Q&A with Photographer Patrick McKenna

The Groote Schuur #WDC323 Ward upgrade project recently received a generous donation of beautiful framed and unframed prints from Cape Town-based photographer and writer, Patrick McKenna. We asked him about the inspirations, frustrations and aspirations behind his images.

Q: When did your interest in photography begin?

Photographer Patrick McKenna

We’ve rehearsed this question and answer before and as you know, I am rather embarrassed about admitting the truth. But here goes: as a young boy growing up in Zimbabwe during the 1960s and 1970s, there were only two publications that catered for an adolescent boy’s growing interest in the female form: National Geographic and Amateur Photographer. I consulted them religiously at every opportunity and the brilliance of their images shaped the rest of my life – regardless of whether they featured the female form or not. That’s when I started begging my mother for a camera.

Q: How old were you when she answered your prayers?

About 10 years old. She bought back an Instamatic camera from one of her trips to England. I have always been obsessed by the beauty, colour and power of horses and horse racing. Handily, we lived right behind Borrowdale Park racecourse in Harare and I was up at the crack of dawn next day to photograph the gallops. Sadly, my early attempts at photography failed because of my youthful impatience. Rather than wait for the films to be developed in a professional darkroom, I simply closed the curtains in my bedroom, pulled the film out its canister hoping that my pictures would magically appear before my eyes. Of course, I simply destroyed them.

Q: Have you ever had any formal training in photography?

One or two evening course, but that’s it. I think that formal training is vital when it comes to learning the technical aspects of photography. But I am not convinced that you can be taught to see with a photographer’s eye. That takes time and intensive personal study of the world around you. It means following your interests and developing your own styles and themes. It means trying, failing and trying again. Of course, if you have a natural talent, that always helps.

Q: Which photographers do you admire most?

I was hugely moved by the Magnum masters: Henri Cartier-Bresson and his colleagues. Old school black and white US street photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand also had a major impact on me. As for colour specialists, though, I hate Steve McCurry. Every picture he publishes is an absolute masterpiece and he makes me want to just give up and stop trying to match him. The list of the other big names I admire goes on and on. Robert Doisneau, Eugene Meatyard, Martin Parr, Lee Friedlander, Don McCullin and South Africa’s own virtuoso, Roger Ballen − among so many others. But I would also point out that the world is full of brilliant unknown photographers whose names you will never know. They are all over the internet. They are in galleries, magazines, books and graduation exhibitions. They are everywhere and you can learn from all of them.

Q: Digital or film?

Both.  I am very grateful that I started taking pictures before the digital age. There is nothing like trying and failing with an old manual SLR film camera. Or spending several hours and lots of money in a darkroom until you have dodged and shaded the perfect picture in a tray of chemicals. But digital photography is a modern miracle that I celebrate every day. Perversely, the possibilities it opens up are so immense that I sometimes feel paralysed by them.

Q: Where do you draw your inspiration these days?

Absolutely everywhere and anywhere. From a vast open landscape in the Overberg to the sand beneath my feet on Noordhoek Beach, the world is full of patterns, colours, textures, moments and inspiration.

Last year, I held and exhibition in Cape Town called Sea. Land. City. That just about covers all my strongest sources of inspiration – except for horse racing, which remains one of my obsessions.

That said, photographers are also vulnerable to same obstacles that effect writers suffering from writers’ block. You can visit locations that have inspired other photographers for decades and feel absolutely nothing despite your best intentions. I am Zimbabwean to the core. Ironically, however, I find it very difficult to feel photographically inspired in my own country, which is revered for its natural beauty. Perhaps it’s psychological!

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Never stop looking. Look at the masters. Look at Instagram. Look at the National Geographic and Amateur Photographer. Look at Flickr and Pinterest and random images on Google and in magazines and books. Most of all, look at your own universe. See the colours, textures, shapes all around you. Predict the moments. Learn how to capture them. If your technical skills are limited, enrol in a night class. If you lose hope and inspiration, never stop photographing. If you don’t like what you see, just hit delete and try again. That’s the beauty of digital photography. Two more points: you won’t get the images you want unless you are there to take them. And you can never, ever get too close to your subject.

Q: But with all these resources and sources open to aspiring photographers, isn’t there a danger of inspiration overload?

You have certainly got a point. Accessing raw inspiration is not a problem. The challenge comes with distilling all that raw material into a consistent and recognisable style that is unique to you. That is where practice and hard slog is so important. Eventually, all the fluid sources of inspiration and influence will crystallise into the distinctive shots that will define your style. The perfect image will always be elusive and there will always be an element of luck involved in capturing it. But as Gary Player once said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

Q: What next?

To capture the best image that has ever been captured by anyone, ever. I’ve no idea where it is, what it looks like or when I will see it. But I know it’s out there somewhere and I am going to keep looking for it. Meanwhile, if any of my images help a patient in Groote Schuur along  the road to recover, that’s good enough for me.

Want to see more of Patrick’s beautiful work? Be sure to visit his website: here; or check out his Flickr account: here. You can also follow him on his Facebook Page: here.


Kate van Onselen Photography

Meet Joburg photographer, Kate van Onselen – she’s got an excellent eye for a good frame and brings a little enchantment and whimsical flair to each of her shots. Her blog and website is filled with pages of beautiful, inspirational photography – we just had to feature her and find out a little more…

Q:   How did you get into photography? 

