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Eric Thorburn, Photographer

Born: 11 May, 1940, in Glasgow. Died: 14 February, 2005, in Paisley, Renfrewshire, aged 64.

ERIC Thorburn was a master of the lens. From plate camera to digital, his focus brought verve and colour to the most unlikely subjects, from a sparkling nuclear power station to a Turneresque sludge pond.

To suggest that Thorburn had an eye for a shot would be a gross over-simplification. He was a thorough professional who paced the ground, planning layouts and finding unimagined angles. His results were bright with an edge of capriciousness - and ensured he was always much in demand.

He was a long-time contributor to Scottish Field; and he partnered several authors, including Judy and David Steel in their work Landscape, Life and Legends of Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the mid-1980s, Thorburn was introduced to The Scotsman to revamp the Wednesday fashion page. Thorburn immediately stamped the page with his own style, showing that good fashion journalism didn’t have to come from London.

Thanks to an amateur photographer grandfather, Thorburn and a camera were inseparable from schooldays. He grew up in Govan, Glasgow, and while other boys played football, Eric took pictures of them. His commercial nous was apparent even then; he more than covered his film costs by selling his pictures to his young subjects.

Thorburn trained under John Stephens Orr, the Glasgow photographer famed for his male portraits, then branched out on his own as a young society photographer. But his commercial instincts directed him elsewhere, and a commission from Joe Stirling at Rex Publicity to photograph Morland Sheepskin in London confirmed the wisdom of the decision - especially when he found himself billeted in the Savoy.

He quickly discovered the freedom and responsibilities of being out and about as a young man. From a mews studio in the west end of Glasgow, he quartered Scotland, quarrying industrial subjects as his speciality.

Lean, dark and with a beard that varied in length from the cropped to the almost biblical, he had a commanding presence, and equally commanding charges. Thorburn never sold himself cheaply, but clients were assured of his commitment, a commitment that could verge on the intense.

He photographed Torness nuclear power station from the time it was a field to the day then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher inaugurated it. During the construction, Eric seemed to live on the site. His genius for spotting an original angle had him crawling inside the pressure vessel before concrete was poured in. The resulting pictures of steel cables tensioned by huge hexagonal nuts have an almost balletic quality.

For the same client, the South of Scotland Electricity Board, he produced a portfolio on fly-ash ponds at Cockenzie, a range of pictures encompassing greys of dawn to magnificent sunsets over water. The SSEB and its successor, Scottish Power, retained him to capture all its power stations, and through his lens, such otherwise unlovely places as Longannet, Kincardine-on-Forth, Townhill and Hunterston gained an unlikely beauty.

But Thorburn had a talent for forgetting. His famously short memory might have ruined a prosperous practice but for the attention of a secretary and the model Liz Hoyle, who became his wife. It was they who guided him, drove him to jobs, and briefed him on client, subject and deadline - not just industry, but seabirds, landscape, and people.

His royal commissions included the Queen at Holyroodhouse in 1993, in the throne room with the Honours of Scotland before her, and a portrait of the Queen Mother at Clarence House. His musical subjects included conductors Osmo Vanska, Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Pavarotti, and he once spent a day in Paris photographing Rudolf Nureyev.

A lifetime lived through colour, form and lighting was given free rein in his passion for Art Nouveau and Mackintosh interiors. His illustrations in books on Mackintosh are more than mere pictures - his portrait of the 1904 writing desk at Hill House, Helensburgh, contains all the care he would lavish on a human subject.

Thorburn died suddenly and unexpectedly from pneumonia. He is survived by his second wife, Liz, his companion for 36 years, and their children, Beth and Paul (now a photographer in New York), and his mother Jean.

 
 
 

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