The three hats of Charles March

In conversation with the photographer and peer

Charles March is an accomplished photographer whose highly distinctive work is acquired by major collectors. Charles Gordon-Lennox, to give him his current name and title, is also the 11th Duke of Richmond and owner of the Goodwood Estate, itself synonymous with a number of events dedicated variously to motor racing, horse racing, golf, shooting and cricket.

We arrived at Goodwood on a rainy day – which rather scuppered the planned outdoor exploration and photoshoot. Instead, the butler entertained our photographer with family history narrative about the 3rd Duke’s patronage of George Stubbs and the Lady Astor (the current Duchess’s mother) puzzle, prominently displayed on a side table in the main drawing room.

The Duke of Richmond wears three hats: under his professional photographer name of Charles March, he has built a very considerable body of work, exhibited in a number of countries, and published a book; in his capacity as custodian of one of the best-known stately homes, he endeavours to preserve its splendour for future generations; as the head of the Goodwood brand, he needs to ensure that it remains as competitive and successful a business through both good and trying times.

We are there to talk primarily about his photography which has evolved dramatically since his early days as a contributor to a number many glossy magazines and famous advertising campaigns. In his lifetime, digitalisation has transformed that space beyond imagination. 

Charles March was a talented photographer in his very early teens, turning professional at 17. He showed me some of the advertising campaigns he has shot early and mid-career, and the juxtaposition between his work then and now is staggering, even as the skill, precision and artistry are visible in both.

Today’s body of work is more whimsical, abstract, emotionally-driven.

He tries, he says, to invest every image with a certain ‘feeling of the moment’ – ‘manipulating the subject so that it is caught up in the experience.’  The subject could be trees, for which he seems to have a certain fascination (‘I work with what I’ve got at hand these days’) or moving water (the sea around Eleuthera where he has a family home) or silhouettes (pilgrims at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; white-robed men in Bahrain; people walking in the street in India; even strands of grass in the sand). The abstract nature and fluidity of the images are linked to his technique of moving, even shaking the camera as he takes countless shots. He then sifts through them until he finds the one that has the perfect focus, sharpness and texture. Because each image is taken spontaneously, ‘at random’, it is also unrepeatable, impossible to reproduce in any exact way.

Does the viewer get the emotion invested in the image? As is the case with all artists, he doesn’t appear to have considered the question and tells me he is happy for the viewer to give it their own interpretation.

Has digitalisation changed photography for better or for worse?

The magic of the dark room has, of course, now gone, but the answer is much more complex than that. Photo-manipulation was a thing even when the old adage, ‘the camera never lies’, still held true for most people. It was, however, much more difficult to achieve and required more of the photographer. 

He shows me his early advertising shots again and explains how they were taken: painted sets, comped images (the method of creating one composite image from several shots), but all taken in one go. It was, he says, an enthralling process, the joy of which has now gone. 

Gallery: selected works of Charles March

Clockwise, from top left: an early work for an advertising campaign; ‘Library Front’ (2012); ‘By the Church of the Spilled Blood 2’ (2015); ‘2016-04-06 09:59:37’ (2017). Images courtesy of Charles March

A conversation with the Duke of Richmond would not be complete if I didn’t ask him what his favourite cars are, Goodwood being indelibly linked to the Festival of Speed and Revival festivals. 

He volunteers the 1953 A6GCS Maserati. He is also looking forward to the launch of Gordon Murray’s new super car at Goodwood in a few weeks.

Is he a climate change denier or believer, I ask, and in this context, will classic cars still be driven a decade from now? He is a believer, but he also believes that synthetic fuel will become cheaper and more the norm in years to come, thus mitigating the emissions barrier to driving.

If Goodwood were destroyed and no more, would he reconstruct it as is, or would he make it a modern house? 

In common with other stately home owners, he sees himself as a custodian of the estate and its historical relevance, so he would try and reconstruct the house as faithfully as possible, in the same style. But he would, he says, build a modern house on the grounds too – and exhibit both his own works and the important and fascinating photo collection he has built.

I ask him what he thinks the most significant change in his lifetime has been – for better or for worse – and, in the same breath, about his greatest fear for the future in global terms. 

After some reflection, he cites fathers’ relationships with their sons, which he says has changed dramatically and so much for the better in his lifetime.

As for his greatest fear, it’s the fallout of the speed of change the world is experiencing: the isolation that rampant digitalisation breeds: ‘people losing touch with their feelings’. 

As our time draws to a close, the focus of our conversation inevitably turns to the future. What does he have left to accomplish? What is he looking forward to in relation to Goodwood? 

Continuing to build and making sure it remains meaningful in a modern world and leaving it in great shape for the next generation, he says.

Charles March’s work is exhibited at the Lindemann gallery in New York and LA and Hamiltons Gallery in London. He has held exhibitions in Russia, the United States and the UK, and his book of recent photographs was published by Distanz in 2018.