Profie: David Peat, photographer

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EILEEN Henderson's zest for living, and passion for photography left a lasting impression on her grandson, David Peat.

"She was wonderful, and liberated. My sister and I were sent down to London to stay with her every Easter, for two weeks. She loved children and inspired us. She adored space, but sadly never lived to see a man on the moon. She was also a very enthusiastic and accomplished amateur photographer. She had a large darkroom and we would spend hours there. She sowed that seed with me, and probably bought me my first camera."

Peat, 64, is a Glasgow native, but grew up mostly in Killearn, in Stirlingshire. During the past 40 years he's been a passionate street photographer. But the strange thing is, despite processing every roll, he never printed those thousands of images beyond the contact sheet stage. A busy career, initially as a cameraman and ultimately, as an award-winning documentary maker, kept him away from the darkroom. Anyway, he reckoned, it would give him a great project to tackle in his golden years.

All that changed two years ago, when doctors discovered he had incurable myeloma, a cancer arising from plasma cells in the bone marrow. "I could not bear the thought of falling off my perch and the thousands of negatives remaining unseen," Peat says.

A few years ago the Windmill Gallery, in Aberfeldy, ran an exhibition of his images of Glasgow children, taken in the late 1960s, just when the city was levelling tenements in the Gorbals and Maryhill. Now that same gallery is offering an opportunity to see pictures Peat has taken all over the world.

He says: "Despite my career in documentary film-making, my life as a stills photographer has been an entirely personal journey, driven only by a desire to try and capture moments that reflect how I see life on the streets I have travelled.

"You have to be aware of when action is developing and that, for me, is the absolute joy of it – the hunt. (You are] scanning all the time. I'm watching for the juxtaposition of a person and a location, or something graphic, or street portraits, which I love. I can work very close up to someone who is unaware of me, because I never catch their eye, and I work very quietly."

This ability to get in close and almost disappear into the woodwork is a skill Peat has used to great effect in his documentary work, as well. The son of a shipping executive, he was expected to take over the family firm, but, he jokes, lack of interest aside, he would have been a disaster. "Academically, I was thick as two short planks at school, and probably numerically dyslexic. I was always at the bottom of the class and even sent for IQ tests. I would have destroyed the family business."

After four years doing clerical work, a thoroughly miserable Peat, propelled by his curiosity about film, decided to break into television. "I had no contacts, so I thought I'd better make a little portfolio of stills to show my creative ability. I started out as an apprentice cameraman in 1969 or 70. In the days of film you needed an assistant to change your magazines and sit in cars with your black bags – you'd get a lot of old ladies looking in suspiciously. Then in 1971-2 I got my big break: the Upper Clyde shipbuilders dispute. They needed cameramen and so I was thrown in at the deep end."

A lifelong freelancer, Peat was lucky enough to meet Roger Graef, the renowned criminologist and film-maker. Graef became his guru on observational film-making. "He almost carved out the genre in Britain, and used to do amazing films where he'd get access that's unheard of now. He showed me some of the cut of his British Steel documentary and asked, 'How many cameras is that?' I thought two or three, because he had perfect reverse angles with dialogue, and that can't be done with one camera. Or so I thought. He taught me the simple secret: the cameraman listens and the sound recordist watches who's about to speak and follows with the microphone. If I'm listening, I'm editing in my head. I can move, and the sound man is still getting the line while I'm moving. One camera. I became very skilled at this observational camera work. It's my speciality." In the 1970s he teamed up with Murray Grigor to make a sponsored documentary called Clydescope, featuring a wild and woolly young comic called Billy Connolly. That led to the tour film, Big Banana Feet. Peat recalls: "Grigor is good at spotting people, and he spotted Billy. I remember Billy was the first decent artist to go through Belfast for a long time, because all the entertainers said no way after the Miami Show Band were killed.

"They took about 36 guns off people at the door in Belfast. During the performance – remember, with the lights, Billy can't see anything from on stage – this girl walks down to the front with a single red rose, and he picks it from her. The audience starts to applaud, and he just goes – 'Kapow!' – and the place fell apart. He had the genius, and the bravery, to realise that they would laugh."

More recently, Peat started Scotland on Screen and oversaw the first series. "I'm very proud of that. It's a fabulous time capsule. It was a joy to make, getting people from 60 to 103 to sit them down and talk about childhood, school, work, love. I did stipulate that the BBC must keep the master interview tapes and transcriptions forever, because that's a fantastic resource for the future."

Peat's documentaries all focus on extraordinary ordinary people. He jokes that he's got a reputation for always filming "the end of". This Mine is Ours, filmed at Monkton Hall, chronicled the end of mining there. Gutted looked at the troubled fishing industry. Please Leave the Light On, was the last documentary made in a manned lighthouse. And he spent 2006 making Life's Too Short, filmed in a cancer hospice.

I wonder whether the experience of making that film, and meeting those people, had an impact on how he reacted to his diagnosis? "The film was wonderful to make. People would say it must be grim, but we looked forward every morning to going in. There's such an extraordinary spirit in these places. The staff are wonderful, the patients are wonderful. After making that film, long before my diagnosis, I found all sorts of new emotional triggers would make me well up. It had a very profound effect on me.

"I have been very lucky to have a very good and fascinating life. A lot of people have life torn away from them a lot earlier. Yes, there's huge sadness and disappointment, but also, hey, I've had a good run. I don't get too caught up in it. I'm quite positive. I've always been very physically active: sailing, skiing, hillwalking. My whole life was physical, with the camera – I could get into the most amazing positions with it. The cancer treatment makes me puff and pant. That is a huge frustration, but equally, I am one of their fittest patients."

Not only are the physical demands too extreme for him now, but Peat felt that his habit of becoming totally immersed in his film-making would be unfair on his wife, Trish, and their two children, both in their twenties. Trish, he says, understands and supports his current obsession.

"She's been terrific about the photography project, because obviously I'm having to fund all of this. The thought of seeking funding at this stage, when there's too much urgency – she knows how important it is. We married in our late thirties, then the kids came along and there was no time to develop my photographs. The irony is that this project was always to be for my retirement. And then of course the diagnosis comes along and you go, 'Shit!' Who was ever going to take the time to look at the contact sheets and say actually that image is worthy of printing? Who would have bothered bringing them to a museum? My stills work is completely unknown. It was my own fault. I've never advertised the fact that I do this, going round recording my take on humanity. My gentle eye. I am not an angry photographer; there is a lot of humour because it reflects my character. I feel light-hearted now. Sure, I have dark moments, you can't not, but there's no point dwelling on the darkness."

• David Peat's solo show at the Watermill Gallery (http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com), in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, runs from 11 June to 25 July. For information, telephone 01887 822896 or e-mailinfo@aberfeldywatermill.com.

Factfile

• After ten years as a lighting-cameraman in the 1970s and 1980s, Peat began film-making, often merging his directing and camera skills on intimate, authored, observational documentaries for clients such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

• His single documentaries include: Me and My Face, Life's Too Short, Gutted, This Mine is Ours, Hey, This is Advertising.

• His documentary series include: The Man who Cycled the World, Clarissa and the Countryman, The Kirsty Wark Show, Scotland on Film, Clydebuilt

• Among his many awards are three BAFTA Scotland awards, two Cine Golden Eagle awards, one RTS, and two Celtic Film Festival awards for his documentaries.