Nigel Tooby: Art of the photographer

editorial image
Have your say

Wakefield’s Drury Lane Library was opened in June 1906: now the Grade II-Listed building which closed in 2012 begins a new chapter.

I arrive a few minutes late for my appointment with photographer Nigel Tooby at Wakefield’s newly-extended Art House, after spending an inordinate amount of time trying to fathom out the peculiarities of the railway station car park nearby.

When we finally meet up, he is investigating the contents of the builders’ skip in the car park along with, it turns out, Art House artistic director Stuart Tulloch.

“I’m always looking for props so I can express my photography in different ways, explains Nigel. “We found a set of broken steps in the skip and I’ve an idea to use them for a piece I’m working on with found materials.

Nigel is one of the first artists to move into The Old Library after a £3 million restoration in what was, until recently, the city’s lending library. It is connected to the existing Art House by way of an impressive double-height glazed extension.

Since the library closed in 2012, the Art House has been planning this ambitious overhaul so this much-loved building can once again play its part in the education of the public of Wakefield.

That this vision has at last been realised is thanks to funding from the Arts Council and the European Regional Development Fund, as well as support from Wakefield Council.

The original Art House next door opened in 2008 with 14 studios which were designed to ensure they presented no physical barriers to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the arts.

Of the 34 studios available in the ‘new’ building, 20 have already been let to a wide range of artists including an illustrator, film maker, photographer, textile artist and potter – selected for their diversity and potential.

Many of the fixtures and fittings of the original building have been incorporated into the design including the beautiful parquet flooring, wall tiles, wooden entrance doors, library shelving and a magnificent clock.

Nigel describes himself as a contemporary artist rather than a traditional photographer and the work he produces as ‘art with a camera’ rather than simply photographs. “I don’t do portraits, weddings and landscapes, he says. “I try always to imbue the image I’m creating with some meaning. I want them to hit people and make them think about the message behind the image.”

Nigel can trace his interest in contemporary imagery to his teenage years when the bands he listened to released their albums with hard-hitting covers, the best of these coming from the studio of Hipgnosis, the pre-eminent album artists of the 70s and 80s.

“I became really interested in how bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin linked all the tracks on their album together to mean something; the covers were used as part of the concept and to complement the music and the lyrics.

“I became fascinated by photography and visual art and began taking photographs with my first camera, a Russian Zorki 4K Rangefinder.”

Rather than following his artistic interests Nigel went off to study pure physics at Imperial College, London and used his photographic skills to help pay his way through university.

“I became semi-professional and got quite a bit of work taking photographs of bands and also worked for the students union,” he says.

Three months before he graduated Nigel began looking for a job and, on a whim, took his portfolio to Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell of Hipgnosis.

“They had a quick look but didn’t seem very interested so I went away, he says.

“A couple of days later I got a phone call offering me a job. Trouble was, I was in the middle of my finals and they wanted me to start immediately which would have meant ditching three years of work. After a lot of soul searching I turned them down – I didn’t have the bottle.”

After graduating Nigel went down the conventional route of work, marriage and family, qualifying as an accountant and starting his own consultancy. Photography took a back seat and apart from taking the odd holiday snap to document family life he didn’t really pick up a camera again until 1995.

It was then he began an ambitious project which ultimately led to recognition by his peers and Associate Membership of the prestigious Royal Photographic Society.

Called Mi Familia it was an intimate and occasionally intrusive documentary-style portrayal of family life.

Earlier this year Nigel mounted a critically-acclaimed solo exhibition based on his book, Of Our Times: The Price of Money which focuses on how the pursuit of money can wreck lives. “In some respects it is an autobiographical piece of work,” says Nigel. “For many years, I was so obsessed with developing my business that I neglected my wife and family. My marriage almost broke up because of it and I missed so much of the boys growing up. I realised just in time that this wasn’t how I wanted to spend the rest of my life so I sold the business and used my experiences to develop art that makes a social comment.

“If I can change the mindset of just a few people that, to run a successful business you don’t have to be unethical, I’ll be happy.

“The Price of Money gained me Fellowship of the RPS, something I’m very proud of.

“I hope the book can one day be published commercially but I’m aware that, because it is so controversial, a lot of publishers may shun it.”

Nigel has recently completed work on his second book, The State We’re In which was shortlisted for the first RPS International photobook exhibition and exhibited at Fenton House in Bath. And last year he put together a body of work for a solo exhibition and calendar for the Yorkshire-based homeless charity Simon on the Streets of which he is artist in residence. It was shot through the eyes of the homeless and helped raise funds and awareness of the work done by the charity.

Nigel is thrilled to be one of the artists selected for a studio in The Old Library. “It’s going to be wonderful to work together with other artists in this crucible of creativity that Stuart is putting together”, he says.

“And, I’m particularly pleased that there’s a project space that will enable exhibitions and workshops to be held so that some parts of the new building are going to be open to the public for the first time.”