From North Wales to Zanzibar and Bhutan via Maltby Street market

I was eleven years old when I decided I wanted to be a photographer so I saved my pocket money and bought my very first camera.  When I was fourteen I got a job working Saturdays in the local photographic shop in North Wales. It was owned by a passionate Jazz drummer, Ronnie Aggett, and the manager was, & still is, a great landscape photographer called Philip Evans.

I used to hope that there would be a lull in customers so that I could quiz Philip on taking pictures or listen to Ronnie enthuse about jazz or art.  They, along with my parents, were hugely supportive and made me feel that photography was a viable career option and that if I wanted it enough I could make it happen.

Before I went to college I had already learned so much from working in the shop on weekends. I then did a degree in photography and afterwards moved to London to assist established photographers.  I was lucky enough to work with some of the industry’s best photographers in all fields from still life to fashion, portraiture and travel.

My degree offered me creative space and support to develop and explore my style.  Assisting in London broadened my horizons technically and taught me how to respond to a commercial brief and handle clients.  My personal photography was ongoing and this was the work which really came naturally to me.  At one point I was trying to become a fashion photographer, but the problem with that was I didn’t love fashion.  As a result my photos lacked something and in photography you really need to love your subject.  If you don’t you won’t become as good or better than those who do – and there are lots of photographers who do.  Ultimately it was my personal travel work which gained me success as it came from the heart, not a commercial desire for financial reward.

It was really hard to get work at the start but a great deal of determination and a little naivety meant that I didn’t really consider how competitive the industry might be. It was something I had always wanted to do so I didn’t give up and I took any knock-backs in my stride.  There are many people in this industry who are willing to give you a chance and so when they do you need to grab it with both hands and prove that they were right to do so. Maintaining a consistently high standard is one of the big challenges – the client expects ‘your best work’ on every commission they give you.

The big break in my career came when I was an assistant on a fashion shoot on Mafia Island near Zanzibar.  It was unusual as we were there for 8 days but had all the shots in the bag on day three.  On one of the remaining days I explored the island shooting landscapes and portraits accompanied by the art director from the shoot.  Subsequently she asked for a set of the photos from that day to frame for her new home.  Fortune had it that she then threw a dinner party and one of the guests was a photographic agent who saw the images and asked if she could represent me for my travel photography.  I have never looked back!

I love the variety I get in my work.  One day I can be in my studio, which is only five minutes from my house, shooting recipes for a cookbook or an advert for a food retailer, the next day I can be on a flight to a far flung destination.  If I were in the studio 5 days a week, 52 weeks of the year, I think I might go a little stir crazy, likewise the travel can be exhausting if every job is a car, plane or boat ride away.  The two sides to my work complement each other well. The studio work can help with more considered shots on location, and similarly the looser nature of travel photography means that I don’t get stuck in my ways when I am in the studio.

In the future I would love to shoot for National Geographic magazine. I have always drawn inspiration from their epic stories, ever since I was a boy.  It is such an iconic title that it would be a real dream to get a commission from them.  Also, as a photographer I usually get 7-10 days to travel to and shoot a far flung destination.  National Geographic send their photographers away for up to 3 months to shoot their stories.  I am not sure I would know what to do with the luxury of all that time!

When I was in my 20s working away all the time was exciting and invigorating.  Now, ten years on things have changed somewhat!  I live in London with my wife and our 16 month old daughter, Ella, and so the travel is harder to do.  I find myself not wanting to be away from my family and I miss them dearly when I am not there but I am in the fortunate position of being able to choose the travel jobs which I really want to do.  I only really do four or five trips a year now, but they are to pretty amazing destinations.   My last few trips were to Bhutan, Nagaland, Thailand & Costa Rica.

I tend to look for inspiration outside of the fields in which I work commercially.  I am an avid fan of street photography for its reactionary quality and love the work of Saul Leiter, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander.  Recently I was introduced to the photography of Vivian Meier – a nanny in New York in the 1930’s & 40’s.  She took the most incredible images, but never showed them to anyone while she was alive.  Her archive was discovered a few years ago and has subsequently been exhibited and published.  I love the notion that her photography existed purely for herself, yet long after her death, her images speak louder than ever to us.

In 2012 I am looking to further my directing work.  It is a relatively new diversification for me and I find the added dimension of time a really exciting way of working.  I have already directed commercials for Hovis and Waitrose and so hope to see my show reel grow in the next 12 months.

The best thing about food photography is that I love food!  I am so lucky in my work as at the end of a shoot there is normally some wonderful produce and one or two professionally cooked dishes to take home – it is definitely one of the perks.  As much as I enjoy eating good food that someone else has cooked, I also love to cook myself. I am a bit of a slave to a recipe though and wish I was more intuitive.

I try to seek out small delicatessens and local suppliers where possible as I think there is more pride invested in the food they offer. I live not far from Borough Market so it is always a favourite, although a little pricey.  Right next to my studio is Maltby St, where the wholesalers open as a market to the public on a Saturday – Monmouth Coffee, St John’s bakery, Booths fruit and veg and many more open their doors for a few hours each week. It is the ‘little foodie secret’ of London and those in the know are always rewarded well – shhh, don’t tell anyone!

My approach to food has always been a natural one.  I strive to get the food looking as delicious as possible in camera and this often means creating a bit of controlled mess. The things that get your mouth watering when you see food are often the small details.  Food presented ‘perfectly’ and with no hint of human input often looks cold and uninviting.  It is when the knife digs into the slice of terrine, the ice cream starts to melt and run, or the pastry atop a hot pie is broken that food comes alive and the taste buds respond.  We are always looking to capture those little details which create desire and hunger in the viewer.

All we can do as image makers is look to move things on a bit further each time we shoot. By not becoming complacent in our work, we try to stay ahead of the game, be different and ultimately push the boundaries of the field we are in.

If I had to give career advice to anyone who might be interested in entering this profession I would say three things:Stay focused, have conviction and pride in each job you do and be nice to everyone you meet!

Further Information

Jonathan Gregson’s website:

Jonathan is represented by photographic agents Pearson Lyle:

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