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 many of your shots are taken under water. Can you tell me something about this new work.

I love the water and I love the sea. But it’s more than that. I love being in the water and love being under the water’s surface. Being in the big blue, being in the wide oceans is the most incredible sensation. It is a magical place, another world. You feel its greatness and at the same time it is humbling….

I am a qualified scuba diver instructor and a certified free diver, which gives me the confidence to be in the water and under the water and to know my own limits. I am also an endurance open water swimmer. Being able to marry my photography with my love for the water has been an incredible discovery and I am thoroughly enjoying exploring how to photograph in this environment. It is the opposite to digital studio photography where you have absolute control whereas 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. I am also continuously moving under water, it is difficult to be still. 

I love the movement and the fluidity of subjects when they are under the water. I have experimented with silk and netting to see how they behave when left to themselves under water and it has been beautiful to watch the materials unfold. It is as though they have their own life force as they twist and turn in slow motion, catching the sunlight streaming in from the water’s surface. It really is very beautiful. 

I have experimented with a model who is very comfortable under the water and we used various materials for her to play with. Again, nothing was planned and I really did not know what to expect. It was delightful to play around like this. All of this work was taken on single breath holds as I was freediving, never more than 12 meters deep. 

I am mostly using a Nikonos V film camera (35mm) which I bought on Ebay some years ago. The resulting silver gelatin prints are exquisite. I have also tried using 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.

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 them producing almost androgynous figures, and some of the curves created by the drapes provoke images of the classical tradition of marble sculptures of human form. I also asked William to play around with netting on the upper body and these images resulted in hints of brides and bridal dress.  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….

I still have much more work to do on this portfolio and I look forward to experimenting with different materials….

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 jazz pianist and my mother taught dance and our home was full of images 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.

Age 14 and after much persistence my mother agreed to buy me a camera for my birthday. I selected one from a second hand camera shop on the local high street. I think it was a Pentax SLR.  I tried out some colour film at first;  it was cheap and processing was readily available.  Those days 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 and was lucky as a friend of the family had access to processing facilities and offered to print my work. 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?

I have been quite good at keeping my work.  I have some favourites,  portraits mostly, of my late brother and my sister, of friends at music festivals, of women protestors at Greenham Common, of friends with back combed hair, smoking cigarettes and hanging out. Looking back, these prints really capture the culture and mood of that period, 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 a friend of the family offered to teach me to print. He had built his own darkroom and was becoming less interested in printing himself.  After showing me some basics I had free use of the darkroom. I remember buying the chemicals and the photographic paper for the first time.  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 in a plastic bag, filling the bath tub when I got home for a last wash before hanging them up on a clothes line to dry. My mother wasn’t too happy about me taking over the bathroom with my wet prints!

When I went to University (Sussex) I found a darkroom in the local town I could hire and set up there. No one had used the darkroom for sometime.  I became known as the local printer and people would ask me to print their negatives.  I got lots of experience printing other people’s work as well as my own. Around the same time, I had access to a very well equipped and well organised darkroom at the University and took a short course in the evenings with the resident technician. We used large format Hasselblad cameras and studio lighting for portraiture although I always preferred natural light.

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

I remember very well the impact of Sebastio Salgado’s work on the workers in the Brazilian mines, I must have been 16 or 17 years old when I saw this show. It was at The Photographer’s Gallery,  Newport Street, London, a long time before it moved to Romillies Street where it is now. I remember being so moved 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 gritty photojournalism by 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 hard prints of Alberto Giacomelli at the Italian Cultural Institute sometime after my University days were over and being fascinated with his signature ‘hard’ black and white prints, distinctly lacking in grey tones.  I tried to emulate this process in the darkroom with a print of a stark portrait of my sister which gave the image a lot of drama but was not kind to the skin 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 certainly wasn’t a straight line from the Royal College of Art to working as a photojournalist in Angola.

I really enjoyed my 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 first took myself to Cairo, Egypt where I had a few connections and threw myself into local life trying to get some articles printed. I ended up staying for three years from 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 for me 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 back then.

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. I love the water  and would travel to the Red Sea in southern Sinai for weekend excursions from Cairo. I was a qualified scuba diver before settling in Cairo and had a wonderful time diving the Red Sea. 

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 an oppressive atmosphere and you had to be very careful. At the time, journalists were closely watched by the authorities; it was Orwellian in some respects and is even worse today….

Cairo was a hard and exhausting place to live and work. 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 to join my partner who had just started a new work contract based there.  Even though I had done some research on the country, arriving to Angola in December 1998 was such an onslaught.  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 to 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.

While working in Milan I managed to secure commissions with a wider variety of print in London, New York and Amsterdam, including the Financial Times Weekend and Metropolis Magazine. I also secured my first book contract with Academy Editions for an edition on architecture and interiors. By the time I landed in Angola I had more outlets for my work, although none of my editors were expecting war reportage. I recall meeting Ian Berry from Magnum photos at a press launch in Milan shortly before I traveled to Angola. He was discussing his photography for the Lavazza Calendar 1998 that was a collaboration between Magnum Photos and Lavazza. Ian had been working in South Africa for many years so I approached  him to ask what he knew about the country and if he had any contacts there. I was surprised at the time 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. 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. I sent Ian a copy with a small note of explanation and received a lovely response by post. He complimented me on my work on Angola and remembered the calendar of 1998…

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