Interview #5: Steven Clennell (2020)
“Reflecting forward”／Interview by M. Solav
Steven is an occasional photographer for whom the medium has once been an important crutch out of the grief of loss. Despite a life now increasingly involved in family setting, he uses his newfound passion to expound us deeply felt impressions of his journey through self-discovery. Here’s our interview with him.
MS／Could you tell us a bit about your background — what’s your occupation and what’s led you to being involved in photography?
SC／Boringly, I work as a team leader in a dairy-processing factory, doing IT and planning stuff — which is a great job, but it is not as much fun as photography is.
I’ve always loved the medium, but was always just a snapper. After a lifetime of using point-and-shoots, I somewhat impulsively bought a mirrorless Samsung NX camera to take on a trip to Kenya with the Scouts, but even then, just took a load of overexposed auto-jpegs.
When I met my fiancée, Eszter, I learned a bit more about how to better use a camera and always took it with us. I was proud to decorate our home with photos I had taken. But even then, they were “just” better-than-average holiday snaps. Still, life was amazing and I was happy using a camera to document it.
Then Eszter died.
Squatting in the ruins of my life, in silence and darkness where once were noise and light, I slowly began the slow process of recovery. That’s when I found that I needed something in my life to keep me busy outside of work.
MS／How did photography help you do deal with your loss?
SC／I needed something to get me out the house. I needed to do something worthwhile. I needed to occupy my mind with something other that thoughts of what once was. I needed something to help find a way to appreciate the beauty in the world, again.
Photography soon became that something.
In a splurge of retail therapy, I bought the first of now several Canon DSLRs and a selection of lenses, booked myself onto several workshops and haven’t looked back. I don’t credit photography with curing me. But it did dampen the pain and fill the months of quiet emptiness in the early moments of bereavement. Ultimately it formed some of the foundation upon which I would build my new life.
MS／What was your learning journey like?
SC／The period since Eszter died has now been 4 years. Among my first — and best — purchases were a set of NiSi filters. I’ve always found long exposure photography to be compelling, and the process of taking such images seems perfect for a more mindfulness approach to life.
To me, long exposures are the bridge between “straight” photography and more abstract images, so this is where I would say my creative journey started. I did try a few “classic” intentional camera movements (ICM) shots — horizontal panning at a beach, vertical panning in a forest — but rarely revisited the style. The spark really came after joining a camera club: the Princes Risborough Photographic Society (PRPS). I’m a very self-critical person and was sick of hearing friends and family telling me how good my images were; I knew there were deficiencies and craved more critical feedback.
MS／What did you learn at Princes Risborough Photographic Society (PRPS)?
SC／At PRPS, I encountered a number of photographers producing stunning abstract images, including one named Rob Friel (@robfrielphotos), who had earned his Associate of the Royal Photography Society (ARPS) distinction with a panel of ICM images taken through train windows with his iPhone.
These wonderful images and this open-minded environment encouraged my experimentation. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to share — and even enter into competition — some of my creative images… and the successful response opened the floodgates!
MS／What does a “normal” shooting day look like?
SC／There is rarely a ‘normal’ photo day. Occasionally I will plan a proper day out with DSLR, tripod, lenses, filters etc… This will be a classic landscape excursion and is often an excuse to just get out in nature. However, such days are few and far between due to the unexpected and wonderful fact that this “Life 2.0” found me meeting, courting and eventually becoming engaged to a wonderful woman called Penny.
MS／How has this new life setting changed the way you take pictures?
SC／Now living with her and her two sons, this has massively changed the nature of my life and the availability of time in which to practice photography or in which to get into full-on editing session in Lightroom and Photoshop.
So a large amount of my photography — as well as the processing — takes place right within my phone. Far from being a limiting factor, I have found this to be hugely freeing, and it has certainly been a massive part of the surge in the more creative side of my image creation.
My phone is always with me and I got used to looking around for anything that catches my interest — often areas of high contrast or texture — and taking a quick snap. If the image has that indefinable something that means it has merit, I’ll experiment further and probably try a few different apps for different image styles. If I find something that really works nicely, I’ll repeat the process at several similar areas and see if a theme can be developed.
A lot of this is happening on walks around the area local to our home and many of my images created thusly have the family as an element within the frame.
MS／How did the [covid-19] pandemic influence your photography?
SC／During the lockdown, opportunities to get out the house at all were even more limited and yet this sparked the greatest period of creativity I have experienced so far. Daily exercise in the “prison yard” has seen me capturing hundreds of images — often dropping behind and capturing long exposures while walking forward with the family walking in front.
I have recently started experimenting with a premium compact camera — a Ricoh GRII — and a variable neutral density (ND) filter, to create a hybrid of the convenience and permanent accessibility of the iPhone combined with the greater power and quality of the DSLR. The early signs are very promising…
MS／What’s a bit your process of taking photographs, and who has influenced your approach to it?
SC／I am massively inspired by the work of Andy Gray and my ICM attempts with DSLR (or the Ricoh) do tend toward the style pioneered by him. Obviously, this requires a larger investment of time in capture and process and so these are rarer in my oeuvre. The images I find myself capturing most often are those using my phone and for which I use one of three apps: SlowShutter, Spectre or AvgCamPro.
SlowShutter allows for an approximation of “classic” ICM shots — though the ability to edit the ICM capture and selectively reveal the static image at the start or end of the capture adds an additional element of creativity. I have used this app for many ICM shots taken from my back garden — often at sunset — through the artificial skyline created by the surrounding houses. AvgCamPro is an app that I love using for flowers or for walks through foliage. It creates a Pep Ventosa style image and — with creative editing — can result in lovely impressionist style images.
MS／How about the Spectre app? Also, what others kinds of post-processing do you like to apply?
SC／Spectre is relatively new to me, but is rapidly becoming a favourite. It is intended to take long exposures with a phone — using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify the elements that should be static and reducing the shake and blur without needing a tripod — which is amazing and so much fun to use. However, using it for ICM style images (particularly those walking behind the family ones) seems to confuse the AI and results in some lovely ghostly (or dare I say spectral?) images.
I always edit further, largely using Snapseed and/or Lightroom; I will play with contrast and structure, and experiment with saturation or desaturation… but I love playing with layering multiple exposures as well.
This is all sounding quite clinical and pre-determined… which is hugely misleading. If I had to describe my style in two words, they would be “instinctual” and “iterative”. I just try new things and see what feels right — discarding the failures and building upon the successes. This applies at both capture and process as I find a number of images revealing themselves only in edit.
It’s an ever evolving journey. And one which I am loving.
Steven Baz Clennell is an occasional photographer for whom the medium has once been an important crutch out of the grief of loss. Despite a life now increasingly involved in family setting, he uses his newfound passion to expound us deeply felt impressions of his journey through self-discovery. Here’s our interview with him.
Interviewed by M. Solav.