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Perou

In rebranding himself as a movie director, internationally successful photographer Perou is ahead of the curve. He speaks to David Land. Additional reporting by Rachel McGovern

Perou is a brand, an enigma. When we meet to do this interview at his club in Soho, he extends a hand to shake which is bedecked in jewellery. Dark glasses and a hat remain firmly ensconced through- out our encounter. Apparently affable, he explains that his persona is a carefully con- structed mask, especially adapted according to whom he's expecting to encounter during the day.
Psycho-babble explanations suggest them- selves for this. He started life as a butler, a trade in which apparent deference and malleability would be useful tools. I have limited experience of this, but think of the ambiguous relationship between Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in The Servant, or that between Jeeves and Wooster in P G Wodehouse's novels. And he says that, while studying photography at the then Polytechnic of Central London (PCL, nowWestminster University) he was painfully shy, and the exaggerated poise with which he now presents himself is in direct reaction to this.

Whatever, it serves him well, and having left PCL in 1994, he is now an international photographer and director, shooting editori- al, music, fashion, portraits and advertising. His clients include 125 Magazine, Esquire, Planet, Flaunt, Rolling Stone, XX, Filter, Saturday and Sunday Times magazines, Observer Music Monthly, Guardian Weekend, FHM, Grazia, Glamour, Vivienne Westwood, Reebok, BT, Cutler and Gross, Canon and Heineken. He has directed videos for Marilyn Manson, KT Tunstall, and the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster.

Perou learnt how to make stills running Click hire studio, where he met a lot of great photographers, their clients and those responsible for Dazed and Confused maga- zine. After a couple of years working for Dazed on the picture desk, he found that he was shooting more than editing, and left to begin his career shooting stills.

"People often ask me what was my big break in this business", he says. "There has never been one: it's always been a long hard slog to the middle. It was very gradual. After a while, I came off the dole. Then I came off housing support. Then I had enough money to start thinking about paying tax. Then I was earning enough that I had to be VAT registered."

Perou is clearly in a process of transition. "I grew up in stills", he says, "but like many other photographers at the moment, I'm try- ing very hard to rebrand myself as a director.
"I wouldn't get into a debate about whether moving pictures are better than stills. They both have their place, but it is imperative to understand how to make money in new media and through the internet. If you can crack that, you'll survive ... or just shoot for pleasure and don't worry about it."
Between the internet and the rise of the digital camera, the way the industry operates has changed dramatically. Photographers who trained and began their careers shooting on film have lived through one technological revolution, as the industry made the transi- tion from film to digital, and now, with the convergence of still and moving imagery, they are living through a second.

Perou has weathered the storm well. His slick website, coupled with a move into real- ity TV presenting and directing short films and pop videos, betray both his ambition and his business acumen. The future of the industry still concerns him however, and he lambastes the rise of the amateur which has accompanied the digital revolution.

"The quality has absolutely slumped", he says. "I used to work for music magazine. Then they worked out that, if they paid a photographer £1000 to do a shoot, he retained the copyright, and ended up earning £1000 again. So the magazine paid off its long established music photographers, and replaced them with kids shooting on digital, who were quite happy to give away their copyright, because they didn't have any experience and they didn't know any better.

"It meant there were no fantastic music photos any more - just some band standing against a wall. Nobody cared, the magazine sales actually went up, and they made more money. It's really hard to find a client who cares about the quality of your work. They just want it quickly and cheaply.

"When everyone has digital cameras, they basically mess up the industry, because kids out of college without any jobs think they don't need to learn the skills that we learned over years. They don't have a lot of work, and clients exploit that by only paying them 1/10 of what they would pay me."

Perou's attitude to the 'kids with digital cameras' is more nuanced than this tirade would suggest, however. "A student who lives near me in Kent told me that his college tutor said to him that, within a year of graduating, he was going to be earning up to £200,000 a year in photography, and that 80% of his class would be doing the same. I find that beyond offensive. It's immoral."

Since his move into directing, Perou has naturally pondered the impact that digital cameras equipped to take both HD video and high quality stills will have on photography. His tone oscillates between gloomy and sanguine. Photography is not dead - but it's changing.

