Norman Taylor: A shed load of art
Former NI man Norman Taylor took 13,000 photographs of his garden shed after he began to lose his sight. Jamie McDowell reports on why the images will hang in a Belfast gallery next month
For nature enthusiast Norman Taylor (66), wildlife photography was one of the great joys of his life. In his 11 years spent working as a ranger in Belvoir Forest Park on the outskirts of Belfast, he played an important role in conservation as well as helping to spearhead the Save Belvoir Forest campaign in the 1990s which successfully stopped plans to build a major road through the woods.
As Norman spent most of his time in the great outdoors, there were plenty of opportunities for him to hone his photography skills and his pictures were frequently used by businesses, charities and government organisations.
Norman then moved to a town called Gatehouse of Fleet in Scotland in 2001 with his partner to retire.
But five years ago, while living in his adopted country, his eyesight began to deteriorate and Norman was told by doctors that he had bilateral optic atrophy — a condition that causes poor eyesight and discolouration of the discs in the eyes.
On hearing his diagnosis, Norman was forced to accept that he'd probably never take another picture again, and while dealing with the trauma of losing his eyesight, he was also having to surrender a great part of his life to his ailment.
During this bleak time, Norman struggled to accept his condition. But through sheer grit and endeavour, and while grasping a lifeline thrown to him from an unexpected place, Norman has gone on to have his latest photographic work exhibited in the Mill on the Fleet Gallery in Dumfries and Galloway and the Royal National Institute of Blind People Gallery in Edinburgh.
It has also featured on BBC Scotland's Landward series and, all through the month of April, will hang at the Place Gallery on Fountain Street in Belfast.
The news that he wouldn't be able to take pictures again initially came as a major blow to Norman, who'd been looking forward to pursuing photography during his retirement.
“I've always been a keen photographer,” he said.
“When I was a park ranger in Belvoir Forest Park I'd frequently take nature shots on my point and shoot film camera. There'd maybe be 36 exposures on the film.
“I would always have been someone who was very against the idea of using a digital camera.
“There was something that appealed to me about knowing that I only had 36 chances to get it right.
“I'd be getting ready to shoot, with my finger slowly nudging the button and I'd have a little man sitting on my shoulder while I was aiming through the lens saying ‘don't mess this up' while I'd be hesitantly hovering over the view finder, deciding whether or not to take the picture.”
But it was a twist of fate in his health that resulted in Norman making the change from a bona fide film lover to a digital camera user — a change that would eventually cast his work into the limelight.
Norman added: “When my eyesight started to deteriorate I became quite depressed as I had to stop other things such as driving. It was frustrating having to get my partner to drive me everywhere, and losing that control that I had.
“Even after two cataract operations I still have trouble seeing properly and I'm now officially registered as partially blind. Because of this, I couldn't see the dials on my film camera and obviously couldn't take any pictures. As far as I was concerned, my photography days were over.
“In 2007, however, I received a visit from an old friend of mine from back home called Patrick McLaughlin, who's a lecturer in graphic art at the University of Ulster,” Norman said.
“I used to work with Patrick in the Northern Ireland Forest Service and we're good friends. We were talking about my eyesight and I told him how bad I felt because I had to give up photography.
“As we walked around my garden he removed a small digital camera from his pocket and began to take pictures of an old garden shed. He took about three pictures at first and said that he was quite interested in the structure of it.” Norman went on to explain how the digital camera was surprisingly easy to use, given his limited vision.
“He showed me the rear of the camera which had a large digital screen on it and I realised that I could make out some of the objects in the picture, which enabled me to point it in the right direction.
“I started to become quite excited, but still a little sceptical, as I didn't want to find that I couldn't do it — I didn’t want to let myself down.
“Before he left, Patrick and I went online and got a basic digital camera that was for sale at half price.
“I bought a cheap one because I didn't really want to spend a lot of money on it and then find that I couldn't read the dials.
Patrick got his lecturer’s hat on and suggested that I take about 150 pictures of the shed then send them back to him in Belfast so he could take a look at them and see if they were any good.”
Norman added: “One of the most important things for me about digital cameras is the fact that they have autofocus.
“With film cameras I would have had to focus the lens myself, which is virtually impossible with my eyesight.
“With the digital camera, I just point it in the right direction and it focuses the picture for me.
“As I began to take pictures of the shed, I became quite excited and realised that it wasn't just an ordinary shed that was in front of me, but a three metre squared work of art.”
With this good news, and faced with a new opportunity, Norman decided to continue to photograph the shed, amassing around
13,000 pictures of it over the last two-and-a-half years.
He explained: “I was initially approached by a man called Julian Watson, who was once worked in the Ulster Museum.
“He was very impressed with my work and wanted to put it in an exhibition in the Mill on the Fleet gallery near my home. From there, I was contacted by the BBC Scotland programme Landward. It's similar to the Countryfile programme that’s aired in Northern Ireland.
“The producer said he thought my photos were stunning and wanted to feature my pictures on the show and since then I've also had an exhibition at the RNIB gallery in Edinburgh.”
With Norman’s new found recognition in Scotland, it was only a matter of time before he came to the attention of a gallery in Belfast, providing him with an opportunity to bring his work to the city of his birth.
“My next exhibition will be at a gallery in Belfast called Place,” said Norman.
“It’s part of the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland and it’ll run for the month of April. I’m amazed that my pictures have been so successful.
“At first when I tell people that I’ve taken 13,000 pictures of a shed, they think I’m a bit loopy, but when I explain my story they always want to see my work.”