Archive: Mar 2010
There are two photographic competitions that I make sure I enter every year: the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, run by The National Portrait Gallery in London and American Photography, which is now in it’s 26th year and is the domain of Kathy Ryan, the photography director of The New York Times Magazine. AP exists in the form of a most luxurious annual, designed every year by a guest art director of oxygen depriving ascendancy, and consisting of approximately 300 images which have been whittled down from 8000 entries by a panel of judges from the art, publishing and design spheres. It represents the high watermark of that year’s photographic efforts. It’s a big deal. The book is always stunning, no question, and to be in it can put the wind beneath the wings of a photographer’s career.
I have entered the Taylor Wessing, in it’s various forms, sporadically over the last ten years and have seen it change/evolve from a forum primarily ruled over by working editorial photographers to a canvas for global, emerging and fine art photographers. It reflects the growth in the role of formal photographic education and the really excellent photographers that have come to the fore in this time. When I was of university age in the late 80’s and early 90’s there were about 6 places in the country where you could study photography at degree level. I really don’t like that word ‘emerging’ though. It implies that you have either, completely made it and are fully formed, or that, photographically, you are a hatchling chick, blinking your way into the sunlight, naïve and dumb, yearning for credence from a world ready to bestow. The reality is that we are all always emerging. Any artist is constantly emerging, evolving, growing and changing – it’s always been like this. Stop moving and it’s all over.
I was selected to appear in the Taylor Wessing in 2008 for a portrait of the artist and film maker Steve McQueen. That photograph was taken on the roof of a hotel in Cannes at the film festival in May 2008 and came from a session that consisted of about 30 images and which lasted for no longer than 5-10 minutes. At the time I honestly felt like I did not know what I was doing but I know I am at my best when I go with my intuition and, in this case, there was something about McQueen that just screamed autism in my head. I’m not saying he’s autistic per se, rather he seemed to have no bend or sway in him. His interpretation of, and response to, everything I said was literal. The only time I have ever spoken literally was at the altar on the day I got married. For two Englishmen to conduct an entire encounter in a foreign country through literal interpretation of each other’s words is quite, quite weird. The English of Englishmen is full of hidden meanings, double negatives, light, shade, like a double breasted blazer, so much of it is beneath the buttons. In the last 2 or 3 frames of the session my intuition finally arrived and I just knew that, whatever I asked him to do, he would respond to that request literally, which he did. “Give me your biggest, warmest smile you can give me.” What I got was Homer Simpson goes to the south of France in a pink t-shirt.
Taking my parents to see the picture on the walls of the NPG was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was part of a final show of 60 images, selected from an entry base of several thousand and seeing it on the walls of the prime repository of British portraiture seemed to vindicate the choice I had made all those years ago to follow the dicey path of photography as career.
In the same year I was also selected to appear in the American Photography annual for a portrait I had done of Paul McCartney at 64. This was for The New Yorker and the double whammy of the subject matter, combined with the kudos conferred upon the image by the status of the publication in which the portrait appeared, confirmed the inevitability of it’s selection. It almost had nothing to do with me. I say all this in retrospect. As proud as I was to be selected for that one – 300 photographs selected from 8000 entries – I always had a niggling feeling in the middle of my brain that it wasn’t my work that was chosen, rather a perfectly competent portrait of a VERY FAMOUS MAN at the age of 64, who, in the prime of his life wrote a song called ‘When I’m 64′, which was then published in one of the world’s foremost magazines. Lucky.
Maybe I’m being too cynical because I know that, unlike McQueen, with the McCartney portrait I went there with the clearest idea of what I wanted from my time with him. Being the Beatle nut that I am, it is apparent from any and every biography that James Paul McCartney was, and still is, an ambitious grammar school boy. I knew that for all these years he has used, consciously or unconsciously, his cheery, breezy, wa-hey thumbs up persona to charm a room. But I also knew that he has a core of steel and has never shied away from being tough, cruel and stubborn when he was in pursuit of his interests. This was what I wanted from our session. We had 30 minutes together and he was phoning it in. Thumbs up, cheese, cheese, cheese. Do less, I kept saying. You’re an honest man. You can be secure in your achievements.
