Careers in Art: Monty Coles

Term: 3 Year: 2004


Freelance photographer Monty Coles has been producing unforgettable images for many years now. His name is synonymous with fashion, but his style is deliberately harder to define. As a creative professional, Monty believes that it is necessary to be constantly reinventing himself. Consequently, his portfolio has expanded into lifestyle, portraiture and architectural photography.

How long have you been in the photography field and how did you get there?
Kind of by accident. I was between jobs in New York thirty-five years ago and met a photographer. I’d been working in a stock-broking office about seven years previously. He asked me to be his agent so I took the opportunity to hang around his studio and be his agent; so I kind of slipped into it. I never planned to be a photographer.

What schooling/education qualified you for the position
I have no qualifications. I studied lots of books and magazines and I employed a really good assistant.

Do you relate to the people or industry you have chosen?
I never took photographs before I became a photographer. I didn’t have a camera before I became a photographer. I did enjoy art at school and got a school prize in art. All my energies went into art classes and doing good art work. It wasn’t realistic for me to take it any further.

What piece of equipment could you not work with out?
I can’t live without a camera and I can’t live without a digital camera now. They didn’t exist five years ago. I use a mixture of both film and digital. The quality is better out of my Hasselblad, 21/4 film, but clients think it’s cheaper to shoot digital and are not so worried about the quality. It’s not actually cheaper because of the labour involved in colour management. That makes it about the same as shooting film, but at least half my work is digital now.

What is a day in the life of Monty Coles like?
Every day is different. On average I work two and a half days a week, which is enough to live on anyway. If I am doing a catalogue, it may be three weeks of shooting. These days I have to do GST and I do my own tax. I should do something about representing myself in a more professional way. I’m working on that right now and that’s the kind of thing I do on the days I’m not photographing. I’ve got to produce some kind of card in the form of a mailer.

What’s your best or most successful piece of work to date?
There is a piece at Collins Place currently up for a year. It is a high tech form of graffiti.

What inspires a photographer?
I like the work of Man Ray of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s – mainly because he was very experimental: he just played the whole time. Most of my career I have just played with photography. Most of my images are not really finally definitive like perfect images; just notes that I enjoy about it; before I make it really perfect, I go on to something else. It’s not strong enough for me to say ‘that is a perfect image’.

Do you have any regrets with your career path?
I am perfectly happy. I could have, if I was a different type of person, taken or made more use of the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to. But I haven’t, as other things have happened instead. Contemporaries of mine may be better off financially but other things perhaps have suffered because of that. It doesn’t mean you can’t have both. Chances of working and having everything, are pretty remote these days.

Who would you most like to sit next to on a flight to Europe?
The Dalai Lama – I was meant to do an official portrait of him. However, he was suffering from a cold the last time he was here. That would have been a highlight of my career if I could have photographed him on a one to one thing.

What are some of the negative aspects of your job?
I wish digital cameras and computers had never been invented.

What do you aim to achieve within your industry?
Apart from making a living for my family, and myself, I would like to have an exhibition – just to put myself on the line. I am very critical of photography, photographers, and artists taking up space. Just for once, to put some stuff on the wall and stand back and see how I would criticize my own work if it is up there – to be criticized and see if I can amuse some people by doing that. Like Man Ray would have done if he was alive right now.

If you were speaking to a secondary school student who was showing interest in following in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?
Go and see Austin Power movies. Austin Power was based on a 60s photographer. I was like that. I had a velvet jacket, the scarf and girls all over the place, which was great. There were people like that. There was a movie Austin Power would have seen called ‘Blow Up’ with David Hemmings as a fashion photographer in the mid 60s. That was an influence on all photographers in those days. I wasn’t a photographer at that stage.
Get a job with a photographer; hang around the studio and learn as fast as you can. I am not crazy about spending too long a time in Photography College – they drag things out too long. Work as an assistant.