Tom Oldham is a London-based music and portrait photographer. In his 20-year career he has photographed some of the world’s most iconic musicians and athletes, and blends his editorial work for titles like Mojo and The Fly with projects for brands such as Puma and Wray and Nephew. He gave us the lowdown on working with Usain Bolt, his work with charity Riders for Health and his springboard diving potential.
Could you describe your photographic style/approach for those that might not be familiar with your work?
Straight up, honest, clean editorial and commercial portraiture with a nod to the old school (while dipping a toe in modern, cool waters). Thinking about it – does that even make sense? What a terrible start. This is going to SUCK.
What are your favourite projects/collaborations you’ve worked on to date?
I’m really bad at remembering what I’ve done, plus I think it’s vital in photography to keep looking forward. I get embarrassed seeing those photographers that keep raking over the same coals, squeezing all the life out of a project. In contradiction to that sentence, highlights for me have been two visits to Jamaica documenting the first reggae and ska artists with a beautifully free brief from Wray and Nephew. We met and shot a host of greats, plus there were no brand people at all on the trips – just a desired shotlist and loads of rum to drink. That’s the taste of freedom right there.
I photographed something like 65 covers for The Fly magazine plus, on average, three features a month in that time for them, so I’m fairly ‘well-versed’ with the music industry and how artist photography and PR works. These always had an open brief from the magazine, making the shoots a constant and chaotic source of fascinatingly irritatingly wonderfully stressful joy-filled experiences – with the most minimal budget and crew – which by no coincidence created images of which I’m incredibly proud. There have been situations where I’ve been truly in the shit, with no time or resource and a big expectation (at times 110,000 print copies monthly) and we’ve always pulled it off.
I just shot the cover of MOJO (February 2014 issue) with Nick Cave, which is pretty huge for me. Their repro is perfect and it leaps off the shelves at me when I see it. I had a Tweet from a friend in Hong Kong who saw it, which was really exciting and my Dad subscribes, so you know, that feels pretty special.
Oh God, I’ve just thought about Riders For Health – I’ve been working with them for six years or so providing rights-free press images, alongside monitoring and evaluation documentation of their work in several countries across Africa. They are unbelievable and this is by far the most valuable thing I’ve ever photographed, and their normal day can involve breathtaking, heartbreaking, powerful experiences I never dreamt I would see. Thank you photography.
Who would you love to work with?
I’m loving working with Puma at the moment – the brand came to me wanting to refresh the look for the editorial portraiture of its assets (footballers and athletes) and we’ve completely overhauled it with some incredible successes. We stripped it right back, shooting at rough-house footy grounds and running tracks for location portraiture that is about the basics – great lighting, characterful interactions, interesting locations, captured on a Hasselblad camera. I’m really enjoying it and the results have been well received so if this continued I’d be very happy.
More shoots for Vanity Fair please. I’ll be shooting more project work too, initiating my own ideas onwards and collaborating with friends to produce some wafer-thin slices of greatness. Really for me it’s about continuing with what I have, though I would really like to shoot more actors and less portraits of bored/cool teenage musicians staring back at me. Is that ok? I am quite approachable so shout me if you’ve something good to say.
Who or what has influenced your work most?
Influence is a strong word these days, isn’t it? I think publications have had a stronger lead with my work than any individuals as over time I guess I’ve pursued achieving a quality that matches that of my favourite magazines. In 1999 I loved Sleaze Nation more than anything else on the shelves. I studied in Plymouth and (pre-Internet) it brought this exciting world of grimy nightclubs and great portraiture to the local WHSmiths every month. I used to send in my clubbing shots and the GREATEST DAY IN MY CAREER was getting the full-bleed lead shot in the clubbing section of that magazine. It’s still a vivid memory. I’ve also been in love with a lot of others since then, but my number one must-grab title these days is Vanity Fair, as you just can’t beat the quality of their output. I just did my first shoot for VF On Time (ahem) and that felt good. I’m not sure if this answers the question but it certainly is what I aspire to these days more and more, and therefore informs my output greatly.
What for you makes photography so powerful?
Its range and capability. I feel like chucking my camera bags in the canal at least once a month when I see some new work that is so God-damned good it’s hard to believe I’m in the same arena with these people. I’ve been doing this for 14 years and I still feel brand new with so much to learn, while at other times like the most world-weary, irrelevant granddad. Anyway, not now Tom. The digital democracy has occurred so everything is now up for grabs, which has really raised the standards for success in photography (and film-making) and opened the art up to almost everyone – which is the healthiest revolution any form could ever enjoy.
Which brands/organisations do you think do ‘visual storytelling’ well and why?
Mr. Porter’s ‘The Journal’ uses good photography really well I think. Simple styles really well applied appeal to me and they’ve built loads of character into what has become so much more than an online men’s clothes shop, mainly by using some really clean imagery with a sense of humour too.
What makes or breaks a photography brief?
With portraiture, I think trust, which in turn encourages freedom and space. You’ve hired a professional, so use them at their best by letting their skills breathe. A brief needs to be elastic and not rigid steel, so that it can accommodate taste and judgement and experience and all the reasons you hired the guy in the first place (I’m aware of what an age old gripe that is).
If you could learn how to do one new thing what would it be?
I don’t retouch and I don’t video edit. I need less screen-time and not more so they’re both out. I’d really like to be able to dive (gracefully) off a springboard, so could you sort that out for me please? Imagine that, it would be magical.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a photographer?
Living in Acapulco, a professional springboard-ist. If I didn’t cut it at that, um, it could get tricky. My air instrument is bass, and man can I bring the heaviness on that, so I think a life of giggling in a splitter-van as a semi-alcoholic, spliff-rolling, kit-humping, overweight bassline king would suit me great. Or just monkeying about with my kids.
Any wise words to leave us with?
Never pat a burning dog. Never stand up in a canoe. Always ‘Think Tom’ for your photo requirements.