David Eustace: Profile
Glaswegian born David Eustace worked on minesweepers and was a prison warden at the notorious Barlinnie Prison before discovering photography. Now he’s based in New York working with Hollywood stars and for international clients. Still with his feet on the ground, he took time out to tell us about his career, future and feelings about the industry today.
Professional Photographer: You’re based mainly in New York, but as anyone who hears you speak can instantly tell you’re originally from Glasgow. Tell me about your background and how you came to be a photographer.
David Eustace: I became interested in photography quite late, in my late 20s and early 30s. At the time I was working as a prison officer at HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow and photography became a hobby. I soon joined a camera club and within a few months realised that photography was what I wanted to pursue as a career.
Growing up no one I knew ever became a photographer, so it was all a bit new to me. For a while I never actually believed that you could make a living from taking photographs. But it was something I felt passionate enough about to try.
After a great deal of research and good luck I decided to apply as a mature student to Napier University to study photography full time and was very lucky that my wife agreed to support us. It was still a big gamble and involved a lot of hard work and sacrifices.
How did you make the step from working in Glasgow to London?
In my final year at Napier I decided to go and see some magazines, solely as a bit of research and to get some thoughts as to how I could develop my portfolios. During this time I received my first commission from GQ magazine. When I left university, [working in London] seemed an obvious step to take if I wanted to work for people who were publishing images that inspired me. I had to be where they were.
I would drive an old car up and down from Glasgow to London on a weekly basis to begin with, sleeping on friends’ floors. It’s what I wanted to do and therefore I had to do it. I smile now when I think of those times, every week was an adventure. It also helped that people at the magazines thought of me for jobs all over the country as they knew travelling was not an issue.
I remember getting a call from GQ asking me to shoot a portrait in Portsmouth. I reminded them I was based out of Glasgow, so surely it would be easier and a lot cheaper to get someone from London to pop down, but to them it was outside London and I lived outside London: so off I went.
I also remember juggling a lot of jobs at that time. For example, I had just finished shooting a fashion spread for GQ in London and they wanted me to shoot a cover two days later also in London. In between, Elle magazine asked me to shoot a portrait in Stockport and ES Magazine wanted me to do two further portraits: one in Liverpool and one in Plymouth. So after the fashion spread in London, my assistant and I drove straight to Stockport that night. The next morning we shot the portrait and drove on to Liverpool and then straight down through the night to Plymouth. The following day we shot there before driving back to London to shoot the GQ cover the following day. A crazy 48 hours but that’s the way I liked it.
It makes me smile now thinking of such short distances, as I’ve just completed a portfolio for the USA Network/Aperture Foundation capturing the character of America. I decided to drive along Highway 50 commonly known as the loneliest road in America. I had to complete another job just prior to beginning the shoot, so the total distance I drove was just over 5300 miles from Phoenix to Mexico up past LA to San Francisco to begin US Highway 50 and then through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas and so on until I reached the Atlantic. Due to deadlines I had to have it all completed in 25 days.
How difficult do you find it to show people your portfolio?
In the beginning, it was relatively easy.
I think there was a standard required for photographers to produce portfolios and most of the good art directors and picture editors respected this and would try to make time to view your work. It was more of an event then, unlike today when with one click a portfolio is instantly viewed online. Although this has many benefits,
I believe it has diluted the luxurious feeling of viewing a photographer’s work.
I can also understand how inundated and overwhelmed editors must be with constant electronic submissions. Although it has always been more difficult to show portfolios in New York.
Who were you working for at this time and what kind of work were you doing?
I worked for most of the major UK titles such as GQ, Tatler, Elle, Vogue, The Sunday Times, ES Magazine, The Telegraph, Red
I’ll always have a huge affection though for my time working for Condé Nast, and in particular GQ and Tatler. The majority of the work was portraits, but it was the travel commissions which have given me my fondest memories.
I have a great many people at these magazines to thank, not only for encouraging me, but also for allowing me the freedom to do things my own way.
Have you exhibited your work?
