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Tom Beard photography
Photography Tom Beard

Catching up with London’s enigmatic photographer Tom Beard

From directing music videos for twigs and Florence + The Machine to lensing England’s satellite towns, the Twickenham photographer tells us the story of how it all just kinda happened

In an age of internet hype, Tom Beard is an enigma. An online search of the 30-year-old, who has been photographing professionally since he was 16, will bring up few details and even fewer interviews. His website? “I haven’t updated that in ages”. Social media? “I really struggle with it”, he tells me when we meet on London’s Berwick Street. But with one of his first real jobs being that of photographing Jamie T’s 2007 debut album, Panic Prevention, swiftly followed by Adele’s 2008 single, Chasing Pavements, not to mention racking up six collective shoots to date, for albums and singles by Florence + The Machine, Beard’s work speaks for itself.

Born and raised in Twickenham, he began to hone an interest in photography at his local youth club. At school, he found himself amongst a melting pot of people who turned out to be some of the world’s most revered talents; photographer Harley Weir was in the year below him in elementary school and he attended Camberwell College of Arts with Florence Welch. But while it’s tempting to put Beard’s success down to “right place, right time”, that would be to dismiss his talents too soon – all of which he is extremely humble about. Since his early milestones, Beard has gone on to shoot two of twigs’ music videos, 2013’s “Papi Pacify” and last year’s “Twa-ache”, and is now working with Kodak on his first feature film – shot entirely on film. In between, he’s spent his time photographing the satellite towns of Britain – from Weston Super Mare to Abingdon – a series of which is currently on show at Soho’s Kodakary. We caught up with Beard just before its opening.

How did you get your start in photography?

Tom Beard: I learnt to do photography in a youth centre after school, just to kind of keep me out of trouble. I never really thought about it or understood why I was drawn to it. It wasn't really what my pals were doing at all, everyone was musicians and I had no rhythm and no real talent in that whatsoever. At around 16-years-old they all started getting signed; Jamie T and Florence + the Machine and then bands like Mystery Jets and Larrikin Love. There was a real colosseum coming out of Twickenham at that time. Then I went to Camberwell College of Arts, Florence was there, and I got my first photo job doing Jamie's first album cover when I was 16, maybe 17.

What was a responsibility like that like, being so young and shooting album covers? Or was it just friends shooting friends?

Tom Beard: Jamie's my pal but I got a job at the NME off the back of it and it was all moving forward. Then I left art school just to go on tours with them basically. This is when MySpace and all that was just starting up and so photography was in the magazines but the internet wasn't where people went for images and there wasn't social media. The world was a lot smaller – the photography world anyway. The access you got was a lot more personal and then from that I just toured around. That turned into doing more album covers. I did all of Florence's albums and then Jamie's second one as well and then a bit of Adele's first stuff.

So the first time you picked up a camera, was that at the youth club?

Tom Beard: No. I first started taking photos at about 11 or 12. I got head butted and lost the hearing in one ear when I was 14 and that kind of kept me out of school and that's when I went down a very different path creatively. I needed things to do, I was out of school and I got an insurance payout, so I bought a camera with that.

In one of the few interviews you’ve done that’s been published online, you kind of put it down to "right place, right time", but surely that's unfair.

Tom Beard: I think back then I kind of did feel that. Everyone's success was building up and I think you're a lot harder on yourself and you're quite humble with it.  But then as it carried on, you realise it's your job. It's a bit odd when you're that age and you've never done any other job in your life apart from what you love doing and you're still pinching yourself the whole way through and you don't really trust your own talent. It's very hard to trust your own talent and nurture it because you're so used to people going to university. I dropped out of all of that. I guess with photography, you've just got to be there to shoot the thing.

When did you realise you were actually onto a career path?

Tom Beard: My parents were quite shocked that I'd given up on uni, but I got a phone call from my dad who said he'd been on the tube and he'd seen one of my posters and had heard the people next to him talking about it and he said he was really proud. And when I got a million discs (certification) off Flo’s first record.

With the people I shot, they are my close friends, my best friends. And that personality is something that comes across in photography – there’s a trust. I steered away from fashion, purely on the thing that people love the pigeonhole in the world of fashion photography. You’ve got people like Harley (Weir) and Tyrone (LeBon) and they're incredible photographers but they'll get pigeonholed as fashion ones. Harley is a fine art photographer and probably one of the best I've ever seen... she's another Twickenham girl.

All these people coming out Twickenham.

Tom Beard: The music stuff was almost was a lifestyle you’re living. But there’s another side to photography and I’ve always had this fascination with unspoken stories in Britain, like satellite town, the edges of cities, and where what were wastelands have developed into towns, there is a vast freedom there.

Tell us about some of the images on the walls here...

Tom Beard: Vice was doing a bare-knuckle boxing documentary and I went along just to shoot because I thought, “you guys are doing all these 'rule Britannia' docs and you're not actually taking photos” – which is what actually remain and also you see a different side to it. The actual story around it was just more incredible than what they were first kind of going in there for.

