Beyond First Impressions

On our drive home my daughter Meg was expressing her passion for conservation, and at snow point questioned the value of space exploration when we have so much work to do to preserve our own planet. On the face of it, a reasonable question, but the issue is more complex.

For me, exploration of any sort is about pushing into new territory and learning from the experience, both from what we discover on achieving the goal, but also from the journey itself. Consequently we have so many products and technologies in our lives that would not exist without that striving to achieve the impossible or improbable. How would Meg be as aware of the extent of global deforestation without satellite monitoring and communication technologies for example?

I have a similar view about modern art. I don’t always appreciate it or understand what the artist was trying to achieve, but the reflection that it provokes is enough in itself.

Yesterday I visited the Baltic again, and viewed the work of three artists. Salla Tykkä had shot and edited a number of video works; the one I viewed being about Romanian gymnastics. I could write in detail about the architecture of the training facilities, the disproportionate investment, the rigours of the training and the messages they conveyed in a country beset with huge financial challenges so in that respect the artwork had an impact. Did the video constitute art or was it documentary? The lack of commentary perhaps rules out the latter, and my response to it suggests it achieved a goal as the former.

On another floor a large construction predominantly of glass and metal, represented a collaboration between artist, Sara Barker, and a firm of architects Ryder Architecture. It left me completely cold, and though on a greater scale, reminded me of a piece if sculpture that I produced without any thought whatsoever as a piece of homework back in my schooldays.  I smiled wryly at a book title in the gift shop later; Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained

APW_5304-EditThe final artist, Thomas Bayrle, was for me the most interesting, not because I’d be rushing to give a home to much or indeed any of his work, but it was the work that he had put into his art that inspired me. I was fascinated by his techniques more so than his subject matter, which ran the gamut from quirky portraits to graphic sexual imagery, building both images and sculpture from small pictures and objects into larger pieces that occasionally resemble the component parts, but at other times are transformed completely. Portraits for example that are made up of distorted photographs of church interiors. Very different to my approach to portraiture as in this image of Pauline.

I was clearly inspired in someway by the experience, looking more closely at some of the mundane details around me.

Ultimately however, despite my reaction to Sara Barker’s piece, it was an architect working with glass and steel that gave me the image I was seeking.

Sage, Gateshead
Sage, Gateshead


In my day job this week I have been training people about how communication can be affected by prejudice, that is to say once we have made an assumption about the content of a message we tend to focus more on finding evidence to confirm our assumption than keeping an open mind and listening to the full story (which may confirm or confound that assumption).

Of course that doesn’t make me any less guilty of pre-judging, but I think I probably recognise it in myself more immediately.

Sunday’s shoot was a case in point.  Of the five models present, I had shot two before.  Jemma, who featured in yesterday’s post was working the first time I visited “The world-famous Bananastudio” when erotic photographer John Tisbury was the guest running the workshop.  Shortly after that I returned, this time to learn from fashion photographer John Barone.  Both of the Johns had brought the same model to work with, the never-ending pose machine that is Iveta Niklova, but she was joined on each occasion by more local girls.

barone-10One of those working the Barone shoot was Jenny, and I have to say I was disappointed with the results I achieved shooting her that day.  Not through any fault on her part I’m sure.  She took direction well.  It’s just a shame that I don’t give direction well!

On Sunday I struggled again with Jenny, still not really sure how to get the best from her.  Part of the challenge of course was the white dress she was wearing in the extremely dirty environment, but something else was at play.  Subconsciously I was recreating the difficulties of the first shoot.

What made it worse was that because I had shot other models in the morning, there wasn’t really much time to work with Jenny, particularly as she had a train to catch mid-afternoon which added to the pressure.  I think I shot less than a dozen poses with her.  Very disciplined of me.  I knew I had nailed on shot, but didn’t expect much more.

My preconceptions were shattered then when I came to process the results.  Shame we didn’t have more time.

Chalk & Cheese

My eldest daughter Megan is home from university for the next 5 weeks; 5 weeks that will see some significant changes in this family as we separate and begin new lives, so it’s nice that Meg, and her boyfriend Jack, are here for one last time with all of us present.

She arrived on Friday evening, so had yesterday to settle in and get ready before she and Jack went to dinner at the excellent Broad Chare in Newcastle, while her younger sister Holly was also getting ready for a night out with her friends in South Shields.

