First-class images at second-class rates. Post cards prove the perfect vehicle for this photographer's work
Lanarkshire, Scotland — The Scottish post card industry needed Colin Baxter. In just three years this young photographer has brought impetus and vision to the postcard market here. Now he's started conquering the rest of Britain as well. His first card collection was called ``Just Pictures.'' This was followed by ``Just Edinburgh,'' ``Just Glasgow,'' and ``Just the Lake District.'' He sells cards of the West Country city, Bath, and is about to market a stunning new bunch of York and Yorkshire. Where next -- the Cotswolds? Land's End? The world?
An Englishman, Baxter studied photography in Edinburgh and lives in Scotland with his Scottish wife and their very new baby. He is like any true Scot, though, in his distaste for the clich'e-ridden Scottish post cards: tartan-fringed, badly printed, and sloppily composed pictures of highland cattle, kilted pipers, or purple heather by the loch. And in a talk at this year's Edinburgh Festival he even told a crowded marquee of admirers he doesn't find blue skies very interesting either. Nevertheless, his work shows a rich awareness of Scotland's astonishing beauty. He likes wildness and loneliness, the evocative and atmospheric. Glen Coe in the drenching rain appeals -- ``driving through it on a clear day is the most boring experience.'' But to people who ask if he considers his work ``romantic,'' he counters, with a characteristic chuckle, ``Do you regard a piper standing next to a waterfall as `romantic'?''
His preference -- and that of thousands of buyers -- is for the strange light that rakes across undulating pastureland. Or for the silhouettes of islands and hills receding with magical logic from a rich, pitch-black foreground to a remote, gold distance. Or for sea-cliffs transformed into curtains of soft luminosity, scarcely perceptible through thick mist. He is also an observer of abstract patterns of color and shape interesting on their own account, whether in fields, water, doorways, windows, boat hulls, or red rural post-boxes.
``I thought surely I can't be the only person to like my photos,'' Baxter says, as we ramble through the forestry near his home in Lanarkshire up into the open, sheep-grazed hills, an early winter snow beginning to flutter in the air. (He likes photographing in snow, too, and is proud of at least one picture taken in a blizzard).
``My ideal was to set up in business to sell the pictures I would take anyway -- and post cards are accessible to anybody's pocket.''
Baxter's success must be due to his relish for business as well as photography. ``I enjoy the challenge of getting through all the barriers which would try to stop me selling my things to people. . . . A lot of shop-owners are like a brick wall between you and the public -- not always aware of what the public wants.''
Some, at first, shook their heads at the price Baxter asks -- 20 or 25 pence each card. (The typical post card is only 8 pence.) But customers think nothing of it. One American, when she first encountered his cards, couldn't choose between them. ``So I just bought them all!'' she told him.
Baxter launched his career after an unfinished university course in civil engineering and a spell as a low-key disc jockey. It was while pursuing this calling -- ``in Denmark and around'' -- that he took up photography.
Our morning's hike has now brought us to a high point in the gently rounded hills: typical Baxter country -- exposed, open to misty distance and clouded sky, little sign of habitation. A worn farm-track angles graphically across an opposite slope. A grouse flies suddenly -- low across the grass -- with a creaking cry. Another follows. Baxter, shouldering a new tripod, points out a view he photographed one spring, when the new bracken was shooting. He put it in his first book, published earlier this year , ``Scotland, the Light and the Land.''
He talks quite freely about his equipment and methods as he sets up camera and tripod now -- a new lens of special glass, very fast for its focal length. Cost: 400. When Baxter was in college he spent his funds on film and paper, not on fancy equipment. Even now he lays far more emphasis on observation than on expensive hardware. Also, he doesn't use filters and strongly dislikes zoom lenses. ``I do take a lot of care over composition,'' he mutters, repositioning the tripod on uneven mud -- an unpreten tious remark that comes close to the heart of his particular vision.
Autumn, he says, is his favorite season for photographing. As we meander downhill again toward the tiny estate cottage which, until now, has been his only headquarters and warehouse as well as his home, I asked him, why autumn? ``The light is usable throughout the day . . .,'' he replies. ``It's relatively oblique . . . the weather, particularly in the Highlands, is usually fairly dynamic . . . it seems to be moving a lot. MD BR. . .'' And the hill colors -- not just the obvious fall colors -- are subtle and unusual, he says. He is always on the lookout for the unusual, the ``out of season'' shot.
Why does he rarely include people in his photographs? It's instinctive, he says. It just seems that they ``tend to get in the way of what I am seeing.'' Interestingly, their absence seems to appeal to his public.
The success of his cards has been so great that now he can afford a warehouse in Lanark. And he is publishing his second book singlehandedly -- an 88-picture hardcover volume to fill the gap on the market for a high-quality photographic book on Edinburgh. ``My first book,'' he agrees readily, ``was not as good as it should be'' (nevertheless it's a fine collection of pictures); but with the new one he has achieved the ideal of complete personal control over its quality.
We are now back in the welcome warmth of his cottage. ``The first edition, out in the spring of 1986, is of 12,000 copies. They would more than fill this room,'' he laughs.
He's come a long way from his very modest beginnings in 1982. Then, simply using his personal credit card, he paid ``Prontaprint'' (a chain of shops advertising themselves as ``Your Fast Friendly Printer'') 700 pounds to print a mere four postcards, four thousand of each. If they didn't sell, he reckoned he could just pay back the credit very slowly at the minimum monthly rate. But they sold all right.
``It's all very opportunist,'' he laughs. ``People think you've got to have private money -- mountains of capital. . . . I've proved you don't.''