Q and A with Eleanor Curtis as told to Andrew Turner of Reportage Online www.reportage.co.uk 

Some of your new work is themed around water and are taken under water. Can you tell me something about this new work.

I love the water, I love the oceans, but it’s more than that. I love being in the water and love being under the water.  Being in the blue, being in the ocean is the most incredible sensation, and it is an incredible privilege. It is like being in another world, you feel its greatness and it is humbling….

I am a qualified scuba diver instructor, a certified free diver, and an open water swimmer, all of which gives me the confidence to be in the water and under the water and to know my own limits.

Being able to marry my photography with my love for the water has been an incredible discovery and I continue to explore how to photograph in this environment. In a way, it is the opposite to digital studio photography where you have absolute control over your subject and your lighting. By contrast, when under the water you have no control over the light, the angle or the position of the subject as everything is constantly moving and continuously changing, and it is this movement and the fluidity of subjects that I find fascinating to photograph.

I have experimented with fabrics underwater,  to see how they behave when left to the natural movement of the water. It has been beautiful to watch how these fabrics move and unfold.  It is as though they have their own life force as they twist and turn in slow motion, catching the sun beams filtering in from the water’s surface. It really is very beautiful. 

I also experimented with a model who was very comfortable under the water – Phoebe –  and again used various materials.  I really did not know what to expect. It was delightful to play around like this.

For all of this work I was freediving up to a maximum of 10m and all the shots were taken on single breath holds. 

I mostly use a Nikonos V film camera (35mm) with black and white film, and the resulting silver gelatin prints are exquisite. A few years ago I used an Olympus micro four thirds digital camera (mirrorless) in housing which is easy to use and is not too bulky. I have then created a 5 x 4 negative from the digital file and printed from negative. It is a long process to create a negative from digital file but is so worth it when it comes to realising a beautiful hand crafted silver print. More recently I found an old Nikon F90 with a 2omm lens and underwater housing, which allows a slightly wider view than the Nikonos whilst sticking with film. 

You also used netting and silk in your portfolio on nudes. Is this where the idea of using materials first took hold?

My work on the human body has only just started and I have a long way still to go! I used nets and silk to show the nude figure in different way, to offer some mystery and at the same time softness. I asked my male models to drape silk around themselves producing almost androgynous figures,  provoking images of the classical tradition of marble sculptures of human form. When William played around with some netting on his upper body the images resulted in hints of bridal dresses.  The flow of cloth in my nude work also reminds me of my earlier work of the choir boys’ gowns captured for my study of the inner life at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle,  and the netting is reminiscent of the fishing nets pulling in the catch early morning in Angola….

Do you remember how you first came to photography?

My first impressions probably originate from the black and white photographs hanging on the walls at home when I was growing up, mostly portraits of jazz musicians and dancers caught in motion. My father was a highly accomplished jazz pianist and my mother taught dance, and our home was full of black and white photographs they had collected over the years. In fact they are still hanging on the walls of the family home although sadly my mother is no longer around to enjoy them.

I acquired my first camera at age 14. I think it was a Pentax SLR.  The camera came with me everywhere, I was so enthusiastic! I read books on photography and tried to learn from my mistakes. I started experimenting with black and white film. A friend of the family had access to processing facilities and offered to print my work and this is how I got to see my negatives worked into a good print, and I became increasingly interested in the printing process. 

Do you have any of negatives and prints from those early years?

Yes, 35mm negs from the early 1980s.  I have some favourites,  portraits mostly, of my late brother and my sister, of music festivals, of women protestors at Greenham Common, of friends with back combed hair, smoking cigarettes and hanging out. Looking at these now, the prints really capture the culture and mood of the 80s, although at the time I did not understand how powerful photography was in being able to hold such moments over time.

You were quite young when you started doing your own processing and printing in the darkroom. Can you tell me more about that.

I was 17 when I learnt to print –  I had free use of a darkroom.  It was a bit hit and miss at the beginning but with more practice I improved. I remember cycling home with a bag full of wet prints, filling the bath tub when I got home for a last wash before hanging them up on a clothes line to dry. My siblings would complain they couldn’t use the bath!

During university years, I found a darkroom I could hire in the local town and so I set up there.  I became known as the local printer and people would ask me to print their negatives which gave me lots of experience as a printer. Around the same time, I had access to a very well equipped and well organised darkroom at the University of Sussex (where I was studying) and took a short course in the evenings with the resident technician where we got to use large format Hasselblad cameras. 

