See the person in the picture above? That’s Silver Ginger. Well, that’s the artistic moniker he goes by. His name is actually Lee Gill, he’s English and he lives in Derby.
He’s also kind of weird. For one thing, he’s fascinated with skulls. They are strewn all over his place. Not real ones, obviously. Decorative stuff, jewellery, mugs, you get the idea. And get this: he has an egg ring that fashions a skull out of two eggs. It’s adorable: the yolks end up as the eye sockets and the whites form the shape of the skull. Lee’s also a neatnik of the highest order. I don’t think I’ve ever met a man as clean and tidy as him. Let me put it another way: everybody else is a slob when measured against Lee! And he loves cycling, which I thought nobody did. I mean, watching the professionals go at it.
Skull fascination or not, Lee is a person I count as my friend. We’re not friends in the conventional sense. We live about 1,800 miles apart. And while we met online back in 1999 (it may have been 2000, we couldn’t decide firmly on the year), we’ve only met in person twice: in 2013 and 2014. Still, we keep in touch regularly, making it a point to have a video chat every week.
But our personal dealings are not the subject of this piece. I want to tell you about Lee’s passion for photography. I’m embarrassed to admit that his journey to photographic excellence somehow failed to register with me. It just hit me one day that he had become a very passionate photographer and a damn fine one at that! You should hear him drooling over some camera or salivating over lenses that apparently work wonders! So let me make it up to Lee by telling you the story of his love affair with photography.
You know how you go to a shrink and it typically turns out that your parents are at the bottom of it, whatever issue “it” happens to be? Luckily, our parents don’t always screw us up, at least not in all respects. Sometimes they nudge us in the right direction and become responsible for our greatest triumphs.
The hero at the start of this story is Mr. Mick Gill. Besides siring Lee, this lovely gentleman has much to do with Lee’s love of photography. Mr. Gill himself seems to have an on-and-off affair with photography, as Lee told me. Daddy returned from his army service with a “cool spy camera, a Minolta 16” and that thing had little Lee in awe. Our boy also spent hours flicking through the family photo albums, lingering in fascination at the pictures his father had taken during his army days. Mr. Gill was apparently a master of self-portraits but what little Lee loved most was poring over the images of military vehicles, foreign landscapes and animals.
Lee reckons he first tried his hand at photography at the age of nine or ten. It was during a school trip to London and he’s still holding on to those snapshots although they are “beyond terrible.”
It seems that this love story began in earnest in Lee’s twenties. Mr. Gill was actively involved in the process. In fact, daddykins had enrolled in a photography course at a local college in the 1990s.
“He really took it seriously and started buying all kinds of old cameras at boot sales and from charity shops. At the time, we were both fairly fit and used to go cycling together, combining it with photography.”
Lee started with an old Russian camera borrowed from his dad. Then he got really lucky.
“One Sunday morning at our favourite boot sale I saw someone was selling a kit bag with a Praktika SLR+50mm lens. Nothing exciting, but at the time it felt as if I’d won the lottery. I think he wanted £25 for it, which I gladly paid. I remember being so excited I was buzzing all morning.”
Certain years stand out although not it terms of scaling any photography skills heights. In 1998, the Gill men took a trip to Ireland. It was to see the first stages of the Tour de France but the trip also provided an opportunity to wield their cameras. In 2000, Lee tried his hand (for the first and only time) at portrait photography. The subjects were the members of a band his girlfriend at the time knew. However, that was not an experience Lee remembers fondly and to this very day, he finds human portraits way out of his comfort zone.
About a year later, he had his beloved Mountain Bike stolen. The theft devastated him, killing his passion for going out and taking pictures.
However, around that time Lee started hearing about digital cameras. The old spark was apparently still lurking somewhere there, waiting for the right moment to burst into glorious flame. Having saved some money, Lee bought a digital camera in 2004. It looks laughable now and even back then it was far from being a fancy piece of photographic equipment. But the important thing is that it reignited the passion that burns brightly to this very day. Photography reclaimed Lee with such force that by 2005 it had completely displaced poetry as his means of self-expression.
2007 was another landmark year. It was then that Lee got what he calls his “first proper camera.” The Canon 400D DSLR was ideal for the level his skills had reached.
As the camera arsenal kept getting upgraded, the shooting perimeter expanded. Due to his limited mobility, Lee focused initially on areas around home but later began to venture beyond those confines. He’d struck a friendship with an elderly gentleman, also disabled, and the two of them joined English Heritage and the National Trust. Their trips have given Lee the opportunity to photograph some amazing architecture.
