Meet the Mentor: Stephen White
Photographer of Fine Art
Stephen White has made a career of photographing artworks and artists for galleries, museums, galleries, magazines and more, and has come to be one of the most respected photographers in his field.
What made you want to go into your career path?
I never ever had a plan. At every stage I never planned what was going to happen next. I just knew I wanted to work in an interesting environment.
How was life at school?
I hated school. Part of my hatred of school stems from my undiagnosed (at the time) dyslexia. It meant as a kid, that writing anything was and to a degree still is a nightmare. Thank god for spell check. I’d much rather have been out on a tractor (which I did from the age of 8), or my motorbike (from age 10) both of which I used to drive around the fields... I was kind of into all of that and not so much into school. I left with some GCSEs, all mediocre grades and an Art O level fail.
How did you get into your career?
I’ve always worked from a young age. I guess I always saw the financial reward at the end of it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school so I worked with my dad on our farm and we started working as contractors on other people’s farms. After 2 years of working together we fell out (because he wouldn’t let me have the weekend off to go to the Isle of Wight festival, to see both Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix died within three weeks!) I quit farming and became homeless living in a tent and then on people’s floors and eventually doing various semi-skilled jobs on building sites.
When I was 19, I spent 2 months hitching around America and on my return, I decided to find a more interesting line of work. I was guided towards photography through a frustration of not having a visual record of the things I’d seen in the USA and got a job in a photographic colour printers.
I subsequently moved to London and got a job in a photographic studio and after 5 years of assisting I followed my other passion of rock and roll and became a freelance photographer of Pub bands that grew into Punk Bands. Unfortunately, without the skill to manage the selling of my photographs, I was very soon broke so I got a job painting the walls white in an art gallery.
The next big stepping stone was at the ICA where I painted the gallery office and it became my office as gallery manager – I blended my understanding of building work with my experience of working with equipment for photography. For the next ten years I was basically liaising with some of the top living artists in the world; being the link between them and getting their work on the wall. At the end of that period, I wanted to get out of the gallery so I thought I’d photograph something else. Firstly, architectural models and then I got calls to photograph exhibitions. That was 30 years ago and I’ve been photographing fine art ever since.
If you ask how did you get where you are… I was lucky time after time.
What do you enjoy most about it?
We’ll get somewhere to work, there will be some work on the wall and as much as I think I know about a situation, there will be something that you can’t predict because art is unpredictable.
I’ll learn something about the work I’m photographing and the person who created it. I find what I do interesting to the point that I want to go and do it. It’s a combination of the unpredictability and the fact that it’s an interesting sphere and interesting people.
What makes me get up and go to work in the morning? I just love what I do.
What are your ambitions?
I’ve never had any ambitions, everything grew out of what I was doing. At 67 and three quarters I’m quite looking forward to doing less!
Tell us a fun story
I photographed a bunch of Jake and Dinos Chapman sketches - there were 32 A4 works on paper. I photographed them at my house. I didn’t want anything to fall on them while I was setting everything up so I made my own version sort of in their style. I set the camera up using my sketch and I photographed it a couple of times as a test.
I was using film back then. You used to do a clip test, so you photograph something and then you shoot a whole roll of film and then clip the end off the film. So I photographed all these drawings and I sent them all back. But then I got a call from the gallery saying ‘we’re missing one of the drawings, we’ve got photographs but we haven’t got the drawing’. I asked them to send me across an image of the drawing they were missing. They sent it across and it was actually mine!
They’d had a complete panic and searched their entire warehouse – my copy was pretty good!