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Interview with photographer/director Iain Campbell

Tell us about your background? How did you get into the position you’re in now?

I grew up in Johannesburg and completed my schooling, then military service, then joined a rock band as a drummer.
I shot my first paid pictures in 1970 – some black and whites for Financial Mail (portraits of guys at work..), all available light on a borrowed 2 1/4 square (120mm) camera. Processed my film in a mates darkroom – by day a maids bathroom – and printed on his Beseler enlarger. Self taught does not really capture the reality of acquiring technical aptitude. I read, I listened, and gave it my best shot !
I  did my first magazine covers the same year. Fairlady, Femina etc.. colour transparencies…   still only 120mm format. 35mm was too small for reproduction in those days.  In 1971 I met and married a model which solved one problem but eventually produced many more… I did my first magazine covers – Fairlady, Femina etc. shooting only 120mm transparencies, 35mm too small for the repro of the time.

We went to London for a year and learnt from the best. She worked for Vogue and I trailed along,  learning from Barry Lategan, Clive Arrowsmith, David Bailey and others. I sometimes got to be an assistant (3rd) and would save Polaroids from dustbins, anything to recall techniques. I learned for the first time about electronic flash which had not yet reached our part of the world.

Once we were back, I began to apply my newfound tricks. I got a job as a house photographer in a small Ad agency which then grew from strength to strength, enabling me to work on many different accounts, cars, food, industrial, fashion – almost the whole spectrum of advertising.  They had wonderful equipment and I was able to familiarise myself with Hasslblad, Sinar 4×5inch view camera as well as newly purchased electronic flash equipment. And then after hours, test and test until I refined my skills and built up a good portfolio. I eventually set up on my own and took on the challenges of making a living with a camera.

Since then I have worked continuously with cameras, on all formats from 8 by 10 inch down to 35mm.
In 1982 I shot my first TV commercial and remain involved in the advertising industry as a director of commercials and Director of Photography, specialising in high speed tabletop cinematography. So, thats about 40 years of making images through lenses…
Quite scary when I write it down..

Describe the creative work you do?

Today my world has changed hugely. Very seldom Kodak. Now I shoot on a digital camera called a Tornado that runs 1500 frames per second (the equivalent of that is) and records images in extreme slow motion. It’s basically a black box and a big expensive lens with a big cable coming out of it that leads straight into a hard drive and monitor. When my assistant yells roll camera, a long haired kid sits with a laptop and pushes the bar to roll. No sound, nothing visceral. When the event is complete (a maximum of 3 seconds later) he yells cut and we put the cap on the lens. Each second of real time is 12 seconds of screen time.
It’s another world for sure.

For pleasure, I use a Canon G9 and create closeups that I have printed on canvas and occasionally sell. I really love the switch to digital now -  after kicking and screaming at first.

What does your average work day look like?

If there is a spot to shoot I go and shoot it at a studio in the city. The company I direct for puts it all together. (www.groundglass.co.za) It is normally an absolute pleasure. There is a small crew – about 30 people. Ive been around so long and know them so well there are seldom tantrums or mishaps. We rehearse and light the day before and shoot the second day.
When there are no spots to shoot I paint (canvases etc ) or shoot G9s. Or work in wood at home. I like carving and shaping wood too.

What have you been working on in the last few months?

The last commercials were Guinness, Carling Black Label, Tymbark Juice, Wimpy food. Check out the GG site to see work.

Any tips for people wanting to make it in your industry?

I have a cutting stuck on the wall of my studio. It reads -  “People wanting to get into advertising should seek professional help”

It’s meant for a recruitment agency but I like it for the alternative takeout…
The Ad industry has been pretty good to me over the 30 odd years I’ve been involved with it, so a lot of my cynicism is unfair.
It’s made up of fallible humans, is very ego driven, pressured, prone to double standards and deceit, but can be very rewarding.

The new ad world would require attendance at one of the new colleges, immersion in the arts, ( especially design) good computer skills and to read a lot. Good copywriting needs dexterity with words so one has to be able to play with them, to find elegance in typefaces, layout and economy of speech.

The world of connectivity did not exist in my day, so I’m pretty oldworld, but one has to network, to compete with the best, enter competitions and generally put ones hand up. These days most of this can be done from the comfort of your bedroom, a very distinct change from my day when I trudged the streets with my ratty orange Agfa packet of prints begging ADs to look them over.

Work on your chosen portfolio (words or pictures) regularly and keep it current. Dont lose good work.

Find inspiration, make it a religion.

Believe in it and put in the hours and you have to succeed. My inspiration was always a certain quality of light. The magic of texture, the direction of light and the tonal range it defined. So much has changed in this area too. Now light is packaged to deliver perfect exposure and quality, so a lot of the challenge has been homogenised. My border collie could light a fashion shoot now. So I like to work with available light and craft it to get an individual look.

How do you refresh your creativity or keep creatively inspired?

I keep inspired by watching the world carefully. I’m still fascinated by texture -  a love of rocks, stones, leaves and the shapes of innocuous stuff.

The best photgrapher I encountered in this lifetime has been Irving Penn.
Check him out. Pixel-free.

What advantages does living and working in Cape Town have for Creative producers?

This part of the world has to have some of the best light on the planet – a peninsula of astounding rock between two oceans with differing waters. And a rich cultural history. We’re lucky to have discovered it.
And to be able to create here. The only nightmare is the dreaded wind, any imagemakers worst enemy.
So that has to be learned and factored into any production. Challenges are good..!


Cape Town Photographers

Cape Town is one of South Africa’s most important creative hubs. Cape Town Creatives was started with the vision to centralise information relating to the creative industry in Cape Town. Here is a list of excellent photographers based in Cape Town. Click on the photographer’s name to view their full portfolio on the Cape Town Creatives website.

  1. Inge Prins
  2. Ryno
  3. Ross Hillier
  4. Love Made Visible
  5. Greg Lumley
  6. Iain Campbell
  7. Justin Patrick
  8. Seagram Pearce


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