Life On The Cut: Dave Parker

25th September 2009

Jill Glenn talks to photographer Dave Parker, whose series of black and white photographs depicting life on and around on the Grand Union Canal between Rickmansworth and Croxley Green is to be exhibited at the Space2 Gallery in Watford Museum throughout October.

You’d think that 20 years as a catalogue photographer – producing someone else’s images, interpreting someone else’s brief – would extinguish anyone’s creative spark… but Oxhey resident Dave Parker (44) seems to have retained the ability to step outside the tedium and connect with the camera just as he did as a young man. Redundancy (as a result of the failure of his employer’s business) may have come as a shock, but it’s been a liberation too.

Born a Geordie, “within sight of the Tyne”, Dave grew up in Prudhoe, Northumberland. After a couple of years at Art College, where he specialised in Photography, he came south to London in the late ‘80s. He worked as an assistant photographer and lived on £75 a week – “barely enough”, he observes. City life, southern life, startled him at first; gradually, though, he adapted: “Once it gets under your skin, you can’t leave it…” he says now.

An unexpected chance to hone his skills came with the sudden ill-health of his boss. Dave benefited from the opportunity to get his photographic fingers into the sort of pies that assistants wouldn’t normally see, let alone touch. He kept the business afloat for a few months, but when the boss returned to work, Dave knew it was time to move on. Hence the catalogue studio, and steady progress over nearly 20 years. By the end he was senior photographer: experienced, well-travelled, resourceful and still with that visionary, observant eye.

Released from the studio noose, he now operates as a freelancer, but while work projects may bear a marked similarity to the sort of stuff he’s been doing for years (his most recent commission was radios, for example), his private work is taking on a life of its own.

He began, almost as soon as he had left the studio, to rediscover photography for personal pleasure. Cycling along Ebury Way, along the canal, he started seeing “interesting stuff”. Soon he was taking his camera with him, capturing odd moments, little insights into other lives. Before long he realised he had the basic elements of an ongoing project. To pursue it, though, he had to conquer a natural diffidence, and start explaining to people what he was trying to achieve. It wasn’t easy at first, but he’s only been turned down twice in two years, and is stunned by the welcome he has received from the canal community. He no longer has to cycle past a boat four or five times, summoning up the courage to approach strangers and ask “Do you mind if I take your picture?”

Lizzy & Marv

There’s a real sense of fly-on-the-wall reportage to many of these images. Dave’s adamant that none of them were staged, although he has on occasion asked someone to repeat something he’s just seen them doing. Shots appear out of nowhere. “Every time I go,” he says, “there’s something different.” He has his own favourite images, including the Jack Russell at the Stockers Lock gates (middle right), but found selecting for the exhibition walls almost unbearable. He changed his mind constantly, especially as new shots came up for consideration.

The photographers he himself admires – Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Tony Ray-Jones, Robert Capa, Don McCullin – are, of course, evident in his work; he loves black and white, loves the photography of the street, the immediacy of the moment. “I’d swap anything to be a war correspondent,” he says, only half-joking. Until the opportunity comes his way, life on The Cut continues to absorb him. “It’s by no means finished… in some ways I’ve only just started…”

Life On The Cut is at The Space2 Gallery, Watford Museum, 194 High Street, Watford, from 8 to 31 October, Thursday - Saturday, 10am - 5pm. Admission free.

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