On the southern coast of England lies a pebbled paradise. Brighton beach shimmers in the sun by day, and glows with fabulous neon lights by night. Deck-chair loungers, brave sea swimmers, arcade game fanatics and disco dancing divas all find a home in this colorful seaside town. Photographer Oliver Curson captured the gorgeous golden tones of summer on the seafront – and all on 35 mm and 120 film. He stopped by our Magazine to chat about a life by the sea, the art of street photography and the timeless charm of analogue photography.
Hello, Oliver! Welcome to the Lomography Magazine. Please tell us a bit about yourself What got you into photography?
Hello! Thanks for having me. I’m a photographer based in Brighton in the UK, and would regard myself as an enthusiast of the medium, as it is not my profession. My photographic work and its ‘theme’ tend to reflect the time I have available to practice it, as when working a full-time in a job that has nothing to do with photography, the opportunities I have to go out and shoot can be limited. Of course, this is something that many practicing photographers can relate to. In my case, this has meant that most of what I capture is part of an on-going series showing the city in which I live and work.
I got into photography as I wanted to maintain a creative aspect to my life. I used to love to paint and to draw at school and college, but when I first started taking photographs I was really taken by surprise by just how much I enjoyed it. It offered me then, as it still does now, a sort of balance to everything else that goes on in everyday life. I think I’m happiest when wandering around somewhere, especially somewhere new, with my camera.
You take the most beautiful pictures of Brighton beach. Have you always called Brighton home? What is it that makes you stay?
For the most part, yes. I’ve lived in Brighton since I was a child so grew up there, which definitely helped develop my interest in photography, as it’s a very picturesque city. Work, family and friends are what keep me here, but also my love and attachment to the place! Having said that, I’m very excited about future travel plans, and I would certainly like to live abroad in the future. I’d love to have the chance to capture a city outside of the UK in a similar way to how I am currently capturing Brighton.
Your portraits are bursting with personality. We love the one of the friendly man sitting on a telescope! What is it about a person that makes you want to take their portrait? How do you approach the situation?
I’m trying to take more street portraits of passers-by, and it’s a style I would like to improve on. My approach can vary as it’s pretty much reflective of my mood on the day, and whether I’m feeling quite shy or quite confident. It’s silly, really, as I’ve only ever had one person turn me down for a portrait, and that was probably because his two massive German Shepherds wouldn’t stop barking at me! I think it’s important just to take your time, be observant, and see if anyone stands out as either being particularly interesting, or just seeming approachable. Most people see it as a high form of flattery that you want to take their portrait. Alongside that, I like to talk for at least a few minutes if possible, to break that initial awkwardness that some people can feel when approached. In regards to the portrait referenced, I sat on the floor in front of him and chatted for about 10 minutes before taking the photo.
Your subjects are framed by smooth bokeh, lifting them effortlessly from their backdrop. What camera and lens do you use? Do you have a go-to focal length, or do you tend to switch things up?
For the past year or so I’ve mostly been using my Pentax 67 with the 105 mm F2.4, the 35 mm equivalent of which being around the 55 mm mark. Before buying I’d read up on the camera and its lenses, and heard good things about the 105 mm in particular, especially when shooting wide open at 2.4. As the Pentax 67 is basically a giant medium-format SLR, it seemed like a good next step following on from using my Olympus OM1 35 mm camera for many years. And I think I made the right call – I’ve been loving the results and it’s truly a joy to use. Recently I haven’t been able to put the Pentax down, but on occasion, I will use some of my other kit. At the moment that comprises a Mamiya C330, the Olympus OM1 and an Olympus MJU ii point-and-shoot. I try to switch things up but I do tend to gravitate towards my 28 mm / 50 mm / 100 mm primes for both 35 mm and medium format.
To you, what makes a good photograph? What are you looking for when you chase the pavements of Brighton, camera in hand?
For me personally, I’m just looking to capture Brighton in a way that locals and residents of the city can relate to, or feel something towards, while simultaneously capturing it in a way that sparks an intrigue in people who have never been here. So in turn, I’d say I’m looking for any local characters or familiar moments that when captured, the people who live here will recognize and enjoy, and the people who don’t will take interest in.
