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Conversations in Creativity: Gareth Gardner

Q&A with architectual journalist, Gareth Gardner ahead of our next Conversations in Creativity at the Harris Museum (2 November)

Gareth Gardner is a photographer and journalist, specialising in architecture and design. Gareth is former editor of interiors magazine FX and features editor of architectural weekly, Building Design. Gareth contributes to many different publications including a regular photography slot in FX and a series of major combined words & photographic features for Blueprint. Gareth's work has been widely published in books, magazines and newspapers around the world.

In 2016 his project Middle England was featured by BBC Radio 4 in the Archive on 4 documentary Return to Subtopia. This year also sees publication of 50 Architects 50 Buildings a book based on the landmark Inspiration series in Building Design magazine, which features many of Gareth's specially-commissioned photographs. 

Gareth recently visited Preston to shoot a feature for Blueprint about John Puttick and the refurbishment of the iconic bus station which will also be the subject of a forthcoming exhibition in collaboration with the publication and the Twentieth Century Society.

We were naturally delighted when Gareth agreed to host the Conversations in Creativity event at the Harris Museum (6pm - 2 November) and the opportunity to gain an insight into their respective careers design inspirations and creative process.

Gareth is a fellow of the RSA and a member of the Association of Photographers.

What was your first memory of creativity?
My main early memories of education are all about being creative. I remember fighting other kids to get to use the black wax crayons at play school. The teachers must have thought I was a bit weird.
In terms of architecture - my main subject matter - I have memories of my gran taking me shopping to Coventry and being overawed by all the modern buildings.

What impact have big name clients had on your career?
I don’t really have clients who you would call big name, my parents have never heard of any of them! But in my world of architecture and design, I have been really lucky to work with some of the leading practitioners, forming strong working relationships and being supported throughout my photographic career. It’s very satisfying working in close collaboration with clients, learning to understand their creative aspirations and helping to deliver that through photography.

What was your creative journey to get to where you are?
My creative journey has been long and tortuous. I studied art at GCSE back at the dawn of time, but subsequently went to university to study civil and structural engineering. While there, I found greater enjoyment in the creative aspects of the subject rather than all the maths - I particularly loved architecture, design, history, writing - and realised that my future career was not as an engineer but as a journalist.

With persistence, I was lucky to land a job on an engineering magazine, where I received excellent journalism training and was also encouraged to take my own photographs (they even bought me my first SLR camera). From there, I moved into architectural and interiors journalism before returning to study photography at London College of Printing.

For the last 12 years I have worked freelance, working with a pool of loyal clients while also developing my own personal projects. I also work closely with several magazines, both on photography and photojournalism projects. Most notable is my relationship with the architecture and design magazine Blueprint and my photography for Building Design magazine for its Inspirations series, which have been published in a book this year, published in collaboration with the Twentieth Century Society.

How do you establish your own style over a period of time and still stay relevant?
Unlike fashion photography, style in architecture and interiors doesn’t change too rapidly. Mine is very much derived from my own background in engineering as well as journalism, and my training using large format film cameras. I love precision, grids, single-point perspectives and also creating images that tell a story. I’m also fortunate that my photographic career has coincided with a resurgence of interest in modernist and brutalist architecture.

Does your work/process develop thematically, or is it more distinctive and random?
I think my work is much more thematic than random. In my personal work, I’m very interested in the impact of changing social and economic conditions on our landscape and built environment. I’m keen to produce series of images that tell a story rather than one-offs.

Who has been the biggest influence on your work?
The architectural journalist Ian Nairn has been a huge influence on my work. He famously coined the term ‘Subtopia’ to describe the dreary suburbanisation of our landscape. He also claimed that in the future the end of Southampton would look like the beginning of Carlisle.

His epic journey from Southampton to Gretna Green inspired my Middle England project, and his writing, particularly his guide to London, reminds me that it’s cathartic to be angry but also tremendously heartening to stumble upon a piece of good design, whether is a beautiful old industrial structure or sparkling bit of modern architecture.

What inspires you or provokes the motivation towards creativity within?
Most frequently, it’s anger. The anger at seeing how our urban and rural landscapes have been trashed by developers looking to make a quick buck. Anger at the social and political landscapes that underpin these changes. Anger every time I look out of a train or car window and see endless retail parks and bland housing estates. 

Which photographers do you admire or inspires you the most?
I particularly admire the work of celebrated German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. They were extremely rigorous and methodical in their exhaustive journeys to photograph different types of industrial structure around the world, such as coal mines and gasometers. The resulting images were laid out in strict grids, encouraging viewers to explore the variations and differences in design of the structures. The pair, who taught at the Dusseldorf School of Photography, were hugely influential on an entire generation of inspirational photographers including Andreas Gursky and Edward Burntynsky. Their work encourages a rigorous analytical approach while also documenting the world around us, exploring the tiniest details. I think that resonates with my technical background in engineering.

In the US, the New Topographics movement is a term that encompasses a number of photographers who recorded the built environment in the 1960s and 1970s. I love the colour photography of Stephen Shore - incidentally a close friend of the Bechers - and the monochrome images of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams.

What unites all of these is their chosen medium - large format film photography. They worked with huge cameras and large sheets of film to maximise the amount of detail recorded in their images and photographed with absolute precision.

What is it you love most about what you do?
I am extremely fortunate to get the opportunity to visit buildings that are full of inspiration for me. Preston Bus Station is just one example! I also love working closely with a designer or architect, taking time to really fine-tune an image. And even now, seeing the end results printed in a magazine is really exciting.

Gareth Gardner (October 2016)

Conversations in Creativity

Conversations in Creativity with international architect John Puttick & host Gareth Gardner takes place on Wed 2 November at Harris Museum Preston
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All images © Gareth Gardner