Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Newry in Northern Ireland, a great place to live before religion destroyed it.
When did you take your first picture?
Probably in my teens, my uncle was a wedding photographer, so I used his half plate camera.
I took a lot more serious pictures on a trip to the US when I was 18.
What was your first job?
I was an Assistant Art director at what was then Hobson Grey.
I was fired after 3 months.
How did you get into an ad agency?
I did some ads at the London College of Printing, I was lucky enough to be under John Gillard who taught me what an idea was.
My finest was an ad for a police recruitment brief with the line ‘Not every Tom, Dick, or Harry can be a Bobby.’
That got me my first job.
You worked for the legendary CDP art director Colin Millward, tough?
Colin was a tyrant, but he was always on our side.
He insisted on good work and but then insisted that the work was sold to the client.
Who were your influences at the time?
Robin Wight, who I worked with, and John Hegarty.
We would meet for lunch regularly and collect ads from New Yorker and Esquire.
We’re still good friends and meet often to put the world to rights.
Do you remember which ads you cut out?
VW, Chivas Regal, Avis, there was a wealth of inspiration.
You worked on Ford, did that mean you were in Alan Parker’s Group?
No, I was in John Salmon and Arthur Parsons group, by this time Alan was making movies in the basement.
CDP were probably the best agency in the country, why leave?
Robin and I got an offer to set up an agency with a talented guy called Richard Cope.
We couldn’t refuse.
What a freaky photo – Robin Wight isn’t wearing a bow tie.
What was he like to work with?
Robin was great, he was very analytical and also a great copywriter, he believed in ‘interrogating the product’ until we arrived at a viable concept.
Which photographers were you working with at the time?
Stephen Coe shot a lot of still life for me, and I worked a lot with John Claridge.
What happens between Euro and you being a photographer?
I realised I was better at taking pictures than agency management, so with the courage born of deep ignorance I set up a studio and starting taking pictures.
What was the first image someone paid you to produce?
I can’t remember, I think it was a Birds Eye shot for art director Arthur Parsons, but he was taking a considerable risk.
I can remember doing a lot of midnight re-shoots.
Who was the best Art Director you worked with and why?
I’ve worked with some very talented people, but Gary Denham springs to mind for his sheer irreverent creativity.
Who were your early photography heroes?
Harry Callahan, (not ‘Dirty Harry’).
But perhaps I was more by David Hockney…
Matisse and of course…
How did you graduate from small, table-tops to grand landscapes?
An Art Director called Nigel May trusted me with a shoot for Ordinance Survey.
It was right at the time that travel became a lot cheaper and location shoots became more possible.
The next big shoot was six weeks in the US with Ken Hoggins.
Did you prefer a tight brief or an open brief?
I prefer Art Directors to tell me what they want the picture to say, rather than what they want it to look like.
I love the Ilford campaign you did for FCO, it could run today. (If they still made roll film?).
Hang on, Ilford – FCO, Nike – FCO, Ordnance Survey – FCO, I see a pattern emerging?
It wasn’t a large agency, but FCO was one of the best in London at the time,
I worked a lot with Ian Potter, the Creative Director, we produced a lot work I am very proud of.
Your early work was uber-colourful, did you ever shot black and white?
I did, I don’t think I was ever comfortable with it, there were a lot of people doing it better.
I felt that colour had been much maligned; Black and white was art, colour was seen as what you got from Boots.
Very few disciplines have ignored a major development like photography ignored the creation of colour film.
I published a book called ‘Colour Prejudice’ in the 80’s to argue the case for colour, and had the first colour exhibition that Hamilton’s Gallery had ever hosted in 1984.
You’re obviously very interested in composition, particularly playing with graphic shapes? I remember an old friend of mine, Derrick Hass, (he’d hate being referred to as ‘old’), bringing in one of your posters and saying ‘Look, it’s just like a bloody Miro’.
Spanish Playground… It’s still one of my favourite pictures, it is one of the rewards for always carrying a camera.
Even when going for lunch in a small Spanish town.
I studied Graphic Design at college, not photography, I didn’t have a lot of the baggage that photography students can pick up.
Having been a successful art director, did you find it difficult accommodating art directors?
The opposite, I understood what they were trying to achieve and understanding that perversely gave me more freedom.
I don’t think I ever fell out with an Art Director or had a serious disagreement, their contribution was almost always constructive.
Photoshop would make this B&H image so much easier now, but would you end up with a better result?
No, it would just be easier, the best thing about that ad is Nigel Rose’s idea.
Has the digital image manipulation lead to better images?
It’s managed to elevate mediocrity to acceptability.
But there is no substitute for being able to ‘see’ pictures rather than build them.
Which ads were you most pleased with the final result?
Probably the ads I shot for Land Rover, I shot them over several decades, they were great locations and normally great ads, with very few restrictions.
The Land Rover clients were the best in the world to work with.
I love the ‘Flesh Tints’ spreads, have you done much editorial?
I’ve shot very little editorial, I wish I’d shot more.
I started shooting with Wendy Harrop at Interiors Magazine, and then later with Ilse Crawford and Claire Lloyd.
All very talented ladies from whom I learnt a lot, I enjoyed the totally different disciplines.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you and a few of your contemporaries is that I’m struck by just how strong and expensive your images look compared to a lot of images around today?
The simple answer is that they cost more.
Advertising agencies were the gate keepers to sales, press and posters were important media and it was worth spending money on the production.
As clients now have many other ways of generating sales the agency’s power has diminished and the client is now demanding ‘cheap’ as most of them can’t tell the difference.
I remember you telling me about the idea behind Lensmodern when you launched in 2006; ‘People will be commissioning less and less so we are making it possible for them to access high quality images’, or something to that effect. A pretty good hunch?
Yes and no. The market for good images in advertising is diminishing.
The demand now seems to be for royalty-free, dirt cheap images that are being used on the web.
Perhaps the big wheel will turn and clients will realise that in general, good is more successful than mediocre.
Which photographer would you’d love to join Lensmodern? Name them, we could do a live shout-out.
No, there are just too many.
How do you get young art directors to understand the difference between your archive and Google images?
They do understand, but good work is more expensive and clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for it.
My kids give a song about 10 seconds before deciding whether they like it or not.
They’ve made no financial investment.
Also, there’s a million more songs out there lined up for them, free and ready to go.
Photography used to cost a fortune, so people took it seriously and treated it with respect.
Unfortunately, in the absence of critical judgment people use price as a benchmark for quality. Speed and access are now more important.
Finally, which photographers do you admire today?
Mostly guys we represent, like Andreas Heumann,
Ashton Keidtsch.Jaap Viegenthart and many more, the measure is ‘I wish I’d taken that’.
Others are Luke, my son.
And Steve McCurry.
Shot anything good recently Max?
Of course, old photographers never retire, they just go out of focus.
1 response to IN-CAMERA 4: Max Forsythe.
I really enjoyed this, together with that last quote.