Photographic employment in the late 70s – the commercial realm

1979 – The days of special hair and flares

In 1979 my partner and I moved to Bristol after some wilderness time in West Wales and I spent the first few days after our arrival in the neighbourhood phone box (no mobiles then and no phone in flat) calling every one of the 30 – 40 photographers listed in the Bristol phone book to try to gain a foothold in photographic employment. Towards the end of the list and close to despair one man finally agreed to meet me. A commercial photographer who mostly worked for advertising agencies in the area. His business was expanding and he was about to move to new premises and he took me on as his assistant. He was a considerate man with a dry sense of humour and he went out of his way to support and encourage me.

By odd coincidence the new place was a recently decommissioned chapel previously used by the same joyless, non-conformist, evangelical Christian sect that a previous Civil Service boss belonged to. It was spacious and we did our best to exorcise it but I remember it always being pretty gloomy. In the cold hall of this Victorian church, now the studio, we photographed large and small items for brochures and catalogues – sports trophies, cans of oil, up-market kitchen units, motor bikes and scooters, chainsaws, flat-pack dolls’ houses… Out on location we did PR shoots of subjects such as a state-of-the-art computer components factory, Clarks shoe empire (see photos above and below – check out the hair and the flares), and a public school – a fascinating insight to an unimaginable world of privilege.

One slightly uncharacteristic assignment amongst the above topics (a job taken on for my benefit I suspect) was some work for the Manpower Services Commission, encouraging young unemployed women to try ‘different and exciting jobs’ ie ones usually done by men. This assignment gave me the opportunity to take all the photographs, see below, except the one taken by the boss of me at work in the studio as one of the examples of what a young woman could do!

I learnt a lot during this employment: dealing with clients, plenty of practical experience with framing, composition, lighting, and patience – valuable craft and ‘soft’ skills that stick with you and have served me well over the years. I also learnt how not to squirm with embarrassment/feel enraged during shoots for chainsaws or motorbikes that used skimpily clad young women to model them; how mind-numbingly tedious it is making pages of catalogue photographs of grotesque sports trophies (no photo retouching for those specks of dusk and stray highlights); and, what an erratic and precarious existence this was. After a couple of years I moved on to a brief but enjoyable spell in new territory – as a Production Assistant in a video unit in one of the advertising agencies we’d worked for. It was brief because I had (willingly) succumbed to motherhood, but then returned to yet another type of photography with Bristol Museum.

Shiny, sophisticated design; Clarks brochure 1979 – including a leaflet featuring their new (but short lived) line of do it yourself kids shoes…

What is she doing with that lens?