So what is a photographer to do when he has two beautiful daughters together in their finery when it’s such a rare occasion?  Inevitably it’s portrait time.

You may be aware that I’ve been reading Christa Meola’s The Art of Boudoir Photography lately, and there was a lighting set up that I wanted to try and replicate involving a single, diffused overhead light source to create some interesting shadows.  Now I don’t possess a studio, but then she does most of her work on the road so that shouldn’t be a problem.  I chose a suitably coloured wall as my backdrop (though if you’re trying to do the same a roll of backing paper could produce the same effect) and set to work on the lighting.  This was my biggest challenge.  I have a couple of lightweight stands for my speedlite flash units, but nothing robust enough to suspend a studio strobe so battery powered flash was my only option. I then had to find a way of suspending a diffuser panel beneath the two lights.

Using a clamp attached to each light stand I gripped the diffuser (part of a small 5 in 1 reflector kit) and angled the flash heads downwards.  Setting one flash unit to trigger the other I now needed a radio transmitter to activate that unit when I pressed the shutter button.  It all felt a bit Heath Robinson, but taking a couple of test shots with a self timer demonstrated that I had the effect I wanted, especially if I positioned a reflector to bounce some light back into the eyes where the overhead light caused them to be lost in the shade of my eyebrows.

Good to go then, but for one thing.

You can set up equipment, test tweak and adjust and ultimately get what you’re after.  You can’t do the same with daughters.

Megan declared that she didn’t really want to be photographed last night, and devoted herself to getting Holly ready before she even began her preparations.  This not only robbed me of one of my models, but meant that I couldn’t even rely on her to hold a reflector in place.  Hey ho.

Holly (who has always been the more co-operative photographic model) and I persisted, and got some nice shots.  As I thought, getting any catchlights in her eyes was difficult without reflector.  Thinking about it later I realised I could probably have attached the reflector to a light stand with some gaffa tape and had some effect, but this was closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.  Consequently I had to resort to post processing to achieve those catchlights in some of the shots.  Nevertheless I’m happy with overall outcomes.  Not bad for shots taken in a front room against a wall of flaking paint with nothing much more than a couple of flash units.  I’m sure the model helped too!

Am I missing something?

In my discussions with students yesterday, the subject of my blog came up and I was asked about how people react to being asked for a photograph.  I replied truthfully about my finding that in general the following rules apply:

  • Men more often than not will agree, and frequently without asking me why I want their photograph
  • Women of other nationalities usually ask what the picture is for and then agree
  • British women are the most reticent.

I’ve tended to assume that the reason for this last category is twofold:

  1. I frequently shoot people when they’re out walking on the beach, when, to their mind, they may not look their best.  Understandable, but why don’t men react similarly?
  2. There may be a degree of caution about a strange man who wants to take your photograph.  I could be a stalker after all!

Yet there must be more to it than this.  This weekend I encountered two young women, Jessie & Laura who were both reluctant to be photographed, yet neither of these reasons could explain their refusal.  Both were beautiful, one whose dark hair provided a frame for the broadest of smiles, the other a slim blue-eyed blond with great bone structure.  Neither was caught unawares or without make-up, and they were in a safe environment where my credentials had been established by the university.

Ironically they were both part of the same team, which emerged as winners of the activity my colleagues and I were running and so were obliged to be part of the team photo at the end.  Even then they each chose to retire to the back row to minimise their presence as you can see above.

I accept that there are some people who just don’t like being photographed, but why does it seem to be disproportionate between the sexes?  I’d be interested in other people’s theories about this, so please leave me a comment below if you have a view to share.

Almost inevitably when I got home this afternoon I went to the beach, approached the first man I spotted and within 30 seconds I had a portrait of Anthony.  QED.

Banana Karma

Some people’s approach to cookery is that they plan every meal for a week, buy all of the necessary ingredients and then implement their plan to the letter.  I might do this if I was entertaining, or trying something new, but more often than not my approach is to check the contents of fridge, larder and cupboards, mull over what I’ve seen, and then create something from the available resources when inspiration hits me.

My approach to photography is similar.

I was at the World Famous Bananastudio yesterday attending a lighting workshop and trying some different ideas.  Now I get the gist of the Inverse Square Law, and the effects of feathering your lights in one direction or another, but I still feel I’m not nailing the opportunity that a well equipped studio with attendant models and make up artist provide.

