doing, but not necessarily people who have similar styles. He adds: “I wouldn’t want to work in a studio which had pure photographers. I think inspiration comes from other places, TV, anything. We live in a city anyway.”

Ekhorn told me he has no plans to go back to Norway. So what are his future plans? “To break into the London market, of course.”

Sophia Warren-Knott

Sophia Warren-Knott is passionate about photography. Especially portrait photography. “It’s fair to say,” she says, “that it’s the people aspect that’s of interest to me, the rapport you create between yourself and the sitter.” She continues, “I really enjoy setting up the shot and actually working at the image, rather than having to grab the picture.” Although she admits this was how she started her photography career.

After completing a degree in English and Philosophy, Warren-Knott hit the “what next?” quandary. It was partly through a Magnum exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London (which she found “fantastic”), and a need to take time out, to find a new way of expressing herself, that she decided to embark on a postgraduate diploma in photojournalism at the London College of Printing.

“Photojournalism in a reportage sense was something I really wanted to try,” she says. Photography wasn’t a totally alien subject to her because she had studied it at school, but she had never thought of it as a career option. It was during her stint at LCP that she found “words became very secondary”. As a result she left college to become a freelance photographer.

Warren-Knott quickly built up a client list and commissions, although she has never had an agent. “I was very lucky,” she acknowledges, “but I was hungry for work.” When asked about her first commission, she laughs. “It involved a cheese factory somewhere in the Midlands, for the Milk Marketing Board, that’s what I particularly remember.”

Over the past four years she has produced work for a number of clients including Smith & Milton Original, PPP Healthcare and Ogilvy & Mather Direct.

Not all her time has been spent doing her own work, however. She has assisted on and off for photographer Michael Burt. She feels that it’s valuable experience, as you acquire lots of skills and because: “Being a photographer can be an incredibly lonely job; you don’t have a sound- board or anyone to judge against; you see loads of images but don’t know how anyone else works,” she says.

Warren-Knott hasn’t got her own studio or darkroom. She doesn’t see the point, as she is often away on location, so hires them when she needs to. “Location work is fun, although very tiring,” she says. “It isn’t a real aim of mine to travel but producing great pictures is, so wherever it takes me…”

Last year it took her to America. The American project was part of her own development. Until then she had been busy with commissions. “Because of this I’ve never had an experimental stage, I wanted to develop my own style. In order to do that, I needed to do a trip,” she says. But why America? “America lowers you, the land is so large, it has a romanticism for me.”

Warren-Knott spent two weeks photographing “Face of the West” in Nevada. The pictures taken there were a total contrast from previous work. All that was used was a hand-held camera and natural light. “I didn’t want to set things up around my subjects, I wanted it to be simple, I wanted it to be about them,” she says. At some stage she’s hoping to go back to a different part of America to carry on with this project.

When I ask her if she finds commissioned work an interruption to her personal work, she looks at me for a moment, before smiling and says, “commissioned work is my own work. I draw no distinction between the two” – like I had completely missed the point. “Although I would like my work to be in a book or in an exhibition.”

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