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Ian Lawson – Living off the Land

2016-03-25 Making a living from landscape photography has always been a challenge, but Hasselblad photographer Ian Lawson has turned his dream into reality by creating stunning exhibitions and selling prints and fine art books to collectors.

Ian_Lawson_Herdwick_Hasselblad_015 © Ian Lawson

Those visiting Ian Lawson’s powerful show, ‘A Celebration of Harris Tweed,’ which is taking place at the Rheged Centre in Penrith, Cumbria, can’t help but be impressed by the sheer beauty of the photography and the impact that’s created through the giant size of some of the prints on display. Packed full of fine detail, they’re testament to the capabilities of the Hasselblad cameras that Ian has worked with ever since he started to become more serious about his photography at the age of 21.

“I’d reached the point where I was becoming more dedicated to my photography and I knew I had to upgrade my camera system,” Ian, now 59, recalls. “My dad packed me off to Brighton to look at a second hand 500C that was being sold by a country and western singer who shot weddings in his spare time. It was probably already 15-20 years old, but I was delighted with it and I’ve stuck with the system ever since.

Ian_Lawson_From_the_Land_Hasselblad_012© Ian Lawson

“I finally made the leap of faith and moved up to digital in 2008 when I felt that the H3 series had reached the level where it could offer a serious alternative to film, and from there I moved on to an H5D-50c, which is an amazing camera. The ability to use higher ISO levels and still get excellent results means that I can operate in much lower light conditions, and it’s allowed me to become much more flexible in terms of the things I can do.”

Ian_Lawson_From_the_Land_Hasselblad_006© Ian Lawson

On the lens front Ian favours short telephotos, the majority of his work being shot with a 100mm and 120mm macro. “They may not be the most obvious choices,” says Ian, “but I just like the perspective they offer. The detail they can capture is extraordinary and way above what could be achieved with a smaller system. For example, with my pictures of woven Harris Tweed cloth, the viewer can just dive into the file and see all of the texture. For the exhibition at the Rheged Centre I also shot a series of seascapes to serve as an introduction to the show and these have been blown up to prints that are 3.4 metres wide. People can walk up and then spend time exploring the tiniest of details within them. It’s a really engaging experience.”


Getting started

Making a living from landscape photography is notoriously difficult and it took Ian Lawson all of thirty long years to achieve his ambition. Not that he didn’t enjoy the preparation: one of those lucky people who knew from the age of fifteen onwards exactly what he wanted to do in life, photography has always been his driving force and he’s very much done things his own way, working towards his goals and achieving them as and when the time was right.

Ian_Lawson_From_the_Land_Hasselblad_015© Ian Lawson

“I’ve always loved being out in the countryside and shooting landscapes,” he says. “It’s what I’ve always done, and I carried on doing it on a personal level once I graduated from Manchester Polytechnic with a BA Hons degree in fine art photography. However, it wasn’t something that worked for me financially and, to make a living, I carved out a niche in architectural photography. I freelanced in this area for twenty-five years and thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing.

“However, there does come a point in your life when you realise that you either need to start pursuing your dreams or acknowledge that they are never going to happen and, as I approached the age of fifty, I considered whether I should give up my regular commissions and embark on a more precarious life generating my income through fine art. In the end what forced the issue was the fact that I was working on personal projects in-between paid jobs and was finding it increasingly difficult to make this work, since there wasn’t enough flexibility built in.”

Ian_Lawson_Herdwick_Hasselblad_007© Ian Lawson

The increasing move towards digitisation and the maturing of the online market proved to be crucial, but the benefits these brought also carried a sting in the tail, in that all of the things that helped Ian publicise his work to a wider audience meant that the competition was expanding exponentially. On the plus side, however, doors were opening that allowed businesses wherever they might be based in the world to deal with an international audience, while the shop window that a well presented website could provide meant that there were far more opportunities than ever before to share work, build a reputation and exploit the potential of e-commerce.

