Looking for inspiration from the top photographers? Peter Dench reveals some of the best of British
Best is a dangerous word. Using it you immediately discard the rest. Rarely does a photographer burst into the industry and hit the top. Being one of the best takes variety, dedication and time. Researching for this article, I discovered many of the photographers considered and included didn’t start out as professional photographers, finding their way from careers as diverse as Architectural Technologist and Skier.
To be the best you increasingly have to do more than just take photographs. You have to embed yourself in your subject, to understand and live in complete harmony alongside it.
Here are our suggestions for some of the best contemporary British photographers working in their field of expertise:
Carolyn Mendelsohn – Portrait
Award-winning photographer and Nikon Creator Carolyn Mendelsohn didn’t rush into photography. The graduate in Creative and Performance Arts at the University of Newcastle went on to build a career in writing, theatre and film making and admits to spending the next 20 years basically gallivanting around, wearing interesting costumes and generally showing off.
With the birth of her third child, she curtailed her creative adventures to focus on family. This arguably makes her the outstanding portrait photographer she is today. Not finished being creative, she picked up a camera and everything she had learned before, could be obsessively expressed through her lens. There is care and attention to detail in her portraits.
The sitter, whether a celebrity or not, old or young, is treated with equal respect. They are given room within the frame to connect. They are tuned in, the effortless look taking maximum effort. The colour palette is subtle, a calmness pervades. Which is interesting because every time I have spoken with Carolyn about her portraits she talks of being constantly terrified.
Made over a period of six years, Carolyn’s Being Inbetween series of 90 portraits of girls aged between 10 and 12 is a powerful observation and record exploring transition into young adulthood. The self-confessed show-off is now a master of showing off others.
Kirsty Mackay – Documentary
Born in Glasgow, Kirsty Mackay studied photography in the city before a short stint in New York. Then several years assisting in London before completing an MA in documentary photography at the University of South Wales. Great documentary photography should be honest, raise questions, engage debate and if possible, affect change.
Kirsty’s compelling and critical visual language does, shining a light on underreported issues that matter widely and to her personally. Her reportage, My Favourite Colour Was Yellow, challenges stereotypes. Driven by 1980s consumerism, pink is now synonymous with femininity; yet 19th century boys were dressed in pink.
Her photos of girls in their bedroom or on the street are a sensitive, intimate glimpse into their worlds. Shot over four years, The Fish That Never Swam studies Glasgow health inequalities and the life expectancy gap. Her work voices issues surrounding gender, class and discrimination. It emphasises you don’t have to jump on a plane to a war to take pictures. It’s local documentary photography that screams, look at this.
Clive Mason – Sport
Clive Mason knows his craft, achieved through sheer graft. After freelancing for titles such as The Northampton Chronicle & Echo, The Sunday Express, The Daily Mirror and Bob Thomas Sports Photography, in 1994 he was rewarded with a staff position with Getty Images (formerly Allsport). To be a sports photographer is pressure.
Miss the decisive moment and your career could be in tatters. The level of focus is intense. You’re in the action constantly looking and hope you’re looking in the right direction. It takes time, commitment and cooperation.
Every year building your knowledge, adding to your experience until, like Clive, you are the best. He doesn’t just specialise in one sport, covering numerous football, rugby and cricket World Cups along with day-to-day coverage of the English Premier League, Rugby Premiership, and Test and county cricket when possible.
Clive has covered the past five Olympic Sailing regattas, every winter Olympic games since Salt Lake City in 2002 and over 400 Formula One World Championship races, that’s a lot of mileage. Looking through Clive’s portfolio is rewarding. Among the expected single shots of pin-sharp, in-focus, perfectly framed sports action are moments of detail, celebration and reflection often framed wide to include a sunset, landscape or horizon.
Clive is also no stranger to accolades, recently hoisting the Sports Photographer Of The Year award for 2020, which completed a hat trick of awards with wins for his Specialist Sports Portfolio and Sports Picture Of The Year at the prestigious Sports Journalists’ Association Awards.
Joshua K Jackson – Street
Working in London at a corporate desk job, Joshua took his time to find photography. Focusing on life within the metropolis, his photographs capture the relationship between people and place. The rich visual language of colour and abstraction is seductive. Joshua may be dyslexic, but his images have a narrative as concise as a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel.
The artistic references bounce beyond literature: film, photography, animation, illustration and music all intertwine – each frame a beat of his unique ocular album. For his sold-out monograph, Sleepless in Soho, he spent three years hunting images with the doggedness of an insomniac private investigator.
Smoking silhouettes, idling taxis, hunched shoulders, tilted hats, stiletto shoes, full ashtrays and empty wine glasses combine to make a case for Joshua as one of the best photographers pounding the street. There’s not a picture by him that isn’t interesting and he can make an image of a puddle as compelling as an Hieronymus Bosch painting. His street style has generated much commercial and editorial work. Recent clients include Adobe, Apple, Bacardi, Google, OPPO and Panasonic. He’s represented globally by Tea & Water Pictures.
Tesni Ward – Wildlife
Sometimes great photography is secondary. Tesni is a nature lover first. The knowledge of her subject and environment is evident in her practice. Photography is her tool of choice to capture incredible moments in nature and deliver them to her audience. They connect and inspire.
