Photographer profile - Damian McGillicuddy

The Bride Collector - Damian McGillicuddy

The Bride Collector - Damian McGillicuddy - Credit: Archant

He was told he’d never be a professional photographer, so how did Damian McGillicuddy from Widnes get a lifetime achievement award for his work behind the lens? Janet Reeder finds out

Damian McGillicuddy by Lesley McGillicuddy

Damian McGillicuddy by Lesley McGillicuddy - Credit: Archant

When Damian McGillicuddy applied for a photography course at Mid Cheshire College he was turned down with the words ‘You’ll never make a photographer’ ringing in his ears.

But Widnes-based Damian has had the last laugh. Not only is he a Grand Master photographer but he is the UK’s Principle Photographer for Olympus and now has another accolade to add to the 670 awards he has amassed over a 30-year career - a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Societies of Photographers.

Damian who recently scooped Avant Garde Portrait Photographer of the Year 2017, explains that he first went to study fine art at North Cheshire College. As he was much younger than the other students on the course he found himself escaping frequently into the darkroom.

‘It was a lecturer of mine, Sid Baker, who suggested I do a photography degree at Mid Cheshire College of Art and Design but when I went there for an interview they told me I’d never make it. I came back, told Sid and he said “I was so convinced you’d get the place I haven’t put you through to the next year.” So I opened my own photographic business. And that’s how I started.’

A touch of the golden years - Damian McGillicuddy

A touch of the golden years - Damian McGillicuddy - Credit: Archant

His first studio was based above an old sweet shop in Widnes, where he lived with his mother. As Damian became increasingly in demand he moved to various premises around Cheshire. About 18 months he came full circle and returned to impressive premises at Phoenix House, Spring Street.

‘It was a call centre. Judging from how many phone sockets there were,’ he says.

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‘We now have two and a half thousand sq ft of office space which we have made work for us but in a way it doesn’t really matter where my business is because we are in the fortunate position of having people come up from London. But I think, if I’m honest this is my favourite studio. We are quite capable of producing anything here. For example, just before Christmas we did a shoot for models of diversity with Melissa Johns from Coronation Street and with some Forever Unique and John Lewis outfits’

Married to Lesley and with two sons Callum aged 12 and Haydn, aged seven, his work takes him all over the world. He’ll be shooting in Bordeaux, Malta and Venice in the coming weeks and is also working on commercial projects in Sweden and Finland, so it helps that he is between two major airports.

Mornfull Alice - Damian McGillicuddy

Mornfull Alice - Damian McGillicuddy - Credit: Archant

Like most photographers, he started taking pictures of weddings but it was a portrait of his father, which he took a couple of months before he passed away from cancer that brought Damian recognition.

‘I’m struggling to look at it,’ he reveals.

‘But it won an award, a people’s choice award and got on the cover of a couple of magazines. But it dawned on me around 18 months later that if I hadn’t had that picture of my dad then his memory would have faded. So I started looking at social photography and for anyone who wants a portrait done, we don’t even charge a service fee, just ask them to donate £50 to Marie Curie or Halton Haven Hospice.’

Famous faces he has snapped include John Major when he was the Prime Minister, former politician Derek Hatton, musician Leo Sayer and a host of soap stars.

Cosmic Dancer - Damian McGillicuddy

Cosmic Dancer - Damian McGillicuddy - Credit: Archant

‘Probably the strangest shoot I ever did was Bill Roache. H e is a lovely man but I knew him as he’d been in my living room three nights a week as Ken Barlow and it was a strange thing photographing him as himself.

‘I forget who I’ve shot. It’s just an everyday job in many ways,’ he says.

‘I always try and make a picture that’s different. For Derek Hatton I convinced him to wear his glasses, as he’d never worn his glasses before and that was a big thing.’

The awards he has amassed are what led to him becoming Principle Photographer for Olympus, following in the footsteps of his idol David Bailey. Most awards are for his skills behind the lens but also for his work as a mentor and teacher.

‘I like firsts. There’s a qualification structure and I became the youngest Associate at 18, the youngest Fellow at 28, and the youngest Grand Master. I’m the only person in the world to be a Grand Master with a Double Bar at 47-years-old,’ he explains.

‘The Grand Mastership is for giving back to the industry, so it rewards helping people to achieve their own success, just passing on knowledge. I was genuinely shocked to get a lifetime achievement award. It feels a bit like being put out to pasture but I won’t let that happen!’