Richard Baker photographs both personal work and reportage assignments which feature in books, magazines and image collections. He is interested in street photography: themes of the incongruous and the everyday, while also being drawn to the aesthetics of aviation, industry and urban landscape. For this interview we discuss his project Red Arrows, about Britain’s Royal Air Force aerobatic team. Unfortunately the Red Arrows have been in the news recently for tragic reasons, since a pilot died in late August 2011 after his aircraft crashed in a field near Bournemouth.
LIP: Could you tell us how you got into photography, and what your current practice involves?
Richard: My first pictures were taken along the promenades and shingle beaches of the Thames estuary with the influences of Tony Ray-Jones, McCullin and William Klein peering over my shoulder. I subscribed to National Geographic for 30 years after inheriting some early editions from the 60s so the magazine spreads from there as well as from LIFE seemed to stretch and form me as a sort of cub picture reporter. I spent years at the blunt end of a regional airline in Essex: in and out of planes of all shapes and sizes, dealing with angry punters and the egos of aircrew. Colleagues later went into meteorology and commercial piloting and I might have done the same except that I bought an SLR in 1977 (Canon AT-1 £169.99) and have had a camera with me ever since.
I had an epiphany some time in 1982 when we forwarded some press material from the Falklands (during night shifts, the newspaper flights carried glossy prints destined for the European media) and also I chanced across the prospectus for David Hurn’s B-tech Documentary Photography course. There were pictures reproduced by Roger Hutchings and Clive Landen, Sue Packer and Daniel Meadows that simply set me on fire.
So I went off to Wales and studied at Newport College of Art. The aviation genome within me has somehow influenced my photography throughout. Equally, in the years afterwards when I was contributing to the Katz Pictures / IPG agency, there have been happy coincidences where I was offered assignments from magazines and organisations associated with aviation.
Nowadays, I’m working almost all the time on personal work while uploading as much as possible to three main portals: Photoshelter, Corbis and Alamy. I’ve also just bought an iPad so am showing new and existing work to design and publishing clients.
LIP: The Red Arrows project was self-initiated rather than commercial. It seems like such an incredible challenge, how did you go about approaching this subject photographically?
Richard: I’d done a personal series on 6x6cm colour neg about the aesthetics of airports and flying culture, 100 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. A PR officer in the MoD thought there was promise in my doing something with the RAF which would generate some column inches. “You can use them as a toolbox, if you like,” was one memorable line during a meeting. And yet I didn’t want to just visit a squadron and hang about for something to happen.
Right at the end of their list, as a afterthought it seemed to me, was the idea of spending a week with the Red Arrows in time for their 40th anniversary, so one bleak January I found myself in green overalls on a windswept aerodrome in Lincolnshire where the team were training new pilots for the forthcoming season. I remember thinking I should just hover and take only a few pictures at first, shake as many hands as I could in the first weeks and make a huge effort to remember names, ranks and especially positions in the team. I seemed to gain trust with the hierarchy and slowly built up a body of work that started in dark winters and finished at hot seasides, looking up at the pilots in flight who had become friends. Although I brought back outputs from previous weeks’ work, they never did publicly express doubts about anything I did. I tried to be honest, to muck-in (I had a new coffee machine installed with a flavoursome blend that went a long way) and was asked along on private moments that I found myself having to keep mum about.
Sadly, one of the crew, a dashing young ex-Harrier pilot called Flt Lt. Matt Jarvis was diagnosed with cancer early that winter. It was a very emotional period as the team raised money for Macmillan and I attended his funeral a year later – a very RAF affair – that I can imagine all over again after their recent tragedy.
LIP: What was your personal experience like working with the RAF?
Richard: Well at first it really felt as if I’d walked into the inner sanctum of some sort of elite gentleman’s club – an Upstairs for the pilots and office staff, and Downstairs where the engineers worked – except in the place of deep leather armchairs there was cheap MoD furniture, tea cups, planning boards and very, very busy people in RAF blue. Their corridor conversations were almost like their broadcast radio exchanges at air shows – the clipped exchanges of brilliant minds. Everything is governed by the clock too to the extent that when they’re off-duty, some remove their watches and that enforced slavery to the second which I thought was fascinating.
But all the behind-the-scenes stuff of the iconic institution that I infiltrated was so removed from their public displays and fly-pasts in the blue skies over Bournemouth seafront. I realised the first day that there was a huge project to be done here but that, even with high-ranking clearance, I had to tread very carefully and not be too pushy (there was ample time). It might take me to places that seemingly only exist in the Boys’ Own adventure comics of my youth. And so I stayed a period of 9 months, surviving the most thrilling and often most terrifying moments. Vertigo loops and dives. Adrenalin and exhaustion. Mind-blanking g-forces. Losing my specs in the cockpit. I couldn’t have made it up.
LIP: There is such excitement for audiences surrounding the Red Arrows displays, what part did they play in this project?
