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History & CommunityRobin Mills at 100

Robin Mills at 100

Dorset based photographer, Robin Mills, has been contributing to this magazine for many years.  This month, celebrating his 100th contribution, Robin takes time to reflect on a life of farming and photography.


Unrelated events drew me into taking photography seriously alongside my day job running the family farm. In no particular order, firstly a dodgy back kept me off work for a few weeks and forced me to contemplate alternatives to the physicality of farming, which might also be creative, fun and completely unrelated to the day job. Fortunately the backache got better, but I found myself helping a friend, Colin O’ Brien, hang an exhibition of his black and white London street photographs at what was the London School of Printing at the Elephant and Castle, sometime in the late 1990s. I was stunned at the power of expression within them, the visual story each one told. Later I saw Henri Cartier Bresson’s work at the Hayward in I think 1998. Here was genius at work, and I understood immediately why he described photography as the simultaneous connection of the head, the eye and the heart.

Then another exhibition in 1999, in Honiton, of work by students of the late lamented Ron Frampton, put the idea in my head that I might try, on some level, to learn how these, and many other photographers who inspired me, had created their magical images.

In 2001 I began bunking off work every Monday to drive to Dillington House and study what some of my classmates called “The Way Of Ron”, on his ‘Distinctions’ photography course. I had already done some evening classes so it wasn’t too far in the deep end, but it required a big level of commitment to reach the exemplary standards of presentation both of photographs and written work that set Ron’s course apart from all others.

It was definitely slow photography. Every frame, from church architecture to portraiture to life study, was tripod-mounted, meter-read against a grey card, and bracketed exposure, in an effort to find negative perfection. That belt and braces approach extended to darkroom practice in the winter months, when a single print was occasionally known to need 20 or 30 sheets of expensive photographic paper to satisfy Ron’s masterful, perfectionist eye. 4 years later I had my Associateship from the Royal Photographic Society. All of which was great fun, and has stood me in very good stead, whether in the darkroom, where I was still printing until a year ago when we moved house, or currently, in Lightroom. The digital revolution in photography was beginning to take off while I was on Ron Frampton’s course which was unequivocally film and darkroom based, and was viewed with some scepticism, but the principles we learned then apply to the digital technology we nearly all use now.

During that time at Dillington, we began supplying the Marshwood Vale Magazine with photos, and to cut a long story short Julia Mear and I took over the cover story role in 2009. As someone with an insatiable curiosity about people and their lives it is a bit of a dream job. I can’t imagine any other role where nosiness is so rewarded in meeting such a rich variety of real, lovely characters. I am unashamedly excited to have met people whose lives crossed some music heroes of my younger days; a person who met Bob Dylan backstage at one of his gigs, a guitarist who played with Paul McCartney, and the Pretenders, and I have shaken the hand of someone who once shook Muddy Waters’ hand. Another subject cooked Sir Lawrence Olivier’s last meal for him before he died, which took a bit of explaining, but despite being second-hand these anecdotes are memorable. Equally inspiring even without the name-dropping are the artists, actors, writers, farmers, craftspeople, musicians, restaurateurs, scientists, journalists, naturalists, and Dorset’s (probably) last hurdle-maker I’ve had the honour to meet. Some stories are very personal, some are heroic, but all are fascinating. I can’t call myself a journalist by any stretch, but despite working for a magazine I never get sent to war zones, or have to negotiate PR militia with stopwatches for access to self-obsessed celebs. There’s never an angle to anything I write. Nor do my photographs have text splashed all over them. What, as they say, is not to like.

I nearly always photograph people in their homes, or outside in the garden, by a shed or under a nice tree, so that during the prior “interview”, which is admittedly only a recording of a minimally directed conversation, I have one eye checking out somewhere for the only two really crucial requirements, light and background. Shifting furniture is part of the job. Natural light, especially from a north facing window, is invariably best, because it’s soft and I am of course trying to make people look their best. But there’s nearly always a compromise so I have to think on my feet, and occasionally it doesn’t work so I’ll go back, when somehow it always does. I also have to work quite fast because the period when I sense what I’m looking for is happening can be brief. “Ah, there you are”, Jane Bown would say when taking her wonderful portraits for the Observer.

The other occasionally tricky compromise is trying to ensure that three people are happy with the chosen images—me, the subject, and the editor, but I’ve never fallen out with any of them. Writing up, or transcribing the recording is the time-consuming bit, mainly because of my rubbish typing. Written in the first person, I try to make it conversational, and by including a few words and phrases verbatim, read as much as possible as if the subject was speaking. An hour of recording an interview and I’m worrying how I’ll distil it radically into 1400-odd words without omitting something the subject thought was crucial, but far better than one which fizzles out after 15 minutes.

People often ask how we select our subjects, and there is no simple answer. But recommendations are sent in, and people we meet or brush past in our lives often directly or indirectly kick off an idea. The stories are personal biographies, they are not about celebrity, and avoid promotional content. We are always looking for more. Collectively, the 100-plus stories and photographs Julia and I, and those before us, have published in the Marshwood Vale Magazine, do seem to amount to a significant reflection of a wonderfully diverse community over a number of years.


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