Having shot everyone from Amy Winehouse to Naomi Campbell, you could say Ram Shergill knows a thing or two about photography.
After studying in Bournemouth and then at Wolverhampton University, the talented photographer and co-creator of The Protagonist Magazine turned his attention to fashion, finding himself under the wing of late magazine editor, Isabella Blow and legendary milliner, Philip Treacy. The famed photographer, now BA (Hons) Commercial Photography lecturer, discusses his upcoming LA exhibition, impressive career journey, and ‘macabre’ influences from Alexander McQueen.
1) You’ve had a very successful photography career, can you tell us what got you interested in making images?
I was studying at Wolverhampton University and had a project on hats, makeup and jewellery. A friend studying at Middlesex University told me she knew a milliner called Philip Treacy. I phoned Treacy and asked to borrow his hats for a shoot but he declined. Ten minutes later, I phoned back and said “Philip, were you not happy when someone gave you an opportunity?” Cue dramatic pause. He was impressed that I’d called back as it showed I was enthusiastic, and invited me to London to borrow his hats. So, I took some cameras down to Elizabeth Street in London where Treacy’s studio was and found a beautiful church with a doorway where the natural light hit it beautifully – and I had these amazing hats to work with!
Later, I arrived back at the house and there was an elegant lady sitting there in a big hat like a hoover. This lady was Isabella Blow, who was Contributing Editor of British Vogue. She took me under her wing and ran into British Vogue with my portfolio demanding they use my work.
2) Of all the famous names you have collaborated with, who has been the most influential or fun to work with?
I worked with Amy Winehouse, just before her ‘Frank’ album – she was incredible. The shoot was for The Guardian. We were in my back garden and she said she didn’t like the clothes, so I told her to style herself however she wanted. Then we went to an old 1950s diner [to complete the shoot] and she started playing Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and began reworking her look. I thought here’s this ‘cool girl’, let’s do something with her – it’s nice when you feel like you’ve helped someone. I’ve worked with so many amazing people over the years, but I think for me, Amy’s shoot was quite emotional.
3) You were introduced to Alexander McQueen in the early days, do you have any interesting stories to share? What was he like to collaborate with?
Isabella Blow introduced me to Alexander McQueen – she would call him ‘Alexander the Great’. I had worked on a fashion shoot for Isabella’s sister-in-law and asked McQueen to look at the photos. He didn’t like them. He mentioned that he was into the ‘macabre’ and Joel-Peter Witkin, and showed me all of these gruesome images.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I was asked to photograph Middlesex University’s final year student collections. One student had based his project on Jack the Ripper. Subconsciously, everything McQueen had showed me influenced the photos. One of the photos was also used in Fashion Weekly and received a lot of praise. I later met McQueen again at London Fashion Week and he loved the photo I had taken. He said “Now we’re talking.” And that’s how it all started – from his mentoring and inspiration.
4) For many creatives, one of the dreams is producing a successful magazine. As co-creator of the biannual magazine, The Protagonist Magazine, how did you go about its conception? What tips would you have for anyone looking to do similar?
I think a lot of it has been a tribute to my old gang and the people who have inspired me. I’ve been researching photographer Frederick Holland Day and the publishing house he had many years ago in America. They started The Yellow Book which Oscar Wilde was a fan of and Aubrey Beardsley did the illustrations for. I wanted to create something that was interesting and had a unique selling point – a lot to do with the finer details like poetry, culture and refinement.
Today, with Instagram, it is all about mass consumerism and we’re not looking at the details anymore. So, my advice would be to find a unique selling point. Look for something that’s different to anything that is out there – maybe a topic or subject area that’s not been touched upon.
5) For a photographer about to graduate, what advice would you give them when embarking on their career?
I think it’s important before you graduate that you are aware of all the resources that are available to you as you may not get the chance once you leave. While you’re spending money on fees, ensure you go to all the talks, seminars, writing classes, drawing workshops, and so on. And there’s all these passionate, world-class technicians to learn from too. Then when you embark on your career, you’ll have something solid to go out there with.
6) And finally, can you tell us a bit about your exhibition?
I work with Leica Camera as an ambassador and I was lucky enough to be asked to exhibit the showcase gallery in Los Angeles. The LA exhibition is going to run for six weeks from 23rd February. It’s going to be a collaboration with another photographer called Sarah Lee. The gallery always has two photographers [per exhibition], one on one side and one on the other. I think it’s good to collaborate as people who are fans of my work will be introduced to her [Lee’s] work and her fans to my work, and then it will all join in the middle. Sarah is a BAFTA photographer, so our work is separate yet diverse at the same time. I create images and she [Lee] captures images in an interesting way.
I really wanted to push myself with this exhibition and didn’t want to come up with just a normal set of prints. My editor is curating my section and suggested I try working with Perspex, printing on mirror, and all these different printing techniques. It’s going to be really exciting!
Ram’s exhibition at Leica Gallery LA runs from the 23rd February – 2nd April 2018.