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Jacki Cairns Interviews: 1 – Tony Lovell

An Interview with Artist Tony Lovell by Jacki Cairns

Artist Tony Lovell 2017

Photography Artist Tony Lovell 2017

JC:  When I joined the PAOS committee I wanted to be useful in some way but I did warn  the committee that admin was certainly not my strong point.  It was brought up at the first meeting that they needed a member to interview a random selection of new PAOS members and I was first to put my hand up.

I am very inquisitive (some would say, just nosey) and always find the narrative that runs behind an artwork makes my viewing experience richer and more enjoyable.   Thankfully, my mother’s obsession with me learning how to touch type has come in handy, yet again.

As the weather is finally starting to gear up for summer and leads us into the build up to the 2017 PAOS season, now seems a fitting time to start interviewing new members.  If you are a new member yourself, and would like to be featured on this website please contact me at and I will endeavour to interview as many people as I can during the next few months.  An Instagram page will also be introduced shortly to coincide with these interviews to offer a sneak peak into what the open studios will have to offer this year.

This, my first interview,  with new member Tony Lovell, was quite a nice way to start for me, as Tony is my partner’s elder brother a.k.a ‘the sensible one’.    Tony and I both share an obsession in Photography and often jeopardise the conversation at the dinner table talking about the subject and all its permutations.  We come to the subject from very different angles, as I  use my lack of technical expertise as a conceptual devise, always questioning our perceived need for ‘perfection’ and have seemingly made a career out  of turning my mistakes into ‘happy accidents’.   Tony, conversely, is extremely meticulous when it comes to technical accuracy and his work plays testament to this.   Thankfully we both have a mutual respect for each others work and our often differing views on the subject.   I thought I knew Tony’s work pretty well, but actually interviewing him in his studio, surrounded by examples of his work, I feel I have a new fresh perspective on what he is doing.

Tony’s exhibition will, I assume, be very popular with Photography enthusiasts, however the way he works has a very painterly quality in terms of composition and fluidity.   Had I not done the interview, I may not have discovered the photographer ‘Alex Timmermans’ who I have since researched.   As Tony’s main source of inspiration I can see a direct correlation between their imagery.   They both share the same perfectionist streak using a very stubborn and demanding wet plate technique.    I don’t mean to gush, but the results are sublime.

When the PAOS exhibitions are in full swing, I would whole-heartedly recommend a detour up the Lincoln Road to see Tony’s recently renovated purpose built studio.   It feels like walking into a Tardis and landing yourself in a Victorian portrait studio. Tony’s answers to my questions will give you a flavour as to why….


JC: Why have you decided to join PAOS this year?


TL: I’ve always taken photographs, but not necessarily exhibited them to the wider public and I thought it would a good way of showing people what I am doing.  My work is quite unusual from a photographic point of view and I believe that other people may find it interesting.   As far as I am aware, I am the only person in Peterborough working with Victorian cameras and using older processes.  Locally, I am certainly the only person doing wet plate photography at the moment.


JC: Why were you drawn to Photography in the first instance?


TL: I was introduced to it when I used to go fishing, and bought a camera to record what I was catching.  I pretty soon became more and more involved in and more interested in the photography than just the fishing.  Then I joined the local camera club, Peterborough Photographic Society, and it spiralled from there.


JC: What memorable responses have you had to your work?


TL: I have a lot of really positive responses to my wet plate portraits.   They really do not look like a photograph,  people are usually very surprised how they come out.  It certainly brings out the character in people and it is not like a straight picture in a way because the process uses visible as well as ultra violet light.  Generally images have a three dimensional quality.


JC: Are you going to show some of your older work as well as your more recent wet plate photography this year?


TL: Yes, I was going to show a wide variety of dark room prints, which are all monochrome.   My wildlife prints that have been created using a full frame Nikon digital camera with usually a long lens.


JC: Will you be doing any demonstrations during the PAOS weekend?


TL: Yes, I thought I would.  I am a bit limited as to what I can do, but I have got in mind at least setting up a still life so I can be doing the process, rather than just showing the pictures.


JC: Where do you get your inspiration?


TL: I went on a ‘Wet Plate Weekend’ in the Netherlands organised by a photographer called Alex Timmermans whose work is particularly inspiring.  He tries to tell a story with each picture and puts a lot of preparation into it.  I guess, with the work I am doing, he is the man I look up to at the moment and who I aspire to.   He has just published a book, called ‘Story Telling’.


