Photographic memory - Les Smithers

PUBLISHED: 19:54 19 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:53 20 February 2013

Cotswolds-based photographer Les Smithers

Cotswolds-based photographer Les Smithers

From the heady days working alongside internationally-renowned Bohemian photographer Ida Kar in the '60s and early commissions from the Beatles' Apple label, Les Smithers' photographic career has been exciting and eclectic, to say the least

Photographic memory

From the heady days working alongside internationally-renowned Bohemian photographer Ida Kar in London in the 60s and early commissions from the Beatles Apple label, to commercial success with major world business and a host of lauded portrait work, Cotswolds-based Les Smithers photographic career has been exciting and eclectic, to say the least

How did your first assignment [to photograph JCB founder Joseph Cyril Bamford] come about?

This portrait, which is part of the National Portrait Gallerys collection, dates back to November 1971 when Mr Bamford, then aged 55 and the founder of JCB Excavators LTD, was still very much at the fore-front of his Empire. I was a tender 22 and it was my first assignment for JCB Publicity, the Companys in house advertising agency.

The creative department of the agency were totally aware of my association with Ida Kar, the internationally renowned portrait photographer.

More relevantly, the practical experience I had gained from assisting ZoeDominic, Britains Leading Arts Photographer and John Timbers, who wasLord Snowdons assistant. So, because of my background I guess they wanted to test my metal with the portrait of Mr JCB, as he was known.

Whilst chatting to Mr Bamford before the shoot at JCBs Headquarters inRocester, Staffordshire, I became very aware of his intense eyes, scanning the area, never missing a trick. He prided himself with the knowledge of every process involved in the manufacturing of his excavators.

It was also made clear to me that he was also a very keen photographer.

No pressure there then! However, I was totally aware of him watching my every adjustment that was made to both camera and lighting during my session.

On delivering the finished print, Mr Bamford complimented me on the result and requesting that I signed the portrait. This was an extremely satisfying result for me and the start of a really happy relationship that I experienced with JCB Publicity.

During 1972, an exhibition of my work was held in their main reception area of their Headquarters at Rocester. Mr Bamfords eldest son, Anthony,(now Sir Anthony Bamford and Chairman of JCB Excavators Ltd) who was always extremely kind and encouraging to me with my work, bought two of my prints. Over the following years my photography was part of their award-winning calendars.

How did you come to meet photographer Ida Kar?

I first met Ida on the March 31 1968 at an exhibition being held at the Midland Arts Centre in Birmingham. Following our long conversation together, Ida showed great interest in the work that I was doing and to view more of my portfolio, she kindly invited me to visit her home the following weekend in Londons Mayfair, where she lived with her husband, the art dealer and poet, Victor Musgrave.

Ida had previously advertised in the British Journal of Photography earlier that year for a student/PA. However, following the talent that had replied, it was Victors idea that Ida should change direction and form a group of young budding photographers. After Ida and Victor had viewed my portfolio that weekend, I was invited together with Lawrence Ellar and John Couzins to join the group, which Ida had named KarSEC, composed from her surname and our initials. The concept being that Ida would use her commercial contacts to help gain the group individual commissions, in return, for a percentage of the fee. It was agreed that I should live at Rex Place, ParkLane until I could afford to support myself.

16, Rex Place was quite sparse in furniture and comfort. However the wholehouse was bursting at the seems with works of art that had originated from Victors former business, Gallery One in DArbly Street, in Londons Soho.

What was missing in home comfort was more than made up for with Idas cooking, and I recollect being fed on occasions with fingers of toast spread with caviar for breakfast!

It was in the kitchen basement of this house the previous year that Victor had collaborated with the American Film Producer and Jazz Musician TonyCox and his then wife, the Artist Yoko Ono, in the making of the avant-garde film Bottoms.

