Words - Industry - Corporate photography meets the digital age


Corporate photography meets the digital age

Back in the ‘dark ages’, when John Chillingworth was hired to breath life into corporate reports and accounts, there was little understanding of the power of photography as a medium for communication. Today, some of the best corporate photography in the world originates from the creative minds of partners in Greenshoots Communications, Norman Childs and Pat Shirreff-Thomas.

In the dour fifties and the swinging sixties, some major corporations used photography to great advantage. A prime example was that of a leading steel-maker which, in the years before nationalisation, used ‘warts and all’ photography to inspire loyalty in the minds of employees and investors, using INGOT, its glossy monthly magazine.

Others, like Unilever, also believed in the power of photography, but from personal experience, I was very much aware of the dichotomy of opinion expressed, on the one hand by corporate publicists and the other by corporate boards of directors in their ivory towers.

In 1964, for example, I began work on a major corporate photography project for the Midland Bank report and accounts. Travelling widely from Thurso to Lands End; with an ad-agency art director, I created a series of colour images which were received with enthusiasm by the Bank.

Production began and disaster struck. In early 1965, Midland Bank Chairman, Lord Walter Monckton, died. The incoming chairman was shown the proofs of the 1964-5 Report and Accounts. He took a cursory glance and pronounced the immortal words, “I don’t have photographs in my report and accounts.” I had been adequately paid for my time, but the images were never seen again!

My approach to corporate photography had been a brief creative reaction to the formularised approach of Walter Nurnberg and Adolf Morath, but the intervening decades have produced brilliant photographers and sparkling end results, based on an entirely more stable and intelligent understanding of photography as a function of corporate communication.

Marketing photography
Combining their skills for some years, Norman Childs and Pat Shirreff-Thomas have picked up the concept of reliable, high quality image-making for corporate clients and run with it to the four corners of the planet.

Far from their earnings financing a ‘star-rated’ lifestyle, the bulk of their profit continues to be invested in a rolling programme of equipment upgrading. As a result, IT specialist Pat Shirreff-Thomas is always working, both in the field and back at base, with the very latest hardware and software for the enhancement and delivery of digital images of consistent high quality.

In these days of vacillating corporate fortunes in the UK, most of their work is international. Every assignment is the result of months of negotiations and briefings, which finally enable the Greenshoots team to put together the ideal combination of equipment for the job in hand.

Progressively committed to digital capture, for the past three years a substantial amount of their output and all of the results are delivered as digital files suitable for reproduction, as well as prints for printers’ colour guides and promotional purposes.

To date, however, they have never travelled without film and the medium format cameras, which have been their work-horses for the past decade. The reason? In some of the tropical and mining situations in which they work the dust, humidity and extreme temperatures can have an unpredictable affect on digital equipment.

Typical of their recent commissions is one which sent them, for five exhausting weeks, to create colour images for three separate gold mining companies in Africa.

Biting the bullet
After Norman and Pat returned, they spent seven days handling the result of their labours in terms of digital files, image scans, print packages and archiving to CD, etc. When he had recovered from the rigours of the ‘white man’s grave’, Norman talked seriously about the realities of corporate photography at their ‘elevated’ level.

He observed, “These complex overseas assignments take a lot of organising. The fact that we do so successfully is largely the result of my ‘selling’ our services to multiple clients as well as doing the photography. The clients know that they have very little to do, other than telling me to get on with the job and wait for the results to land on their desks!”

“Nowadays, we fly discounted business class, just as I did when I worked alone,” he said. “As a lone traveller the cost, when divided between three clients, is about the same as full economy class. I even had an additional baggage allowance, but now that I work with Pat, it is all used up. She was not the baggage, I hasten to say! It is the eight cases, totalling 120 Kg, which push up the cost.

“As always, it is easier to travel that to arrive. Travelling to Africa, we are guaranteed a long wait in immigration, with no air conditioning and the distinctive smell of Africa for company.”

“Looking back on my diary of the frenetic thirty-one days of photography and days of travelling,” Norman wryly points out, “I can see how important our long build-up and planning is when we are in the field.”

“Important it may have been, but experience told us that in Africa, Murphy’s Law (if anything could go wrong, it will go wrong) always applies. Amongst the casualties was our built-in series of rest days, as our clients on the ground found more and more absolutely essential subjects to be photographed. It is a phenomenon known locally as WA-WA! West Africa - Wins Again!”

An a-typical diary entry read: Sunday – Met MD of the mine and did ‘recce’ of entire site, involving a processing plant just coming on stream and exploration of gold baring ore, plus villages where we aim to get pictures of children at school, clinics and facilities such as water bore holes in village centres. Life felt sweet, discussing tactics, programme and content as we looked out from the MD’s pad, high up on the hill above the mine, surrounded by banana trees, paw-paw bushes, mangos, fascinating birds and the noise of the crickets and cedillas, as well as the odd green and black mamba slipping away from the house. Sipping gin and tonics – this is, after all, Africa!

The rest of their time consisted of hard, hard graft. They also had to cope with the heat, insect bites, over-enthusiastic clients, interminable travel on dirt roads, re-planning, equipment maintenance, backing up digital files to exterior hard disk, eating on the move and accommodating natures needs, more difficult for modest Pat than for ‘behind a palm tree’ Norman. All that aside, it was photography, photography, photography, which dominated their every waking hour!

The digital dimension
The use of digital technology began for the Greenshoots team, long before digital capture had proved to be a massive asset on their multiple overseas assignments.

A past master of telephone marketing Childs, who recognised the decline of architectural and industrial photography as a dead-end for many top-flight photographers, turned his attention to corporate photography as early as 1994.

By 1997, Greenshoots had ceased to market its skills with one-to one portfolio presentations. Instead, the Internet became their prime marketing tool and PowerPoint presentations are still routinely used to reach new contacts. Along with Internet selling, regular negative scanning was essential and the supply of digital files, backed by guide prints for the clients’ use was the norm.

Today on a typical field trip, at the end a days shoot, using a laptop computer as their ‘processor’, they download the camera card files on to external hard drives, and then back up onto CD, before holding their breath and deleting the images from the camera card! In future they will feel even safer because they now hold a high capacity card reader in reserve, as a backup for the laptop.

Back at their UK base, all the RAW files are saved into a Network Attached Storage (NAS) system, which has four hard drives with a total capacity of 1.8 Terrabytes. From there, images are retrieved for selection and possible ‘image-building’ when they have been converted to either TIFF or JPEG files. The job is complete when, having made copies of the selection for the client; the image files and packages of guide prints are winging their way to the various corporate headquarters around the world.

“The problem with the digital age is that once you are on the technological treadmill, you can never stop upgrading,” says Norman Childs. “Most of our clients are not only outside the UK, but also the EU.”

“Anyone sporting rose-tinted ‘shades’, who thinks that photography for corporate clients must be easy,” he observes, “they should remove the glasses and face the facts. It is probable that there will be an increase in demand, somewhere in the world, but we only identify it by continually researching trends in world industry and its future development.” “Without continual market research, finding new corporate clients at the optimum time of their growth would be like trying to see the wrong way through a two-way mirror – impossible!”

© Copyright John Chillingworth