UK: MASTERCLASS - A BOSS WHO KNOWS HIS BEST SIDE. - Cookson chief executive Richard Oster isn't content to sit quietly and be photographed. Photography is his passion and, as photographer and Guardian picture editor Eamonn McCabe finds out, he knows his

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Cookson chief executive Richard Oster isn't content to sit quietly and be photographed. Photography is his passion and, as photographer and Guardian picture editor Eamonn McCabe finds out, he knows his subject.

Richard Oster is a handful to photograph. Not that our photographer doesn't know what he wants. He has turned the Cookson boardroom into a miniature studio, and rehearsed the shot he needs, with his assistant sitting in for the larger-than-life Oster. That's when it all starts to go wrong.

Oster wants to reorganise the carefully arranged layout of photographs on the boardroom table. He is not a man you argue with. Then he introduces a couple of cameras into the set-up, 'to give it some authenticity'. He even knows his best side, for God's sake. Businessmen are not meant to be like this in front of a camera. They usually give you about five minutes, look very embarrassed while being chaperoned by a well-meaning but interfering PR. But then Oster is no ordinary businessman, he is a photographer as well and needs no help from any PR to control a photography shoot.

The session continues with Oster, a constant smoker, holding one cigarette in his hand while another smoulders in an ashtray yards away, quizzing the photographer about the quality of his cameras and lenses. This is not the way it is meant to be; it is usually the photographer who has the patter, the idle chat to keep the session going and relax the sitter.

'Do you know what the most popular film in the world is?' he asks. The photographer is thrown; he is not used to being the one asked the questions.

'What aperture are you on now?' asks Oster, who is keen to find out more about the thing he is really passionate about outside the boardroom - photography.

'If your rich uncle dies,' this is one of Oster's favourite expressions, 'what camera would you buy?' This is the last question before the photographer is allowed to escape. He has done well to answer all the questions and remember what he is there to do - take a picture that will satisfy not only the commissioning editor of Management Today but also the fast-talking and likable Rhode Islander.

Oster, who has been living in the UK for six years, runs a company that makes everything from plastic flower pots to circuits for the electronics trade and, judging by the figures announced in March (a 50% jump in annual profits to £181 million before tax and exceptionals), does it pretty well.

The passion for photography started in his teens when he was moved by a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph he saw in Life magazine of Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan holding a gun at point-blank range to the head of a Vietcong member captured in Saigon. A hard picture for anyone to forget. He has always been interested in people and set out to learn how to photograph them by talking to friends who were photographers. Oster has always done a lot of talking, always asked questions, always found out more about the things for which he has a passion.

Oster finds photographers fascinating because 'they understand life pretty well, they're fairly deep people'. Then it is my turn: can I live up to such a billing? He quizzes me about the film I use, my darkroom techniques and the stories I covered while I was on the road for the Observer. Before I have finished one answer, he is on to the next question - and I am meant to be interviewing him. He reveals that he has had some pictures published, mainly in sea-fishing magazines and would love a press pass to get some more. In fact he has a US press card with no date on it, a card worth having since it never runs out.

Oster has a collection of cameras that would fill a camera shop, some even too expensive to use. Not bad for 'the worst photographer in the world', but, he adds, 'I am good on animals,' and you believe him. He drives his wife mad, he says, always looking for subject matter that shows spontaneity, even first thing in the morning. But then Oster doesn't need much sleep, and if he had it his way there would be more daylight hours to take pictures, especially of animals on safari.

Karsh of Ottawa is a big influence - the man who took the cigar out of Winston Churchill's mouth to make a better picture. One day Oster would like to set up a studio shot in the tradition of the great Canadian master photographer. Lighting wouldn't be a problem - he has found out all he needs to know from the photographer who took his picture in his own boardroom. And as for the cigar trick, he has the wit to try it and the charm to get away with it.

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