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After Hurtwood: Leo Bieber, photographer and lighting designer

Passion is always interesting, but never more so than when, locked down by a pandemic and claustrophobically confined to barracks we find ourselves longing for the freedoms of the wider world. Catching up with Leo Bieber, enthusiastically recommended by Simon and the photography department, I expected to meet an enthusiastic and clearly successful photographer whose area of expertise had evolved in the world of truly exquisite jewellery. What I met with was a positive whirlwind of energy, a complete blast of intensity and knowledge about light, the integrity of image and communication, subjectivity of vision. Phew; but in a good way, especially as this is not a flow driven by lack of work or deprivation. Having laid down in the middle weeks of March last year the wherewithal of work survival, he has been kept busy in the studio ever since, even managing a small fraction of the international travel, and most recently working collaboratively on a series of books focusing on the sheer stunning beauty of gems themselves.

Instantly immersed in his passionate engagement with light, our chat flows every which way for well over an hour. From Florence to London, New York to Munich and Mumbai, Leo’s working world seems a glamorous whirlwind of geography, people and beautiful and challenging jewellery. Fascinating and involving, I have to work hard to establish and maintain a narrative path that is consistent and connected. So back to basics: school, and why Hurtwood? Having experienced education in the Steiner tradition, which he ‘absolutely loved’, subsequent schooling had not been successful. The opportunity to explore and enquire on one’s own terms had taken its toll on the dull but necessitous skills of reading and writing, and the academic focus and pressures, the lack of freedom of choice that followed in other schools, had proved challenging. Finally arriving in the Surrey Hills Leo found immediate interest in the theatre, and he recalls it happily as a kind of absorbing retreat, where he buried himself, often missing the bus back to the house.

‘I loved the buzz of the theatre,’ he tells me, and threw himself into ‘the intricacies of design,’ the painting of the sets, lighting, gaining broad experience both as part of the team and as an individual. He was allowed the early privilege of overseeing the backstage management of the summer show, loving the autonomy and responsibility, working with James Leech and Alistair Coulten. This was his world: practical, imaginative, cohesive and absorbing. Likewise with Media A level: it was the practical component that was central, and ultimately achieving full marks in these sections in both subjects, carried him through the more challenging academic elements.

After an abortive year of Business Studies Leo switched to Photography, re-doing the year, extending his school life (made bearable, he says, by his love of theatre and film) and the final piece of his portfolio of talents was laid. He speaks warmly of his teachers and their supportive relationships: Clive, Andy and Alistair in theatre, John Goddard and most poignantly Charles MacKenzie in Media, whose sudden death shocked and saddens him even now. He remembers with clear affection and canniness the many lessons he learned about creating worlds, visions, narratives, all of which are central to his talents now. He waxes lyrical about the privileged opportunities offered throughout his studies here, ‘taking none of it for granted’ and fully aware how ‘incredibly lucky’ he was in having the support and advice of such talented teachers. His had not been an indulged childhood; rather an immensely rich and interesting one full of travel and freedom, and at last he felt, he was able to work at what actually interested him.

So with A levels complete, more formal education was certainly not on the agenda for Leo. Instead, joining his sister in Florence he soon found himself working in a studio specialising in still-life fashion photography, meeting the challenges and bringing out the desirability of material objects. Here was something interesting. Leo’s obsession with light, ways of seeing, of communicating surface and substance: this is clearly at the heart of his considerable talent. Thoroughly enjoying all the glamour of his time as a young British photographer in Italy, he also gained experience in architectural imagery, and when circumstances rather accidentally brought him back to London, agency work offered even more design possibilities, finally presenting the challenge of gems and jewellery.

Here, as elsewhere, Leo explodes with enthusiasm for the aesthetic challenge of light and its relationship with object and consumer. He thrives on these difficulties, and here is surely the secret of his success: how ‘you show the difference between a stone that is worth $10,000 and one worth $1,000,000. It has brought him to the rewards of his own working world: a studio (Regent Street, W1) and an expertise that has made him rather in demand in our lockdown world for lectures and talks – all socially distanced of course. Oh and presumably enough business to ride out economically tough times. He has worked now, it seems, with some of the biggest brands and most exquisite pieces and stones that man and nature have produced. I prod him for specifics, brands and campaigns that he has worked with, and the details flood out. Not a willing name-dropper, he is nevertheless connected with an array of the world’s top brands: take a look at his website and you will see. Pragmatic as well as passionate, he is grimly aware that in spite of the world-wide challenges, there are still many who ‘want something shiny’, and have the wherewithal to acquire it.

Time to get back to the real world, and earning a living. This insight into the heady world of gems and jewellery has been so enlightening: Leo is adamant that his journey has been increasingly successful, if also painful and challenging. The outcome however is clearly rewarding. His advice to our students with similar dreams? ‘Get stuck in,’ is direct and instantaneous. For him, university would have been pointless, he says, and by immersing himself as he did in the practical and proactive challenges of Media and Theatre he found finally, through all the failures as much as the successes, his forte, his world. ‘Be open,’ he advises our students. ‘There’s more out there than you think..... say yes.’

I am reeling slightly. I’ve heard more complex geological terminology in the last 50 minutes than I have in a very long time, since I was back in a science class. Trying to spell them, and grasp a rudimentary understanding of this world was challenge enough for me. Fascinating; more interesting by far however is how education and experience have joined with passion and commitment to create a unique and rewarding working world, even in trying times. Thanks for the time and indeed the shared insight Leo. You have shone a light – literally – on an extraordinary world of beauty and communication. You have done yourself proud, and in doing so, making Hurtwood proud. Huzzah!


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