I’ve had a few shows in the UK and I’m in the process of planning another for 2010. In 1998, the BBC made a 30-minute documentary on one show I had in London and I remember thinking it’ll be probably at least another 10 years before I do another big show like this. It looks like I won’t be too far off.
I would love to pull together a huge show, almost like an umbrella, covering six portfolios of different work with a launch in Glasgow and then let it travel. We’ll see.
You were obviously very successful with commissioned work. How do you think this affected your photography?
I learned a lot, not all positive, but all valuable.
I worked with good people who cared a great deal for their own professions – hairdressers, stylists, make-up artists, art directors – and this rubs off on you. It makes you question and hopefully develop your own work.
I feel good commercial work and the art world are so close that they should easily gel. I am, however, always disappointed when the advertising world takes someone’s personal vision and then tries, unsuccessfully, to manipulate it to fit their client’s product needs.
Did you find that clients allowed you to progress your own vision on shoots?
Totally. Clients were aware of what you could bring to the shoot.
Today, too often this is not the case; everyone has an opinion on what makes a good photograph. I’ve found that recently more and more voices get involved; account execs and marketing handlers have a greater say on the imagery. Most of them don’t understand the power and subtlety of photography. This is simply because photography is not their passion and they see it only as a vehicle to please their client.
What equipment were you using?
It was all film a few years back and that again involved a process that created a greater discipline and therefore a greater attention to detail.
I now work primarily with digital. I love how it works for all the right reasons, but I have to admit to being a little bit disappointed at the throwaway mentality of digital when speed and cheapness sadly override the content of the image.
After approximately 10 years in London you started to work in New York, how did this come about?
There was a massive influx of magazines into London and most of them bored me. Many were coming from the top shelf, as the whole lad culture/reality/celebrity obsession kicked in. I felt that this cheapened so much of the substance of the magazines I loved working for. It’s not a snob thing, it was more that I was seeing something I loved being cheapened, and so many publishers simply acted like sheep.
I felt a cultural difference and energy coming from New York which inspired and fed me more as an individual. New York still has the cultural diversity that very few other cities can offer. That said, I have only fond memories of London and always jump at the chance to pop back over.
How were you received in New York?
With people scratching their heads when they heard me speak! They struggled with my accent but said they loved it. Things haven’t changed 10 years on.
How did the US commissions differ from those in the UK?
I think it’s the same all over the world, people are far more apprehensive in commissioning work today. They want to know exactly what the image will look like before it’s even taken. There is a whole new mentality for visiting stock libraries and buying cheap and comfortably secure images. While stock houses serve a purpose, I feel a client could be missing out on originality. However, photographically, in New York you are surrounded by the best in the world.
I remember you once saying to me that you would be happy if you took one or two images you were happy with over the course of a year. Looking back over the last 20 years which images do you feel most proud of?
I have a few that spring to mind: my first GQ cover of Robbie Coltrane, an Eve Arnold portrait I took for British Vogue.
I still love a portrait of a Bedouin girl, in North Beirut, some of the images from The Buskers portfolio I made many years ago and a little snapshot of my daughter’s first day at secondary school.
So what next?
I genuinely don’t know. I will continue to take photographs for myself, continue
to create projects for myself and hopefully through these channels secure enough commercial work to allow me the freedom I thankfully have now.
I also have a couple of small film ideas that one day I hope to develop. I’d also
like to explore the world of design and become more involved in commissioning photography.
And a final tip for anyone trying to work as a freelance photographer?
To remember that no photographer is ‘better’ than another. The truth is that the photographers who are widely regarded as the best in the world followed their heart, took photographs for themselves and photographed the world the way they saw it. Luckily for them the world liked the way they saw it.
Enjoy your photography. Be true to your own voice and don’t be scared to make mistakes. Some of my favourite images were mistakes.
To see an exclusive online exhibition of David's work and hear him talk about how he takes pictures visit http://www.professionalphotographer.co.uk/Exhibitions/Audio-exhibitions/David-Eustace
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