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Meet Derrick Santini, the Celebrity Portrait Photographer from Scarborough

Meet Derrick Santini, the Celebrity Portrait Photographer from Scarborough Derrick Santini ©Tony Bartholomew
June 2024
Reading time 5 Minutes

Derrick Santini's illustrious career has seen him produce iconic images of celebrities ranging from Dame Judi Dench to Idris Elba and Adele

Living North caught up with Derrick as he returns home for his exhibition, Self Made, at Scarbrough Art Gallery.

The complexity of choosing images to accompany an interview with a portrait photographer hadn’t occurred to me before I embarked on this interview. The pictures we receive from Scarborough Art Gallery, where Derrick Santini’s new exhibition Self Made will be opening on 18th May, are all Derrick’s own work except, paradoxically, the picture of Derrick himself, and I’m torn on which to prioritise. Would a self-portrait have made things easier?

Thinking about it is perhaps partly the point. ‘We’re pushing a kind of critical agenda,’ Derrick explains. They want to promote a conversation about a portrait, a self portrait, the sitter, the photographer, the viewer. In other words, ‘this dynamic of who’s looking at who,’ he says.

Adele © Derrick Santini Adele © Derrick Santini
Stephen Graham © Derrick Santini Stephen Graham © Derrick Santini
Idris Elba © Derrick Santini Idris Elba © Derrick Santini

Derrick’s path to photography began when he was growing up in Scarborough’s South Cliff. ‘When I was about 13 I picked up my mum’s camera,’ Derrick tells me. His mother had been using the camera to record family memories, but Derrick was more interested in documenting everyday life on the streets of Scarborough. ‘There weren’t any other outside influences at that age so it all happened organically,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really have to think about it, I just got into it and it took over.’  

He left school at 16 to begin an engineering apprenticeship because, as he says, ‘it seemed like that’s what people did’, but he soon realised that he wanted to pursue photography professionally. He decided to finish his apprenticeship before heading to Harrogate Art College and then down south to study for a degree in Photography and Communication at LCP (now the London College of Communication). Initially interested in reportage, he then landed on portraiture. The rest is history.

Read More: Why a Local Photographer is Capturing the First Photographic Record of Every Castle in Northumberland

One-Direction © Derrick Santini One-Direction © Derrick Santini

Self Made is more than a simple retrospective, and I ask him what sparked the idea for the exhibition. ‘It was just realising that there was a body of work of all these amazing individuals that were all created in England or made their mark in England,’ Derrick says. ‘They weren’t all born here, but they did make their name in England and contribute to the culture of our country,’ he explains.

Derrick’s career in portraiture began with photographing musicians, but visitors to Self Made can expect to see photographs of stars working at the forefront of a whole range of fields, from actors Idris Elba and Judy Dench, to Adele, and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen (whom he met when they both bought bull terriers from the same litter). Among them are portraits of Derrick himself. Derrick strikes me as slightly hesitant to admit that the exhibition celebrates his career in photography among the careers of his subjects. ‘I am putting myself…I guess… in the same bracket a bit,’ he ventures. Nevertheless, the calibre of stars featured in the exhibition is testament to his undeniable status as one of the country’s pre-eminent portrait photographers.

Derrick feels that England provides a unique environment for creatives to flourish. ‘One thing that is intrinsic in England is it fosters or nourishes or nurtures this kind of freedom of individuality. It pushes you out of the nest at an early stage,’ he says. Derrick tells me that this is a conclusion born of observation (his work entails a lot of travel), but also of personal experience. His father emigrated to the UK from Italy and his mother from Switzerland, and he says his parents’ backgrounds have given him a heightened awareness of how being born in England shaped his trajectory.

‘I felt I was foreign,’ Derrick says. ‘I think getting into photography only alienated me a bit more, because I was just behind the camera and wanted to take pictures all the time. Now everyone’s doing it, but back then it wasn’t so normal.’

Nevertheless, he remains deeply connected to the place he grew up in. ‘I am a Yorkshireman because I was born and brought up there and my family is still all up there,’ he says. ‘My roots aren’t from there, [but] I just think this is another English story. The intercultural aspect is really important.’

He sees his multifaceted heritage as a strength that enables him to access a degree of observational detachment. ‘I think that creativity does come from objectivity,’ he tells me, ‘and whatever it is that creates that, one realises later on that actually it’s the thing that made you, that gave you this strength of freedom, of spirit, or whatever it is.’

He tells me that there have been occasions when portraits haven’t turned out as he would like, mainly because he felt the subject was closed off in some way, or operating in performance mode. Establishing a rapport is key. ‘All these people have been shot a lot [and] they just want to be treated as normal,’ he says. ‘The more straight up you are, then the better the engagement; it’s a chemistry that happens at the moment you take a picture. You can’t make something nice afterwards in post-production. It’ll only be great if it’s great when you capture it.’

Read More: Bridlington Photographer Shares Her Beautiful Yorkshire Snaps

Dame Judi Dench © Derrick Santini Dame Judi Dench © Derrick Santini
Alexander McQueen © Derrick Santini Alexander McQueen © Derrick Santini

In a media landscape that is increasingly concerned with the implications of AI, Derrick thinks that appreciating the magic of this dynamic is crucial. ‘There’s no shared experience in AI,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing what it can do but it can’t create the experience and the memories that, in a way, live in the image. There’s something that comes out from the piece, and in the sitter’s eyes and all that stuff. They reveal something. That’s the key,’ he says. This isn’t about try to catch anyone off guard; he knows he’s done something right when his subject is a fan of the photo too: Sophie Ellis-Bexter told him that his portrait of her is her mum’s favourite.

The upshot of this is that his best photos are of people he got on well with. ‘I love the picture, but equally I love the individual too,’ Derrick says. ‘There’s so many beautiful experiences in the portraits. Everyone I’m showing is someone I really respect and I think they’re amazing individuals and beautiful people’.

Derrick plans to do a lot of outreach and is working with local schools to create an exhibition of children’s photographs that will run alongside his own. He tells me that he is particularly looking forward to running workshops at Graham School, the secondary school that he attended. ‘We’ll go on location and we’re going to go visit the places that I hung out in as a kid. They’re seeing these places 35, 40 years on from when I saw it,’ he continues. ‘In a way I’m reliving it through their eyes. It is a coming home for me.’

Self Made runs from 18th May–1st September at Scarborough Art Gallery.

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