“What’s the matter? You don’t like a bit of whimsy?”
“Not when there’s a war on, Paul.”
For 2 frames his jaw tightened, the eyes hardened and an icy wind blew my way. He hated me and I had my moment that I had come to get. To portray is to betray and now I know how much he hates that picture.
I often cycle through his London neighbourhood on my way home and twice now I have nearly run into him. He seems to be in the habit of not looking before he steps into the road. Both times he acknowledged it was his fault, “WHOA!! Sorry mate!” If only, I ponder, he realized that that cyclist took the picture of him that he so loathes. I smile wryly, drop my head and peddle on my way.
Now here we are in Two Thousand and Ten and, as ever, we are only as good as our last entry. Now I understand why three star Michelin chefs commit suicide, even though they may have been boasting those stars for 13 years.
It. Never. Ends.
Last year’s victory is this year’s faded glory. This is how empires crumble and die. People don’t so much get complacent, fat or lazy, but the world doesn’t stop for long to admire what they did last Wednesday.
The world is always moving. It will, at least, show you respect if you keep moving with it. Yeah, so you won something last month, what else? I’ve got a friend and whenever I respond to his enquiry regarding my recent activity, he always responds with the line ‘what else?’ I say ‘Fuck you, pay the bill and claim your corporate expenses’ He doesn’t care. What I have is not enough. He is the world.
Today, though, I do have a what else and it goes like this:
Congratulations! Your work has been selected to appear in the American Photography 26 annual.
On behalf of the entire jury, I thank you for your submission and support of American Photography. This year’s distinguished panel included Gail Buckland; Scott Dadich, Wired; Janet Froelich, Real Simple; Luke Hayman, Pentagram; Steven Kasher, Steven Kasher Gallery; Michael Norseng, Esquire; Kira Pollack, TIME.
From over 8,000 pictures entered by over 1,200 photographers, magazines, agencies and publishers, the jury selected, by a majority vote or better, only 304 images to appear in the book and represent the best pictures from 2009.”
After checking on the AP site (www.ai-ap.com) I was compelled to remove all my clothes and run naked to the bottom of the garden and back when I discovered that 3 of my photographs have been chosen to appear in the annual. Siddown! That’s one percent of the book.
Two of these pictures were from a two night residency at Brixton Academy in London on behalf of the band Kasabian last summer. A great commission from Roma Martyniuk, the creative director at Sony Music, to spend the two nights in and around the band photographing any how and anything I chose. So, on the second night, with our “Triple A’ access all areas pass we took our equipment down to the gap between the front of the crowd and the stage and lit the hardcore fans with some high powered and mobile flash units.
It’s been something of an obsession the last couple of years, the idea of applying studio lighting techniques to highly fluid and mobile reportage scenarios. So I’m double double delighted that the third picture to make the cut was from a series I photographed on a grime club in London this year. It needed a couple of assistants and it needed those assistants and me to develop a method of communication in a demonically dark and loud environment but we pulled it off and back at the top of this post you can see them all.
The American Photography book is out in November and there’ll be a party for it in New York. I’m looking forward to it.
Enough now. What else?
Musicians say that by learning the chords A, D and E on the guitar you have enough to play rock and roll. You can play in a day.
Dig around in the crates of records made since the birth of rock and roll and you will find enough great songs made up of A,D & E to keep you going for the rest of your life. Nobody owns those chords. They’re just in the air, floating around for anyone who’d like to use them. I don’t know who was the first person to put them together in one song but they created a very deep well when they did.
Moving on then. What we’ve got here is what I think of as the A,D and E of Photography. Maybe there was somebody who did this before Richard Avedon and Irving Penn and as self consciously as they did but if there was someone then I don’t know who. Today though, I’m going to mark this one down in the Avedon column – specifically the idea of taking a clean white background outside – tacked up to a wall or hung from a crossbar between two stands – facing away from the sun, in flat, diffused, non direct light, hopefully on a day when the world’s most massive softbox does all the work for you – a fat, blanketed, cloud laden sky. The direct harshness of the sun is not what you want here.
