Photography as Fine Art: A moment with Paul Gadd

Updated on April 30 2014

Paul Gadd, photographer, owner and curator of the Print Room KL; a photographic studio and gallery offering classes in fine art photography, and one of the best equipped darkrooms and studios in Asia. Paul is also the author of Five Minutes, a portrait book of people spanning the diverse social and economic spectrum of Malaysia.

Paul’s aim is to build awareness and appreciation in Malaysia for the visual arts and his focus is upon classical fine art photography. We manage to grab him for a few moments to chat about photography as an art and what it takes to be an artist.

It all started for me at art school whilst studying fine art. At that time, I thought of myself as a sculptor. I loved making things, always have. Every time we had a brief I would end up making something that was too big and too bloody heavy to move… so I ended up photographing it. That was the beginning, of what, I don’t know.

Photography is an art that recently is being abused by users of the digital era. Whether you choose to shoot film or digital it’s down to you, but like all art, you need to appreciate it for what it is, learn where it came from and how it evolved, only then you will respect it as an art, and only then will you earn the respect. There are so many photographs taken by the masters that will always be recognized, but I cannot think of one taken today with equal merit.

With todays technology photography has become more like graphic design, press a button for this effect and add that effect, then Voila!”, done. This is one reason appreciation for film photography is disappearing, the perception is, oh, I can do that on my i-phone.

People sometimes just don’t want to learn the skills of good photography, it’s just a means to an end, Why should I bother spending a day trying to get the perfect shot when a designer can fix it in a week? Where’s the common sense in that? I have done a shoot in KL where I have waited for a couple of months for the sky to be right, It was worth it, I got what I was after and luckily my client wasn’t in any rush, which obviously, this isn’t always the case. If you put just a little bit of effort into how a shot is taken then your client won’t need to pay a designer to photo shop your image beyond recognition.

With photography, you need to go to school and learn. There are so many great schools and universities out there, and you learn all there is to know about photography, different camera formats, different films and styles of shooting, processing your films and printing your images. In your mind you could imagine yourself as a fashion photographer, as I did, but as time goes by, you could find that your strengths lie elsewhere, as mine did.

Spending hours in the darkroom, you either love it or hate it, personally I love being in the darkroom, I love the smell of the chemicals, the solitude, spending hours working on an image, perfecting something that you shot earlier and creating a final image which you can exhibit.

It can get manic, especially during exhibition times, we can be printing for 10-12 hours a day, even longer, but nothing beats seeing your work framed and hung, except someone buying your work. Unfortunately with digital photography the dark room has become obsolete. I think all photographers, whether film or digital need to experience the darkroom. Pressing the shutter is only a tiny percentage of photography, the rest is what happens after.

To me what is important is not necessarily the finished image from the students – it is the work they put into it. One of the strongest exhibitions we had was market – it was two or three months of getting smelly and bloody in Pudu Market, it really does show through the amount of work everyone put in. I was really impressed – I have been a photographer for years and it’s not easy – you can’t just shoot a good series of photographs over night.

When the place is full with the students at The Print Room it is great – they all feed off of each other with different ideas and work with each other. You need to work with people, watch how they work, that is how you learn things. Even I see things from the students. The guys teach me stuff from just playing around and experimenting, reminds me of my uni days.

The Print Room is not so much a gallery but more of a workspace – anyone can come up with a theme or idea and if it’s a great idea we go and shoot it. That is the point of this place, it is an open space for anyone who is interested.  People should come in and see what we are up to, join the classes, it’s not everyday you can get the chance to exhibit and sell your work.

There are so many great photographers past and present, but the most memorable for me is Joel Peter Witkin, I was 16 when I visited his exhibition in Spain, maybe it was my age but I have never forgotten how powerful and disturbing his images were, his prints are simply amazing. For portraiture, it has to be Annie Leibovitz, she has had just an amazing career, imagine to be asked to shoot John Lennon for a first assignment, talk about right time right place.

I am at my most creative when I am in the pub, I get these mad ideas for shoots, the only thing is I have to write them down or else I will be kicking myself the next day. When I work, the shoot tends to feed off itself, idea’s keep coming, work progresses, the only thing is knowing when to stop. Recently in the Guardian I came across an article on Artist Jessica Eaton and her 50 shades of grey series. She talks about playing with light and colour which she came across in an old Kodak hand book.

This gave me ideas which maybe I can use in our next exhibition “Body” trying to get shadows in the different colour spectrums. But this idea also came from solarisation which we are playing around with at the moment, I like the outline you get with the black turning negative so it would be good to manage this in colour without solarising but using shadows.

Five minutes is a project that took five bloody years. Actually, that is quite a short time for a book. There were a lot of lessons learned with my first book, not just about the photography, but on the whole process of making a book, looking back I don’t think I was ready. Market is another project I am still working on and Five Minutes, but in Korea, but that is mainly documentary and portrait photography.

I am juggling my time between running The Print Room in KL opening a Print Room in Seoul and working on my Second book, 오분 (Five Minutes) people of South Korea, I think I am about half way finished with about 160 portraits and interviews. This book is much harder than the Malaysian one, mainly due to cost and the language barrier. But I am happy with what I have done so far, although every time I shoot, I have these ideas in my head of how I want the picture to look, it really frustrates me when I don’t get what I imagine. But this is documentary photography not studio.

I don’t think about my work commercially – I don’t think when I am photographing something – ‘shit am I going to sell it?’. Art is subjective, I would much rather someone be moved or disturbed  at something I shot than they tell me, Ahhh, that’s pretty, at least it would be an honest emotion created.

Unfortunately Malaysia is not the greatest place for art, people are still very behind in that, especially when it comes to photography; photography is what you hang in your toilet. If it’s a portrait, people won’t hang it in their house – people just don’t want a photograph of someone they don’t know and if it is someone they know then it is probably a family portrait. But when it comes to paintings they will – why? Why not photographs? There is no difference, it is still art, but a lot of think that if it is painted by a brush then that must be art.  Come into the dark room sometime, then you will see how much work really does go into a photograph.

The Print Room KL is currently working on its ninth exhibition ‘Body’ and will be running this in Late March/April  If you would like to submit your work for consideration to The Print Room KL you can do so, classes are currently taking place and all information can be found on the website or the Facebook page Follow them on instagram to get the real behind the scenes shots of what it’s really like to prepare for an exhibition! #theprintroomkl


Keirsten Clark left urban commuting, frosty mornings and chilly evenings of the UK behind for sunnier climes. She is a cake freak and loves to run -- everywhere. Follow her on Twitter @keirsten for updates on all things geeky and content related.