Sandy Cleland FRPS AFIAP: an Appreciation by John Cogan

By John Cogan

“I was late getting into Digital, didn’t think it would last!”

Well, that was how Sandy Cleland FRPS opened his talk last Thursday night. And I’m sure few of us believed him. To a packed hall, full of DPS members and RPSers, Sandy started by showing us a selection of portraits ranging from New York cops to a lady who had more lines that British Rail, from Kenny and Jimmy to bankers and moneymen sitting on steps somewhere in or near Wall Street, with their shiny suits, from Santa Clause on Holiday to a short series of images of a mime artist.

To make these images Sandy followed Robert Capa’s favourite maxim that if the shot was no good you were too far away! Hence his favoured wide-angled zoom. There was, however, one picture of a woman leaning against a telephone box smoking a cigarette looking more Glasgow than Morningside who intimidated him sufficiently that the 300 mm with 1.4 converter was used.

A man of humour and optimism who, through dedication and experience, has developed an instinct for a decisive moment and the patience to wait, to anticipate and internally construct; which explains his wonderful photo of Mr Bean and the lady with the …… !

Throughout the evening, whether photographing voracious flies, flocks of birds or the police officer talking to the youth with the Angry tee-shirt, Sandy’s banter and the careful mixture of remembrances and technical details provided a counterpoint to his images. When it came to the narrative behind his Edinburgh Festival images he was careful to explain how he had chosen the background and how the ginnells and garths of the Old Town could be used to great effect. He was open enough to confess when a wee bit of jiggery-pokery was used (via PhotoShop) though his manipulation tended to be minimal. Each image, apart from the few grab shots of ferocious-looking girls, was the result of careful thought and pre-planning.

This care was most evident in his nature photography. Those of us who grew up with S. Vere Benson’s Observer Book of Birds with its illustrations by Archibald Thorburn, later to be seduced by Charlie Tunnicliffe’s intimate and detailed observations of country life, especially his Shorelands diaries, found Sandy’s nature photographs to be a reunion with old friends. Flights of Greylag geese against an evening sky, the Barn Owl in flight, the incoming migrant swans and the Ruff, alone and standing proud, these are reflective of Tunnicliffe, as Tunnicliffe is reflective of Sandy. It is the measured approach that they share, the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge that advises their work.

Sandy has his Serengeti in a 10 mile radius of his house. Charlie Tunnicliffe had his Cefni Estuary on Anglesey which was a mere five miles long. Given the self-imposed restrictions regarding their area of study being roughly the same size and deciding to concentrate upon a manageable species/genre/group their shared meticulous garnering of images and knowledge are master classes in what is possible.

This mirrors the various interests to be found amongst DPS members. We tend to be attracted to a genre that interests us. It is something of an obvious statement yet still says so much about us as photographers. Not all of Sandy’s audience will have the patience, or the fascination and dedication, to wait for an age just to capture a manually focused masterpiece of avian capture. Not only do I confess to being one of those non-nature photographers but I admire those who can and do. There is something “pure” and “clean” in an image of a Jumping Spider staring down the lens, or a young Water Rail gently, cautiously, stepping amongst the confused growth of grasses by the water’s edge, like some debutant at her first ball.

The minimalist landscapes, the snow-shrouded trees and the crispness of the winter fields contrast with the facial textures of the eccentrics found wandering up and down the Royal Mile. And then we see that by slowing the shutter speed to reduce the “identity” of the dancers creates shape and texture that produce a Jack Vettriano-like image. It works! Yet another confirmation of Sandy’s pre-visualising and his immense visual acuity that constantly reference to a rich memory of experiences and sources.

The evening was a delight; it challenged on several levels and supplied stimulation. For those of us who have only encountered Sandy at RPS Distinction Advisory Days, or when our panels are being assessed, this has been an enriching experience. Putting your “money” where your mouth is can be full of potential dangers. In this case there were certainly no worries!

What I now hope for is a publication that is an illustrated guide to Scotland’s Serengeti!

John Cogan ARPS            

Sandy Cleland’s lecture “Both Sides of the Coin” was to Durham Photographic Society 4th September 2015, presented jointly with the RPS Northern Region

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