This is part of our Photographers Workshop alumni series. I have known Norman for nearly 30 years and only ever as a photographer although there are rumours that he had a life before he picked up a camera although I would guess it was never as much fun as it has been since he did. Norman was one of the many people who came to our original incarnation at The Photographers Workshop where we hired darkrooms and taught people how to develop and print and how to be a photographer. As I have said many passed through our doors in the 25 years or so that we operated as a darkroom hire centre and some became professional photographers. Norman went from trade to art. Norman did a lot of work for various publishers and the university but his heart was always in the art sphere of photography. He moved to Edinburgh and there worked exclusively as an artist whose first medium was photography. This is what he has to say.
Professor Richard Dawkins, ethologist and evolutionary biologist ©Norman McBeath
My life changed forever after I came across The Photographers’ Workshop in Oxford. This happened twenty-five years ago, when I’d just moved to Oxford after seven years living overseas and at a time when I wanted to give up my teaching career to become a photographer. It was perfect timing and the perfect place – lots of very friendly, helpful people and a huge open-access darkroom where I could learn about printing and processing and so start to hone my skills as a photographer. Keith Barnes, who ran the place, was one of the first people I met there and he has remained a very close friend ever since.
There were always interesting prints being produced at the Workshop but there’s one which I watched appearing in the developing tray which I’ll never forget. It was probably the first really top-quality print I’d ever seen and I thought it was wonderful – the incredible range of tones, the deep blacks, the quality of the image and the powerful balance of the composition looking up at a military helicopter coming in to land. A month later I came across that same picture. This time it was the cover of one of the Sunday magazines and I learned that the person who had taken it and who had been gently rocking it into existence under the red light that day was Stuart Franklin, former President of Magnum.
People have always fascinated me so right from the start I was drawn to reportage photography, then portraits after I’d had more experience. I worked a lot for the University of Oxford and Oxford University Press as well as covering glitzy events and parties for Harpers & Queen magazine in London. Although working in such different environments, a lot of the skills involved were very similar – the ability to be unobtrusive, to gain peoples’ trust quickly and to be ready at just the right moment.
Princess Margaret and Dame Elizabeth Taylor ©Norman McBeath
Baroness Margaret Thatcher ©Norman McBeath
Dame Beryl Bainbridge ©Norman McBeath
My work at the university in particular brought me into contact with a lot of well known people which in turn led to me devoting more time to portraits. The National Portrait Gallery in London now have forty-four portraits of mine in their permanent collection. (http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp10633/norman-mcbeath). The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh have fourteen works in their collection and two other portraits are in the Australian National Portrait Gallery’s collection in Canberra.
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger ©Norman McBeath
Sir John Tavener ©Norman McBeath
Things change though and about ten years ago I moved to Edinburgh – rather sad to leave so many close friends and such an interesting place as Oxford but at the same time very much looking forward to the challenge of new circumstances and living in another beautiful and characterful city. But I have to admit I was completely unaware and unprepared for the impact that the digital revolution would soon have on photography – clear evidence of which was the near bankrupting purchase of two new Leicas shortly before the move. I had thought these cameras would serve me well for the rest of my working life. However, not only had I failed to realise how soon they would be superceded but (apart from the lenses) they turned out to be the most unreliable cameras I’ve ever had.
The new environment of Edinburgh had a huge impact on my life and work linked, in many ways, to a curious parallel with my time at the Photographers’ Workshop in Oxford. This time my epiphany was the result of contact with another open-access studio, Edinburgh Printmakers, a printmaking studio with a world-wide reputation in fine art printmaking. Here I discovered the incredible beauty of photogravures – one of the earliest techniques for printing photographs, relying on inked metal plates pressed onto dampened, hand-made paper using a traditional etching press.
Photogravure – Ibis ©Norman McBeath
I have recently collaborated with two leading poets: Plan B (Enitharmon Press, 2009) with the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and former Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Paul Muldoon and Simonides (Easel Press, 2011) with Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews. Both these collaboration have been exhibited as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Simonides is due to be exhibited at Yale University in September.
I had a photograph showing, as an invited artist, at this year’s Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in London and currently have four photographs showing in an exhibition called Cast Contemporaries at Edinburgh College of Art as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. The next thing is a trip in mid-September to Yale with the poet Robert Crawford to give a talk about our Simonides exhibition which will be showing there until October.
Norman McBeath 2012
Although Norman is serious about his work, his art, he also has, as anyone who knows him, a lighter, fey side that is full of humour and joy. When I speak to past clients about their time at the original Workshop they often comment on Norman’s explosion of laughter that could be heard above the excellent tunes we were always playing. Here are some from the section on his website called ‘Documentary”
Edinburgh ©Norman McBeath
Spider Boy, Paris (from ‘City Stories’) ©Norman McBeath
St. Mark’s Square, Venice ©Norman McBeath
Here are a couple of related posts about Norman’s exhibition and book Body Bags
You can see more of Norman’s work on his website here