Matt Emmett – Winner’s Interview

Matt was crowned 2017 Historic Photographer of the Year for his stunning image of RAF Nocton Hall and US Military Hospital in Lincolnshire. Here he is in his own words…

Why Did You Enter HPOTY?

Because it aligned perfectly with my own passions and interests. I have been shooting at-risk heritage and historic locations since 2012 and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Doing well in these kinds of high profile competitions is such a great way to gain recognition for your work and maybe move into a new career.

How Did You Feel When You Realised You’d Won?

Completely over the moon! I was half asleep and travelling to work on the morning train and had forgotten the announcement was due. When I remembered, I quickly went online to check. When I saw my image listed in the winners announcement I woke up fairly quickly and the person opposite me must have wondered why I was beaming a huge grin at him.

How Has Winning The Award Affected You?

It has directly lead to work on two Heritage Lottery Fund projects and into a relationship with Heritage Open Days who all mentioned the HPOTY win when they approached me to discuss working together. Winning has absolutely been instrumental in pushing my photographic career forward.

Why Did You Select That Image For The Competition?

I submitted 7 images in total and liked them all for different reasons. Taking a beautiful picture of a well-known castle or important historical landmark is likely to have been done many times before. Personally I love to tell the stories of the lesser-known places.

What’s The Story Behind Your Photo?

It was a hospital site that changed hands several times over the last century. It had been an RAF hospital up until 1983, but was loaned to the US as a wartime contingency hospital in 1984. The US used the site to treat wounded personnel flown back from Iraq during ‘Operation Desert Storm’ but it only treated around 35 patients due to the quick resolution of the conflict. The US handed the site back in 1995 and it has remained unused since then, gradually falling into a derelict state. The shot shows the longest corridor on the site that leads from the operating suite (behind the camera) towards the various wards.  I used a long lens (300mm) to bring the distant corridor closer into view, this has the effect of compressing layers in the shot.

What Is It About The Location That Inspired You?

This abandoned military hospital site in Lincolnshire was a location I have shot twice now and has a very strange atmosphere that hangs over which lends itself well to imagery. I also love images that show a contrast between how the location is now and how is would have been when in use.

What Equipment Did You Use To Take The Shot?

I used a Pentax K3 and Pentax DA 55-300mm and a Manfrotto 55 carbon Tripod.

What Factors Were You Thinking About When Taking The Shot?

Because the camera was portrait orientated and zoomed right in at 300mm I was only getting a small part of the finished image in frame, so I had to then pan the camera horizontally and capture other frames to the left and right of the centre frame and then stitch them together in post-production. I love shooting panoramic images like this because it often gives me more than I need in terms of image and resolution and I can then take my time on the computer and with careful use of cropping produce the image I want.

How Did You Get Started In Photography?

My dad bought me a Pentax ME Super as a 19 year old to help me document my travels in South-East Asia. But I seriously got into photography in 2012 when a friend asked for a lesson or two to help him familiarise himself with his new camera. He suggested we go on location for the second lesson and picked out an abandoned jet engine testing site, the location amazed me with its incredible vistas of strange house sized machinery and its palpable sense of place in the UK’s engineering and cold war history. From that moment I was utterly hooked and have been shooting places that have a story to tell ever since.

Which Of Your Photos Are You Most Proud Of?

The shot I am most proud of is an image taken inside Cell 1 at the National Gas Turbine Establishment. I love it because of the process I went through to achieve the final image. The tunnel is backlit and lit along most of its length but I managed to find a way to hide the light source from the camera and avoid a light streak from appearing in the end result.

What Are Your Thoughts On Raw Images Vs. Retouched Images That Have Been Worked On, For Example In Photoshop?

If it’s for a photography competition then it depends on whether disclosure of any major editing techniques takes place but I think basic adjustments are good to do. Due to the limitations of dynamic range inherent in modern camera technologies, sometimes it can be beneficial to use digital techniques to bring the image back to resemble something that better reflects what you saw in person when you took the picture. But I think radically altering the structure / elements of an image to enhance the scene is being dishonest.

What Do You Think Makes An Award-Winning Shot?

For me it’s a well composed, technically well controlled image that takes you somewhere new or maybe shows you something familiar but shows it in a new way. It should generate discussion and amaze people by its technical prowess. I love looking at images and you just know when you are seeing something special, you feel it in your gut.

Where Are Your Favourite Places To Travel For Photographic Inspiration?

Way too many to mention. I have loved shooting in parts of Europe, Iceland, Asia, South America. But I always seek out forgotten places or lesser known history. I get a real kick out of the sense of history that you feel there. Just recently I was at the Neolithic Rock Tombs at Paphos (Cyprus) and was waiting at the gate for it to open. Once inside I was alone for two hours just soaking up the stillness and silence in the tombs, and taking a few pictures.

What Kind Of Cultural Or Historical Locations Do You Think Make The Best Shots?

Places with grand open spaces with symmetry always do it for me. But also places that wear their history visually for all to see, a place like North Brink in Wisbech is one such place. It used to be a busy trading port with towns and cities across the North Sea. Many of the properties along the water’s edge were owned by boat owners so they could oversee the unloading of their cargo holds. Some of the riverside frontages mimic the beautiful Flemish architecture you see in the in the squares of Belgium and Holland.  I also like locations with ambiguous or unknown pasts, leaving the visitor to fill in the gaps. You get some great folklore that has grown up around such locations.

What’s Your Favourite Period Of History, And Why?

I think the 1740’s would have been a fascinating time to travel to (if that were possible). The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution would have been such an exciting time of change and opportunity and the factories and workhouses would have made for some great images.

Do You Have Any Tips For Aspiring Cultural Photographers?

You have to shoot what you love to shoot, if you don’t find it interesting then you images will reflect that. Find out about the place you are going to shoot via research and that knowledge will help you in the way you choose your shots. Shoot from lots of angles and then pick the best shots afterwards. For architectural heritage you should always try and use a tripod as this will achieve the sharpest results and also slow you down giving you more time to think about the image you can see in the view finder or live view screen. ENJOY IT.

What Are Your Plans For The Future?

Another trip to Cyprus to shoot the amazing ruins and abandoned copper mining industry in the Troodos Mountains. And hopefully continuing work with heritage organisations.

Matt Emmett

Matt Emmett is an architectural and historic locations photographer of lesser known places with fascinating back stories. He works with heritage organisations on photographing at-risk buildings and the restoration process. He is an ambassador for Pentax, Manfrotto and Scurion.

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