A:   I have always been an artsy person, studying fine art throughout school and university so photography has always been something that I have been exposed to and interested in. It was more the theory that got me interested at first, I guess because we studied the masters and founders and understanding their motive and motivations got me interested in using photography as a form of expression. I first properly learned film photography at school and continued with it through to university, but that was very much experimental and not conscious. The first time I realised I wanted to take photography more seriously, was when I was in London in 2006.

Q:   Do you have a particular style and if so could you describe it? 

A:   I would say my style is honest and creative. I aim to show a different perspective with a high fashion approach and ultimately create images that have narrative. I wouldn’t say I follow trends in a conscious way, but obviously they influence my preferences at any time.

Q:   What sort of services do you offer? 

A:   I am a photographer and a graphic designer, I like that there is variance in my creative space. Photography is my passion, if you met me you would know what I mean. So I will consider any creative or photography project that comes my way.

Q:   What is your favoured subject matter? 

A:   I love photographing people, there’s something about capturing a moments emotion that is … something similar to addictive to me. In terms of ‘people genre’, I love fashion and editorial spreads (for the image narrative obviously), portraiture and weddings etc.

Q:   What inspires you?

A:   Lots of things: Fashion, interior décor/ design, Europe, travel, life, my friends and family, other artists and photographers: Annie Leibovitz, James Nachtwey, Anna Wolf, Nirrimi Hakanson, locally Sam Maber, Jacqui Bruniquel, Alix Rose Cowie and Amy Scheepers.

Q:   How would you describe your life’s philosophy?

A:   I try to live by one idea mainly, which is “Life is right now”. i.e live for right now, be happy right now, be the person you want to be right now, work toward what makes you and others happy right now, etc.

Q:   What is next to your bedside pedestal at the moment?

A:   There’s a lot at the moment …my lamp (I love it – my dad made the wooden base), my glasses case, my watch, my blackberry, a box of tissues, The Bang Bang Club, Eat Pray Love (both half read… seen both movies before I read the books now that I think of it), a pile of magazines (Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Jalouse, Marie Claire, Elle Decoration, Ideas Magazine) and a glass of water …

Q:   Could you share your Secret Indulgence with us?

A:   I’m not very good at being secret with anything… my Elle Decoration subscription, browsing the web (endlessly) for inspiration and shopping at flea markets and second hand shops for unique vintage finds.

Q:   In five years time …

A:   I am sure that I will look back and wonder where the last five years went.

Please do yourself a favour and check out Kate’s lovely blog: here and her website: here

You can also find this talented lady on Facebook and Twitter.

Through The Lens Of Sally Wellbeloved

During the time that I have worked in the interiors profession, I have met all manner of people who ply their artistic trade, services and products, touching the various genres of design.

Meet Sally Wellbeloved (what a generous name) who came across our path during the course of last year.  I am so impressed with her style of work as well as her philosophy of life.  She is such an energetic person and such a pleasure to be around, that we thought we would share our experience of Sally with you, via a Q & A time, as well as opening some of the pages of her portfolio with you.

I urge you to pay particular attention to her ’abstract’ images.  They are seriously mind-boggling.  I have no idea how she achieves that effect, but it works for me. It has once again ignited a flame of interest in the abstract works.

Q:   How did you get into photography? 

A:   I’d always loved photography as a child, and it then became a ‘buried passion’ as I grew up and got busy with other things.  When I was in my late 20’s I re-ignited my passion for photography and after won a camera in a competition I began to take it seriously and soon after that I left the corporate world and worked with an aerial photographer where I learned the ropes, and then I took the bold step to launch my own photography business!

Q:   Do you have a particular style and if so could you describe it?  

A:   I do have a style with my artistic photographic works – I love to take natural scenes and work them into muted colour tones, it creates a slightly dreamy and surreal feeling which I just love.  When it comes to my commercial shooting, I keep my images bold, crisp and clean.

Q:   What sort of services do you offer?

A:   Currently I am offering a fairly wide range of photographic services.  I specialise in buildings and interiors, doing work mostly for architects, interior decorators, property developers and real estate agencies.  In addition I do portraits and product work in studio which I enjoy, as well as events, weddings and documentary projects which can be very challenging but a great way to stretch and grow my skill-set!  

 Q:   What is your favoured subject matter? 

A:   Buildings, animals and landscapes

Q:   What inspires you? 

A:   Tough question as there is so much out there that inspiring, there are so many talented photographers in South Africa at the moment! I draw a lot from other artistic landscape and wildlife photographers like Lambro and Caroline Gibello….  

 Q:   How would you describe your life’s philosophy?

A:   My philosophy is simple – life is here for us to enjoy.  We spend so much time worrying and stressing, and what we need to do, as much as we can, is to release that – stop trying to control what we cannot ever control and spend more time in trust, faith and joy.  Life is a celebration, each and every moment of it, when you allow yourself to truly enjoy who you are and what is possible!

Q:   What is next to your bedside pedestal at the moment?

A:   A large assorted pile of books! 

Q:   Could you share your Secret Indulgence with us? 

A:   Raw chocolate and buckwheaties…. guilt free and delicious!!

 Q:   In five years time …

A:   I intend to have a fine art and canvas printing shop in the Southern Suburbs with staff so that I can free up my time to travel and focus more on artistic photography, as well as giving talks to inspire and empower women and teenagers  – if I can do it, then anybody can!

Find Sally’s website: here. You can also check her out on CynaminArt – she offers a wide variety of services including canvas printing (the facility to have one’s own photos printed unto canvas is quite useful);  framing; and a collection of fine artists’ and photographers’ work can also be purchased through CynaminArt.