We interview International Photographer Sean Conboy about his career, and his relationship with Blackpool’s Grand Theatre.
Sean Conboy has been the official photographer for Blackpool’s Grand Theatre for many years and his work is regularly featured in print and digital media as well as many international magazines.
Sean’s career in photography spans over 30 years and includes working for the most prestigious Swedish camera manufacturers, Hasselblad. Sean has won numerous awards for his architectural images, and over the last few years he has become involved with both lifestyle and people photography for corporate reports and advertising campaigns.
Known for his use of space and light, Sean is best known for creating majestic images of large-scale interiors, as well as drawing the viewer into more intimate spaces with perfectly crafted composition and lighting.
What are your thoughts on the importance of Photography, for example now celebrated with National Photography Month?
I think it’s fantastic that Photography is being promoted in some way and making people aware of quality photography. As a professional photographer I like to think that there’s some importance in showing quality photographers so that appeals to me. Also for people out there who may want to get into or do a bit more with photography, it’ll encourage them to get more involved. I think it’s fantastic.
When did you first think of becoming an International Photographer / what got you started?
It started for me through my grandfather, he had a big part in bringing me up because my Mum had to work, so he used to look after me a lot when I was a small boy and he had a Cine Standard 8 Bell and Howell Movie Camera and Projector and used to let me use his equipment and that’s what got me going. When I passed to go to the grammar school, my Grandad gave me the movie camera. So originally, I made movies at school and then when I left school at 18, I wanted to go into the movie industry but being in Blackpool there was no movie industry. So, I got a job in creation screen with a local photographer, who was a stills photographer because I’d been advised to learn about stills photography if I wanted to get into movie photography. But very quickly then I was so taken with still photography, I realised I wanted to do that as my career. My Grandad influenced me, definitely.
What type of Photography do you specialize in? What attracted you to architectural, industrial and commercial photography?
I specialize in architecturally interior photography. I quickly discovered I didn’t like being in a studio all day, I like to be out and about, I like to visit different places, variety, working outdoors and in indoor big spaces. As a very small boy I was always interested in bridges, tall buildings, construction and big spaces so I was attracted to buildings without a shadow of a doubt because it gave me the sort of things I wanted to photograph and enabled me to get into lots of different environments on a daily basis. Of the two, my favourite is interior photography, that’s my absolute favourite because it’s more challenging, it’s not as easy to photograph interior spaces. Particularly The Grand which is a very challenging space to photograph but I like the challenge of figuring out the lightening and how to get the most out of the space.
How long have you been working with Blackpool’s Grand? How did that come about?
I’ve been working with The Grand since 1989 so about 29 years now. When I very first started on my own as a photographer, I was approached by a local architect, Gordon McKeith, who introduced me to The Grand because they needed some photography and it was just a privilege to photograph a space like this. I’ve worked with The Grand ever since from interior shots of the theatre, initially for all of the brochures back in the 90s, to photographing behind the scenes, behind the stage, exterior and interior photography. I was also involved in the photography when The Grand was refurbished in the 2000s with the Lottery Grant. More recently, I’ve been more involved with the Marketing Team in producing a lot more marketing materials for The Grand in so many different ways. This has also led to the Photographic Sessions which began about 5 or 6 years ago. I was already doing workshops for companies like Hasselblad and Linhoff and after doing some test shoots at The Grand for Hasselblad, the idea to do our own photo sessions for the local community came about. I’ve really enjoyed working with photographers of all different levels at these sessions.
What drew you to The Grand?
Every time I came in The Grand I couldn’t stop looking at the ceiling, it was just this amazing space to me with all the detail. Even now someone takes a picture in the sessions that we’ve never seen before, so there are opportunities to get different pictures in The Gran, there’s always something new in the one space. There’s not many spaces that can do that and I’m a great admirer of Matcham architecture and of Edwardian architecture. I’ve photographed other Frank Matcham designs before from The Blackpool Tower and some of the other Matcham theatres around the country but The Grand has been the one closet to me that I’ve got a soft spot for.
What can participants expect from a Photographic Session with an International Photographer?
It can help them out with the basics of photography, get their cameras off automatic to a mal manual mode so maybe what they’re envisioning, what they want to photograph, will help them capture what they see in their minds eye. When using cameras in auto mode you see a picture a certain way but the camera overrides what you’re trying to achieve so we will try and help you achieve what you see.
What cameras and lighting equipment did you start with and what are you currently using?
My Grandads Cine Standard 8 Bell and Howell Movie Camera was the first camera I started off with and then believe it or not, with my first job I saved up for a whole year and got a second-hand Hasselblad, which I’d always wanted and towards the end of the year saving up, my Grandad said I should buy a new Hasselblad and I said no, it’s another £200 I can’t afford that. Turns out he’d saved the £200 out of his pension and gave it to me. So, I had a brand-new Hasselblad in 1981 and I’ve used that brand throughout my entire career. I’ve still got my first Hasselblad camera to this day.
