Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Andrew Liddle
Guest Writer
12:07 AM 4th May 2024

Derrick Santini Comes Home

Scarborough Calling: Part Four
Andrew Liddle talks to the acclaimed photographer Derrick Santini about what his home town means to him

©Derrick Santini
Adele ©Derrick Santini
“From an early age, I was driven to shoot people!” The success he has had has certainly made him a wanted man – among the great portrait photographers of recent times, as Scarborough folk are about to discover in a new exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery.

To Derrick Santini it all feels like a grand homecoming.
The acclaimed photographer and film-maker is back in the town where he was born to curate Self Made, an exhibition of portraits of famous musicians, entertainers and actors, cultural icons like Adele, Dame Judi Dench and Idris Elba, many figures from different generations and backgrounds, all of whom have been immortalised by Derrick’s lens.

“I left Scarborough when I was 20 and have lived in London for the last thirty or so years,” he begins, “ and although I’ve frequently returned to visit my Mum and my sisters, it does seem like coming back to my roots to do this show.”

As the son of immigrants, he grew up with a great respect for the country that had made his parents welcome. His Italian father had been Head Chef at the Grand Hotel and his mother, Swiss German, also worked in catering. “I was seen as a bit exotic, had this cross-cultural background, a Catholic father, a Protestant mother, and I think it made me aware of the wider world, more ambitious with an understanding the possibilities of life are not confined by your immediate surroundings.”

He remembers with great affection his early years growing up in the seaside town. “I loved being a kid in Scarborough, it had it all: all the fun of the fair, some might say. The summers were sun and fun – we lived in the South Bay pool through the summer. On some days it was so packed you could barely find a spot to roost. Equally, I Ioved the black and white winters, the contrasts of light and dark, and above all I love the sea.”

Stephen Graham
©Derrick Santini
Stephen Graham ©Derrick Santini
The memories come flooding back to him of helping his father in the Grand’s enormous kitchens, selling Hot Dogs on the prom and above all spending every spare summer moment in the swimming pool. “Scarborough was a great place to be young, teeming with life, and I loved every minute but to succeed as a photographer I had to get away.”

Idris Elba
©Derrick Santini
Idris Elba ©Derrick Santini
More than the work and leisure pursuits, however, it is the sense of freedom England gave him that had been denied to his parents in their countries of origin that he considers gave him the opportunity to fulfil himself. “England has something that fosters the idea of individuality,” he ponders. “It’s probably the legacy of being an island nation which encourages free thinking and creativity.”

He believes that after completing his apprenticeship as an engineer (while working for Dale Electrics in Bridlington) he was given every encouragement to pursue his dream by being offered a place on a Photography course at Harrogate College. This put him on a path to the London College of Printing (LCC) and an honours degree in Photography and Communication.

He’s also tremendously grateful for the life-changing opportunity to travel abroad facilitated by grants he obtained on the strength of his burgeoning portfolio of pictures. In his late teenage years and early twenties he took three road trips to America, which he now looks back on almost reverentially as something not unlike pilgrimages, in search of the American Dream. “I met so many inspiring individuals and like to think I took something from each.”

It seems to him that he came of age as a photographer when commissioned to provide the publicity stills for the 1991 movie The Ballad of the Sad Café, which gave a directorial debut to Simon Callow and starred Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine and Rod Steiger. Much of it was filmed on Willie Nelson’s Texas ranch, essentially a purpose-built Western movie set about 30 miles west of Austin.

Sam Smith
©Derrick Santini
Sam Smith ©Derrick Santini
“I was there for three months with a licence to walk round anywhere and shoot anything I wanted. I loved it and it opened my eyes to so many things about reportage and film making.” He is thoughtful, clearly wants to say more. “There is and has to be a voyeuristic element to photography. I was observing, learning, getting an objective edge to my work. Without it I would not be the humanist photographer that I am.”

Working with the great producer Ismail Merchant opened the door to film-making with the hugely prestigious Merchant Ivory, and involvement with a number of films, including a full-scale documentary. “I was hired to shoot behind the scene pictures and also the publicity images for 3 of their features and it was a marvellous experience to make the documentary on Ismail - In Ismail’s Custody.”

Filmed mainly in India whilst Ismail was directing his feature film, In Custody, the documentary charts his beginnings in India and the creation of his independent film company and explores his prolific 30-year career in film.

It is, however, as a portrait photographer that Derrick is most celebrated. “As soon as I graduated I was shooting a host of musical artists, for press and artwork. I love music so it felt so spontaneous and natural to be working with musicians – although it hardly seemed like work at the time.” His portraits found their way on to the covers of a diverse array of publications, from Vice to Vogue, his services in demand from agencies and publicity companies in the UK, Europe and America.

Dame Judi Dench
©Derrick Santini
Dame Judi Dench ©Derrick Santini
He is particularly associated with the iconic figures of the pop music world, having provided so many definitive images for music magazines, record labels, and the huge publicity machine attached to Tin Pan Alley. Pressed for the secret of his success, how it is that he always manages to achieve a character study rather than mere likeness, he is momentarily lost for words. “A lot of it is to do with people skills. I’m not a provocative photographer like some,” he considers. “I don’t ‘play’ the subject, I don’t offer adulation no matter how big they are in the industry. I just use a gentle tone and relax them, try to feed off their natural energy.”

“In the same way that we might strike a pose when someone takes our photo, these portraits are ‘made’. Some might look natural, some staged. Some seem to reveal more about the sitter than others. What version of that person are we looking at? There is a three-way conversation going on and it is this relationship between photographer, sitter and viewer that is also at the heart of this exhibition.”

It’s truly fascinating to listen to a master of his craft explaining ‘the depth and context’ of portraiture as an art form. “I want to capture a truth – not the truth. A portrait above all has to reveal the sitter, personal light resonating outwardly from the eyes revealing the depths, capturing the whole rounded person.”

Alexander McQueen
©Derrick Santini
Alexander McQueen ©Derrick Santini
His portraits have been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and he has exhibited widely in the UK and internationally. His innovative approach and techniques have seen him lead masterclass workshops, most notably in Lenticular photography, which uses 3-D printed images to create an illusion of depth and movement. He continues to work commercially and editorially, as well as publishing numerous articles on photography.

Since returning to Scarborough he has been working enjoyably and productively with the GCSE Photography students at Graham School, where he himself was once a pupil. A selection of the best of their own work will be displayed alongside Derrick’s portraits at the exhibition.

“It’s great to be able to give them help in a subject that wasn’t available in school in my day.” He does a good many similar workshops throughout London - where he lives with his wife and daughter – and the South, always trying to inspire the next generation of photographers, growing up in the digital age when Artificial Intelligence may well change the whole landscape.

He believes there will always be an opportunity for those with flair and vision who are willing and able to embrace change. “AI has already made a huge difference on mass consciousness,” he says with feeling. “It’s the natural extension of the reality beyond ourselves, who we are and how we perceive the world around us, that the humanist photographer is always seeking.”

Self Made is a collective representation of our times, the work of a deeply thoughtful man who has photographed the cultural icons of his day with candour and acute sensitivity. Don’t miss it.

Derrick Santini
©Tony Barthlomew
Derrick Santini ©Tony Barthlomew
The exhibition is on display at the Scarborough Art Gallery from Saturday 18 May to Sunday 1 September 2024.