Life with Ida & Victor during 1968 was really an experience. The house always seemed to be filled with visitors day and night, mainly from the art world and the life-style was certainly Bohemian, with Idas impromptu dinner parties being most enjoyable. There were invites from galleries such as the Whitechapel and the ICA, where Ida would delight in showing off her three new talents to her contacts that shed meet. It was through Idas friendship with Yoko Ono, whom by now had started a relationship withJohn Lennon, that I was introduced to the Beatles Apple Corps at their offices at 95, Wigmore Street.

Being just 19 years old and London still in the Swing, nightlife proved to be a magnet with the fantastic variety of venues. The rock musical Hair opened in 1968 and I just had to see it - twice! It was so new to me in those days and I loved it.

Working independently, you found great commercial success. Who were some of your clients?

My very first commission in 1968 came from Derek Taylor of the Beatles Apple Corps. Yoko Ono, being made aware of my work through Ida Kar had advised me to contact Mal Evans, (the Beatles ex-Road Manager). Having presented my portfolio to Mal, he introduced me to Derek, who had been brought back from the States to head Apples PR. Again, after Derek had viewed my work, I was given my very first commission. What a way to start freelancing!

Over the following two years I formed a great working relationship withDerek and Mal. Derek, acting as my mentor also introduced me to several people, including the brilliant airbrush illustrator Alan Aldridge. Of course I also had the privilege of meeting on numerous times all four of the Beatles.

While all the excitement of visiting Apple Corps in mid July1968 at their new offices and recording studio at 3 Savile Row, I was awarded a solo exhibition by Kodak LTD to be held the following year. That really kick started my career, which led to commissions from BOAC (British Airways,Harrods Way In Boutique and Faberg to name but a few). Derek, understanding my frustrations of lack of experience in a London Studio, suggested that I should combine my freelancing whilst assisting well respected London photographers. So in the beginning of 1969 I started assisting Zoe Dominic and John Timbers at their Chelsea Studio.

In the years that have followed, photography has been extremely kind to me. My studio work has ranged from still life and room-sets, to people and of course the Automotive Industry. The introduction to my first car shoot came about after Rolls Royce Motors LTD contacted me out of the blue and asked me to shoot a Bentley brochure for them. Not too many photographers can claim that privilege.

It hasnt all been studio-based work, as Ive also had the love of location photography. Again, Ive been very lucky in travelling the world. Europe, theFar East, the USA and the South Pacific - all paid for by my clients. Surely that must be one of the best way to travel? My new website portrays a true representation of my clients - past and present.

What were some of your most memorable campaigns?

Working for such a variety of clients on products and services throughout my career its difficult to choose memorable campaigns. Working on

Jaguars Supercar, the XJ 220, or photographing two hundred sheep, forming an X in the Lake District for the Halifax building Society, or being flown Club Class to Antigua to shoot one of my clients recently purchased luxury hotel, or working with the model Yasmin Le Bon. However, the campaign that Im always asked about is the shoot I did for Slumberland Beds, which involved an elephant lying on one of their mattresses.

I did the shoot on a Sunday in a studio in Londons St Johns Wood. The elephant, Nellie, a nine-year-old female, was the lead elephant of a circus troop. The circus, not opening its big top on a Sunday, delivered the elephant in the back of a horse box type trailer to the studio. As you may imagine, Nellie caused quite a stir, with her head popping out of the trailer in sleepy St Johns Wood.

To keep things moving along as smoothly, I did the pre-session lighting setup prior to Nellie arriving. Obtaining Nellies dimensions from her trainer, I made a mock up elephant from cardboard boxes covered roughly in sacking sprayed grey and used industrial type flexi-hose for her trunk. All my lighting was suspended from the ceiling grid, so that Nellie couldnt accidentally knock anything over.

However, no matter what preparations I had made, I couldnt predict Nellies toilets. Although she was extremely intelligent and well trained for her circus routines, she wasnt exactly potty trained - if you follow my drift. As a result, we got through four mattresses before the shot was in the can. Whether it was the strange surroundings of the studio or the popping noise made by the huge banks of electronic flash with every exposure, when an elephant wants to go, well they certainly go!

