Free Feature • Interview With Charlie Waite

For the past 30 years, Charlie Waite has been one of Europe’s most prolific landscape photographers. Now, with the launch of USA Landscape Photographer of the Year, he reveals his hopes for the competition, his favourite location and why he will never retire

How did you become interested in pursuing photography professionally? 
My father had always enjoyed photography and helped me set up a darkroom in my bedroom, but despite my fascination with the apparent magic of it, I did not envisage photography as being a career for me. In the late 60s I joined the Salisbury Repertory Theatre and while working there, I became intrigued by the way in which the lighting director can bring a play to life. I continued on in the theatre for a further 12 years and throughout this time, I was photographing fellow actors for their publicity. Finally I took a studio in Battersea in London and began assisting work for studio commercial photographers. I still have great respect and admiration for commercial photographers.

Why were you attracted to landscape over other genres of photography?
I had always enjoyed photographing actors but it was not until I accompanied my wife when she was filming the BBC series The Onedin Line that I had time to roam around Devon where much of the filming was taking place. It was then that I began to respond, with my Nikon F and a 105mm portrait lens, to the landscape around me. I grew fond of sheds, long snaking hedgerows and noble trees. Within a year I had been given a commission to do all the landscape photography for a book called the National Trust Book of Long Walks with a superb writer called Adam Nicolson. We then went on to do three more books together.

Interview with landscape and outdoor photographer Charlie Waite

Do you ever tire of landscape photography?
No, I never do. It seems to me to be a constant pursuit to get better and learn more and be able to produce more images that have total parity with ones previsualised as opposed to near misses. The higher and the more unreachable one’s standards are, the better.

Do you have a favourite location?
I have always loved France and care deeply for the variety of landscape that one can find there without having to drive long distances. But, of course I have a great love of England and parts of Scotland and The Lakes.

Is there a photographic experience you will always remember?
I remember when working on a book Landscape in France that I had become very melancholic due to five days of relentless rain. I began to think that I should retrain and start a new career when I got back to the UK. I felt that I was not really contributing to society much and that I should work for a charity. On the fifth day, just before dawn, I headed back from the Jura in eastern France feeling very depressed. Suddenly, I rounded a corner and there in front of me was one of the most ravishing autumn landscapes I had ever seen. It appeared to me to be one of nature’s most perfect performances, suspended and presented there in its entirety just for me. I often think that this was a sign written in the sky for me to carry on and to continue with landscape photography.

Take a View - Landscape Photographer of the Year - is now entering its eighth year. Can you tell me why you decided to do it?
I first had the idea in 2003 and after a long slog managed to secure a sponsor in the form of the AA in the UK. Then I needed a media partner and of course a gallery for the exhibition which I was keen to have. Finally, I needed a tip-top creative project director who I found in Diana Leppard. She had huge experience in photography, having worked for a good many years with stock photography libraries.

Interview with landscape and outdoor photographer Charlie Waite

If one can measure success, how successful do you think it has been?
To me the success of Landscape Photographer of the Year can be measured in two ways. It has elevated the hugely talented photographers who have participated in the award and brought the art of landscape photography to a much wider public. Many hundreds of thousands of people have seen the Landscape Photographer of the Year exhibition at the National Theatre.

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So, who are the rising stars of landscape photography that we need to look out for?
I think that Britain can boast many very talented landscape photographers who are in some cases quite anonymous. They have all the tenacity and passion that is needed to produce great and enduring works. So, the answer is, all the many photographers who have consistently shown a very high standard of work.

And now you have launched USA Landscape Photographer of the Year. What are your hopes for it and who else is involved in supporting it?
As with UK Landscape Photographer of the Year, I want the competition to inspire the next generation of photographers, to reward the great and diverse talent that exists within the world of photography, often struggling for recognition. I want my competitions to be a springboard for the success of other photographers. I also would love to see more female photographers rising into the ranks of the major prizewinners.

I have a vision that as the years go by with USA Landscape Photographer of the Year, we create a visual legacy that surpasses anything that exists today, documenting the amazing rural and urban landscape of the USA and the response of both its own citizens and international visitors to the country. The annual collection of winning images from the UK Landscape Photographer of the Year, and the greetings card collections that have emerged from it, represent amongst the best photographic record of the British Isles. I hope for the same for the USA.

Interview with landscape and outdoor photographer Charlie Waite

Who can enter?
Anyone!  The competition is open to photographers from around the world (of course, the ability of a winner to receive the cash prize fund is subject to their national laws). We have both an adult title winner, and a youth (under 21) winner, and the competition is equally open to professionals and amateurs.

