Celebrity photographer Steve Poole on where it all started, working with some of the biggest names and sailing around the world
PUBLISHED: 11:27 20 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:38 20 April 2015
Celebrity photographer Steve Poole has shot everyone from Dame Helen Mirren to Rod Stewart. Now living life at a slower pace in Lymington, he shares some of his career highs… and lows
When somebody spends their life making a living from behind the lens, it doesn’t necessarily make them a good interview subject when they get in front of it - a concept that suddenly dawned on me as I waited nervously for celebrity photographer Steve Poole to arrive.
Now living in Lymington, after moving from London some years ago, we’d agreed to meet in a cosy room at Lime Wood Hotel – somewhere I’d hoped would be private enough for Steve’s stories of his life with the rich and famous to flow.
A very unassuming man, Steve’s North London charm instantly makes you feel at ease, and I begin to understand how it is that his photographs somehow manage to capture the true personality of his famous subjects – a skill that has taken him around the world and in to the private quarters of politicians, royalty, film stars, rock stars and more.
From a working class background, Steve left school at 15 with no qualifications. Needing to find himself a trade, he trained to become an electrician, ignoring initially his natural ability for art.
“Art runs in the family, we are all very artistic, but with my background things were different. My children have been lucky enough to filter in to what they want to do, but for me it wasn’t like that,” he shares. He touches briefly on his father being absent from a young age, and I get the impression that Steve had to grow up fast. Something that he confirms when he tells me he was married by the age of 20 (he and his wife are still very happily married.)
After buying a house and settling down, “it got to the stage where I knew I was meant to do something else. So my wife and I decided to leave the rat race and move abroad. I felt like I really needed to break free of the past to be able to do something new.” Craving the nomadic lifestyle after spending most of his teenage years and early twenties trying to make a living, Steve and his wife sold their house and put everything they had in to a 27 foot catamaran, which became their home for the next three years.
“We sailed all round the Med, across the Atlantic and toured all the Caribbean islands and America in a boat that wasn’t really designed for long distance sailing – it was definitely scary at points.”
With no navigational equipment other than a sextant, a second-hand life raft and a boat meant for day sailing, it’s little wonder that Steve made it back to the UK at all. But when he finally did, he knew it was photography that he wanted to pursue.
“Without wanting to sound arrogant, I knew I had a talent for it. I would get comments on my pictures, I was a keen amateur and had a camera from a young age, and it was something that I really enjoyed.”
With digital cameras still a thing of the future, Steve’s holiday snaps weren’t what you would expect nowadays as he laughs: “I think I took about six pictures of our actual Atlantic crossing, I spent most of my time being terrified.”
With his artistic eye and passion for capturing images as his driving force, Steve set his sights on realising his dream of seeing his work in print. Never having had any professional tuition, Steve had to rely on his natural ability. At times, struggling with the pressure put on him to go back in to his trade as an electrician.
“It would have been the easy thing to do, but I knew that if I went back in to it then that would have been it for good.”
He spent the next six months trying to make a name for himself, meeting with local papers and sending in his work to no fruition. But then a friend of his gave him a contact at his local free paper, The Milton Keynes Citizen and the rest, as they say…is history.
“It was like winning the lottery when I became a professional photographer” he tells me. “I can remember thinking ‘I wouldn’t swap this for any job in the world.’ I went from earning what I could as an electrician in a week, to earning that in less than a day.”
Having made a good impression at the Citizen, he then moved on to the sister paper in Luton and became their main photographer as he remembers: “I came from nothing and then suddenly my name was on every page. For a while, it was like ‘wow’ – I felt like I was famous. But after six months I knew I wanted to go to Fleet Street, I wanted to do the big jobs and not the local darts competitions.”
After approaching the Daily Mail, alongside other nationals at the time, Steve’s ability to capture a unique photograph earned him shifts straight away – but it wasn’t all plain sailing as he recalls: “I took a box of prints in to the Daily Mail’s picture editor at the time who said, ‘I can see you’ve got potential but…’ and then listed off a long line of things that I’d never really thought of when taking photographs. But I remembered every single word, so he tried me out.”
Loving every second of his new career on the Nationals, Steve found shifts on other papers to gain further experience, but within a month he was called in to the offices at The Daily Mail and given a full time contract. One of the most professional papers at that time, this was a huge coup. Steve’s creative style was well suited to feature photography and it wasn’t long before he was shooting some of the biggest names in show business – alongside Paris and Milan Fashion Show, The World Cup, Wimbledon and more.
With such varied subject matters, I had to ask whether it’s true that certain photographers suit certain genres: “That’s a myth” he declares, “At one point I was a fashion photographer on The Times, another point I was a sports photographer on The Mail – if you’ve got an eye for capturing something unique then it doesn’t matter what it is you’re shooting. You’ve got to be able to visualise the final image and be creative.”
With his new lifestyle, jet-setting all over the world and mixing with A-list celebs, I couldn’t help but wonder what impact this had on his family life.
“It might seem old fashioned now but my wife always wanted to be at home to bring up the family. She is incredibly unselfish and although lots of people in my position lived the life…going to the right parties, etc, I never did. I’ve always been a down to earth person and it never appealed to me, I just wanted to be a photographer.”
Even in the presence of the Royal Family Steve kept his cool, telling me about the time that he took a train ride with Princess Diana. But there must have been moments when the celeb he was there to photograph didn’t live up to expectations.
“I suppose I have to be a bit careful about what I say but Rod Stewart was a bit of a pain. I remember standing there at the gates of his mansion in LA with all my gear and he walked up and completely turned his back to me, put his arm around the writer and left me there with all my stuff – then someone almost had me by the scruff taking me to this outbuilding where I waited for about two or three hours only to have about half an hour with him.”
I could have listened to Steve’s stories all afternoon, from being charmed by Dame Helen Mirren to spending time in the pub with Richard Harris and shooting soul star Nina Simone, but unfortunately Steve was off up to London to take snaps of ITV Newsreader Mary Nightingale. Now working as a freelancer, occasionally shooting celebs and the odd big wedding, Steve is embracing life in the New Forest and focusing on other projects – such as photographing owners with their classic cars, a real passion of his.
Having now spent the last hour in his company, I needn’t have been concerned about lack of material. An excellent communicator and storyteller, Steve Poole is certainly someone you’d want round your table at a dinner party – I hear he has a penchant for The Pig in Brockenhurst.
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