Begin at the Beginning – My Photographic DNA

mickyatesArt, Biography, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, Film, Ideas, Personal, Photography, Practice, SPWeek4, Sustainable Prospects 4 Comments

Review your earliest work and reflect: What do you see in it?

I have to really start at the beginning here. I was a painter (and I wrote poetry). In fact, I wanted to go to Art College, but as a first generation ‘boomer’, I was encouraged instead to do a more useful degree. So, a frustrated artist. I did collages, painted, drew and generally experimented with most things that the 1960s had to offer.

I was (and still am) always open to new visual ideas, reading and discovering as much as I could, and my work at the time shows that.

Mick Yates, Mixed Media, 1967-1968

Frankly, I did not have a lot of disposable cash, so when I managed to upgrade from an old Kodak to a Prinz Mastermatic III 35mm camera, I was delighted.

My Dad had been a lifelong photographer, and I caught the bug, to capture what was around me. Perhaps in a foretaste of my current work, a lot of it was documentary, archival and even had glimpses of my ‘traces’ imagery.

Burton on Trent, 1969

Paying my way through Uni, I was a ‘travelling salesman’, visiting the colliery towns and villages of Derbyshire. I did a photo essay on one such place, Albert Village. Here is a selection:

Albert Village, Derbyshire, 1969

Naturally, I also took family snapshots. But not as many as my dad did. I do think my art training affected my composition.

In 1969/70, I also worked as a photographer for the Leeds Student Newspaper – my first experience of a ‘proper’ camera (Pentax Spotmatic). Here’s the ‘kidnap’ of Dave Allsopp, Engineer’s President, as part of the (successful) anti-Apartheid ‘Stop the Cricket Tour’ Campaign, alongside my contact sheet.

I have all of my negatives and slides, going back to the 1960s. And, happily, now I also have all of Dad’s, from the 1930s onwards.

At some point I will do a proper archive job. I had hoped that would be part of this MA, but sadly it seems against the rules for new work.

Can you find a theme that connects it to the work you make today?

It’s clear that documentary and reporting what is around me is a consistent theme. I could not travel much in those days, so, like many others of my generation, I made do with my immediate surroundings.

I have always been interested in people, but in the sense of seeing them in context. When I could afford to travel, that became a mainstay.

Agra, 1978

It’s only in recent years that I have been doing a lot of portrait work, though still with an environmental slant.

What do you like and dislike about the early work?

I am continually amazed at how often I got the composition ‘right’ in camera, and even the exposure was decent. None of the above are cropped much. Whilst I fully embrace digital, and need it, in fact, for some of my event work, I can see much value in ‘slow photography’.

I can also see that story-telling is very much embedded in how I approach photography, even though my approach to urban settings was almost ‘new topographical’. I guess it was the era of Pop and Conceptual Art!

And, whilst in those early years, black and white was the only way I could create photographs, colour is very important to how I see the world.

The improvement areas are several.

Firstly, I am seeking more intimacy in my images, as discussed in Surfaces and Strategies. I am usually pretty good at connecting and engaging with people, in either street or formal settings. Whilst I still prefer a ‘candid’ style, I do feel intimacy would drive impact.

Second, given that I am focusing on telling stories from the time of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, I am continuing to learn and experiment with new ways of dealing with aftermath.

Third, I am expanding my portrait repertoire, partly reflecting the ‘intimacy’ point above, and partly because I increasingly enjoy this kind of photography.

What was it about these photographs that made you want to be a photographer?

I think that is a superfluous question – I have always been a photographer.

A better question might be ‘why do I want to get better’?

Because that is in my nature.


I posted this on FaceBook, and got seem interesting feedback. In particular, James Kezman noted:

You have a great eye for textures in both your painting and in your photography. The monochrome images are a feast for the eyes with contrasting textures and geometries — the rugged earthiness of the open pit mine versus the smooth towers of the buildings beyond; The lovely organic lead in to the tree contrasted with the harsh metallic buildings behind; The curves of the dilapidated car versus the tumbledown bricks. Good stuff. It is interesting to see how you moved from urban/rural landscape to a more figurative style, like in your paintings. Seems like you found a way to meld the two facets of your art. Oh and I love the surrealist elements in your paintings/collages. Did you ever do any photo collages?

My reply:

James, thanks for taking the time to comment. Would you mind if I added this as an addendum on my post? I think I have always been fascinated by ‘layers’ in images (and stories for that matter). That said I am very conscious of pursuing rather rigorous compositions and layouts – too formal in fact. Funnily enough, when I started getting back into serious photography, I felt dissatisfied with the lack of ‘humanity’ in my work – hence I consciously did a lot of street and portrait work. Going full circle, I now see that we can visualise humanity in less obvious ways – hence some of my latest work on the MA with traces and negatives. Maybe I am simply going back to where I started?

And, should have said I did some photo collage … a few here … Psych Sixties

And, from James:

Please do, Mick! It’s always good to circle back to where you started in whatever art it is that you are pursing. I pull out my “Introduction to Photography” work binder about once as year to remind me of where I started. As you know, art is a continual process — you build upon what you’ve learned, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve lived. Sometimes we get stuck and try something new. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but it all goes into that big pot we call creativity. So, keep digging and keep creating!

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