Born in Wales, and now living near the Peak District, Tesni was once a promising young athlete before injury forced her to swap the javelin for the telephoto lens and has been honing her skills ever since. She has developed a high level of professionalism that enables her to understand the environment and anticipate those fleeting and intimate moments in wildlife that the naked eye sometimes cannot see.
She knows when the bird is about to fly, flap or dive underwater. Her images are technically astute and show an understanding of colour and light. They are direct and avoid distractions. Over time, through developments in technology and her own dedication, Tesni has been able to take fewer photographs while capturing more in them.
Pally Learmond – Travel & Adventure
Award-winning photographer Pally has lived and worked for over 15 years at various locations across the European Alps mountain range. Immersed in his photography passion and practice, the level of commitment has established him as the go-to photographer in the genre of extreme or free skiing photography.
His own aspirations for a career in the sport were abruptly ended with a broken leg. He used the recovery period wisely, studying photography to keep him close to what he craved and has been shooting professionally since 2006. On the slopes for over half the year, his photographs go beyond capturing the free skiers hurtling down mountainsides and embrace the lifestyle and landscape.
The images are clean and crisp, captured in often hazardous conditions. His stunning image of the Haines area of Alaska won him Best Single Image in a Landscape and Adventure Portfolio at the 2021 Travel Photographer of the Year awards. In the photo, Austrian professional freeskier Fabian Lentsch lets loose on a mountain face called Dirty Needle, blasting down the mountain spines which form on top of the rocky facade.
Pally is the complete adventure and travel photographer, managing to keep his photography as fresh and exciting as the cold and often unforgiving environment in which he feels most at home.
Suzanne Middlemass – Fashion
Think fashion and you may think studio, lights, hair and make-up, stylist, wind-machine, entourage and egos. Suzanne Middlemass is a different type of fashion photographer, part of a genre that prefers to capture street style fashion. She can be found on the periphery of fashion weeks across the globe from Paris, Milan, New York, London, Berlin, and Copenhagen, applying her critical eye to those who have stepped off or back from the catwalk.
Caught moments of subtlety intertwine with humour; women are captured wearing the same Chanel dress and a dog peeks out of a designer handbag. There’s a calmness to Suzanne’s photographs that marry the urban backdrop to the latest must-have fashion designs and accessories.
Trained as a fine art photographer, before turning her hand to documenting fashion a few years later, she has been commissioned by a range of respected international clients and has work published in Vogue, Elle, Glamour, InStyle and GQ USA among others. Her book, It’s All About Shoes (teNeues Media; 1st edition 2017), does what it says on the cover, showcasing the eclectic footwear that people choose to pull over their pinkies each morning from punk, pretty, gothic, glamorous, vintage, quirky and sexy.
A revised edition of the book is due out in autumn. Suzanne’s fashion images are beautiful, bold and often strange. They perfectly capture the sartorial way of life on the runway of the streets.
Verity Milligan – Landscape
Verity Milligan is commended in the 2017 Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year, 2016 Outdoor Photographer of the Year, 2016 and 2015 Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year and Highly Commended in the 2014 British Life Photographer of the Year.
Surprisingly for a landscape photographer, Verity has based herself in the landlocked Midlands city of Birmingham – cleverly this means she’s able to reach most of the UK with minimum fuss; Lake District, Peak District, Warwickshire, Isle of Harris and Lewis. Like all good photographers, she doesn’t ignore what is immediately accessible.
Paying tribute to her roots (raised in the ex-steel town of Corby) she has always been intrigued by urban landscapes and this is reflected in her photography of Birmingham with brooding images of Aston at Night, Gas Street Basin at Night, Library at Night, Rotunda and Central Hall and Moor Street at Sunrise.
After graduating with an MA in Visual Culture in 2007 she picked up a DSLR for the first time and has been methodically polishing her practice to a level where her style is varied and technical approach complete – slow to fast shutter speeds, tight frames, wide vistas and misty mornings are interchangeable. We confidently commend Verity to our best British group.
Jo Denison – Macro and Food
Make sure you’ve had a belly full before viewing Jo Denison’s portfolio of food photography because afterwards you are going to want to eat a lot. The finger prints on my computer screen are testament the images are practically 3D. Tarts, cheeses, breads, brownies, roasts, salads and fish all loom tantalisingly from the screen in mouthwatering detail.
Her composition guides the viewer around the image to the key elements, the most basic of ingredients escalated to a Paul Cézanne still life. The textures, patterns and saturated colours complement and not distract from the food. Jo plies her trade from a unique sustainably powered studio in an 18th Century Corn Mill in Skipton, North Yorkshire, one of an increasing number of photographers whose approach in life reflects in their work.
Jo’s skills have attracted the attention of clients ranging from large supermarkets to small independent sustainable companies, editorial publications and charities. Asda, Booths, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose, Arla, Jet 2, Keelham Farm Shop, Holland & Barrett, The Scout Association, English Heritage. It’s not just good food that inspires Jo, it’s the people and stories behind them. That’s a healthy way to live.