Room with a view

Photographer Stuart Duff tells the story behind his dramatic coastal shots taken from his studio window. He talks to Oliver Atwell

DECIDING to embark on a photographic project can be a daunting prospect, with lots of things to consider. What is the concept? What are the locations? What will be the best equipment to capture these ideas? Imagine the beads of sweat that must pour down Gregory Crewdsons face every time he sets out to produce another one of his complex tableau images.

However, not every project has to be complicated. In fact, there are occasions when the most basic idea can produce the most effective images. Take Stuart Duffs haunting and beautiful photographs, for example. The concept is simple: one camera, one window, one scene.

Stuarts project, View From Window, and its follow - up, Tomorrow Never Knows, feature shots of the seafront, all of which are taken from the window of the studio he occupies in St Leonards - on - Sea in East Sussex. What Stuart captures is a shifting dramatic landscape where every shot is unique to that day.

Stuart studied photography for a couple of years at Blackpool College in Lancashire, then decided to move to London where he ended up working as an assistant for various photographers. When I felt confident enough, I set up my own studio in 1991 and was heavily involved in still - life advertising, he says

A few years ago, he decided to give up producing advertorial work due to certain changes that were taking place within the industry. He busied himself with odd jobs before a stroke of luck saw him ending up in St Leonards - on - Sea.

A friend called me up one day and told me he had just received a contract to work in India, says Stuart. He didnt want to put all his stuff into storage, so he asked me if I fancied moving to St Leonards and looking after his studio that looked over the seafront for a couple of years. I couldnt

resist. That was in February this year

Once Stuart had moved to St Leonards and settled in, something caught his eye that would set him on a path towards producing an extensive body of work.

On the first day of being in the studio, I noticed what was going on outside the window, says Stuart. There were a lot of changes in the weather, which was producing these really interesting conditions on the seafront. The only camera I had with me was a simple point - and - shoot Panasonic Lumix DMC - TZ6, and once Id taken the initial shots of the beach I became hooked and started shooting every day. After 31 days of shooting the scene from the window - using the Panasonic every time - I began editing all the images Id taken and realised that I had a body of work that could make quite a nice exhibition.

Stuart started looking into galleries and came across the BlackShed Gallery in Robertsbridge, East Sussex. The gallery were very keen on the idea and helped me put together an exhibition, says Stuart. Then the BBC got involved and interviewed me for a short piece on the local news. Thats how it all started

VIEW FROM A WINDOW

The humble beginnings of Stuarts project almost sit in stark contrast to the kind of imagery Stuart produces. The photographs are vivid, evocative and, in many ways, epic in their scope.

Whats nice is that the viewpoint never changes, but the view itself does, says Stuart. The pictures are always shot from the same position, but the view is constantly shifting. What Im interested in is the way the light changes. Id definitely say that the light is my primary concern with these images. Its an idea that harks back to the time that the artist J MW Turner spent in the area of Brighton in around 1829. The light here absolutely fascinated him.

Stuarts window faces directly south, which means the sun rises on the left and moves its way across the frame to the right, where it sets.

if the conditions are right, with an interesting cloud formation, you can get some incredible shots, says Stuart. The interaction between the clouds and the light is most fascinating things about this area.

When I stopped shooting and began editing, I had more than 150 pictures, which I then cut down to about 20 for the exhibition, continues Stuart. What I found when I was going through the pictures was that it wasnt necessary to have images that were bathed in sunlight. The photographs that were overcast with a bit of highlighting in the sea were just as interesting. It didnt matter what kind of weather it was - the landscape with its little areas of light and texture was interesting enough.

Almost as important as the light is Stuarts use of colour and contrast throughout his images. Generally, the colours and contrast are what I see in my head, says Stuart. Im incredibly conscious of the light, and my primary concern is to ensure that I capture that. With regards to the colours, I have a clear vision in my head when Im looking through the viewfinder, and during post - processing I can use the tools available to me in a program such as Photoshop to make subtle adjustments. I make very few changes to the colour - my adjustments are much more concerned with contrast. So while one or two aspects of the shots may not necessarily be true to what I was seeing at the time, they are always 100% true to what I was seeing in my head the time.

SEEING LIFE

Many of Stuarts images appear almost devoid of life and human presence - in fact, there are very few occasions when people feature in his shots at all. But the times when people do end up appearing are consistent with the atmosphere of the project.

As I come from a background in still life, Ive always been used to working with one subject and spending days lighting and arranging the shot, says Stuart. My whole career involved bringing out the beauty in a single object through lighting. When you introduce a human element, the picture becomes very much about that person. Its a little out of my comfort zone, so for that reason people in my view images are rare

As a result, any people who appear in Stuarts images are mere shapes and silhouettes that become almost featureless objects

One of my shots features a gull, says Stuart. That was a stroke of luck. It flew into the scene as I was photographing. What was lucky was that this was the first time I managed to shoot a bird where it was obvious from the shape what it was. The silhouette was perfect. Ive taken many shots with birds in them, but this is the best as none of the others looked so graceful.

One shot that stands out from all the others is unique in its inclusion of the window that Stuart shoots from. The window, half open, divides the frame in two, with the scene reflected in the glass.

That shot was a pivotal moment for me, says Stuart. It was the image that bought the whole project together. On the right - hand side there is the view that Im seeing and then the reflection of light within the window frame on the other. All the ideas are combined into one shot. Its a very graphic image that reminds me of the work produced by the Dutch painter Mondnan.

An intriguing aspect of Stuarts work is his occasional break from framing convention. While the nature of his images would suggest that all his shots should be in the portrait format, Stuart sometimes shoots in the landscape format.

While youd think the window would dictate the format, I actually allow the landscape itself to tell me how I should shoot, says Stuart. That was a decision I had to make early on. Would I be consistent with the framing or allow myself to use both portrait and landscape I realised very quickly that the mixture of the composition and the light would tell me how to shoot. The view that I see out of my window is actually a lot wider than the pictures I produce. Its a case of choosing the appropriate section of the view to demonstrate what it is Im seeing and what will make a nice picture.

THE WORK CONTINUES

In many ways Stuarts images are incredibly personal. There is a real sense of solitude to them, which is something that Stuart attnbutes to having to move to a place where he didnt know anyone.

When I came to St Leonards, I knew absolutely no one, he says. As a result, I became absorbed in taking the pictures. I spent most of my time indoors because I was worried that I was going to miss something. There were times when I found my mind wandering into the realms of obsession. It can sometimes be tempting to want to capture every single moment of the landscape. There was so much going on that I didnt want to miss anything.

Im still here documenting the ever - changing patterns of light and landscape, continues Stuart. I took some photographs just this morning. Ill probably take another look at the images at the end of February next year. Then Ill have a whole years worth of pictures, rather than just the 31 days, and can produce a large project from that. Oddly enough, Im also returning to the studio environment for a brand new still - life project. Its funny how things end up going full circle like that sometimes.

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