After a lifetime spent working extensively as an advertising photographer making the seemingly impossible, possible – one brief included getting an elephant to sit on a washing machine - Paul Bussell’s passion for animals has taken his focus in an entirely different direction.
While researching into big cats, he discovered the Santago Rare Leopard Project run by Peter James. Now he has brought together a unique collection of photographs which contain rare images of snow leopard families, as well as photographs of clouded leopards, Persian and African leopards and panthers.
“Whereas when photographing people you have to deal with their vanity photographing animals is completely different – you’ve seen the image you want and you have to wait for that something special,” he says.
“There’s something about cats’ personalities and their independence which I’ve always found amazing. A dog can become a possession, but you can never possess a cat.”
Paul’s first mainstream animal photo shoots took place in the eighties after he gained a reputation as an animal expert. An award winning image of a horse followed, and he attracted attention with a series of images featuring his Abyssinian cat, Spike, photographed looking longingly at a goldfish bowl – an idea that has been frequently copied since.
Everything was shot on large format – 10” x 8” transparency. Paul rarely had enough light so his work took on a brooding quality, refreshing for its time when the world was tired of a constant bombardment of ‘chocolate box’ animal images.
“One poster was for Whiskas cat food. Before the meeting, I was told that a Whiskas cat was an inside cat and must never be black. I shook things up a bit when I said I wanted to shoot a black cat outside with wonderful whiskers, climbing through a fence."
“Fortunately it worked. One magazine accepted a cat food product advert in its pages for the first time, simply because they liked the photo.”
A commercial at Shepperton Studios produced a kitten curled up in the palm of a hand, while an elephant sitting on a washing machine proved more tricky – elephants are used to sitting on soft ground. With only a concrete studio floor available, the shoot had to be done in one go as the elephant would only sit down once for a few moments.
It was all a far cry from where Paul started out as a 12-year-old schoolboy, obsessed with light and images, building a studio in his bedroom on Clapham Common, painting his walls and stringing a bar across to hang lights on.
“What I always enjoyed most was playing God – creating light. I devised my own techniques and became known as the prince of darkness – never knowingly overlit.”
Seriously dyslexic, unable to get into his school photography class and told by his father to get a trade behind him instead of ‘nancying about taking pictures’, he was dejectedly en route to Balham Labour Exchange after his school career officer told him to become a bricklayer, when he had an epiphany.
“As I turned into Fleet Street I noticed a crowd of people in front of a red E type Jaguar. David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton got out and headed into the Daily Express building. Seeing all this glamour was just the contrast with my own life that I needed at the time. I knew then that I had to be a photographer.”
Balham Labour Exchange helped Paul get his first job in photography at 16, but it was far from glamorous. He had to print and process 60 ft long railway timetables in huge lead sinks with rats running around his feet in a railway arch near the Elephant and Castle.
His next job was as a darkroom printer for the late fashion photographer John Adams. “I knew a good printer could make a crap photographer look good and told him. I left shortly afterwards.”
He spent a short time as one of the first freelance printers for photographers before securing a job as a house photographer with advertising agency McCann Erickson which still uses his work today.
“I won their first poster award for a beer – Bass Charrington – and then travelled to the United States to photograph classical America for Chesterfield cigarettes before being sent to Ireland to shoot an ad for Hertz.
“I was in the right place at the right time. Because of the style of my photography, I did a lot of billboards and got a lot of recognition for everything from cars and hi-fi to booze, winning awards along the way.” Aged 21, he left the agency to start his own studio, briefly in Soho, then in Chelsea.
He also worked as a mainstream commercials director, set up his own production company and was responsible for a myriad of well-known ads for Whiskas, Nescafe, Shell and American Express amongst others.
Consistently working with animals gave him the most satisfaction. “Lots of animals would come to various studios and although all were well looked after - the RSPCA were often on hand - I always felt sorry about them being there. Now is my chance to re-dress the balance."
Recently involved in the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, working with Mark Edgerley and his dedicated team, Paul has added lions and tigers to his portfolio as well as two of the finest amur leopards.
“I’ve worked with cheetahs and panthers; you know they could kill you and it gives them this huge power. They are totally beautiful but you must never forget how dangerous they are."
“I photographed a snow leopard once which came towards me placidly. My lens was just inches away, it was getting closer and closer and then it just went wild within seconds. Except for a bit of wire or someone on hand to keep them at bay, you know they could eat you alive.”
"I absolutely love cats, the way they look at you, their great thick paws and huge claws, the way they walk, the way they sit and, in full flow, the way they run. They have such wonderful grace and so much expression."
Time is running out for the bigs cats. We can all help save them.