Words - Personality Stories - The making of a digital dynamo


The making of a digital dynamo (2002)

There is something special about a photographer with integrity and vision that commands at least respect and ultimately thorough investigation, says John Chillingworth.

Riding the waves of change and emerging with a digital imaging philosophy can be something of a challenge. He has found the reason why Steve Bicknell is hell-bent on meeting it!

With every twist and turn in the road to the digital future, independent-minded photographers, have a problem. Retaining one’s creative integrity and make a profit at the end of the year are imperatives, which do not always sit comfortably at the same table.

For most of us, there have to be workable compromises. A few, after decades at the cutting edge of their particular photographic specialisation, do well.

Steve Bicknell, a highly regarded industrial and corporate photographer, has adhered to one firm principle. He wants to work for clients who commission him for his creative input, not for his competitive ‘day-rate’.

A spiky, articulate, highly independent individual, West Sussex based Bicknell learned the foundations of his craft with a high-flying commercial studio, Walter Gardiner Photography, before walking away to start in business on his own account.

Years later, wary of being stung, he carefully grasped the stem of the digital ‘nettle’ as soon as he saw its potential in both business and creative terms.

Before he did so, Steve Bicknell Photography, operating from Billingshurst, West Sussex, was a thriving commercial studio. It incorporated a full colour processing facility, serving corporate clients as well as those into graphic design, commerce and advertising.

In his time, he has picked up numerous awards for his commercial and industrial work, including Ilford Commercial Photographer of the Year, numerous BIPP awards and last year the ‘Best Print in Show’ award at the AoP organised IDEA Awards.

Operating with Paul Cocken, first as his assistant and later as his highly creative working partner, his search for satisfaction in both commercial and artistic terms has often given him a bumpy ride!

A role change
Now, his partner works from their London-based studio and Bicknell works mainly from his home in Pulborough. The partnership with Paul Cocken goes from strength to strength although, interestingly, their roles have experienced a sea-change.

Cocken services the creative demands of a healthy mix of advertising and commercial clients, some of which were originally Bicknell’s. For the majority of his still-life work Cocken uses a US manufactured Betterlight 6000 scanning back, both in the studio and on location. Live action is still captured on film, but is also manipulated and enhanced before delivery as a digital file.

Meanwhile, Bicknell administers the business and works only on the corporate assignments he really wants to do. His images, shot on film and also delivered as digital files, are usually for clients commissioning direct, or from advertising agencies and design groups, familiar with the way he works.

No working photographers need to be told that in this day and age, commercial budgets are tight and competition for commissioned photography, fierce.

Aware that earlier top-flight corporate and industrial photographers like Len Dance and the late Don Fraser had chosen to develop alternative applications for their creative drive Bicknell, too, has reviewed his options.

He had sensed a dip in appreciation of creativity and realising that ‘corporates’ live in a different world when it comes to paying for it, so at the ripe young age of fifty, he thought long and hard about alternative outlets for his creative drive.

Buoyed up by justifiable self-belief, Bicknell says, “I am not prepared to be ground down by clients who want to hire a camera operator, rather than harness a creative force!”

Tempered with an acute business sense and an instinct for survival, a changing creative environment can give a photographer great creative satisfaction. That, perhaps, is why Bicknell now holds a digitally driven enterprise dear to his heart.

Art on the Web
Having established a web site to promote his commissioned work, he created another to help market his stock images. The more he became engaged in web marketing, the more he saw its long-term possibilities.

Working with Brighton-based ‘image-access.net, a lively web-server company headed by Mike Laye, a founding member of the UK Association of Photographers' Digital Imaging Group he now has interconnected sites, which in theory will draw a wide cross-section of image users and the image buying public into his orbit.

His personal aim is to build a library of images to a point where it earns enough to contribute to the funding of his eventual retirement.

Having started his project, he appreciates the fact that in the UK, with interest in photographic art in an embryo state, simply renting web space and waiting for somebody to notice it is not an option.

As it evolved, the Bicknell enterprise became something from which every professional, with a feel for digital imaging as art, can benefit.

By seeking out art photographers’ personal web sites, through personal contact and chance meetings, he continues to build a collection of personal work from top advertising and commercial photographers from around the world.

The public, looking for art images on the web are told: ‘Everything in your home reflects your individual personality and taste. If you see an image you like, imagine how much pleasure it will bring hanging in your home.’

‘Collecting Fine Art is becoming more and more popular. Many artists now sell for hundreds and in some cases thousands of pounds or dollars…… Who knows amongst our artists there easily could be the next Lucas, Godwin or Salgado!’

The digitally printed, signed images are supplied with numbered and dated certificates of authentication along with the history of the ‘artist’.

“So what?” I hear you say. Well, slowly – very slowly, they are beginning to sell. But Bicknell is not just sitting back and waiting for enquiries.

He generates and distributes CD’s of the images and exhibits at every opportunity. At a recent one-day art show, he had a full house of invited guests at the Nick Carman Hire Studio in London, where he displayed some 120 images on the walls, on easels and on benches for his guests to handle.

Ask him, “Why do it?” and he will tell you that he needs to communicate with other creative people, if he is to sustain his development as a photographic artist, as well as being a corporate photographer.

For a photographer who has been commissioned by major organisations world-wide, to shoot pictures in locations as diverse as Australia, Malaysia, India, Russia and Europe, some would feel he is putting on an act!

Others will think more deeply and consider marketing their own experimental work through his ‘art-shop’. His enthusiasm for all things digital and his unbounded energy are infectious. He is hell-bent on taking the risk and he has nothing to lose, but his money!

© Copyright John Chillingworth