Amateur Photographer - Interview February 2003
Malcolm MacGregor made the brave move of changing career to become a full-time landscape photographer. Has it paid off? Sarah Jackson finds out.
How many readers of AP dream of getting into landscape photography full-time?
Quite a few, as you’ll know if you read our Portfolio section. It was only after a 17-year career in the British Army that Scotsman Malcolm MacGregor, now 43, decided to take the plunge. In 1999 he began photographing the more remote areas of Scotland, using rucksack–friendly medium-format gear.
In 1997, his commission completed, he left the army and decided to acquire some business training, graduating from Cranfield School of Management the following year. He started to work in advertising but one day, whilst sitting in front of a computer screen, it dawned on him that the work he was doing was not fulfilling. ‘I realised that I had exchanged one uniform for another,’ he says.
He was initially torn between photojournalism and landscapes, both of which had interested him for some years, but he felt that landscape photography would be easier to break into. It is one thing to sell a few landscape prints to friends, but in hoping to make landscape photography a career, you might feel that Malcolm was being incredibly optimistic.
Living in Scotland he decided to start out by shooting the country’s more remote regions – he is particularly inspired by the feeling of wilderness in the North-West, Torridon and also on the islands of Skye and Harris. Heaven for Malcolm is a landscape devoid of signs, roads and power lines, with the odd ruined bothy the only mark of human activity.
Reaching locations meant driving as far as was practical, then walking the remaining miles with all his equipment in his backpack. Malcolm was grateful for the lightweight of the Mamiya and its practical design. He says, ‘It has a fantastic viewfinder - like a Leica’s but bigger. It’s very clear and the camera handled just like an oversized 35mm one.’ Wearing gloves in cold weather, he found he could still operate the big controls.
To make ends meet, he was shooting interiors for supermarkets and other clients and doing a little portrait work. However, his real interest lay in landscapes and he started to sell a few pictures to travel and outdoor magazines. After a couple of years, though, Malcolm’s income from landscape shots was still very limited. A more impatient person might have given up, or perhaps diversified even further, into weddings or additional corporate work, but Malcolm says, ‘It’s important to be focused. I am glad I struck with landscapes.’
The turning point came when he decided to return to another area of wilderness that he had first encountered in the Army, 15 years before – Oman. Still relatively undiscovered, most people’s idea of the country is of sand dunes stretching for miles, but Malcolm knew that there was lot more to the area than that. He says, ‘Oman is appealing to me as it has a unique combination of desert, mountain and sea.’ Not only that, but for two months a year, certain areas actually turn green and resemble the African savannah.
Through his contacts in the country, he learnt there didn’t seem to be any books available featuring high quality Omani landscapes. An opportunity beckoned, although it could be a costly mistake to publish a book on the country and then find out that no-one wanted to buy it. Besides, Malcolm had no publisher for such a book. Nevertheless, he decided to visit the country and take pictures with a view to getting them published somehow when he came back to the UK.
He says, ‘Landscape photography is not just about setting up your camera – it’s about searching out and exploring.’ Travelling in a 4 x 4 vehicle in temperatures that could reach over 40° C, he tracked down rivers and managed the tricky task of photographing the greenness – a window of opportunity lasts only about four days, since the rest of the time a continuous drizzle is falling. Shooting was restricted to the first hour after dawn and the last half hour in the evening when the shadows were long. In between shooting, Malcolm was kept busy finding new locations and pinpointing compositions.
After two months he returned to the UK with 400 photographs. Finding a publisher was imperative, but his luck was in. A friend in publishing introduced him to another publisher. Malcolm realised that despite having amassed a vast number of pictures, a return visit to the country would be necessary, so in 2001, he went back for another two months. He feels it’s important to revisit a location if at all possible because the second time around you see it with a different eye and extra photo opportunities present themselves.
Wilderness Oman was published in 2002 and it has done better than break even. Sales were helped considerably by the government of Oman, which agreed to buy 500 copies of the book and 200 more were sold at an exhibition in Oman’s capital, Muscat. Copies were also sold at an exhibition in London, together with limited edition prints.
The book was a turning point for Malcolm, giving him a financial cushion to carry on in photography. On the strength of the Oman book, Malcolm had a second title commissioned, Rob Roy’s Country, by the Scottish Cultural Press. It features Scottish landscapes connected with the hero.
In between bringing out two books, Malcolm has also found time to gain all three RPS distinctions within just three years, gaining his LRPS and ARPS in 2000 and his FRPS, for his Oman shots in 2002.
Malcolm’s Army background has undoubtedly helped his new career, although he feels that the key ingredient, besides photographic aptitude, is motivation. He is still learning the commercial side of things, but he clearly loves his new career and says, ‘I am able to be outside in places that never fail to inspire me. Getting out of my vehicle and smelling the air is just fantastic.’