I am an observer of things,” says Howard Sooley. “Someone gave me a rather hopeless little Instamatic camera when I was a kid and I fell in love with taking pictures. It’s a genius thing – to share with other people what it is that you see.” Genius is a word that Howard uses a lot, speaking softly but fluently about the things that matter to him, including photography and film, but also punk music, the Alpine Garden Society and the many quietly exceptional people who have crossed his path and shaped his career.
Growing up in a mining community in Doncaster was genius, he says, because there was an amazing sense of community, although unlike the majority of his classmates he had no desire to become a coal miner himself. “I was an artistic kind of kid, always out building things in the woods, listening to Joy Division and reading The Face. I thought I was different and there were a handful of others like me so we found each other and hung out.”
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Then, when he was 16, his parents suddenly moved the family to Canada for a change of perspective. “Vancouver was the polar opposite of Doncaster and we had no work and no money.” Howard knocked on the door of the best photographic studio in the city on the day their assistant walked out and landed his first job in the industry. Assisting five photographers was great experience, but his real education came from Jim the studio janitor, who taught young Howard to come to work in a suit so he wouldn’t get given the dirty jobs. Then, just as Howard was settling into this new life, his parents upped sticks again and brought the family back to England.
“I signed up for a degree in film and photography at Harrow College and I loved it. I used to go to triple bills of German expressionism at the Scala Cinema and make films of my mum ironing.” He also developed a plant addiction, which started with a pot of regale lilies. “I was fascinated that for a pound you could buy this slow-burn firework that was guaranteed to blow your mind.”
He joined the British Lichen Society and was happiest on his hands and knees in a rockery, but when his degree came to an end he decided to try his luck as a portrait photographer. “I shot all my friends. I did it in a week, but the light was good that week.” He took his portfolio into Vogue and they sent him to Moscow to take pictures of Rupert Everett. “The 1980s were a different world. It was like a wonderful dream.”
Soon he was jumping on planes, photographing actors and models and spending all the money he earned buying stuff to make the mad pace bearable. “Gradually I realised I was running on the spot.” And then, in 1990, The Face sent him to photograph Derek Jarman.
“That day we walked on the beach at Dungeness, talking about plants and films. It was genius. And for the next five years I spent most of my time there, just doing a couple of jobs a month to pay the bills.”
“Working with Derek was the first time I made a garden. There were no lawns or flowerbeds or expectations about what you should or shouldn’t do. It was an open-hearted intervention in a place and people just wandered in and shared what we were doing.”
Howard took endless photographs of the garden and of Derek (then entering the final stages of the illness that killed him), which came together in the landmark book Derek Jarman’s Garden. Suddenly the world went mad for witching stones stacked on rusted metal spikes and drifts of Crambe maritima bursting from the pebble beach and Howard launched into a parallel career as a garden photographer.
He worked first with Gardens Illustrated and then with everyone from Dan Pearson and Monty Don to Valerie Finnis, Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. No one told me that garden photographers start at 5am so I came to the work from a different place. The best advice I got was from Miranda Brooks, the American Vogue gardens editor, who told me not to just photograph a garden but to think about the story I wanted to tell about it.”
Sometimes he tells those stories with a large plate camera, sometimes with his iPhone. He is currently making a film at Great Dixter and a book on colour for a Danish fabric company. In a world full of beautiful garden photography Howard’s work still stands out. Whatever their format, his images have an unflinching reality that gives them a mythic, timeless quality. “It is tempting to frame a nice shot, but what does it tell you? You have to see something of meaning and then share it. That’s what makes photography genius.”
Find out more about Howard’s work at howardsooley.com and you can see more of his photography by following him on Instagram at @idleriver.