Richard: Good question! It occurred to me that books about the Red Arrows focussed predominately on the jets making pretty patterns in blue skies when, in reality there was so many juxtapositions below. After a while I could anticipate which manoeuvres were about to be performed so could place myself where I thought an ironic moment might happen. For example the Heart painted by their smoke though it took a few shows to see what I wanted: A hairy, bald-headed man beneath the Valentine.
LIP: Nine months is a long time to spend immersed in such a situation where I guess you are ‘the outsider’ to start with, though it seems you came to fit right in! Was it difficult to pull yourself away from the adventure in the end?
Richard: Actually no, because I was so tired from all the travelling and ultimately the flying took a lot out of me too. This was stressful and I was starting to make stupid mistakes in the air and even got shouted at for nudging the control column that is positioned between one’s legs in the back seat. The pilot swore at me as we were climbing vertically to go over the top of a loop but apologised on the way down. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a proud moment to have put us both in jeopardy.
But one is always an outsider, no matter how hard you try to embed. There’s only so far I could go. I could never become a Red Arrow, that’s preposterous and anyway, my presence there was always to photograph that milestone in their calendar or that quirky event that reporters hadn’t had bothered attending before.
LIP: Red Arrows culminated in a book for which you worked with a notable designer, can you describe who the book was targeted at, and what the design process involved?
Richard: The irony was that when I started the project, I had an agent but no publisher but my the time I’d staggered to the end of the air show season, I had enough material for a large book – but no-one to represent me. I wrote the whole text from many notebooks then presented my idea to the book designer Stuart Smith whom I knew from Newport where he’d been doing Graphic Design. He agreed to start a dummy long before I found someone to publish it. From the outset, Stu and I came up with a plan to make it more than a book of pictures about the highs and lows of an aerobatic team. We played some visual puns in the layouts and mischievously relegated the best flying pictures to the very back. We used some RAF aptitude tests for wannabe officers to try, and beautiful technical drawings complete with greasy marks from the flying manual pages, regarding them as artwork rather than mere engineering plans. The last touch was to choose a font called Star Trek and put the word Red on the back. And Arrows on the front. The man’s a genius. Ask Elliot Erwitt.
Ultimately though, I wish we’d put in less descriptive and anecdotal text which on reflection dominates the book, categorizing it in Transport rather than Photography. But I had so much I wanted to say about the team, often using more words than pictures as I also felt I owed them to tell their personal stories. Blow a few myths too.
The squadron have their own quirky personality unlike any other in the RAF and I wanted to put across the notion that they were quaintly British. I flew with them on six occasions and made pictures while strapped into an ejection seat, with a sealed helmet breathing through an Oxygen mask. My Mamiya 7II was gaffer taped up so I had only 20 exposures for each 30 minute flight – hence the very careful choice of when to take each frame. Imagine, a separate medical (yep – pee samples, the lot) and ejection seat briefing before every flight, then only 20 pictures to show for it.
LIP: Which pictures came to be your favourites?
Richard: Apart from the print best-sellers that helped me break even two years after the project, I like the quiet landscapes of a Little Britain, at small air shows that you don’t see abroad: Old PAs; donkey rides; an old Naval sign in the shape of a red arrow – one found jokes to play all over the place. But there is one I like very much because it was something I planned for in the air and it made a strong backdrop. The team fly over the top of a loop with smoke curling but we see it from high above them, not below. The airfield is there with its former nuclear silos; the patchwork of England’s fields with the Roman Ermine Street, the A15 as straight as a diagonal ruler.
LIP: You later worked on a book project at Heathrow Airport with Alain de Botton. Clearly this was a continuation of the aviation theme in your work. Have you enjoyed working in collaboration with a writer?
Richard: Yes, very much. I thought of how to maximise the impact of the Red Arrows book that we eventually produced, negotiating a box of free copies in lieu of a royalty. I gave them away to art directors, editors etc. then thought of Alain as I knew he often referred to aviation in his books such as The Art of Travel. He immediately replied asking if I was interested in collaborating on his next book that was to become The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It lead indirectly to a writer and photographer in-residence commission from BAA at Heathrow. So for three weeks we roamed Terminal 5 collecting stories, portraits and landscapes. On these two projects Alain was effectively my client for whom I researched his visual ideas then we shared thoughts, finding methods of squeezing our storytelling into a small book (sponsored by a corporation yet free to dwell on the more unsavoury aspects of spending time at an airport.)
LIP: What subjects are most interesting for you these days, and how do you decide what to shoot next?
Richard: Well I’ve reverted to type and am really enjoying making street pictures again – having embraced digital after the Red Arrows. I’ve trawled through my transparency archive and recovered some nicely dated moments I’d long forgotten about and have gone out to make more. I’ve been working on a series about recession windows – the victims of the slump often with messages left by the last one out. I’ve also worked on another book with Alain about Religion that is out in January.
Apart from that, I enjoy reacting to the topicality of the day that often adds to the on-going work.
Interview by Tiffany Jones