ran Harper’s first job as a photographer’s assistant was to take a picture of a bucket.
She couldn’t do it.
I got a 5 x 4 bellows camera with a sheet. I could do all that bit. But I couldn’t light it. It was ridiculous. I didn’t know how.
They were appalled.
It’s the type of incident that usually proceeds the issuing of a P45, and nudge towards the door.
But something persuaded her employers to keep her on, even with the bucket problem.
Fran jokes that the reason was more to do with employment laws than her ability. But a career behind the lens spanning decades suggests they spotted something more.
That was all back in the 1980s, the middle of what was a golden era for photography.
“ I didn’t go to college. I learnt completely on the job, which is quite unusual because there weren’t many women doing it. It was a male orientated work force really. . .]
I worked as a assistant to a photographer in Greek Street who was a very high end advertising photographer. Lots of posters and big campaigns.
Those big campaigns included the iconic Collette Dickerson Pearce (CDP) ads that made Sunday supplements worth fighting over. She also worked for French artist and fashion photographer Guy Bourdin in Paris.
You had to be very technically based and really know how to work cameras. It was heavy lifting in those days, lifting heavy strobe lights. Yeah. It was really different.
I didn’t have college background so I didn’t know anything about photography. I really had to learn by observing.
She also had to learn the hard way.
I remember with one photographer, who was very gracious about it. We did this shoot and his normal male assistant was absent so he hired me. And I didn’t check the camera. It was on the wrong setting. Of the whole shoot none of it came out.
When I next saw him, he said ‘by the way, that shoot was ruined because you didn’t check the cameras’.
But it s fine really [before laughing].
It wasn’t fine !
But it was a priceless apprenticeship. And one that ultimately led her to a freelance career graduating from the assistant who carried pre-digital equipment and lighting around, to a photographer in her own right.
Decades later, having worked as a fashion, then food photographer, and raised a family, lifestyle brought her to Whitstable. It’s here she still works, turning her camera on children and animals in her home studio.
I just like the area. It’s nice to be by the sea. I enjoy that relaxed feel of the place really.
What I really like is smelling the breeze, that fresh sea breeze. Also eating the oysters.
When my daughter comes down, we like to go to the harbour, have some oysters and a glass of Chablis. It’s a ritual.
It’s also a good spot for a photographer.
“ I love the creativity. Everybody’s doing something. Photographers. Authors. Chefs. Filmmakers. Fashion. Everything. . .]
Like a lot of people who move to Whitstable, it starts as one thing, and quickly becomes something else.
In Fran’s case it was teaching, a career she’d originally trained for. So she went back to school, teaching early years, only to be drawn back to London, and photography.
She’s now back in Whitstable permanently, although she spends half the year in India, where her teaching background and her photography work well together.
I’m sort of associated with a school out there.
It’s a school that helps children in the slums. It gives them an education that they otherwise wouldn’t have because they can’t afford to go to school.
It’s something of a theme in Fran’s life, the constant search for something new.
It started with photography, then different types of photography, before returning to teaching, London, India, and back to photography.
Yes, I quite like that. I like changing and not always being in the same place. Moving around really.
I don’t know if it takes courage. It takes a lot of organisation.
Fran will be going back to India later this year for another six-month trip to help at the school, but also to keep her camera in good use. She plans to do some reportage, capturing images of the people, with an eye on the national portrait competition.
Well, I’m trying for it.
It’s part of that discipline she learned back in those early days, where mistakes weren’t allowed, and getting the perfect picture was everything.
I think I realise what hard work is to get a good shot.
And also to develop your own style.
It’s really important to have your own style in photography. I think even now. Otherwise you get lost.
So about that bucket, which proved so troublesome all those years ago. Can she take that photo now ?
Yeah I can [she says, laughing] And in many different ways.