Paul Bussell is one of the leading wildlife photographers in the world. As an exhibition of his big cat images comes to Richmond, Tanya Reed meets the man from Strawberry Hill
If politics is the art of the possible, the craft of the seemingly impossible belongs firmly to the commercial photographer. For Paul Bussell, from Strawberry Hill, past briefs have included the delicate matter of getting an elephant to sit on a washing-machine.
I rest my case.It was while researching big cats, however, that the animal loving snapper discovered the Santago Rare Leopard Project, which exists primarily to breed endangered species of leopards. Now Paul has assembled a unique collection of photos containing rare images of snow leopard families, as well as striking shots of clouded leopards, Persian and African leopards and panthers. It goes on show at Richmond lending library this month.
“Whereas with people you have to deal with their vanities, the skill in photographing animals is completely different – you’ve seen the image you want and you have to wait for that something special,” explains Paul.
“There’s something about cats’ personalities and their independence which I’ve always found amazing. A dog can become a possession, but you can never possess a cat.
”Paul conducted his first mainstream animal photoshoots during the 80s, after gaining a reputation for sensitive handling of the animals. An award-winning image of a horse ensued, and he also attracted attention with a series of shots of his Abyssinian cat, Spike, photographed looking longingly at a goldfish bowl – an image copied constantly ever since.
Everything was shot on large format – 10” x 8” transparency. Paul rarely had enough light, so his work took on a brooding quality, refreshing at a time when the world was tired of chocolate-box images of animals.
“One poster was for Whiskers cat food. Before the meeting, I was told that a Whiskers cat was an inside cat and must never be black,” he recalls. “I shook things up a bit by saying that I wanted to shoot a black cat with wonderful whiskers outside, climbing through a fence.
“Fortunately it worked. One magazine accepted a cat food product advert in its pages for the first time, simply because they liked the photo.
” A commercial at Shepperton Studios produced a kitten curled up in the palm of a hand, while the aforementioned elephant ensconced upon a washing-machine proved somewhat trickier. Elephants, by instinct and custom, tend to sit on soft ground. With only a concrete studio floor available, the shoot had to be done in one go, as the restless Jumbo would consent to just the briefest of sittings.
It was all a far cry from Paul’s days as a 12-year-old schoolboy, obsessed with light and imagery, building a studio in his bedroom on Clapham Common, painting his walls and stringing across a bar on which to hang lights.
“What I always enjoyed most was playing God – creating light. I devised my own techniques and became known as the Prince of Darkness – never knowingly overlit.
” Seriously dyslexic, unable to get into his school photography class and told by his father to get a trade instead of “nancying about taking pictures”, Paul was dejectedly en route to Balham Labour Exchange in pursuit of a job as a bricklayer – school career officers are not all blessed with the wisdom of the wise – when he had an epiphany.
“I turned into Fleet Street, there was a crowd of people in front of a red E type Jaguar, and David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton got out and headed into the Daily Express building. All this glamour was just the contrast with my own life that I needed. I knew then that I had to be a photographer.
”Balham Labour Exchange helped Paul to secure his first job in photography at 16, but it was far from glamorous. He had to print and process 60ft long railway timetables in huge lead sinks, with rats running round his feet, in a railway arch near the Elephant and Castle.
His next post was as a darkroom printer for the late fashion photographer John Adams. Relations, however, became strained.
“I knew a good printer could make a crap photographer look good and I told him. I left shortly afterwards.
”There followed a short spell as one of the first ever freelance printers for photographers, followed by a stint with advertising agency McCann Erickson.
“I won their first poster award for a beer – Bass Charrington – then travelled to the States to photograph classical America for Chesterfield cigarettes, and to Ireland to shoot an ad for Hertz.
“I was in the right place at the right time. Because of the style of my work, I did a lot of billboards and got a lot of recognition for everything from cars to booze, winning awards along the way.
” Aged 21, Paul left the agency to start his own studio, first in Soho, then in Chelsea. He also worked as a commercials director, set up his own production company and turned out a myriad of familiar ads for the likes of Nescafe, American Express and Shell.
However, it was working with animals that gave him the most satisfaction.
“Lots of animals would come to various studios, and although they were all well looked after, I always felt sorry about them being there. Now is my chance to redress the balance.
”Recently involved with the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Paul has now added lions and tigers to his portfolio, as well as two of the finest amur leopards.
“I absolutely love cats – the way they look at you, their great thick paws and huge claws, the way they walk, the way they sit. In full flow, they stretch with such wonderful grace and have so much expression. You know they could kill you and it gives them this huge power – they are totally beautiful, but you must never forget how dangerous they are.
“I once photographed a snow leopard which came towards me placidly. My lens was just inches away. It was getting closer and closer, and then it just went wild. For the sake of a bit of wire, or someone on hand to keep them at bay, they could eat you alive.
” Or demolish your washing-machine.
Time is running out for the bigs cats. We can all help save them.