Amelia Stein photographer and optician


TALK TIME: Your new book is a collection of portraits of RHA members.Yes it was 50 visits to 50 artists in their studios. Everything was shot in daylight and was weather dependent, which made the job twice as difficult.

Did you find people were worried about how their studio would look?You’re walking into someone’s studio space and either they’ve been really nervy and tidied before you got there or they’re really cool about it. I think everyone did a little bit of tidying.

You worked for many years shooting theatre stills and record covers.The work, which I’ve stopped doing completely, has given me the training ground to be able to do this. I stopped for a series of very good reasons. All the plays started to look the same. Once you fall out of love with something, you can’t go back and do it again.

Do you think photographers get a raw deal compared to other artists working in more traditional mediums?Maybe people feel, “I could have taken that photograph or printed it,” but I think it’s an education process. You need to do a little bit of research to understand what a fine silver gelatin traditional paper print is. Once you start seeing real prints – the depth, the tonality, everything that goes into making it, the composition, the emotional content – when you see the work made by the great names, it’s a thing of great beauty.

How much work is involved beforehand, and how much happens right in the room?It all happens very fast if it’s correct; it’s much more instinctive. You see these family portraits where everyone is in white T-shirts and jeans and they look like Gap ads; I can’t do it unless we have some reason to do it. There’s only so much you can do in any given day or week and you’ve only got so much photography focus.

Is there anyone in the book who you are worried about seeing their picture?Probably [laughs].

Do you think the recession has been good for Irish art?When I started being a photographer there were so many photographers and artists in and around the Temple Bar area. People had city centre studios . . . When you have these spontaneous spaces and people moving over each other with ideas, that’s where you make the good work.

I read that article by Stuart McLaughlin from Business2Arts. This man is more or less saying that artists need to be more productive. So I’m standing out there, up to here in the muck, and I’m tired and struggling with this thing I’m trying to photograph, and I’ve got about three-quarters of an hour when the light is coming down, and I know I’m trying to make every frame count, but someone is saying I’m a sector and I need to be viable . . .

What artists really need here is great catalogues; they are artists’ currency. They need access to showing internationally. They need unconditional help. These people are not giving unconditional money to anybody. It’s patronising rather than patronage.

I don’t think people really understand how much it drains you to make a photograph or a painting. Your mistakes stay with you, and your successes don’t.

It seems you’re mad about eyeballs: when not taking photographs you run the family optician’s practice.I couldn’t afford not to. There’s a very small market here for photography. It’s so cost intensive to make the work. The amount of work you put in to get a photograph is enormous. The opportunity to sell that is minimal, so what do you do?

We have the same customers coming to us again and again. They used to come to my dad and now they come to me. We serve lords, ladies and cleaning ladies. It’s a broad spectrum of Dublin and some days it’s incredibly funny.

You’ve also made glasses for a man famous for them – Elvis Costello.Yes . . . My dad was there and we got on very nicely. He popped in again one day and I was in the darkroom and he came in and there was classical music on. And he said, ‘Oh you like classical music.’ From there we developed a conversation about classical music and art and remained huge friends.

Given your background in theatre, you must have seen loads in the recent Dublin Theatre Festival.Nothing. I rarely go to the theatre now. I find it utter torture because it’s more important for me to have my dinner than it is to rush my supper, go out of the house and be captured with all these other people that you’ve never met before . . . I go maybe once or twice a year but I do know that I have to go see The Pitmen Painters.

Amelia Stein: Photographs RHA 2009 is published by the RHA, €30. A limited edition of 125 copies including a signed and numbered print is €125.