John Blakemore: photographer

John Blakemore is widely regarded as one of the finest photographers and printers in England, and is a recognised master of the black and white medium.

He has had one-man exhibitions all over the world including the USA, South America and China; his work is included in many public collections and there is an archive of it at Birmingham Library.

He has inspired a generation of young photographers who were taught by him at the University of Derby where he worked for more than 30 years.

As he is about to mark his 81st birthday you might think he would be taking it easy, but he can’t give up on his passion and earlier this year he found himself embarking on a residency at Derby’s Arboretum Park capturing the changing elements of the trees over a period of time on a wide format camera.

It was artist Rosalind Pounder who introduced him to the idea. She had her own residency at the park where she created intricate sculptural objects using foraged and natural materials.

“I saw what she was doing and thought that the park would be something I could immerse myself into and suggested we did a joint residency, creating two bodies of work that would be unique but would complement each other.

“It was the first time I had taken my 5×4 camera outside since 1986 and it was very pleasurable to be out in the landscape – a tamed inner city landscape, but an interesting one.”

As a result of their collaboration we have the rare opportunity to see an exhibition of his work.

The couple have chosen to show The Arboretum in small spaces in the county. Some of you may have already been lucky enough to see it at North End Gallery in Wirksworth, but if not they will be taking it to The Smallprint Company in Friary Street, Derby from August 12-September, 9. They will also be joining Chris and Hannah Barker at their open day there on September 2.

John was born in Coventry and discovered photography during National Service with the RAF in Tripoli in the 1950s.

“My mother sent me a copy of Picture Post which had a feature on Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man. I asked her to send me the book and that is where photography began for me. I looked at the images and thought ‘I am going to be a photographer’.

“With my first camera I took pictures of people in Tripoli, I was already interested in themes and I was intrigued by people taking their siesta so I took pictures of them.”

Back home he started producing documentary pictures of his own while working in a photographic studio and soon built himself a reputation as a talented photographer, which led to him being offered the teaching post at Derby in 1970.

He enjoyed discussing the hows and whys of photography with his students and in legendary workshops that he held. He still likes nothing better than to lay prints out on the table and talk about them, explaining the thinking behind one; asking for comments about another.

His philosophy has always been to spend a great deal of time with his subject which is why he reckons he wasn’t suited to freelance work, but instead preferred documentary assignments.

“In my opinion one of the most important aspects of photography is your relationship with the subject. You need to gather a sort of intimacy with one’s subject. It is really important to me that you work in the same place over a long period of time,” he explained.

At one stage in his life he only took photographs in his own Derby home. By chance there was a vase of tulips in the kitchen and that became the beginning of a series of still life pictures for which he is perhaps best known.

“I studied tulips fairly intensively for ten years and then published a book. I became very enamoured with tulips. It is a flower of amazing gesture. Sometimes I just looked at them and didn’t take any pictures at all.”

These days he gets pleasure from creating handmade books using prints of his pictures, in carefully grouped grids. His subject matter can be anything from clouds, to the sea; his own garden and of course Derby Arboretum.

“Making books has given me a sort of freedom because with end prints I can do whatever I like with them, use them upside down, cut them up. It presents me with a different way of looking at things and I like that. I would recommend making books to anyone.”