To launch our Creative Everyday collection we linked up with talented creatives across Cornwall, whose work is inspired by a connection with the ocean. A mainstay of the artistic community of West Penwith and St Ives, we interviewed photographer Nick Pumphrey to discuss his Dawn Days project, fostering creativity, and his undying love for the sea.
Joy In The Process
So, the most important question to kick things off; how was your surf this morning?
The surf was small, pretty much knee high, very beautiful. I’ve got a 9’6 glider, a Christianson I got from a friend as payment for shooting their wedding. It is beautiful. I can’t nose ride, so I just like to glide.
Sounds very smooth. So are you from St Ives originally?
Yes, from 6 months old. Dad from Birmingham, mum from South-West France. I was hatched in Cheltenham, and dad had been here on summer holidays before. My mum basically said to my dad, ‘we are not bringing up our kid in a pub’, because his brother had a pub in Middle England. So he was like, ‘I know this place down West’... and we never left.
Did you spend much time in France as a kid?
Yeah, every summer holiday. Me and my sister, mum and dad. I have two aunties and two uncles, my gran, when she was alive, and my grandad. So I have a lot of love for that part of the world.
“I feel that human beings are creative. Because, without realising it, we are creating every day.”
Having that dual cultural perspective can be really useful for a creative. It can give you the ability to look at the world in different ways and understand that people see things differently. Would you agree?
Yeah, I suppose. I have never really thought about it. I think Cornwall is pretty unique for that; it is super creative. All the creators and producers down there. I think, because we haven’t got the bright lights and all the entertainment and the high paid jobs, the flip side is we have got nature and more time to stay creative.
I feel that human beings are creative. If anyone says they aren’t, they’re tripping. Because, without realising it we are creating every day, with everything we do and think and see. Even just butter and jam on toast! We are creatives.
This leads nicely to the next question; how does the sea inspire your creativity? It is different for everybody, but for you specifically it is an interesting question, with how you split your time between commercial photography and more artistic photo projects, such as Dawn Days.
I think the sea inspires my… everything. I am 44, I started surfing when I was 10 years old and I have been around the sea since I was two months old. So it inspires everything. I am still as excited now to ride waves as ever. I’ll challenge any grom when it comes to enthusiasm in and around the sea!
With all of my photography now I am starting to realise it is all about storytelling, or capturing things as they are, both with people and with brand work. I always liked the idea of telling stories as authentically as can be. Finding beautiful places and letting the people be. That is my style.
You say you like to capture moments as they happen, which is a fascinating way to put it. Because as a photographer, you are constantly playing with lighting and shutter speeds and all those settings. So when you say presenting it as you see it, is it as you see it, or how it is, objectively?
I suppose it is a bit of both. I think in my heart I like to let it be, and capture it as it happens. With the ocean, for sure.
The whole idea of Dawn Days was just a practice of being present. We were going through a strange time in 2020. We were anxious and I didn’t really know what was going on. I couldn’t sleep, and I was reading books on mindfulness and practising it, to be in the moment. So the whole idea was to go out and capture whatever happened.
15 days into it… naturally, when you create work, you look at that work. And then you start to try and ‘create’ work, to better the work you have done or the photos you have taken. So I suppose it is a bit of both, if you think about it that way. There is no way you can come in with a blank canvas…
Is that because there is always a bit of you in it?
There is. It sort of becomes you. Your ego, or whatever… I have shot about 300 dawns, so that’s a lot of visual memories in my head. There are all these images in my mind of things I want to capture, but you can’t control the sea. That is the beauty of it. You have this weird little brief in your head of wanting to catch that perfect moment, with the light and the movement, when everything is just right. But it may never come.
How many times have you managed to get that shot?
Maybe a couple? There are definitely moments where I have gotten close, but I don’t think I am there yet. And that’s okay. When you see it as the process, you enjoy it anyway.
I almost enjoy water photography as much as surfing. I get the same buzz, because it is all about the process. You have a direction, but it is not important. There is something really amazing and beautiful about that journey, which is the enjoyable bit in the end. That is what it is all about; the process, not the end point. The enjoyment along the way. That is all we have, really.
You swim and photograph in some pretty rough sea conditions. So, speaking of process, where does that confidence come from? Especially when you consider that you’re also holding a camera, fiddling with settings, trying to position, etc.
I think the confidence comes from experience. In comparison to people like Mickey Smith and Jack Johns - they are super confident and they swim in really heavy water - I have always been a pretty calculated person, which is a blessing and curse. I would love to be more like Jack, where he has such confidence in heavy water, and I admire that. For whatever reason, he can do that. But I am definitely more calculated.
I suppose, growing up bodyboarding… I know Jack and Mickey and a lot of the crew shooting in the water are ex-bodyboarders. We like to hang around in that zone in the wave. All surfers do, but with bodyboarders they are drawn more to those heavier, slabbier waves. I was not crazy like the rest of the guys, but you still spend a lot of time in that area.
So, the transition from getting rid of the bodyboard to holding a water housing; you could still use the swim fins. You’re already programmed. You’ve been there before in these places, you have seen it hundreds of times. You have seen your friends in crazy positions on waves as you are paddling out, your body knows what it is like to be there. So being there with a camera, you are just pressing the button in a way!
“There is a higher chance you are going to want to protect nature if you are connected to it.”
But it’s not all about capturing massive heavy surf for you anyway. Is there a kind of storytelling or message behind your more artistic photography?
For me, it’s another reason to do water photography… It is kind of like a service. With Dawn Days and all the messages I got, you really realise how many people you touch; through creativity and a connection back to the natural world. Whether I am kidding myself or not, I always feel like you can shoot the sea, show its beauty and encourage others to be creative and to connect with it.
Not all the people in the city are disconnected, but it is harder to be connected to nature if you are not witnessing the beauty of it and being in and around it. So my challenge is, can I capture something really beautiful, then through prints or books, can we start to make a noise to inspire stewardship of the earth and the sea? There is a higher chance you are going to want to protect nature if you are connected to it.
Nick Pumphrey's current collection, 'Vibransea', can be found here.
Sarah Woods' solo art show runs from Saturday 15th October until the 18th November in the New Craftsman Gallery.
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