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Posted 12.07.19

The Repair Shop: Alumni Brenton West discusses working as an expert for the BBC

By Vicky Clargo

Photo credit: Brenton West

Brenton West is an expert in restoring vintage cameras, works as a freelance photographer, and is an award-winning silversmith. Currently featured as one of the experts on the BBC’s The Repair Shop, which pulls in viewing figures of around 3 million, Brenton studied photography at Plymouth College of Art from 2005 to 2008.

He was in his 40s and already had a degree in silversmithing under his belt when he decided to enrol on one of our Photography degrees. Brenton found that studying with us reignited a passion for analogue photography and vintage cameras - and specifically daguerreotype photography, which he has since turned into part of his career.

Now residing in Oxfordshire, Brenton is one of very few practicing daguerreotypists in the UK. The technique was invented in the late 1830s and was the first publicly available photographic process. For nearly twenty years, it was the one most commonly used.

Graduating from the college in 2008 with a first, Brenton has gone on to build a career in consultancy and making reproduction vintage cameras for film and TV, including the Emma Thompson film ‘Effie Gray’ (2014) and the BBC production of ‘Victoria & Albert: The Royal Wedding’ (2018).

We chatted to Brenton about how his lifelong passion for creativity has helped him build a successful and multifaceted career.

Image credit: Brenton West

What's your connection with Plymouth and Plymouth College of Art? 
I moved to north Cornwall in 2000. I was renovating houses, for myself. Between properties, I noticed an advert for an open evening at Plymouth College of Art, then called Plymouth College of Art & Design. I had always been keen on photography, but when I was 17 had chosen to do a degree in silversmithing at Medway College of Design in Kent. 

I travelled down to Plymouth and met a tutor who suggested that I could start a part-time degree course maybe even that term, even though the year had already commenced. The next day I went and met the head of Photography, Richard Strong, who said from the strength of my portfolio I could start right away and catch up with what I had missed. I started in 2005 and qualified in 2008. It was meant to take six years, but I lapped the modules up and did it in three.

You made Daguerreotypes for your final major project; what sparked that particular interest? 
I was already pretty good at digital camera control and Photoshop, and found the first year of the degree a time to explore the chemical processes in photography. I felt that I could do digital at home. The access to the cove studio in the college, and the large format and film cameras in the equipment and resources centre reignited my interest in analogue photography. 

In my third year, I tried making photographs on different backgrounds, like cloth, wood, stone, metal and hand-made paper. My tutor saw my efforts about halfway through the first term, looked at the silver sheet that I had attached an image to with tee-shirt transfer and said, “Go away and make daguerreotypes.” I did some research, and I realised it was a dangerous process and that there was no one in the UK at that time who knew anything about it.

"If you want a job, you will be starting at the bottom. Smile. Make the tea if you have to. Always give more than you are asked, always be positive, smile, give your employer reasons to feel you are irreplaceable, and smile some more."

– Brenton West, Plymouth College of Art alumni

I was in the printing department scrounging materials when I got talking to one of the technicians. I was telling him how dangerous the chemicals were and that I really needed a chemical fume cupboard to make the process doable in a safe manner. He told me the college were looking for a home for one they didn’t need any more, and so with the necessary permissions, I hired a van and took it home. I managed to fix it, and make it work in my shed. I felt with this bit of luck that daguerreotypes were meant to be. After months of practice, experimentation and encouragement from my tutors I started to turn out some quite good daguerreotypes. The rest is history and I gained a first class degree with honours. The photography course gave me the opportunity to delve deeply into various subjects whilst being guided and nudged. It allowed me to follow the path I felt was right for me.

That’s a really exciting story - can you tell us a bit more about your interest in cameras?
I love old cameras, especially wooden ones - however they are expensive. I taught myself to repair bellows, and restored a few old 19th century cameras for my collection and for sale. I also wanted a reproduction Daguerreotype camera, (the originals cost around £500,000!) - so I made one. I documented all of this camera work on my website www.daguerreotypes.co.uk.

Photo credit: Brenton West. A reproduction camera for the Emma Thompson film 'Effie Gray' (2014).

So how did you turn your love of cameras into a career?
I learned a lot about self-promotion during my time at the college. Although Daguerreotypes and wooden cameras have a niche audience, I decided it would be worth telling my small world on the Internet. This was so important; no matter how good someone is at something, if no one knows about it there will be no commercial gain.

I had various TV companies find me and quiz me over the years, but without payment. I was then asked to make a daguerreotype and camera for the Emma Thompson film; Effie Gray. I got to hang out and Pinewood and Ealing studios which was fun. I have also hired my cameras to other TV shows and films over the years.

Two years ago I was contacted by the producers of BBC’s The Repair Shop, who had come across my website, and they asked if I could repair a camera on film. I gave it a go, and it went really well. I have now made four series of the show. I think by the time they have all aired, I will appear in about 30 episodes, and we're now busy filming Series 5 and 6, up until December this year. The show is getting around three-million viewers, and we get lots of positive feedback, which is rewarding. I am the show’s resident expert on restoring cameras as well as working on silversmithing restorations.

A young Brenton works towards his degree in Silversmithing at Medway College of Design in Kent.

What are the most rewarding, and most challenging parts of your career?  
Being paid to do something creative has to be the best thing. That is also the most challenging thing!

As well as making cameras for film sets, and working as an expert for the BBC, what other work do you do? 
I work as a freelance photographer, doing editorial and commercial work. During my degree, we had to do work based learning as a continuous module. I am a bit of a loner, and didn’t fancy holding the lights for another photographer, so I found freelance work to fulfil the college requirement.

I am lucky enough to photograph things that interest me - most of the time! While studying at the college, I became the South West windsurfing photographer for the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), and I worked for South West Lakes. I was also able to sell images to stock libraries. I have an interest in motor racing, so by being persistent I got media passes to various events. You can see my photos on my freelance site: www.brentonwest.co.uk.

Photo Credit: Ellen MacArthur by Brenton West

You’ve captured photos of some famous faces in your freelance work - from Bob Geldof posing with the Boomtown Rats to Mary Berry - but do you have a particular story or photo that you remember above all? 
While at the college, I got a media pass to Ellen MacArthur’s arrival back at Falmouth after her record breaking circumnavigation of the world. Only a couple of photographers were allowed into the press conference, and I was selected above several national newspapers. That was cool. 

What has been the most valuable thing that you have learnt in your career, and what would be your advice for a graduate looking to start out in the industry?
If you are going to be self-employed you must promote yourself, have a fantastic portfolio and above all be reliable.

If you want a job, you will be starting at the bottom. Smile. Make the tea if you have to. Always give more than you are asked, always be positive, smile, give your employer reasons to feel you are irreplaceable, and smile some more.

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