"Just within the last six months", he says, "people are talking about how stills photography is going to be over in the way that silver halide was over five years ago, that everything will be shot on moving cameras and the stills will be taken from movie footage.
"But it's not that simple. It's like when photography came along, everyone said that it would be the death of painting, but it wasn't: painting was elevated into a high art form, while day to day portraiture was done on a camera.
"Then, when digital came out, people said it would be the end of film, but silver halide photography lives on, although more as an art form: while the day to day capturing of images is done digitally.
"And now, still photography will be replaced by movie capture. Trying to capture something and freeze it into a split second will become an art form, just like painting and silver halide photography before it."

The trend for photographers to move into film direction is a natural consequence of the fast-paced technological developments of late. Perou, and his fellow photographers with directorial ambitions, are trying to stay ahead of the curve. "Before Christmas", he says, "Red, the company that produces the hybrid still and movie cameras, held a seminar. All the biggest photographers in London were there to learn how to shoot on Red cameras."

Perou however continues to shoot on the Hasselblad H1 with Phase One digital back that he has on loan for a two year term at £750/month. "That was a great deal when I got it 11/2 years ago", he says, "because I was shoot- ing three or four times a week. But now I'm shooting stills maybe once or twice a week, so it's become a bit financially burdensome."

He has recently acquired a Canon EOS 5D MkII. "I really like it as a stills camera", he says. "But when I bought it, I didn't realise that, to shoot video with it, I would need a fluid head carbon fibre tripod that costs as much as the camera and, if you're going to do it properly, you need about four people to control the camera when you're filming. I bought it to shoot pop videos, and I realise now that I can't do that."

The transition to direction seems natural for the energetic Perou however, and as the industry expects more multi-tasking from people, it is hard to resist the development.

"I did some stills for Virgin's holiday campaign recently", he says, "and then halfway through the stills, they asked if I directed. I said 'yes', and went for it.
"People for years have been saying that I'd be a good director because my stills are very cin- ematic and have a story going on, but the way that you construct a video is fundamentally different to the way you construct a still. Good photographers can be good directors, but it's more natural for them to become good cine- matographers. Directors deal with all sorts of things, like story and construction. Photographers deal with images.
"I have aspirations to do short films. I have about 10 projects in development - TV documentaries that I'm directing, front-of- camera TV programmes, and a pop video. I've also got a book that I've been trying to publish for many years."

Perou seems to have honed in on how you have to be to get ahead in the industry these days. With a finger in every pie, he appears to be everywhere at once.

Charm, networking skills, and most importantly, the ability to talk to people, are essential skills for photography, according to Perou. "When I started out, I would be so shy that I wouldn't be able to talk to any- one", he says. "Now, I can go into a room and, within a couple of minutes, we're talk- ing. This industry made me - I had to become self confident so that I could take charge of situations."
Confidence is key to Perou. "All the peo- ple that I know who went to private school have this self confidence and arrogance", he says, "which is easy to criticise, but they get things done because they believe they can.

"When my self confidence is high, I'm at my most productive and creative. When my self confidence is low, I have to trick myself into believing that I can do it. It's my mother's words whispering in my ear - 'belligerent determination'. Self confidence is crucial to what I do."
Perou's name causes some consternation. It's his surname, but he doesn't use a first name. It's all part of the brand he has woven around himself and his work.
"I was butler to Viscount Brentford, who was known simply as Brentford", he says. "As his butler, I would sign myself Perou. It was around the same time of the growth of single name brand names like Gucci, and when I started out in photography, I decided to apply this logic to the branding of my business."

Working as a butler appears to have impressed upon Perou the importance of presentation. He admits that there is, 'a lot of smoke and mirrors', involved in growing your reputation. "Everyone can take photographs", he says, "especially now, and the only reason that people will pay me thou- sands of pounds more than someone else to take pictures is because they're buying into the way I do things, and Perou the brand.

"This is why I won't work for free or for favours: the amount of money that people pay for my pictures adds value to the way they perceive those pictures. If somebody doesn't pay a lot of money for my work, they don't value it."

His attitude hasn't always won him admirers, although he says, "A lot of people hate me, but the people that know me don't."

Perou is unconcerned at how people receive him. The branding has worked - he is a highly successful photographer. "People see me as they want to see me", he says. "All that concerns me is that I enjoy what I do, and I'm blessed that people are prepared to pay me to do it."