My photographic journey – from dentistry to beyond
Professor Damien Walmsley discusses how dental photography led to his passion for being behind the camera.
Manchester in the late 1970s and early eighties was arguably the place to be. That is also where I was studying to be a dentist. There was so much happening in the club and music scene in the city.
Working Saturdays in Deansgate, I got paid in the morning and I rushed out at lunchtime to buy the latest albums often just to possess those iconic picture covers. Artists included David Bowie, Joy Division, Roxy Music, The Clash, Magazine, Talking Heads to name just a few.
Summer holidays for a dental student were precious and I spent my month off travelling around the Greek Islands taking my camera with me. There are a few dental alumni from Manchester who will remember those days of travelling around the Mediterranean.
Now I am a Professor of dentistry sitting in an Ivory Tower but I still listen to the latest music and (pre COVID-19) visit all the Brum music venues. Also, I have been fortunate to travel the world with my academic work. I have many photographic memories of my life journey and taking pictures has become a compulsive hobby.
When I started specialist training in dentistry, I learnt the skills of dental photography with a Nikon camera and ring flash. My teachers were some of the best medical photographers in the West Midlands including people such as Mike Sharland.
I learnt how to use mirrors, take standardised views of the dental arch and set my camera up for super sharp macro pictures of the teeth. Even in my dental research, I developed my own scanning electron microscope pictures.
The digital age arrived and I went onto Canon cameras. Slowly over time, I started to tire of the constraints of dental photography and in the words of the Queen Song, “I want to break free”, I moved onto to other subject areas for my photographs.
I started a 365 project in 2010 and have never missed a picture a day since. It is my reflective diary of life. When the internet and social media came along then I had to be involved, and you will find my pictures on most of the channels. My pictures became my life and I started to experiment looking to become proficient in a range of techniques, many of these borrowed from my dental photography days.
Socially my personal network has increased and I have made contacts and friends throughout the West Midlands and have links into the cultural aspect of the City of Birmingham. My pictures are posted in the local papers and on television channels.
One photographic challenge I do like entering is the BBC weather bulletins and it is fun to get my picture selected and then for it to be shown both locally and, on occasions, nationally.
However, professionalism still needs to be retained. I remember one patient complaining about her treatment and that her dentures were not satisfactory. But just as I thought that a formal complaint was about to be lodged, she happened to say “but I do like your pictures on the TV”. It seemed to absolve me of the dental problem!
Entering competitions has also sharpened my skills and I have been fortunate to win a few local and national competitions. However, it is competitive and I enjoy this aspect of the hobby.
It is similar to putting in dental research grants; the reply is more often than not “bad luck but please try again”. But when you do get the success and recognition then you are inspired to take more photographs. I am always learning.
How has my background training in dental photography helped? Macro work is still an interest of mine and gardens are always full of interesting flowers and insects to capture on film.
During the recent lockdown, I tried my hand at oil and water macro photography with interesting results. Reflections are another subject area. There’s no need for mouth mirrors, especially after it has been raining the night before. The iPhone 11 is an impressive camera and does not seem to mind too much being dipped in a few rain puddles!
Dentistry is about people – and so is photography
Dentistry is about people and I love nothing more than documenting people. I dabble in some street photography but try not to be intrusive. I love capturing people having fun and enjoying themselves. The architecture of the City of Birmingham is a great love of mine for photography. I also have access to a wonderful University of Birmingham campus.
Our new Birmingham dental school and hospital has a beautiful large atrium. I must compliment the architects and the clinical designers as it has a wonderful sense of space. The sun rises and sets perfectly in line with the school. Most Instagram accounts of staff and students will feature a colourful sunset from the building.
Finally, those album covers of the seventies and eighties now come alive with the street art scene in the Digbeth area of Birmingham. If you follow me then you are sure to see pictures of the latest art on the streets. Dental photography gave me a good grounding which I did enjoy. But now I look more for the non-dental views of life.
My passion is such that I see a picture everywhere I look. But sadly I can only capture so many during the day. To quote Brigitte Bardot: ‘A photograph can be an instant of life captured for eternity that will never cease looking back at you.’
Damien Walmsley is a Professor in restorative dentistry at the University of Birmingham.