Can you remember the photographers who influenced you then, in the early stage of your photography? 

I remember the impact of Sebastîo Salgado’s work on the workers in the Brazilian goldmines, I must have been 16 or 17 years old when I saw this show at The Photographer’s Gallery,  Newport Street, London (this was a long time before it moved to Romillies Street where it is now). I remember being so struck by Salgado’s black and white work that captured the sweat and grit of life in this almost biblical hellish landscape. I also recall Elliot Erwitt’s images of dogs,  the hard edged photojournalism of Don McCullin and industrial Britain by Bill Brandt. I learnt about the agency Magnum around this time and the importance of their work during WWII. 

I discovered the sumptuous silver gelatin work of the great modern American photographers such as Ansel Adams and Paul Strand.  I recall coming across the stark prints of Alberto Giacomelli at the Italian Cultural Institute and being fascinated with his signature ‘hard’ black and white prints, distinctly lacking in grey tones.  

We met when you were exhibiting your first solo show on your work in Angola in 1999 at the Africa Centre, Covent Garden, London.  The show was called ‘Angola, Worn and Torn’. Can you tell me something about how you made the move from being a Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art to being a photojournalist in Africa? 

It wasn’t a straight line from the Royal College of Art to working as a photojournalist in Angola.

I really enjoyed my research work at the RCA,  I enjoyed the research and the creative environment. It was an exciting and stimulating place to be but I think enjoyed writing and photography much more. My eyes were always on the wider world. I was curious and after 4 years of intensive work at the RCA, I took a big leap and dedicated myself to a new career in photojournalism. Looking back it was a brave move but one that I felt compelled to make.

I lived in Cairo, Egypt between 1994 to 1997.  I concentrated on my writing at first. At the time there was a photo lab in ‘downtown’ Cairo for processing films where you would often bump into photojournalists from AP, Reuters or Time magazine taking respite from their work in Jerusalem or Iraq. The processing at this lab was dreadful and the negatives would always be covered in huge fingerprints.  We always complained but it never improved! I would use this local lab to produce ‘look sees’ on cheap colour film to send to editors back home. If the editor was happy they would send over decent quality colour transparency to use for the final work that would be eventually processed back in London.  I was using a second hand Nikon F2 at the time. I shot black and white for myself but as I did not have a darkroom in Cairo there was always a long time-lag between taking the shot and seeing the contact sheets. It was all so slow.

Cairo was hectic and intense. I traveled in the region during these years to Beirut, Jerusalem, Istanbul on various assignments and I frequently went to Sinai. The Sinai Peninsula sits between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea and is mostly mountainous desert. It was undeveloped during the 1990s which was a blessing but presented logistical difficulties. The Sinai desert is an incredible place, so very peaceful and beautiful, and the Red Sea even more so. . 

In Cairo I worked mostly on features for specialist magazines in London and for an English newspaper in Cairo. I only started working for the London broadsheets towards the end of my time in the Middle East.  It was difficult working in Egypt, it was almost oppressive and as a journalist one had to be very careful. At the time, journalists were closely watched by the authorities; it was Orwellian in some respects and by all accounts, is even worse today….

Cairo was a hard and exhausting.  I packed up at the end of 1997 and in early 1998 I moved to Milan, Italy, with my partner who I had met in my last year in Cairo.   I was based in Milan for the best part of the year before moving to Angola in southern Africa in December 1998.  I thought I was “ready” for this war-fatigued environment having lived and worked in Cairo but nothing could have prepared me for this battered country. I arrived in Luanda, its capital which sits on the Atlantic Ocean, just a few days after renewed fighting had broken out in the ongoing civil war. It was chaos.

Before arriving in Luanda,  I had recently met Ian Berry from Magnum photos at a press launch in Milan for the Lavazza Calendar 1998 – the photography was a collaboration between Magnum Photos and Lavazza. Ian had been working in South Africa for many many years and I asked him what he knew about Angola. I was surprised as he said it was the one country he had not visited during all his years in South Africa, but after arriving in Angola I understood why. It was a beaten up country, a playground for what was left of the ‘Cold War’. Years later, this Lavazza calendar became a point of inspiration for a calendar I produced for my sponsors in Angola as part of the exhibition Picture Angola 2001 and I sent Ian a copy. 

Andrew and Eleanor’s Q and A is to be continued at a later date.