How did the twigs connection come about?

Tom Beard: We met through her mutual friends when she was just dancing and doing Jessie J videos. We clicked straight away and we had those ideas and went and shot them. We made that first one, “Papi Pacify”, for no money at all, really low budget and it was just great. She's just such an incredibly person to shoot. It's just one of those things, it makes the director’s life very easy when you've got such and incredible, special talent like that.

She knows what she wants and knows what performance she's gonna give, and that's a director's dream. They're leading their performance and you're documenting someone's transition really. That's really with her what we got out of those videos. Something so direct... we wanted something like that Sinead O'Connor, don't-wanna-break-away-from-this and there was a moment where there was a whole load of other stuff that we didn't use for that video, making an executive decision to keep it like this, be bold and I was quite terrified about that actually. It's a seven-minute song! But she carries it off.

Before that, I was doing some work with the English National Ballet around that time.

I feel like you refuse to be pigeonholed.

Tom Beard: As soon as I felt like I was getting too settled with something, I'd want to move on to something else.

Why is that?

Tom Beard: With music, after doing it for over ten years, everyone’s grown up. They've either made it or not made it. The touring calms down. You've kind of done it and storytelling and film writing has always been something that I'm doing, and also dance amazes me. 

My first music video was Florence, it was before she signed her record deal and they were like, “why don't you make a video, you probably won't be able to work with her again because she's signing on this big deal”. I'd never picked up a video camera before and we just went into a forest and shot it. It's just about throwing yourself into it – learning as you go and not being very rigid.

You’ve always been a film purist, but you’re working with Kodak now with their camera phone, the Ektra.

Tom Beard: We're using the phone in the process, cut, pre-production process, in the castings. The film itself will be shot on 35mm but with Kodak, it’s about trying to get young filmmakers back into shooting film. I think the phone actually plays a bit of a different role because so many young people now are learning to take photos on their mobiles which, if they're doing that – then to have a camera which actually has all the settings of an SLR  – then the trial and error that I went through on film... expensively on film... kids and adults can do now on a mobile.

With the Ektra, I think it's a different kind of introduction to taking pictures, and also that you can easily print them as photographs – that’s great. The thing with digital is you can just lose all your photos… People have forgotten that joy of getting photos and going through photos. Like having your memories there in your hand... like you did growing up of your family photos. I remember my family photo books kind of stopped by a certain time because people would have them stored on their phones. I think we should push people into printing again.

For people who are younger and coming through, the world is a different place and the technology is different. So there has to be new ways of people finding their feet. And through a phone is probably the most likely – kids are one-years-old picking up camera phones!

Do you feel camera phones have democratised the world of photography? Or do you feel like that's a bad thing?

Tom Beard: I don't see a parallel between Instagram and photography. I see it as a good website, one of which I haven't really taken hold of. I really struggle with the social media aspect of things. I'm lost in my own little celluloid...

“I don’t see a parallel between Instagram and photography. I see it as a good website, one of which I haven’t really taken hold of” – Tom Beard

How did the relationship with Kodak come about?

Tom Beard: We’ve been going to Calais to work with the refugee camps there. We’re giving them disposable cameras to document their lives because they've lost all their memories. We're gonna print the photos for them and give them back to them, but then try and find images through that, create a show here and sell the images for them. When I went over there, I really struggled to take photos without it feeling like a human zoo, you know... But being able to help in a creative way, that's what I'm really excited about.

To actually develop people who have a passion for film, who want to explore it and want to do it, it’s going to get off well but we need a lot of help.

You’re also working with them on your first feature film...

Tom Beard: All my short films were shot on film, I try and use it on all my videos and commercials where I can. I’m working on my first feature, Two For Joy, shot entirely on film and so they came up and said they wanted to help out with that.

What can we expect from it?

Tom Beard: A bit of heartbreak. I wanted to make something which tiptoes on the line between mundane, reality and the surreal. This very thin line between what is reality and what is real and what is not. It's a lot to do with mental health and those themes.

Obviously, you're still quite young but you've been doing this for 14 years or so, so you might have some advice for young photographers? What would it be?

Tom Beard: Trial and error. Don't be scared to go and ask people to take their photo but if you see something you wanna take a photo of, go and have that conversation.

That's good advice 

Tom Beard: I should take that myself. Especially when I was younger, there are a lot more images I would have shot if I didn't have those anxieties. The camera can do weird things. You can be in situations and it can almost make you feel invisible.

Lastly, as a purist, if we went through your phone’s camera roll, what would we find?

Tom Beard: Photos of photos. Photos of my dog probably [scrolls through his phone] Screenshots... more photos of photos [laughs]

See Tom Beard’s photography at the Kodakary on Berwick Street, Soho. Keep an eye on the photographer for upcoming work with the Kodak Ektra, which is available to buy now