The light in your images is breathtaking – the way the sun shines golden across your subjects. The grizzly British weather must make that quite difficult, though! What do you do when it rains?
Up ’til now, I’ve definitely had this ‘make hay while the sun shines’ mindset toward my photography, as I’m generally my happiest and most productive self during the warmer sunnier months, and I think that’s reflected in my work. Having realized that, though, I am looking to try out some new things over the rainier winter months, to keep me shooting frequently. My plan for this winter is again to shoot along Brighton seafront, but at night instead, taking some wide angle long exposures of the areas that I’ve previously shown at their most lively in the summer months, and instead showing them in their quiet winter form.
Do you have a favorite shot that you’ve taken? Could you tell us a little about the story behind it, please, and why you like it so much?
Hmmmm that is a difficult question! If I had to choose, it would probably be the first 35 mm photo of mine that I was genuinely proud of, taken with my mum’s Olympus OM1 (incidentally, her gifting this to me when I was young is what started my interest in photography).
It is a photo on a sunny Brighton summer afternoon, of a lady sitting in one of those distinct British seaside blue and white striped deckchairs, on the Brighton Pier. The colours came out so rich, and I love the fact that she is wearing a newspaper hat she had made, whilst reading a newspaper. To me It sums up that quirky Brighton-ness in one photo.
These gorgeous pictures were all taken on 35 mm or 120 film. Why do you shoot analogue? What do you think it brings to your work?
I’ve used and owned a variety of digital cameras since I began practicing photography, but I never really got a kick out of using them. When first starting out, I thought that learning the basics of photography would be best done by using a fully manual, analogue camera, and that’s exactly what I got with my first camera, the Olympus OM1. I continue to shoot analogue because I’m still, and hopefully always will be, learning new skills and techniques to do with the medium, and feel I’d rather go through that process using analogue kit.
I also prefer how the colors are rendered by film, how film lends itself to the emotion or atmosphere of an image, and its embrace of imperfections. I think that’s what it brings to my own work. I think a lot of what I look to capture prompts a feeling of nostalgia in people, an association or memory, and the ‘look’ of film adds to that.
Golden tones, soft colors and beautiful bokeh – your work has a quite distinct aesthetic. Are there any photographers or artists who have inspired you as you’ve developed your style?
Warm golden light, soft colors and shallow depth of field are definitely some of the aspects of photographs that I personally find most pleasing to look at, and so I have tried to emulate that in my work. I think every single photographer I’ve ever come across whose work I’ve enjoyed has become a source of inspiration in some way, but some of my favorites would be William Eggleston, Steve McCurry, Martin Parr, Greg Miller, Laura Pannack, Kent Andreasen, Patrick Clelland and Joel Ostrem, as well as Brighton-based photographers Ian Howorth and Rosie Matheson. I’d strongly recommend checking out the work of any of these photographers.
What would be your advice to people just getting started with film photography? Any final words for our lovely readers?
I’d say that it’s great you’re starting out and I’m glad to see more and more people supporting this resurgence of film photography. If you’re just starting out, I don’t think there’s any better way than to get yourself any one of the plethora of old SLRs from manufactures like Olympus, Canon, Nikon and so on that can be bought for cheap, get yourself one or several prime lenses, try out some different films (different manufacturers, different ISOs etc.) and just see what happens. If you have a creative direction or preference in mind, like if you’re drawn to portraiture, then roll with it, but don’t be afraid to experiment outside of it. As with anything like this, you’ve got to learn by doing, and by doing it often.
I’d also say that (depending on your budget, how much time you have, and how frequently you shoot) you should decide whether to invest in a film scanner or to use your nearest photo lab. Finally, I’d say get on social media that’s geared specifically towards photography, share your work, and get chatting to people! I’ve learnt so much from connecting with both local and international photographers alike. I meet up with a group of local photographers on occasion and it’s been a great source of knowledge, inspiration and encouragement.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to Lomogrpahy for having me. I look forward to trying out the new Lomochrone Purple Film in 2019!
To see more of Oliver's beautiful Brighton scenes, follow him on Instagram.