For Ian it was an opportunity to not just sell traditional fine art prints but to also look at publishing exquisite self-produced books that were highly collectible in their own way. “There was no point going down the conventional publishing route and putting out a mass produced book,” says Ian. “I had to come up with a concept where there was a feeling of quality and exclusivity, and I’ve done this by undertaking every stage of the production myself and by engaging the very best printer I could find. The result is a book that’s a one-off treasure, something that investors can appreciate as a piece of fine art in its own right.”


Building a Business

Ian was already in the middle of his extensive Harris Tweed project when he decided to focus full time on fine art, and it gave him the opportunity to devote the time and energy necessary to bring it to completion. It was a venture that had started off in the most fortuitous of ways, with a wrong turning ultimately opening a fascinating and unexpected new door.

Ian_Lawson_Herdwick_Hasselblad_011© Ian Lawson

“I’d originally decided to head up to the Isle of Lewis from my home in the Lake District because this was the only place in the UK where it was going to be possible to witness the annual solar eclipse,” Ian recalls. “I set off in my faithful old VW camper van, and it was a real trek that involved something like a 500-mile drive and a slightly precarious ferry crossing.

“Miraculously the skies cleared at 5.30am for me to get a clear view of the eclipse and then I decided to stay to take some more pictures. Slowly the elements crept in and eventually I was confronted with the most beautiful silver sea, where points of light were breaking through the clouds and hitting the surface of the water. It was so quiet that I could hear the chug of a small fishing boat maybe a mile away and I decided to jump in my van and head for the next bay to see if I could spot it.

Ian_Lawson_Herdwick_Hasselblad_013© Ian Lawson

“In the end I didn’t find the boat but in trying to find the headland I headed down a narrow track and as I got out of my van I could hear the clacking of a loom coming from a nearby building. When I went to investigate I came across a mother and her daughter who were producing Harris Tweed in the traditional way. I was struck by the timeless nature of the scene and the way the silvery colour of the cloth almost exactly mirrored the silvery colour of the sea.”

Ian got talking and found out more about the industry and the fact that, for a piece of cloth to be defined as Harris Tweed, it had to be created within a tight geographical area. This meant that many sheep farmers had diversified and it was common to find looms set up in outbuildings, a tradition that had, in many cases, remained unchanged for generations. Things were moving on, however, and while the cloth was still being produced in the locality many of those working in the industry were modernising their premises to make them more comfortable to work in. This in turn meant that many of the charming, but inefficient, original workplaces were being swept away, and a way of life was coming to an end, leaving Ian determined to make a record before it was too late.

In all the Harris Tweed project took eight years to complete and the resulting book is an impressive 432 pages long.


Ian’s second book came about after he moved to the Lake District, and again there was a touch of serendipity about his choice of subject. “When I first arrived I fondly imagined that I already had plenty of material for a new project,” he says, “but I very soon realised that it wasn’t different enough and that I would have to start again from scratch. One day I was out walking with my two sheepdogs when we came to an old packhorse bridge, and three Herdwick sheep suddenly appeared on top of it and, seeing my dogs, they instinctively went into a pose. Shortly afterwards the shepherd appeared and he asked me if I’d taken a picture, because he’d be interested to see it. I said I had and a week later I called round to give him a print.

“From there things just grew, and I asked him if I might accompany him when he was going to feed his sheep, and when he was happy for me to do so I realised I’d found my project. The book I’ve produced, Herdwick: A Portrait of Lakeland, is sufficiently different to other books on the Lake District to stand out, and again it’s something that’s going to have a long shelf life. It was also the subject of my first exhibition at the Rheged Centre last year, and it was one of the most successful shows they’ve ever run.”

Ian_Lawson_Herdwick_Hasselblad_004© Ian Lawson

Continuing the sheep theme, Ian’s latest project, yet to be published, has seen him follow Daleswomen Alison O’Neill as she’s tended her working hill farm overlooking the Howgill Fells in Cumbria. Once again it’s a highly personal story, and it’s one that takes the landscape theme to another level, looking at the human element and ensuring that a far wider audience will feel involved.

“My philosophy is that the books can themselves will go on become their own pieces of highly sought-after art,” says Ian. “The making of my books is a collaboration with the place and its peoples. Their lives, their work and connection to their landscape are at the centre of my work and they are involved all the way through the photography process, making the work original, personal and desirable – like all great art should be.” 

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