Nottingham Outlaws : Still breaking the rules after 25 years

There’s an ambition burning bright on the photography scene in Nottingham, as the city’s fastest growing club, the Nottingham Outlaws, looks back on 25 years of friendship, irreverence and a stunning portfolio of work that would grace any exhibition hall in the country.

When local ‘togs’ David Cawthan, Ken Monkhouse and Steve Roper – still affectionately known as Outlaw #1 – got together over a couple of beers at the Anchor Inn, in Gunthorpe, all those years ago, they had a simple vision: to introduce photography to a wider section of local people and bring a more practical and friendly approach to the club scene.

David and Ken have both since moved their camera gear to ‘the darkroom in the sky’ – indeed, the loss of Ken in the 25th year of the club has been especially poignant – but Steve speaks for all three when he says their original spirit is alive and well in the digital age…

“We’ve always had that special combination of some fantastic photographic talent in the club, a willingness to share techniques to help beginners and, above all, a determination not to take ourselves too seriously”, says Steve.

“We really just wanted to get out, shoot and have a laugh with the many friends we’ve made through photography so, from the off, we were never really that comfortable with ‘meetings’ and committees”, he recalls, remembering the club’s first ‘official’ gathering, at the Flying Horse on Front Street in Arnold at the beginning of 1987 (note: there is a pub theme which appears to run through the Outlaws history)

In fact, despite taking on the role himself in the early years, Steve still bristles at the idea that the club needs a role as ‘formal’ as Chairman which kind of sums up the ‘go shoot’ attitude that runs through members aged 18 to 81. Not that the club’s feisty octogenarian looks like slowing things down anytime soon either…. At a spritely 81 years old, Christine [Surname] often entertains younger members with stories – and of course pictures – of her misspent youth trailblazing through 1950s Europe on a Vespa, taking in Spain, Gibraltar and Andorra. Today, she’s swapped her motor cycle helmet for the comfort of air travel but still manages to pack in a photographer’s dream itinerary, with no fewer than six trips to the Arctic circle in as many years.

“Most of us are happy to burn the candle at both ends to get a great night out and a great sunrise,” says Steve, alluding to the club’s mysteriously-named annual ‘KK Trip’ to far flung coastal areas of the UK.

“One evening we were all lined up to capture the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle,” he reminisces, “but the light was failing fast, and we had little prospect of any decent shooting, so we took time out for a flask (essential kit for a dawn / dusk photographer!) and a Kit-Kat. It was extraordinary but the very moment we peeled back the famous wrappers, the lights on the bridge came on… We couldn’t believe our luck. So, the club trip has been known as the Kit Kat ever since!”

From ‘skinny-dipping’ in Weymouth – entertaining a bemused Russian whaling fleet – to a couple of dusk-till-dawn pub ‘lock-ins’ that played havoc with the following morning’s ‘horizon alignment’, the KK-ers antics often compete with their photographic output for a place in the club’s 25 year legend file.

John Young, long-time friend of the club, picks up the story…. “One popular ‘member’ (no pun intended), Austen Haines, already infamous for producing some ‘interesting’ self-portraits in the unlikeliest of places – think ‘shrinking’ insub-zero waterfalls – but he often takes his off-the-wall antics to quite irreverent levels.

“Admiring the statue of Christopher Columbus on a KK trip to Whitby,” John squirms, “Austen decided Nelson’s navigation dividers looked more like barbecue tongs and set about re-styling the world’s most famous navigator with a string of sausages and a barbecue apron.”

Suspicion does have a habit of following the band of merry photographers around but usually attached with a healthy dose of good humour. Current Chairman, Ian Pinn, shudders to remember a club trip to the Nottingham Arboretum in the wee small hours of morning when the Outlaws were startled to find themselves surrounded by a group of tactical police officers intent on tracking down a couple of missing tropical parrots, presumed stolen!

Clearly, the local bobbies decided the Outlaws lived up to their name and set about frisking them for evidence of a feathered felony. Thankfully no parrots were harmed in the making of these pictures!

And, when it comes down to it, making great pictures is what it has really all been about throughout the club’s 25 year history. Wind the reel forward to 2037 and Ian is clear on what he wants the Outlaws to achieve over the next 25 years..

“We want to be the biggest small camera club in the UK”

Bold, perhaps, but when you flick through the club’s recent competition and exhibition successes (see and soak up the high quality and range of styles put out by its growing membership – a healthy mix of semi-professionals, serious amateurs and enthusiastic beginners – and you begin to get a sense that Ian’s new ambition for the club is more grounded determination than pie in the sky.

“We now have a really high standard of landscapes, portraits, abstract, urban, sports and travel photography coming through the club, so it means we’re ready to really challenge some of the larger regional clubs for national exposure,” says Ian, also an accredited photographic judge with many years experience assessing club images the length and breadth of the country – so he knows what he’s on about!

There’s no doubt that, for its small size, the club is punching well above its weight on the exhibition front too, most recently at the annual NEMPF exhibition which is easily the North and East Midlands most prestigious competition. If competing is what drives you, then the club’s monthly competition calendar is a great way to test your skill against fellow members and get invaluable advice about how to better your skills as a photographer

Current Outlaw of the Year, Scott Wilson, feels that ‘exposing’ your work to the critical eye of a competition judge is the best way to improve your photography.

“I joined the club 3 years ago”, says Scott, “when I already felt like a competent photographer. But, once you opened yourself up to the critical comments of a judge who really knows about lighting, composition and processing, it’s amazing how quickly you see ways to raise your game and compete to a higher standard.”

So, whether your photography is purely social, seriously competitive or exhibition standard, or you just want to enjoy the company of people fascinated by the fantastic world of pictures, there’s a special buzz about the Outlaws that means all visitor and made to feel very welcome…. Why not come along to the Richard Herrod Centre in Carlton one Thursday night and see for yourself.

Here’s to the next 25 years!

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