You also worked with some great names in theatre, Les. Who made the greatest impression on you?

Deciding to get experience with a London Studio was relevant for my training. To land a plumb job assisting Zoe Dominic and John Timbers proved to be the icing on the cake for me. Together with studio photography the job also included working in theaters including the Royal ShakespeareCompany (Stratford upon Avon and the Aldwych), The National Theatre(The Old Vic), The Royal Court Theatre, The English National Opera at TheLondon Coliseum, Saddlers Wells Theatre, The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Chichester Festival Theatre and the BBC.

Working on such wonderful stage sets with the crme de la crme of lighting directors really opened my eyes and has left a major influence to me.

It was during these photo-calls that I met legends such as Dame PeggyAshcroft, the Redgraves, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Nicol Williamson,Marianne Faithful, Alastair Sim, Lindsay Anderson and Sir Frederick Ashton well, who could ask for more?

However, to choose individuals is difficult. Dame Peggy (Harold PintersLandscape, Aldwych Theatre) was so kind to me, almost like a grandmother.Meeting Maggie Smith just after Id seen her in The prime of Miss JeanBrodie was surreal. As was meeting Lindsy Anderson just after Id watched IF. Lindsey visited my exhibition at Kodak House, which was an honour for me. I really enjoyed the company of Nicol Williamson, cast as Hamlet in Tony Richardsons production at the Roundhouse.

More recently, youve worked with some great personalities near your home on the Warwickshire/Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire triangle. How have they come about?

Over recent years I have returned to my true love, portraiture, both private and corporate. Not, I must add, the type of High Street portraiture that is easily available today. Delving into my past with Ida Kar, Zoe Dominic andJohn Timbers and the vast number of people shoots that Ive done for advertising campaigns, my own distinctive style of portraiture has matured.

This part of my work has developed with me photographing the abstract painter Howard Watson and the celebrated equestrian artist Melanie Wright, to promote their exhibitions. I also photographed the author and local historian Peter Drinkwater with his pet rabbit Squidge, which was the centre of attraction at the Shipston Community Arts Exhibition. After which, things just started to flow along nicely and over the last few monthsIve photographed the master furniture designer and maker Sean Feeney, following his success in being chosen from over sixty competitors to design and produce a cabinet for the Queens Diamond Jubilee Celebrations.

Followed closely by the portrait of sculptor Jennine Parker, working in her Warwick studio, again to promote her recent exhibition. The portrait that I did earlier this year of Colin Fairbrother, Chairman of Banbury RugbyFootball Club is closer to my heart, as Colin (or Sir as we pupils addressed him) was my former schools sports-master.

Whats next for you?

At present Im working on a rather interesting project, a hard bound coffee table style book for a printer. If anyone should have a well produced and creative publication, then surely its a printer! Also I have a few portraits in hand, one for a ceramic artist specialising in the Raku process. Another being a corporate shot of a chairman for his Companys Annual Report and lastly, a portrait to celebrate a young ladies 21st birthday.

The tutor side of my business has now become popular. I offer a bespoke workshop on a one to one or to groups of four, to amateurs, students and professionals in both digital and film based photography. This part of my service was really sparked into life after I was commissioned by De Montfort University. These workshops were to demonstrate my skills in lighting. My presentations to Camera Clubs has too proved extremely popular.

I have been invited again to exhibit my work at the forthcoming Shipston Community Arts Exhibition. Im often told that I should hold a retrospective exhibition of my work and that really does appeal to me. So, Im looking for a sponsor that would help cover the huge costs involved in such a project.

The last couple of months have been quite hectic as Ive been heavily involved with the design and production of my new website. Im really happy with the finished result and how my portfolios are presented.

To find out more about Les Smithers photographic work call 01608 666217 / 07836 237080, email or visit

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