Now I use a Hasselblad, which is a modular camera so it comes apart, I take the digital back off, the bit that captures the image and clip that onto a Linhoff for other types of photographs. So, the Linhoff is more of a mechanical camera that needs the digital back off a camera like the Hasselblad to capture the image. For lighting, I use Broncolor which is flash and a Swiss manufacture and I’m also an ambassador Broncolor, Hasselblad and Linhoff.
What do you do as an ambassador?
Being an ambassador means you’re invited, they like your work and invite you to work with them. You usually find that you’re already using they’re equipment and they see the work that you’re producing and say we’d like to work closer with you to promote the equipment and to get involved in testing new cameras and lighting to get your opinions to help them form their opinions on how they should be going with the cameras. To promote, they may use my photography on their brochures, website, Instagram and also, we do the workshops. The representatives from Hasselblad, Broncolor and Linhoff saw the photographs of The Grand and asked to attend the theatre for a workshop.
How do you keep up with the ever-changing technology in a fast-paced digital world?
It’s difficult but again working closely with these companies helps because they help me to understand some of the new technologies. I’ve had to adapt because I learnt photography in the year of film and learnt it all when there were no such thing as digital photographers, so, I’ve had to adapt to the digital world. It’s been difficult but we’ve got there. Even though I shoot digitally, I do use a lot of the more traditional techniques to capture a picture, I don’t manipulate the pictures a great deal afterwards in photoshop. I try get the picture right in the camera just like we used to do with film. The hardest aspect of digital is that is has allowed more people into photography with less experience because with a digital camera you can get a straight forward picture quite easily so it has to some extent effected the professional market whereas in the film days we have a fairly high technical knowledge just to get a reasonable picture. It’s more important than ever to promote excellence in photography because it’s something that’s been diluted.
Who are some of you favourite International Photographers past or present?
One of my all-time favourite is Julius Shulman who was the photographer that captured LA through its boom period, I’m a very big admirer of him. I also admire Richard Bryant who is another great architectural photographer, Jon Maltby, George Tanner, Richard Avedon and Albert Watson are all fantastic. There are numerous photographers I could mention, I could go on for ages but if I had to pick one it would have to be Julius Shuman, he’s one of my pin up boys. If you look him up you’ll see why!
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into Photography as a career?
My advice would be try and get work assisting high quality photographers because I think that will be the quickest way to learn what’s required to be a successful photographer.
When assisting the sharp end, you’ll learn about what’s required as an assistant but more importantly you’ll get the opportunity to watch the masters at work, that’s how I learned, by assisting people. Reach out to photographers, be prepared to do all the jobs. Once, I went to London when I was assisting and I had my portfolio which I was very proud of, went to show it this photographer who said he wasn’t interested.
He said, ‘you see my range rover over there’, I said ‘yeah’, he said ‘you see that equipment over there’, I said ‘yeah’, he said ‘if you can fit that in the Range Rover you’ve got the job’ and he walked off and left me to it. So, it was like Tetris but I got it in, so to this day, I’m good at packing car boots. It’s a practical, usefulness for a photographer. He doesn’t want to know how good you are as a photographer, they want to know can you get all the gear in their boot and not leave anything behind. I was taught in a morning always get the details right, like turn up with a coffee for them to make them want to hire you again.
If you could have a day with another International Photographer, who would you pick and why?
I’d pick Julius Shulman, I’d love to work with him particularly in the 50s and working in that era of LA when it was all growing. When you look him up you’ll recognise some of the photographs straight away – he’s an incredible International Photographer. I’m a great admirer of him and his famous punch line was ‘That’s why they call me one-shot Shulman’ because he could get it all in one take, he was great!
Bucket list question…If you could photograph anything in the world, what would it be?
That’s a really difficult question, the last time I got asked that I said I’d like to photograph the Burj Al Arab and I’ve photographed it twice now!
So now, it would probably be The Winter Palace at St Petersburg in Russia. That’s why I like The Grand, I like loads of detail because things like that are hard to photograph, it’s a challenge. Another place I’d like to photograph is The Vatican, so you never know, the next time someone asks me this question I’ll have photographed both The Winter Palace and The Vatican!
Photographic Sessions With International Photographer Sean Conboy
Whether you want to learn the basics, dream of building on your existing photography skills, or are budding professional – these Photographic Sessions are the ideal master class for all levels.
These sessions are just under 5 hours and will provide you with a variety of skills needed to photograph beautiful structures and interiors.
The day will begin with an introductory presentation, where Sean Conboy will use his extensive technical experience to advise you how to best capture the perfect shot.
You will then have the opportunity to take pictures of The Grand’s Grade II* listed interior using top tips from Sean Conboy with your own camera.
For details on our Photographic Sessions or call our box office on 01253 290190.
Photographic Sessions are part of the Grand Theatre’s collaboration with Culture Blackpool. Find out more by searching #CultureBlackpool #TheBside.
All Images copyright Blackpool Grand Theatre.
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