In the frame
Photographer Roger Stowell and his wife Jenny swapped a hectic London life for the tranquil countryside of rural Vend�e where he indulges in his love of food and photograph as Anna McKittrick discovers.
As a child the colours, sights and smells of the French Riviera were a marked difference from the greyness of post-war Sutton where photographer Roger Stowell grew up. A family holiday to the south of France in the 1950s had a lasting impact on Roger who says he knew from then on that he wanted to live across the Channel one day. Fast-forward five decades and Roger and his wife Jenny are now happily ensconced in their house in Vend�e where they run camera courses.
When the couple moved from Twickenham to France in 2001 they initially chose to live part-time in Pays-de-la-Loire while Roger continued to work in London.
“At the time I was a working photographer and commercial director and was going back to England a lot so we needed to be as near as possible to Saint-Malo,” says Roger.
They were still looking for somewhere to live permanently, and after ruling out Brittany and Normandy, the couple concentrated their search slightly further south around Parthenay in Deux-S�vres, without much luck. Then they discovered the lovely little village of Vouvant in southern Vend�e. Roger and Jenny originally bought a vast property in need of renovation which turned out to be much more extensive than they had anticipated, with local artisans doing the bulk of the work. They soon realised that while the location was right, the house was just too big for them.
A small ruin across the lane came on the market which was the perfect size for them so when a developer expressed interest in buying their house, they negotiated a deal that included the conversion of their new property.
The couple moved over the road in 2005 and Roger says it was the right decision: “It’s a complete change from the other house – it’s very manageable and a much more sensible size. We haven’t got huge amounts of wasted space, it’s easier to heat and has a courtyard garden, therefore we don’t have the continual fruit collection, pruning, lawn mowing and weeding. Our garden is still very much at the heart of our interests as both of us love gardening – but we can do it on a much smaller scale.”
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With the new house came a new business venture as Roger’s original idea to carry on working for clients in the UK didn’t quite go to plan: “I’d imagined I was established enough to continue directing television commercials even though I was in France. I carried on doing photography but the cost of going over and coming back, as it was mostly editorial photography, meant I was working at a loss. That was the disillusionment; that absence does not make the heart grow fonder and in fact it ended my career much quicker than I imagined, so we had to reinvent ourselves.”
Roger says it was one of their friends who planted the seed of running a photography business from their home in France and suggested they combine their natural flair for entertaining with their love of food and photography.
In 2006 Roger and Jenny made the permanent move to Vouvant and set up Camerahols offering photography courses that allow budding photographers to hone their skills while discovering the gastronomy and scenery of this beautiful corner of France.
The courses proved to be incredibly popular but the financial crisis forced Roger and Jenny to rethink how they structured the courses and they have now made them more flexible and tailor-made to suit the individual’s needs. Rather than offering week-long courses, people can spend anything from an hour to a whole day with Roger, depending on what they want to get out of the course. Roger says many of their clients are second-home owners who stop for a day en route to their French bolt-hole, or holidaymakers who want to combine a few days of learning a new skill with a visit to the region.
Many of the people who come to do a Camerahols course have new kit and want to learn the basics, says Roger.
“They come to learn the simplest things – such as how their camera menus work – and then once I start explaining about photography, their aspirations suddenly rise. The first thing I do is make them take their camera off automatic – they have to put themselves in a position where they are well out of their comfort zone.” For Roger, having something interesting for the students to take pictures of is of great importance, and their rural setting offers endless inspiration.
“I think people are always quite surprised that we’re so hidden away in deep country. It’s an intimate situation. People engage really quite quickly in a different environment and they start to get in contact with the charms of rural France. There are no shops around, there are animals, it’s wild, there’s a silence and darkness with big starry skies.”
With a formidable career behind him, Roger certainly knows his stuff when it comes to photography. Having started a diploma in fine art he met Clive Arrowsmith, an eminent London fashion photographer, who was looking for an assistant. Roger didn’t finish the course and by 1968 he had launched his career as a fashion photographer working for the likes of The Times, The Observer, Elle and Marie Claire. Interiors shoots followed, through the support and influence of Sir Terence Conran, and from there he moved towards lifestyle photography.
It was a case of being in the right place at the right time that ultimately led Roger into the world of food and wine photography: “I was doing an accessories and beauty shoot for Elle magazine and the food photographer was ill. The art director asked me if I would like to do it, which I did. Since 1985 I’ve only worked in food, wine and lifestyle and I’ve been a happier man for it,” says Roger.
Since moving to France Roger has been able to devote more time to cooking and photographing food, two of his great loves: “I read about food, I look at food, I take pictures of food, I love cooking and I really enjoy being in a kitchen. The great thing with food and photography and France is that it’s really a never-ending subject, they’re things that can be totally involving,” he enthuses.
“I love discovering the delicious smells that come out of people’s houses in our little hamlet. When I walk out of the house I see amazing things growing all around, things that I’d never seen before that make me want to taste and photograph them,” he adds. As part of the courses Roger and Jenny host an optional four-course evening meal in their home allowing Roger to indulge in creating menus and tasting dishes to serve to guests. “I’m endlessly reading and talking to people who interest and influence me and I find new dishes to work with. My shelves of food books grow and grow and if I read something in the morning I’m then in the kitchen making and photographing it and thinking it would be good to serve to guests.”
Seeing Roger in the kitchen, it’s clear that he’s in his element. He chats as he prepared salmon steaks cooked in Sancerre, which he’s adapted from an Elizabeth David recipe, alongside a simple starter of pink radishes served with butter and sea salt. Over the years through his work as a food photographer, Roger has picked up an impressive repertoire of tried and tested recipes from both chefs and food-loving friends which he often draws on for the tables d’h�tes menu.
Roger has written and photographed two books about the couple’s life in Vend�e. The first, Eating at La Moussi�re, features a sample of the menus and recipes they serve to guests, along with Roger’s photography. Simply Fed shares the gastronomic specialities and ingredients of the region in which he lives, with recipes interspersed throughout.
“The book is focused on Charente, Vend�e and Deux-S�vres and what is produced here and how the people live; how good the food is and what a wonderful place it is to be,” says Roger. His other creative outlet is his blog which he started writing in December 2010 as a way of sharing his interest in all things culinary with like-minded people from all over the world. On the blog Roger documents his successes and failures in the kitchen along with his culinary musings, be it a new ingredient he’s discovered or a cookbook from one of his favourite food writers that he’s revisiting, with enticing photography to boot.
After a decade in France Roger and Jenny feel at home in their little corner of France with their daughter Nancy, son-in-law Didier and grandchildren Isabelle and Chloe only 20 kilometres away. Their son Sam, also a food photographer, lives in London with his wife and two young children, but visits often so the family can all be together, which Roger says is fantastic: “One of the nicest things is that family is so important in France. The nuclear family works differently over here in France and we have a lot of time with our grandchildren and family which is great.”
Since starting the business back in 2006 Roger says they have made many friends: “We had no idea the number of clients that would become friends. We are so happy doing it that it’s hard to call it work sometimes – but it is extremely hard work.”
And with that the kitchen timer buzzes and dinner is served. LF
Eating at La Moussi�re and Simply Fed are available from www.blurb.com/my/book/detail/2241474