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Taking inspiration from the greats
Harry Skeggs & Christine Riding

We recently met up with the multi-award-winning Z Creator, fine art and wildlife photographer Harry Skeggs and the National Gallery’s Head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of British Paintings, Christine Riding.

We discussed how the great artists in the collection are still inspiring and shaping art in all its forms – including Harry’s own photography.

Harry, which great artists have inspired your photography?

I’ve been particularly influenced by Caravaggio – his dark, tenebristic backgrounds are an excellent way of simplifying an image and at the same time making a piece immediately atmospheric and moody, and for that reason it’s a technique I often use in my images. I’m also deeply inspired by sculpture, particularly Bernini’s work and his astonishing mastery of compositional form, immortalising a single moment in stone. Photography presents a not dissimilar challenge – how do you capture a fleeting encounter in such a way that it works artistically?

My degree in art history at Cambridge was all about the principles of art, and what stood out for me was how so many of painting’s lessons can be applied to any artform, not least photography. There’s so much to draw from that it would be a real mistake as a photographer to ignore those lessons and think of photography as something totally different, because it’s not. All arts are connected and, no matter how different they are, they are all invaluable. Photography couldn’t be what it is without that lineage. So if anyone ever asks me if they should study photography or art, I always say art, as it gives you access to all the lessons of the great artists, learnt over millennia.

Christine, you must have at least one favourite artist…

[Laughs] Oh, this is a difficult question! I absolutely adore William Blake, in part because he was both a poet and a pictorial artist, and I love how his words and images work together. He was a failure in his own lifetime and it only made him a greater and more authentic artist – he accepted the fact he was going to plough his own furrow rather than be commercial. For someone who barely went anywhere outside his native London to come up with this imaginary world, it shows you it’s not about those who’ve been educated to death. There’s an innate and unconscious intelligence with people like him that makes them unstoppable – like Turner, who was from an artisan background and not well educated but who seized the day and became a creative force.

Then there are the painters’ painters, such as Whistler. He learned from Turner and other artists but created something without mimicking what they were doing, but rather using them as a pointer for where he wanted to go. You’d never mistake a Whistler for a Turner, but you can see the lineage and the antecedents. I love this relay race between artists across the centuries, exploring where they found their inspiration. Whistler was an amazing colourist, but his playful use of musical terminology in his titles suggests art doesn’t need to be anything other than beautiful and to inspire emotional responses.

Related to that is an artist I adore for being able to shove his fist into the sinews of human experience –Géricault, one of the early French Romantics. His best-known work, The Raft Of The Medusa, depicts people struggling to survive the aftermath of a shipwreck and abandonment by the crew. It became an immediate allegory for the human condition that artists riff off time and time again. It’s one of those eternal images, based on a true story, which almost immediately becomes metaphorical – and relevant now in the face of forced immigration. Géricault also painted severed heads and limbs – human existence at its most degrading, pathetic and tragic – yet he created absolutely stunning works, beautifully composed. Delacroix said they were the greatest statement of art for art’s sake he had ever seen. I think it’s the difference between brute reality and what an artist can do with even such a terrible subject hat that links all these artists for me – their ability to translate and transform subject matter, which is so powerful.

But if I had to choose just one, it would be Hans Holbein for the clarity, the colours, the mimetic quality and humanity of his portraits. I really don’t know who’s matched him in terms of his ability to represent the human body. For someone working in the first part of the 16th century, his life-sized portrait of The Ambassadors is a miracle, because it operates on so many different levels in terms of symbolism and meaning.

What do you love about photography, Harry, and what do you think makes an image stand the test of time?

While paintings can depict an imagined world, photography can be a window onto the real world, and I love that level of authenticity. I shoot handheld, which means everything I’m capturing is very much my personal view. When you look at one of my images, you know I’m sharing a moment with you that I’ve personally experienced – you’re seeing through my eyes and feeling what I felt.

If you want to create a distinctive image, it’s so important to do something different – predictable photographs are never going to stand the test of time, or indeed stand out. For me, composition is key. When you understand composition not just as a technical rule but as a language you can use to speak eloquently, that’s when photographs become powerful.

And there are other considerations for fine-art wildlife photography in particular. These are images people are going to hang on their walls, so you want to minimise distractions in the frame like twigs and foliage – because I can guarantee once someone notices anything like that, it’s going to leap out at them every day and drive them insane! I’m a big believer in simple, clean photographs that enable you to focus on the subject and allow it to speak clearly – which is always a challenge with wildlife photography when there’s so much happening and you’re looking for a single moment of simplicity in a maelstrom of life.

In your experience, Christine, what makes a painting memorable?

It’s not necessarily something that needs explaining – it’s something you respond to. Yes, it’s fun to dip into the meaning of a painting and the context from which it’s come, but equally I love just looking at the colours, how the artist has painted that eye. I think it’s about the ability to speak across cultures and time that makes a work of art memorable. You only have to think of Picasso’s Guernica, which came out of one specific moment in history but, like Géricault’s Raft, is timeless in terms of what it says about horror and destruction and inhumanity.

One for you now, Harry – what can a photographer learn from the great artists to improve their images?