JC: What was the last exhibition you went to and what did you make of it?


TL: I went to Elton John’s exhibition at the Tate Modern.  Elton John collects old photographs, mostly black and white.  It was a mind-blowing exhibition to see original work from so many famous photographers; Herb Ritts,  Ansel Adams and Man Ray, to name but a few.  He collected the best of the best, and paid a fortune for them.  As you would expect from Elton John,  the frames were really over the top, very flamboyant and ornate.

8 x 11 Clear glass Ambrotype

JC: What if anything would you like to improve on with regard to your work? 


TL: A general improvement in what I am doing, but I think that just comes with time and practice.  I started off doing quite small plates because it’s a very tactile hands on process but have progressed to bigger plates and eventually would like to be able to produce one off life size plates.  It is a slow process and will take me a few years to achieve my ultimate goal.


The technique is renowned for not being an easy process to master.  I had two friends come over the other week, to have their portraits taken and everything went wrong on the day and they went home with nothing.   It’s a sobering realisation that achieving a successful finished piece is so difficult, but when you do get it right it makes it that much more rewarding.  As time goes by I am learning more and more about how to correct issues when things go wrong, all trial and error.


JC: Is it important that you print everything yourself?


TL: Yes definitely, that to me is the most important part of the process.   I like to do everything myself i.e. mix my own chemicals, process my own negatives and then print from my own negatives.   Whether it be wet plate or darkroom photography the process of making the print is 50%  of the work .  It is not just a record, it’s making an image, but burning, dodging,  to achieve the finished result.



JC: What do you like about your own work?


TL: I like the fact they are one off images, it’s very difficult to get two identical images.  So they are always a bit different, it varies from day to day.



JC: What sort of research do you do?


TL: I collect Victorian portrait photography this allows me to study how they were posed, how they sat and how the studios were set up.   More than just the technical side, I am interested in the history of it, in the cameras and the lenses, so I do have a number of older cameras and lenses.


JC: What would be your dream project?


TL: I would like to photograph Rannulph Fiennes, the explorer.  I’ve met him on a couple of occasions and he’s a real character.  I do know someone who knows him, so there is a small possibility it could become a reality.  We will wait and see.


JC: Name 3 artists/photographers who you would like to be compared to?


TL: I have already mentioned Alex Timmerman; he is a huge inspiration presently.    Ansel Adams, landscape photographer who doesn’t really relate to my current work, but my landscapes in the past were definitely heavily inspired by him.  The third one would have to be Bob Carlos Clarke, he was a fashion photographer and a darkroom expert.  I went to his studio and his darkroom about 15 years ago and I learned more in a weekend then I literally did in the previous 5 or 10 years.  He was just a genius in printing.

Re-enactment Holland 2016 7×5 inch clear glass Ambrotype

JC: You are obviously very well travelled, have you got a favourite place that inspires you the most?


TL: In the past I would have said New York, but I was very inspired by Havana, Cuba when I went last Christmas, probably one of the most interesting places I have visited and photographed, I particularly liked the old buildings.


TL: I enjoy photographing abandoned houses, cars, and neglected things generally of which there was a lot of in Cuba.  I love the way the buildings, although amazing in architectural terms, have had no money spent on them so there are historic buildings with peeling paint and plaster on the walls.  I had seen a lot of pictures of people and cars in Havana, but I really went to photograph the buildings and I spent two weeks doing so.


JC: Have you done many commissions in the past and are you open to doing them in the future?


TL: Yes I have done some, an example is a local Graphic Design company asked me to do wet plate portraits of each of their staff members.  We did a series of portraits, one a week for an evening which was a two or three hour session with each person.  The only reshoot we needed was with just one staff member.


I would be interested in taking on commissions as long as they were in this traditional wet plate portraiture style I am currently working on.  Producing digital photography really does not interest me at the moment.


JC: Commerciality and creativity, how do you juggle the two or do you bother?


TL: I don’t consider the commercial side at all, I just try and do what interests me, the commercial side is very much secondary.


JC: Professionally what is your goal with regard to your Photography?


TL: I would like to spend more time printing in the darkroom.  I do tend to take a lot of photographs and not print them as I should do, so I am now trying to make a concerted effort not to just take pictures but show them as well.… One of the main reasons I have joined PAOS.


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