How similar is USA Landscape Photographer of the Year to the UK version in categories and entry criteria?
The broad concept is the same: to celebrate the rural and urban landscape and reward and recognise talented photographers. In both cases, images have to have been made within the last five years, be images of the USA or UK (obviously depending on which competition is being entered), and are open to photographers from around the world.

The biggest difference is that the title award in USA Landscape Photographer of the Year (for both the Adult and the Youth winner) will be based on the judges' assessment of a portfolio of three images. The category awards are based on single image entries, and whilst some of the categories are the same, there are also categories unique to each of USA and UK Landscape Photographer of the Year. The category awards for USA Landscape Photographer of the Year are: Classic View, Black and White, Landscape on the Move, My USA, and Urban Landscape. 

Interview with landscape and outdoor photographer Charlie Waite

Of course, the American landscape is very different to Britain and a vast area. Are you expecting a different type and style of imagery from this competition?
The best images that are entered into UK Landscape Photographer of the Year show creativity, a visionary ability to pre-visualise and manage multiple elements of composition together with immaculate technical expertise. That is what makes the winning images stand out. I expect very similar traits will feature in the winning images of USA Landscape Photographer of the Year. Of course, the American landscape offers so much more variety, scale and wilderness opportunities than does the UK, so it will be wonderful to see what is made of that by photographers from around the world.

One category in particular, My USA, is designed to give photographers the full creative license. We say in the rules, ‘anything goes!’ So I am very much looking forward to seeing the creative, personal and imaginative images entered into that category. Interestingly, there does seem to be a cultural trait that does distinguish many photographers in the USA. Perhaps due to the vastness of their landscape and the deeper colours and higher contrasts that naturally exist in the varying seasons and light that the USA enjoys, in contrast to the often watery, muted colours in much of Northern Europe. So we do often see images that appear to the northern European eye to be surprisingly saturated. We have a mix of American and English judges, so it will be very interesting to see how these cultural differences translate as the images are assessed.

Interview with landscape and outdoor photographer Charlie Waite

Will there be an exhibition too? Will it show at other venues?
One of my main motivations for the USA Landscape Photographer of the Year, is to give photographers who otherwise struggle the chance to have their wonderful images seen by a wider audience, the opportunity for significant exposure of their work. Of course, everyone appreciates that there are many stunning images that do not win the main prizes and are deserving of a platform for appreciation from a public audience. Therefore, I have arranged with that up to 200 of the semi-finalist images will be featured in an on-line gallery, a sort of on-line exhibition, which encourages readers of USA Today to engage with the images. I am hopeful this will give many photographers a chance they would not otherwise enjoy, to have their photography seen by a wider public, and perhaps may open up other opportunities for them.

The winning images will be showcased in the USA and Europe, including the World Travel Market in London on 3 – 6 November 2014.

Now, the controversy about the 2012 Take a View competition when the winner was disqualified: what went wrong, why was that decision taken, and what have you learnt from it?
It is probably best to first say that the image was excellent but sadly had been entered into the wrong category, which did not allow for such major manipulation. The post-production process was done very well indeed however and the judges were not alerted to the fact that the image had been manipulated until after the winner had been announced. We have learned to ensure that photographers take special note of category stipulations.

Do you still get time for your own photography? Where have you photographed most recently?
I get more time now thankfully and a few years ago, I enjoyed working in Libya for a month, which was very rewarding. Then just recently I went to Tunisia on a Light & Land recce. It was wonderful.

Interview with landscape and outdoor photographer Charlie Waite

How many books have you had published now? Are there plans for another?
I think it is 28 in total, which is nothing like as high as a wonderful photographer called Mike Busselle who published more than 50!

Do you still use film?
Yes, I do but only about 20% of the time. Film brings about a decrease of recklessness.

What about digital? You use both systems, I was wondering if you could tell me what gear you use and when you switch between the two?
I like to continue to use my 500CX Hasselblad along with a Nikon D3S. I have been using the square format for over 30 years and I well remember that for landscape it was thought of as being rather odd. Now, photographers are adopting the square format all over again, which is good to observe and rather gratifying.

Will you ever retire?
No. Photography continues to tantalise and fascinate me.

Finally, if you could have your time over again, what advice would you give a young Charlie Waite?
Specialise and put your personal vision first, ahead of financial reward, if you can afford to do that. That will ensure your creative integrity remains intact. This is a difficult balance to maintain, but one which I have found essential to pursue for my own peace of mind. The voice you have is the only voice you need.

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