There is a philosophy in photography of capturing the shot “in camera”, that is to say that the lighting, framing and posing all come together in the viewfinder as the photographer squeezes the shutter and the resulting image needs little additional work.  It’s not a philosophy that I adhere to.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to feel that way about my results at the magic moment, and looking at the backs of other cameras last night I could see that plenty of others seemed to achieve this.  For me though the experience is different.  I look through the viewfinder, glimpse something that at that moment has some element of magic and click.  Then when I review the images later they look boring and uninspiring.  What was it that I saw through the lens that I cannot see on the LCD?  I don’t know.

It’s when I get home and upload them all that my cooking analogy kicks in.  I have a quick rummage, and begin to consider the possibilities of each image.  Those with potential are processed further and cropped to focus attention on the areas that I feel have merit.  (Was this the same element that caused me to take the picture?  I can’t be sure.)

And so from my dozens of acceptable shots, I find some results that please me.  Wonder if they all have that potential?  I don’t know but I certainly don’t have the time to pan for gold with each and every one.

Here are some of those that made the grade last night, featuring Louise and Raminta (who looks uncannily like Holly in some of the shots – probably down to Alex Pretswell’s make up!)

Two Beautiful.

A rough count of the people who have been good enough to be photographed for this project so far revealed a degree of sexual discrimination.  Not through any policy on my part of course, but nevertheless there have been more men than women featured.

Strange really, since you would think I would favour shooting beauty rather than the beast, yet I seem to find more of the latter.  Having reflected on the reasons for this I’ve concluded that it is a consequence of attitudes to being photographed.

Unless I have a particular topic in mind for the day I never go out looking to capture images of one sex over another, and I will generally approach anyone who I think will make a good picture.  The fact that more women than men have declined my offer may well play a part, but how much of that has conditioned me to expect a masculine “yes” and a feminine “no”?  If that is the case perhaps I’m giving off some air of negativity to women that exacerbates the situation.

This week though I have been fortunate in photographing some beautiful women who can help to redress the balance, and even then there has been a spectrum of responses.  Men who I approach tend to say “go for it” or words to the equivalent and stand upright ready for the shot.  When I photographed Jo on Monday, surprised as she was that I had asked to photograph her at a bus stop, she was prepared to move and pose to suit me.  By contrast when I shot Sita on Wednesday, although she knew me well and was keen to pose as requested, her nervousness made her a far less compliant subject.

Today I experienced two different attitudes.  Hayley is a photographer’s dream.  She’s slim, attractive, wanted to be photographed and was comfortable enough in front of the camera to take direction easily.  How could I fail to capture her beauty?  (Actually with more time, and the option to try some different locations to counter the bright sunlight I might have got more, but that’s not really how this project works).

I met Hayley at the school where Gill my wife works as she was there for some practical experience and I was running a short session on photography for some of the pupils.  I don’t know her well, but I can’t wait to photograph her wedding next year based on working with her today.  She’ll be stunning and a dream client.

I was a little early arriving at the school so waited a few minutes in the school office where I photographed one of the school administrators as she was answering the phone.  She was too busy to pose, but had no fear of the camera.  Unlike Hayley her attitude was one of tolerance rather than enthusiasm.  Still got a nice picture of the old “Trouble & Strife” though.  Guess which is which?  😉

Food, Glorious Food

In Newcastle today I knew that I would find someone to photograph.  What I did not know was that this was the final weekend of the annual EAT! festival run as part of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative.

In the past the festival has included some great ideas (restaurants in people’s homes), some spectacular stunts (dining suspended from the top of the car park made famous in Get Carter) and some pretty strange ideas (did I dream the 3D map of Tyneside made from cake?).  I’m not sure what was on the agenda this year, but I knew I’d get some colourful images and these are in the gallery below. (click on the first image to open an enlarged slideshow)

Remarkably I managed to walk my away around many of the stalls without succumbing to the temptation of colours, textures and aromas.  Incidentally the chap featured in the header wasn’t present at the festival – he’s still somewhere in my garden unfortunately!

Anyway, before I reached the gastronomic gala, I had already found today’s portrait.  He was sitting outside the Theatre Royal having a drink with a friend, and the combination of hair, glasses, beard and T-shirt gave him a cool celeb-like look.  Sort of Elton John meets Giorgio Armani by way of Bruce Willis.  Actually he’s called Lenny.