The award winning portrait photographer Paul Floyd Blake gained his BA (Hons) Photography at Bradford College in 2006.
Paul recalls “The first time I became interested in photography was when I was thirteen. We went on a family holiday to Ramsgate. It wasn't that far away from home but it felt like a different country. I took a picture with my mum's camera of the sun going down over the harbour. I'll never forget when we came home and got the film developed. That picture of the sunset looked just beautiful. From then on I knew I wanted to be a photographer. Now with digital and camera phones young people won’t have that build up to the magic, that delay between the taking of the picture and developing I think it makes you photograph in a different way. I only borrowed mum’s camera intermittently until I was around twenty, before I bought a Pentax MX off a mate of mine. I started buying Amateur Photographer magazine and became really keen. But I didn’t know how to connect my creativity with earning a living. I had been reasonably creative at school and wanted to go to art college but my educational experience had been pretty rubbish and I didn’t get good enough grades. I ended up in a dead end job driving a van for a laundry.”
It was only years later when he moved up north that he pursued photography seriously. Encouraged by his girlfriend, Paul enrolled on a National Diploma course in Halifax. After the first year he “pestered” local photographer Matt Squire to let him work for him Matt did photography for lots of TV programmes like Brookside and Emmerdale but he dissuaded Paul from going on these shoots as he said it was a lot of hanging around. But when Matt got a contract to document the six month cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games in 2002 he asked Paul to assist, which resulted in him gaining invaluable experience and mentoring.
Paul credits the generosity of Squires in helping his progress; “He was fantastic. He didn’t just have me carrying equipment or setting up lighting but encouraged me to bring my camera and take photos. This sounds like luck but I made it happen as I asked and kept asking.”Paul is a great believer that photography students should gain experience beyond college but is at the same time wary of the current situation where graduates are often expected to undertake unpaid internships.
The professional experience gave Paul the impetus to skip the second year of the National Diploma and instead enrol straight onto the BA (Hons) Photography course at Bradford College, where he continued to pursue his own projects throughout the three year degree programme. This included a solo exhibition, The Changing Faces of Yorkshire, at the Piece Hall, Halifax in 2004, which had been inspired by his experience growing up in the very multicultural environment of Harringay, North London. This led him to explore the different communities in his new home of Yorkshire, including West Indians in Doncaster, South Americans in Leeds and Serbians in Bradford. Paul recalls “It was great to meet and interact with this mix of people” and the stunning portraits he created convey his rapport with his subjects as well as his technical expertise. But the exhibition only happened because Paul took a proactive approach by taking examples of his work to Piece Hall.
What Paul remembers from Bradford College, was the fine balance between the artistic and commercial aspects of photography he learnt from Trevor Griffiths, Andy Vaines, Lisa Dracup and Simon Ford. He regards both parts of the equation as essential and he cautions aspiring photographers about concentrating too much on profit, reckoning, “we have to be passionate about what we do.”
As an undergraduate Paul also enjoyed success in national competitions, including twice being exhibited and included in the book of the annual National Portrait Gallery Photographic Portrait Prize. He said, “This really helped my confidence and also meant that important people on the panel of selectors got to see my work. When I eventually won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2009, Terence Pepper, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, told me that he had been keeping an eye on my work over the years.”
Paul’s work has also been exhibited in solo shows in Manchester and Oldham plus numerous group exhibitions. He currently has two exhibitions as part of Yorkshire’s Cultural Olympiad programme: Extraordinary Moves, about female disabled swimmers, at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate and Personal Best, about young elite athletes, which opens at Impressions in Bradford in June. His regular client list includes the Arts Council England, The Telegraph Magazine and the Times Educational Supplement.
Despite his acclaim Paul remains modest and focused on his projects. He said, “I don’t think I have made it. If I ever got to the stage where I knew how to do it, I would have to give up. I still feel I have lots to learn, to develop and to get across. I just want to keep producing; it is not about achieving but enjoying and communicating that to others.”