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Robert Walker: Discovering Britain’s Only Desert

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Robert Walker is a self-taught fine arts photographer based in the UK. Born in Manchester, Robert first discovered photography at the ripe young age of eight. He initially learned the craft by being an assistant to two photographers and eventually took over their studio on his own when he was twenty years old.  Robert’s personal work has been exhibited in renowned galleries in New York, London, Manchester, and Florence.  In 2012, two of his works were selected for the permanent collection at The National Portrait Gallery and in 2014, he was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This week Robert speaks to atlas about his long career in photography and what initially drew him to explore and capture the magnificent landscape at Dungeness, also known as Britain’s only desert. (Editor’s Note: We are showcasing again one of our favorite features on Robert Walker. Enjoy!)

How did you first become interested in photography?

Robert Walker: I was about 8 years old and on a family holiday. When we returned home we went to the local chemist to collect my roll of film and my Dad’s. We were told only one roll had any images on it. Everyone looked sympathetically at me, only to discover it was actually mine that had come out. I think my future was decided that day!


Were you self-taught or did you have a formal education in photography?

Self taught, no photographic qualifications. Worked as an assistant / dogs body. I think there are pros and cons to this method. In my opinion, photography is not a theoretical pursuit. The only way to learn is to take pictures. If you spend too much time thinking about it and looking at other people’s work, it can then be intimidating to get out and make your own.

When I left school, I knew I wanted to be a photographer. But I did not know what field of photography to pursue. I worked for three years as the only assistant to two small town industrial/commercial photographers. After the second year, they started sending me to do the jobs on my own which increased my confidence and made me interact with clients face to face.

After a year of doing all the photography on my own, the company went bust (the two photographers were not good at business).  I bought all the equipment from the liquidator for £1000 and started on my own the next day. All the clients stayed with me and I was up and running at age 20. Over the next thirty years, I steadily built up a small bespoke advertising studio in the UK. In 2007, I decided to concentrate purely on my own work.

Your “Fifth Continent” project is a collection of brilliant and stunning images you took of Dungeness, which is off the coast of Kent in South East England. Dungeness is known as England’s only desert. What drew you to Dungeness? Why the desert?

The landscape is an expanse of flat shingle which runs for approximately three miles. The English Channel is on one side separating the UK from France and the rest of Europe. Dungeness has two nuclear power stations, two lighthouses, and a miniature steam railway which chugs along the coast. The area’s main industry used to be fishing. The majority of residents now tend to be artists, writers, and those escaping conventional life.What makes the place photographically interesting are the clusters of buildings that sit on either side of the single track road and the constantly changing weather.

Many of the huts started life as old railway carriages, which were used as shelters for the fishermen or modified into basic living accommodation. Most of these have been abandoned or have literally blown away, leaving just a baseplate and a stain on the shingle. Others have been slightly gentrified and some have been rebuilt in a very exacting contemporary style. Being only two hours from London the area is becoming a weekend retreat for creative individuals.

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How would you describe the landscape at Dungeness? What was it like to shoot and explore there?

The main challenge with any photograph you make is not to repeat too closely what has gone before. Dungeness has been photographed many times over. In the summer, there are swarms of day trippers all with cameras and all photographing the same thing.

I decided from the start that my project was not a record of the place. I did not feel the need to document every detail. Instead I wanted to capture the essence, the emotion that I felt the first time I went. I deliberately chose days when the sky was not blue and the grasses were not at their greenest. I wanted to evoke the feeling of desolation and isolation, deliberately not including people in any of the work. It is an accurate reflection of a Dungeness that does exist much of the time.

When I worked in advertising everything was shot on large format, big tripods, cases of dark slides — you name it we used it. Now I have pared my equipment down to the absolute minimum. I use a Canon DSLR, a 24-105mm lens, sometimes a monopod and very occasionally a tripod.

Did you encounter any challenges while shooting in Dungeness?

The only problem with shooting there is the weather, which ironically is one of the reasons I was first attracted to the place.


Your project is currently on exhibit at Touchstones Gallery in Rochdale. Lancashire? What do you hope your viewers will take away from your images?

I was fortunate to get the show at Touchstones, which is a public gallery close to where I live. There are 21 images, most of them printed 1 meter wide. I had the walls painted a dirty grey and I commissioned a composer friend to make a soundscape which accompanies the show. The sound was important to me because at Dungeness all you can hear is the wind, the sea, the birds, the creaking of the nuclear power stations and the occasional blast of a fog horn from the lighthouse.

This is something I have not done before, but it really helps people to feel more immersed in the work. The most popular comment in the visitors’ guest book has been how they want to make the trip to Dungeness, how they want to experience the landscape for themselves. I just hope they do not go on a sunny day.


How do you see your work evolving over the next few years?

To be honest I am not sure how my work will evolve. I guess that is the nature of evolution. Change happens slowly and it is only when you look back at your work over the years you become aware of this. I do plan to be more proactive about getting my work shown. I also aim to invest some time to try and understand social media, which is something I have ignored to my cost so far. I do have an Instagram page (@robertwalker100) and would welcome more followers.

What is your next project?

First, I would like to get The Fifth Continent into a gallery space near to Dungeness. Second, I have a project which is very close to completion with a working title of “The Art of Escape” although I mostly shoot single “stand alone“ works.


If you had one piece of advice for a novice photographer, what would it be?

My advice for a novice photographer would be not to get hung up about equipment. Owning a certain bit of kit will not make you a better photographer. The only way to improve is to take pictures as often as possible. Learn about exposure. Do not just set your camera to “Auto“ and do not be afraid to make mistakes. It is the only way to learn.

Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Robert!

For more information about Robert, visit his website.  All images © Robert Walker.




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