It’s really important when you look at art to be critical about it – just because the artist is famous, you don’t have to like it or look for inspiration in their work. I think it’s a case of when you find something that does speak to you, you have to critically assess why and distil it down. That’s what I did with Caravaggio, and for me it’s that dark, brooding background that makes his work so simple, clean and surreal – it’s what allows the painting to become timeless. Identifying these little components and compositional tricks will enable you to improve your photography. For me it’s a lot about simplicity, it’s a lot about cleanness, it’s a lot about strong composition. I think very carefully about the angle – whether you’re shooting up to emphasise size or down to include context. Ultimately photographic style is entirely subjective, and what works for you may be different to what works for me, but in my work I am always looking for something clean and simple.

Christine, is there a danger of straying into pastiche when seeking artistic inspiration from paintings?

Not if it’s a launching point for one’s own exploration. Artists’ biographies can be quite helpful in terms of the journey they go on to arrive at something that feels so innovative. And that’s what I feel about the artists I’ve spoken about today – they wanted to say something different while almost collaborating with those who innovated in the past, honouring the idea of being in a lineage rather than being locked into a certain way of thinking or creating. My advice would be that if your journey is to innovate, then you utilise the art of the past as a way of getting there, rather than simply replicating it in the now. As Picasso so famously said, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

When you look at a painting, there could be a single brushstroke that transforms it. We were looking at a painting in the gallery recently by Thomas Lawrence, one of the leading English portrait painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He used Van Dyke’s little trick of putting a single white blob of paint in somebody’s eye to transform their expression and indeed the feel of the entire picture. These little tricks of the trade are again part of that relay race between artists. It’s often these very simple things that are so transformative, and that’s the kind of detail I like. It’s the sort of thing you can see other artists picking up, taking forward and handing on.

Harry, what are your “tricks” for capturing a successful image?

Many photographers seem to feel that if you’re not getting an amazing image every day, it’s a wasted day. That’s just not the case with wildlife photography. One of the fundamental challenges is that nothing is guaranteed – whether you’ll get a sighting, the right weather or enough light. So you need to previsualise what you want, but at the same time you have to be enormously reactive and work with what you’ve got – almost like previsualising in real time. You see the beam of light come down and you’re immediately thinking, what can I do with that, what am I looking for? Rather than going out on a trip with four very specific images I want to take, I’m constantly previsualising a whole range of what should work within the parameters of a theme. And even if you don’t get a decent photograph from this approach, you’ll still learn something that you can take forward and apply to your future work.

When I think about my wildlife photography, there are two key elements – the fine-art side and the authentic experience of the animal interaction – and they have to be hand in hand, otherwise the image is lacking. On the Camargue horses shoot with the pre-production version of the Z 7II, I was very clear about the feel I wanted to achieve. You usually see images of the horses running on the beach and into the water, but that’s not a natural behaviour for them – they have to be chased. I wanted to photograph them in their natural habit, doing what they naturally do. Left to their own devices, they’ll stand pretty much still all day in the salt marshes. So I wanted to show them in these beautiful marshlands, being their calm, docile selves rather than that contrived, crashing through the waves thing.

You hear a lot of photographers saying they put their cameras down in the middle of the day, the reason being that the shadows get very harsh when the sun is high. But I’m a big believer in there being no such thing as bad light, only different light, so I took these shots precisely in the middle of the day to benefit from the bright highlights and dark shadows. No camera has an infinite dynamic range, so if you expose for highlights, you’re inevitably going to allow the shadows to clip. I captured one particular image of a horse with its face lit by the sun, creating a black background that allowed all the distractions to disappear into a Caravaggio-style void, and I think it works really well. Many people do this in post-production but for me photography is about photography, not about editing. Editing is incredibly skilful and an art in its own right, but it’s not necessarily my art. So I try to do as much as possible in-camera.

… and how are the Z-series cameras and lenses helping you?

I’m never without the Z 7II or the 85mm f/1.8 S and 35mm f/1.8 S primes. I’ve also got the Z 7, with my D850 as a backup. With lenses, optical quality is the single biggest consideration for me. I’m usually making large-scale prints, so clarity and sharpness are paramount, and I tend to work wide as this allows me to get close to the subject and reveal the context and atmosphere. I’m now using the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S telephoto, too – its optical quality better than some of the primes I used to use, and it’s great to have the zoom-range flexibility, particularly with animals. When those Camargue horses do decide to move, you have to react quickly!

I’m a big fan of playing around with exposure, but with a DSLR you had to visualise how your image might look, deliberately overexpose, look at it on the LCD to see if it had worked, and by the time you’d done that animal was quite likely to have disappeared. With the digital viewfinders on Z cameras, you can play around in-screen and see what’s going to work, which enables you to be much more creative in the moment – and it’s much more intuitive. The Z 7II is lighter and smaller, so it’s great for travel and easy to use even when you’re hanging out of a Jeep. I’m now very keen to get my hands on the Z 9 – when it’s released out, I’ll be all over it!

Watch Christine and Harry in conversation


Find out more about Harry’s glorious Camargue shoot with the Nikon Z 7II