The principle behind this style is to enable what Avedon referred to as ‘the stripping away of all artifice.’ Photography is a medium of artificiality and as Avedon also said, ‘there’s no such thing as objectivity. The minute you pick up the camera, you begin to lie – or tell your own truth.’
The similarities between the three chord simplicity of the greatest rock and roll and what Avedon was trying to articulate are too striking to ignore.
These portraits are of duathlon competitors in the immediate aftermath of crossing the finish line at a race in Boxhill, Surrey. The duathlon consists of an 8 mile run, 24 mile bike ride and another 8 mile run. It is about the equivalent of running a marathon.
As each athlete crossed the finish line my assistant grabbed them and asked them to come over to our set up 10 yards away. Not one refused, primarily, I suspect, because they were so relieved, proud, confused, elated and exhausted that it simply required less energy to comply than it did to say no. That’s what I wanted though. The only way to capture on film the physical and emotional eruption that comes forth after fulfilling a challenge such as this was to force them directly in front of the camera at that moment of release.
This style has no owners now. It’s open to everybody and don’t let anybody tell you that you’re ripping anyone off. You’re ‘doing an Avedon’, true, but you’re using a technique that has become a kind of shorthand for perceived integrity, honesty and validity and, just as there is great rock and roll there is also rubbish rock and roll, in which case, make sure you handle it intelligently. It was here before you and it’ll be here after you. You are a custodian so treat it with respect and know how you came to be holding it at all. You don’t need lights or a studio or a lot of expensive equipment – just your camera and a white sheet in daylight. It means that there is nothing to hide behind for both you and your subject and nothing can come between you either. This means that there no excuses and this is why I say it’s the rock and roll of photography. With these resources you can play in a day and within these three chords lies your own kind of truth.
Looking idly through some photo agency websites yesterday, it really hit me how normal it is now to see the level of retouching that is being carried out on photographs of women today. Not just models and movie stars but plain old, decent, ordinary modern women. I don’t believe that 10 or 15 years ago photographers, as a group, decided to set out on a path that would, in 2010, consistently and regularly portray women in the published sphere as poreless and flawless to such an extent that often they now look not much different from an egg with features but, somehow, that is frequently where we find ourselves.
Today, then, I’d like to put up a feature I recently shot for Psychologies magazine on five different women and their personal approach to dress. All five are what they call in Magazine Land ‘Real People’ which means that they were all unused to being photographed and were, therefore, quite nervous about the whole thing. They are not models or actresses. They do normal jobs, like everybody else.
My job is to make them feel good, make them feel special, to keep telling them that what they are giving me is just exactly what we need today and do it all at a pace that allows us to shoot all 5 inside one 8 hour day. Go over the 6pm location deadline and we’re into overtime, which they – the client – really, really do not like.
If you’re going to accept an assignment like this then I think it’s important that you acknowledge the ‘real’ in ‘Real People’. This means that you must quickly find a way to hone in on the best attributes of each woman. Continuously flatter them and make them feel good and, sure enough, for a few moments each of them will forget where they are and shed their self consciousness for long enough to show you something that elevates them, for that time, into something special, which is, after all, how I feel about all women. They give birth to us and now that I have a wife and children of my own, I am far enough away from trying to impress them for my own ego’s sake that it actually allows me to flirt to high heaven with them in the most liberated way you could imagine. Let a woman see that you wear a wedding ring and have children and she will laugh so much longer and harder at your lame, rubbishy jokes, more in sympathy with the woman that lives with you than anything else.
What you see here, apart from what is possible in a traditional photographic darkroom – colour, contrast, light & shade, has not been cosmetically altered in anyway. I’ve just used lighting, good hair & make up artists and the most important tool a photographer has – an awareness of one’s subject that allows a connection to take place.