Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.
British portrait photographer Chris Mann has an intimate style. The London based climber's work focuses on simplicity to capture the best of his subjects. However, it wasn't always that way; a change of camera and the restrictions that came with it led to him finding his aesthetic.
How did you first get into photography?
I bought my first camera about six years ago whilst working as an actor in Dirty Dancing in the west end. I obsessed in my free time and found that a year or so later I was making money from it, shooting actors' headshots.
How did you develop your skills during those early days and that obsessive period?
I started out like most people by obsessing with gear and trying to shoot everything. I was spending all my spare cash on upgrading kit and buying all the lenses I thought I should own. I bought a tripod and went and stood on freezing bridges and ended up with the same shot as you’d find on the front of every basic DSLR magazine. I hated carrying the gear and trying every lens out to see which was best for each shot...and then I bought a Leica M8. I’d seen someone with a Leica and thought it looked cool but there was no way I could afford one at the time. I sold a load of gear and dropped the most money I’d ever spent on this hugely flawed little camera and one lens, and I loved it. I also came to realise that all of the best photographers, regardless of caliber, were shooting incredibly simply and focussing on the subject. So that’s what I did. I restricted myself to one lens and only a white backdrop for my professional work (the best decision of my career).
I realized that by removing all variables other than the subject and my physical movement I would start to really learn what it was that made a shot interesting, if it’s good enough for Avedon, Penn, Corbijn, Bresson and many more then I have to make it work for me. I used to try and copy the greats and then I realized that where I fell short of their ‘aesthetic’ I was in fact developing my own style. I wasn’t copying because I wanted to take the same shot but because I wanted to take a shot that made me feel like I did when I saw theirs. This is when I realised it was all about form and essence. The form is how I control the frame and the essence is the thing that I cannot control.
Where do you find your inspiration and what kind of subjects do you choose to shoot?
I’m obsessed with photobooks. I used to gravitate towards portrait photographers because it's what I specialise in but in the last couple of years I found myself looking at all sorts from conflict photographers like Tom Stoddard and Tim Hetherington to street photographers like Alex Webb and Saul Leiter to fashion photographers like Erik Madigan Heck and one of my heroes Peter Lindbergh. and then there's artists like Jonas Burgert and Rothko.
I actually find it hard to narrow down my inspirations because there are so many photographers who's work/books I go back to over and over again. Do I'll list what comes to mind: as well as those listed above: Richard Avedon, Ruven Afanador, Irving Penn, Mark Abrahama, Christopher Anderson, Theo Gosselin, Sante d'Orazio, Helmut Newton, Todd Hido, Arnold Newman, Anton Corbijn, Dan Winters, Paolo Roversi.
It's probably overkill to list them like this but there's something in the way all of them shoot that has invaded my cosciousness. There's humanity in all of their work; they understand that the essence must come before everything else. If a photo doesn't have life it is hopeless.
When it comes to choosing what to shoot outside of my professional portrait work, it's hard to say. It's less about what I choose to shoot and more about how I choose to shoot it. When I leave the studio I will leave with my Leica rangefinder and one lens, and always shoot manually. People will often claim that autofocus is essential for shooting some subjects, like dance for instance, I disagree, and I think this urge to find happy accidents forces me to shoot in situations where I have to physically work to find a shot. I actually think that photography at its best works for me because of the excitement of the thing that is outside of my control.
How do you find that your approach works with your climbing projects like urban bouldering?
There are a couple of approaches I take to shooting bouldering (or any physical activity). I either start purely with structure and then try to introduce life into the shot with the climber, using them to create some interesting shapes to break the norm. Bouldering in the city provides lines everywhere and this contrasts well with the curves of the body, which is why shooting climbers wearing less works better.
Alternatively I like to get in close and really push to get a sense of the effort and feeling. I'm not so interested in demonstrating how high or 'well' somebody climbs but much more the effort involved. This also links to shooting climbers without excessive clothing. Athletes' bodies are shaped by the unusual activites they do and their muscles provide a visual blueprint of the effort they put in. I find it fascinating and it again gives me opportunity for shapes that i cannot predict.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to follow a similar path?
Find a camera you enjoy using, shoot like a lunatic and then be vigilant with what you show people. It will take time but eventually you will develop a coherent voice and the people you want to shoot will find you.
The age we live in means that it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from shooting but it's also much easier for your photographs to reach a huge audience. The more specific you are, the better your chances of standing out and reaching the people who will enrich your shooting and push you further.