Behind the lens: a photographic life

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Rod Westwood at his Mojacar exhibition

Mojacar photographer Rod Westwood hit the big time in Madrid in the 1980s as a successful fashion and advertising photographer, the high spot of a career originally inspired by taking early pictures of his former sister-in-law Vivienne Westwood. CA News reporter Emma Randle talks to Westwood about inspiration, his latest collection and the ups and downs of a professional photographer.

I see the photos before I meet the man – a series of nude photographs of a beautiful model along the stark white walls of the Mojacar Fuente art gallery. They are black and white, artistic, some so dark you can barely see the outline of the model’s shape, others so white they have an ethereal quality.

This is Rod Westwood’s latest collection, inspired by a girl he met in Mojacar, a professional model called Adriana, he tells me as he arrives.

Westwood, an unassuming figure with sensitive blue eyes, appears slightly uncomfortable at being the focus of attention for our interview, saying he always thinks that photographers are “rather timid by nature, preferring to be behind the lens than part of the action”.

Nevertheless he is clearly passionate about his work and willing to share his experiences.

Born in London and interested in photography from an early age, one of his first professional experiences was being a ‘smudger’ in holiday-time Jersey in 1959 when he was 17 years old.

He explains to me that before the days of instant photography and ‘selfies’ a smudger would wander the streets of the town taking photos of likely-looking subjects enjoying themselves on holiday, giving them a ticket to view and hopefully buy the photo the next day, when it had been developed and put on display. He was to do the same kind of job 10 years later, just before his big break came along, in Marbella in the Hilton Hotel, hired to take pictures of people attending conventions, staying up all night to develop them and have them ready for breakfast the next day.

But the real inspiration for his decision to make photography his career came from a series of portraits he shot of Vivienne Westwood in the early sixties, before she rose to fame as a fashion designer and while she was a schoolteacher married to Westwood’s brother, Derek. Their marriage only lasted three years, until 1965 when Vivienne met Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who launched her on her path to fame and glory, but she and Derek had a son, Ben, who regularly visits his uncle in Mojacar.

Westwood said: “Vivienne was an extremely beautiful young woman. The portraits turned out really well and I decided to take photography seriously.”

His pursuit of a photographic career led him to Marbella, in search of a better climate and more opportunities. There, while working in the Hilton, he was spotted by fashion photographer David Tack, author of ‘Impressions of Spain’ who after using Westwood as an assistant for photographing gypsies in Granada, offered him a position at his London studio.

However low pay and long hours led to Westwood quitting the job after a couple of years to move with his then girlfriend, Jenny, to Ibiza where they married, had two children and survived on Westwood’s photography and Jenny’s fashion business for the next 10 years.

Westwood’s next break came from two directions. First he was asked to do some shoots for Spain’s prestigious geographic magazine, ‘Geo’, on Spanish traditions. Secondly a London fashion shoot arrived in Ibiza and Westwood got hired for the job.

Finally in 1984, with the strength of his latest assignments behind him, Westwood went to Madrid, portfolio in hand, to try his luck in the big city.

There he soon became successful on the fashion scene, working for top magazines such as Marie Claire and Vogue, along with advertising campaigns for big names such as Seat cars, Coca Cola and Iberia.

He said: “I had some fantastic experiences during that time. I was travelling a lot for different shoots, I was very well known in the industry and I started having my own exhibitions as well.”

Separated from his first wife, he met and fell in love with model Angeli van Os in Madrid, where she was the face of Spanish ‘Dúnia’ magazine – the ‘Cosmopolitan’ of its day.

The couple, who later married, visited Mojacar in 1986 and after their two children were born they decided they should be brought up there, away from city life.

Clearly inspired by beautiful women, Westwood says meeting Angeli was “the highlight of his life”. Although the couple are no longer married they are still good friends, both living in Mojacar (Angeli runs Angie’s Cafe in Mojacar commercial centre).

Westwood continued to operate from Madrid, working with Melía Hotels on advertising and catalogues for their five star hotel chain, and also taking portraits of some of Spain’s most famous film stars for a series in conjunction with El Pais.

In the end Westwood said he “had enough” of the high life, and moved to Mojacar in 2000, where he is now a wedding photographer and pursues his own reportage work, often for Geo magazine, on subjects that interest him including the Tabernas desert, olive oil and the ‘plastic sea’ of greenhouses.

He has no regrets. “Fashion is a cyclical thing, I am happy I was a part of a period of great creativity. For me, the greatest achievement of my life is that I earned a living doing something I loved doing.”

For Westwood, inspiration comes from everything he has ever done, as well as new experiences such as working with his latest model Adriana that led to his recent exhibition.

He is also currently working on a reportage exploring Mojacar’s chiringuito culture, which he says is unique to the area, something that he has not found in the many other seaside places in which he has worked.

He said: “Now I can follow whatever appeals to me. I am very happy with the relaxed lifestyle in Mojacar and there is a wonderful transparent quality to the light. These days I am happy to allow things to take their own course.”

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