I think now would be a good time to say a few words about Lee’s disability. It’s the result of a stroke he suffered at the age of 13. The whys and hows are not pertinent to our story but the effects of the stroke have shaped his way of taking pictures. Since his left side is affected, all he can do with his left hand is hold the pistol grip he attaches to the bottom of the camera. He uses it to support the weight and hold the camera still, employing his right hand then for all the positioning, composing, focusing and pressing the shutter.
I could go on piling chronological details but they wouldn’t really add value to the story. I wanted to tell it because Lee is a friend and this is his passion. As I hinted earlier, this is, to a certain extent, my apology to him for failing to share in his photographic evolutionary journey.
I don’t know anything about photography. But as with any form of art, its worth is largely determined by the impact it has in terms of stirring emotions and provoking thoughts. Mastery of expressive means and innovative techniques are the concern of art critics. Regular people like me, we are primitive in our perception of visual art. We like or dislike photographs and paintings because of their effect on us or lack thereof. If the work leaves us indifferent, we’ll most likely pronounce it to be crap. It doesn’t mean we are right. It simply means the work in question doesn’t speak to us on any level.
But I digress. What I wanted to say was that Lee’s pictures have a special aura, an atmosphere that seems to spill out and envelop you. You react to them, maybe everyone in a different way, but they don’t leave you cold.
As any writer on a mission, I got pesky at one point and brought out the big guns. You know, all those questions artists usually find hard to answer but can always expect to get asked. Like motivation and choices, for example. In plain speak, I wanted Lee to tell me what prompts him to lift the camera and click the shutter button. Here’s what he had to say:
“I often get asked what I specialise in and what my fave subjects are. And my answer is always the same: everything! If I like what I see, I’ll take a picture. I’m inspired by everything around me and like photographing mundane objects, the kind that people walk by every day and pay no attention to.”
Lee went on to note that his style had changed dramatically over the past decade. He used to be all about landscapes in the beginning, which is how many photographers start out. These days, however, he’s much more about details and emotions. His images tell a story, they have a moral and a deep meaning. He sometimes finds it frustrating when people don’t pick this up but when they do get it, he feels immense joy and the deep satisfaction of having successfully expressed himself.
Lucky for me, Lee did play favourites and declared trees his greatest inspiration. If he had any say in how he’s to be remembered as a photographer, it would be for his tree images. He calls trees his muses and sees a story behind each one of them. Number two on this list are cemeteries and church graveyards. It’s not some morbid fascination although some may jump to such conclusions. Lee sees them as another wellspring of stories. Plus, they often abound in gorgeous works of sculpture and architecture.
As passionate as Lee is about photography, he doesn’t see a glittering professional future ahead.
“Do I ever think I’ll be some hotshot photographer whom people admire? No! Would I want to have fame? No! I have a small following of friends who like my work and that suits me. I’m very much an ego-free person content just to be himself. If people like my work, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too.”
I, for one, hope he gets recognition beyond his circle of admiring friends. On the other hand, some people want nothing more than to express themselves. Their goal is to produce work that resonates with those who happen to see it. Such people use their cameras, brushes or keyboards to tell and share stories. Sometimes these are stories of heartbreak, woe and misfortune. Other times, we get tales of love, joy and redemption.
People have always hungered for stories. Otherwise, why would cave dwellers have scratched squiggly pictures on walls? The grim stories teach us lessons provided that we’re willing to learn. The upbeat ones fuel our dreams and strengthen our resolve. I guess what I’m trying to say is that storytellers are special people.
Lee has chosen to tell his stories through a camera. Let me treat you now to the five pictures he considers his favourites. Yep, I asked him to choose and that elicited a few loud groans but he indulged me. He also provided brief comments for each of the photos.
The way I see it, there’s no such thing as professional and amateur artists. They all create because they feel compelled to. Some sell their art; others choose not to. But each is driven by the desire to tell a story or share an experience. Go on then, I say unto them! The rest of us are ready and willing to hear you out and rejoice, wonder, commiserate or empathise, as the case may be.
And there’s Lee, grabbing his camera and heading out in search of his latest story. The book of his tales will keep on growing and maybe one day it will become required reading.
P.S. See? I wasn’t joking – skulls rule that household!
P.P.S. And a whole treasure trove awaits you at https://www.flickr.com/photos/leemgill/. I’ll be delving into it a LOT for the needs of this blog. Oh, that lovely picture you see in the circle on my front page? That’s Lee’s work. I adore this picture – it’s one of the most beautiful things I have seen! Thanks, mate!