Interview with Simon Howlett, at the EVAN Gallery in Penrith, 27th August 2022. By Polly Marix Evans
Well, this was a new one for me. I think, until now, I’ve actually known all the people EVAN has asked me to interview relatively well but, although I know Simon’s work and he’s bought some of my prints in the past, we’ve never actually met in person, so when I leap through the door of The EVAN Gallery in Penrith in my usual whirlwind of ‘almost running slightly late with a squillion other things on my to-do list, like hiding a miniature playdough birthday cake complete with tiny candle and five naked plastic babies in a friend’s studio for a giggle,’ I actually have to ask him if he is, in fact, him, the elusive man behind the camera!
Luckily, he is and, although we both agree that, as artists, we’re better at expressing ourselves through images rather than words, my ability to chat nineteen to the dozen when a wee bit nervous, makes up for Simon’s quiet shyness.
Simon Howlett is a self-taught photographer specialising primarily in evocative black and white landscape photographs.
He’s always enjoyed taking photos ever since he was a child, and we briefly reminisce about 70’s and 80’s film cameras and chunky square flash-bulbs, but has developed this passion into a real art form over the past twelve years or so.
With a background in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy as an engineer, Simon relishes the solitude and freedom he finds whilst walking the fells during his time back on dry land.
Dawn is his favourite time of day. ‘It’s peaceful with nobody else about, and the light can be wonderful. I’m happy in my own company in the landscape, and I love to combine art and walking.’
He’s always looking for a good image, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. He won’t take a photo if he can’t find a really stunning shot, he says he still takes photos as if he’s using film (don’t waste those exposures!) and he needs to see ‘the right thing to spark his interest.’
He will allow some editing to his digital images, he took a photo in Newcastle and only noticed afterwards just how many cigarette butts there were on the pavement, which he did choose to edit out. Though he could just have easily left these in to make a statement on humanity and the disregard for our surroundings. But that’s not really necessarily what his art is out to express.
He likes to capture what’s in front of him, but maybe put a twist on it. For example, he wanted a photo of Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall in the snow. So, when there was a heavy snowfall, he went walking there, but took his photo from the-other-side, the non-classic side. It’s the same with his photo of Buttermere, most people take their photo with Fleetwith Pike and the lone tree in the background, he turns it around and takes a different view. Same place, different view, seeing things people instantly recognise but maybe making them look twice, or think in a slightly different way. He likes to ‘ring the changes’ on the classic picture postcard we see everywhere.
It's the same with working in black and white. By removing the colour, the image instantly becomes abstracted to an extent. He may increase the contrast and the clarity, and put a vignette (a darker hue) at the edges of the image.
Simon finds black and white photography timeless; classic. He loves the work of the fashion and portrait photographer Irving Penn for example, though Simon definitely prefers photographing landscapes to portraiture. He says he would like to experiment in this field though, and almost expresses regret that he hasn’t captured the images of the characters he’s worked with over the years in both the Royal and Merchant Navy. He also tells me he’d like to do a series of photos of artists at work.
We discuss how difficult it can be to get a model (non-professional model, or ‘victim’ as I refer to them!) to relax in front of the camera. We become so hung up on our own vanity, especially with the ever-ready filters of the phone camera, the selfies taken over and over to perfect the immaculate look. And how, every time you get your passport renewed you flinch at the horror of the newest photo and relish how young you looked in the previous one, not appreciating that in another decade you’ll relish the one you now cringe at. Do we even know our faces? The one in the mirror is the one we know best, yet those around us see the opposite. Maybe we should be less hung up on looks, more interested in what lies beneath. Maybe Simon should take that leap and photograph all the other EVAN artists at work for his next project. And maybe all those EVAN artists should let go of their vanity issues and enjoy being captured in time, doing what they love, making their art.
He’s not just a landscape photographer though. He tells me of a project that began before the covid days, where he travelled around taking photos of venues where The Beatles had performed before they became famous, from Army Training Corps huts to ballrooms. The idea had been for an exhibition in Liverpool, that got put on hold, but let’s hope it can still take place over the next year or so.
These more personal projects often see Simon return to the use of the real film camera. He works from his home to develop these photographs, using a 19th century contact printing process when making platinum/palladium prints.
I quiz him on why he doesn’t take more photos of the sea, is he bored of it after bobbing around in boats for weeks on end? Not really, but he loves his art way more than his day job. We look at a glorious photo he took of a lighthouse in Northern Scotland and he tells me a funny story about how he was walking back to his car after wandering further along the cliff, and it was totally pitch black, you could hardly see your hand in front of your own face. And he walked slap-dang into a large black cow! Neither he nor the cow were very impressed, Simon even less so when he got back to his car to find the rest of the herd totally surrounding it and was obliged to shoo them away so he could head home! Luckily it hasn’t put him off his love of lighthouses, he says he could photograph them all day. And I, for one, could look at those photos all day too.