Early one morning in the summer of 2004, I left my flat in Devon and drove up to Weston-super-Mare to spend the day taking photographs. It was a particularly rainy day, hardly what most people would consider ideal weather for a trip to the seaside. I parked near the southern promenade, wandered towards the Grand Pier and then came across this bus stop. Its architecture perfectly framed the beach cafe selling cockles and mussels in the background – and the dreariness of the British summer.
I returned to it throughout the day and took variations of this shot, but none were as strong. I didn’t speak to the woman here – I rarely make conversation when I’m taking photographs – but she gave me a kind of wordless nod after looking at me and wondering what on earth I was doing. Just as I went to take the photograph, she looked across at the poster. It was the perfect moment. I loved the juxtaposition of this elderly lady holding her umbrella at the height of the British summer, contrasting with the semi-naked young woman lying in the sunshine on a boardwalk. I liked the age gap between the two.
When work dried up in London, I was asked to work in the US. Then the Coens came calling – and my world was transformed
Photography provides me with a release: the freedom to capture whatever speaks to me. I’ve spent much of my career working on film sets shooting movies. I love how collaborative that process is, even if it’s sometimes stressful and demanding. But no decision is ever truly your own there. Photography is completely different: it’s just me and my camera. I’m the one making calls.
I never planned to go into film. Photography was my first passion. After art college in Bath, I was working as a photographer for a small arts centre in north Devon when the National Film School opened its doors. I was lucky enough to get a spot and slowly my life changed beyond all recognition. My photography at the time appeared to be leading me towards documentary work, so that’s what I worked on until some directors asked me to be the cinematographer on their fiction films. When work dried up in London, I was approached to work in the US. Then the Coen brothers came calling and my world was transformed.
Despite now spending most of my time in Santa Monica, California, I’ve never quite been able to shake the allure of the British seaside. Perhaps it was growing up in Torquay, but there’s a history to these places that you don’t get in Santa Monica; a sense of nostalgia, of faded Victorian and Georgian glory, that speaks to me so strongly.
It may sound strange, but I consider my film and my photography work to be completely independent from each other. Certain preferences in composition probably exist across both, but I don’t feel they feed into each other. They’re quite separate disciplines. I’m much more influenced by photographers and painters than film-makers. I study the work of other cinematographers, of course, but there’s something unique about a still image that speaks to me more than any other visual language.
I never intended to exhibit my photographs. This was a hobby for me, a way to take a break from the demands of the film industry. But during lockdown, my wife James and I set about compiling my shots in a book, as much to have a personal record as anything else. Originally there was no pressure – it was just nice to have a physical record. But now we’re exhibiting these photos around the world and it’s oddly nerve-racking. To put these images on a wall for people to judge feels much more daunting than screening a new film.
Roger Deakins’ CV
Born: Torquay, 1949
Trained: Bath Academy of Art and the National Film School
Influences: “Roger Mayne, Chris Killip, Harry Gruyaert, Josef Koudelka”
High point: “Meeting my wife James on a film set.”
Low point: “Being fired from a movie set. But thankfully there have been far more highs than lows.”
Top tip: “Just find your own way of seeing – don’t copy anybody else.”
• Byways: The Photography of Roger Deakins is at the Sottopasso di Piazza Re Enzo, Bologna, until 15 January. The book is published by Damiani.