Antony Spencer hadn’t planned to visit Corfe Castle. He was heading for the Dorset coast, but mist was coming in and he decided to look at the ruined fortifications after all. “It turned out to be the best decision I’ve made,” he says.
On that chilly December morning last year the mist was more subtle than usual. Spencer, a 30-year-old bricklayer, took out his camera and pressed the shutter.
Pleased with his shot, he submitted it, with nine others, for the Take a View landscape photography awards. Each year, the organiser publishes a book of shortlisted pictures. “My only aim was to get one in there,” says Spencer. He got more than he dreamt of: his picture of Corfe Castle won the top prize, worth £10,000.
Not bad for somebody who had only picked up a camera three years earlier. It was a life-changing moment, and one that will inspire millions of others who have bought into the digital camera revolution.
On hearing the good news, Spencer’s wife, Chloe, burst into tears. She had supported the expense and inconvenience of his frequent, lengthy trips across the country in search of the perfect composition. “For years, I have been saying the trips are an investment and that one day they will come good. Chloe has really believed in me,” says Spencer.
It can’t have been easy, because the couple have three young children and Spencer’s favourite time to shoot landscapes is at sunrise or sunset.
To get the perfect picture, he has often had to rise early — 2am in the summer — and his alarm is liable to wake the baby asleep in their room. “If Phoebe wakes up, I try to settle her. But sometimes Chloe wakes up and says, ‘Go on, just bugger off!’”
Others may think they could take similar pictures, but Spencer’s success has not been achieved without single-minded persistence. Getting some of his shots has required up to 40 trips to the same location. One, of a sunrise over a lavender field in Somerset, involved innumerable trips over three years.
“I took that one in July,” he recalls. “At 3.30am, the sky outside was grey and I nearly went back to bed. But I went out and kept driving, and witnessed one of the most fascinating, lovely sunrises ever. When I saw it at the back of the camera I was dancing around the field.”
Really good sunrises and sunsets happen rarely, he says — five or six times a year. “I’ve done many trips where I don’t even take the camera out of the bag.”
Spencer left school at 16 and travelled around America and Australia before returning to work with his father in stonemasonry and brickwork. It plainly didn’t inspire him. “Working with stone, you create something out of nothing,” he concedes, “but brickwork is like stacking cardboard boxes in a factory.” The best he’ll say for it is that being self-employed gave him flexibility to go off and take photos.
Spencer only became a keen photographer when digital technology made it affordable. He bought a digital SLR camera after his son Lucas, 4, was born, to take family snaps. But he soon discovered a passion for landscapes.
He started uploading pictures onto Flickr, the photo-sharing website, where he made friends with like-minded amateurs. “I put pictures up, and you get constructive feedback from people you get to know. I learnt a lot. I have a lot of people to thank.”
The prize money will go into a new car, a family trip to Australia at Christmas and replacing a camera that took a battering when he fell down a cliff and broke his ankle. But even before winning the prize, Spencer started making real money from sales of prints, including a few hundred copies of “a clichéd” Durdle Door limestone arch in Dorset.
Lately, he’s started taking would-be landscape photographers to Norway to shoot the spectacular geography and the northern lights. “I put an ad online saying I was doing a trip. The response was massive, far more than I could take.”
Even before winning the prize, Spencer took the brave step of opening a gallery on the Dorset seafront 12 months ago, in partnership with his father. It went quiet for a while but the prize has brought a burst of sales. “It has been astounding how many print orders have come through. It’s fantastic, it’s amazing, but keeping up has been a nightmare.”
He prints them off on the monumental printer that stands on a sideboard jammed up beside the family dinner table. “I really have to get an office,” he apologises. The printer was expensive and the ink is costly, too, but it’s a lot cheaper than an outside lab.
So, will photography make Spencer — who hasn’t laid a brick since he heard about his prize — rich? “There are people who have become incredibly rich, but this is just a passion and I have been very fortunate to do it. If I get to do it for the rest of my life, I will be happy.”
855 words. First published 5 December 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.