Category Archive: Lighting
On Wednesday 8th August 2012 I was on holiday, staying in a rented cottage, down in the New Forest, a place of childhood memories, one of my favourite places in the world. The phone signal in the cottage was non existent but there was a wireless connection in the pub over the road. I’d got into the habit of wandering over there a few times a day, like the typically connection addicted citizen I am, to check my emails. Truth be told it was also an opportunity to get away from the tyranny of spending every minute of the day with my 2 small children, an escape from the incessant noise and brain mashing claustrophobia of it all, to enjoy a quiet 20 minutes alone in the company of half a cider and the Olympics on the pub’s megatron HD telly. A day earlier I’d sat in there and watched 20 year old Laura Trott win a fabulous gold medal in the women’s omnium event in the cycling.
On my final swerve of the day I went out the door and over the road about 10pm. An email plopped into my inbox from Monica Allende, picture editor at The Sunday Times Magazine.
“What are you up to on Friday? Trying to put a v. last minute shoot together and checking your availability.”
It was clearly urgent but there’s two kinds of urgent. There’s the urgent that can make this job the best thing in the world, where all the cards fall into place at the perfect moment, where you get to meet and have an intense one to one with someone brilliant or world changing. Then there’s the other urgent. The other urgent is the one that is brought about by a relentlessly negative chain of events. They wanted somebody else for the job, the subject changed the date, the chosen photographer couldn’t do the new date, a better story has fallen through and they need something to fill the gap. It’s the urgent that’s brought about by a series of failures. Your role in it, if not handled carefully, could forever associate you with those failures, despite the fact that you were not even involved at the point that they took place. No matter how good a job you may do you will always be thought of as the person to call when the person they want is not available. Best to try and avoid those if you can.
Aside from the perception of urgency generated by Monica’s email, Friday was also the last full day of our idyllic week in Hampshire. We were planning to hand back the keys to the cottage around 11am and go a few miles along the coast to see some friends who have a boat, where we would spend the day with them, messing about in the Solent and even, perhaps, make land at the Isle of Wight for an ice cream before heading back to the mainland for the drive home to London and it’s strange McEwanesque August atmosphere.
I mulled it over for about 10 minutes before hitting the ‘reply’ button. Stay here and enjoy the last day of a truly memorable and classic English holiday, with the promise of a jump into the Solent off the side of a boat? Or take the risk with a different kind of leap that this was the right kind of urgent? I tapped the reply button on my phone and typed a response to Monica.
“I am totally around. What’s the job?”
I stayed in the pub for about half an hour but she never replied.
The next morning, though, everything started to happen. Monica emailed around 11.30am and came clean with the facts.
“The idea was to shoot Laura Trott as Britannia for the STM Olympics special. It was almost confirmed last night, but she is a bit freaked out this morning after all the media coverage. I won’t know for an hour but even if they confirm I am not sure we can put such a demanding shoot together. See attached the idea I have in mind. If it was to happen tomorrow afternoon I would still like to meet in the morning to prepare it all , but as we stand I haven’t got a team in place yet.
How do you see it?”
These screen grabs were attached to her email, which were a great help in making me realise a) how we should do it and b) how we should not do it.
Immediately I knew how it had to look and how it could be done. It was actually pretty simple. I replied to Monica.
“I thought it might be something Olympic! It can be done. As long as we have Laura, a studio and the props/clothes it is totally possible. As with anything else like this, the key to it is to make it modern and stylish, otherwise there’s a danger of it looking naff and cheesy. The way to do it is to keep it extremely simple. The lion might be a problem though.
Other than that I am confident it can be done.”
In any photographic situation where there is a danger that it might go all wrong, where the execution can be way too literal, I always try to steer it back towards the one element that is the most important: spirit. In this case, Laura Trott is a 20 year old girl from Hertfordshire. A week earlier no one, including me, outside of the world of track cycling had heard of her. In seven days she, among several others, had come to embody an ideal of how we would like our country to be. Hard working, modest, humorous, good at stuff and very much alive. Binding her up with spears, shields, togas and chariots would drag her down more than anything. How to make it work?
I close my eyes and I think of the canon. The canon are the photographers I draw on in times of doubt. They give me comfort, solace and inspiration. They include Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, Corrine Day, Glen Luchford, Erwin Blumenfeld, Harry Callahan and, in this case, Irving Penn. I close my eyes and I go through the rolodex in my head thinking of them all until I find the one that instinctively feels like the inspirational match for the task at hand. That’s not to say I set about slavishly ripping them off. I use them as my starting point, my jumping off point. They are my photographic moral compass. They show me the light, guide the way and keep me company. Once I push off and get underway I’m then going forward under my own steam. By the time I get to the other side I will have, hopefully, added enough of my own ingredients to the dish for it to taste new and different. To understand what I mean then check this out:
Each of them are great but one was a jumping off point for the other. I love it. You can hear the lineage right there.
Anyway, back to Irving Penn. It took me about 0.5 seconds to ask myself ‘What would Irving Penn do?’ It just seemed so obvious. I called Monica up and we had a great talk about what to do. I said this is an Irving Penn picture. She replied that they wanted the backdrop behind her to be a Union Flag but the flag, she thought, should be very faded, as if it has been hanging out in the wind for 50 years. I agreed totally but there was no way we would be able to find a flag big enough with one day’s notice that is also the right texture. It would need to be about 30 feet by 20 feet big. Going back to my earlier mention of instinctively knowing how we should/should not do it. I want to hint at Britannia, not hammer her into the role. The Union Jack is the main element. Then maybe the shield. Definitely not the helmet. Please God not the helmet. Besides, she has those plaits that have instantly become her trademark. It must be a modern picture but with nothing brash or shiny about it. No forced heroism or shot from below constructivist nonsense with added clip lights. It should be elegant, chic, classic and classical. I want to do it like that but with the help of a little bit of modern technology.
What did I mean by ‘modern technology’?
This was the part where I would have to convince her.
“Ok. We’ll get a big canvas, battered, old, frayed, worn, grey, grim. I know where we can get one of those. We shoot her on that and then we add the Union Jack in afterwards with CGI.”
I had tried something like this a couple of years ago on a shoot I’d done with N-Dubz, Tinchy Stryder, Chipmunk & Taio Cruz. That one had been shot on a white studio cove and I had used CGI to add in a monochromatic Union Flag afterwards. Three years further on, though, I thought that both the technology and skills of the person I had in mind to do it would have advanced enough to be able to make the flag look not only convincing but properly fantastic. Having this earlier example to show Monica was helpful in convincing that this was a way better option than trying to project a Union Jack on to a backcloth. All I had to do was explain that this was shot on a flat white/grey background and the flag was constructed digitally. What you do with that flag is entirely subjective. If we took that idea and put it onto a canvas, a fabric with motion and life in it, rather than a dead wall, then we could make it work so much better.
At some point on the Thursday it was decided that Friday was just too short notice and Laura was persuaded to make the trip to the studio on Saturday instead. This meant that I got to have that last full day of holiday and we did indeed spend a gorgeous day on a boat bobbing around the Solent.
My time at sea was periodically interrupted by emails from Georgia Lacey, the prop stylist, with questions about Britannia related matters, the best one being:
“Morning Chris. Do you have any preference on spear?”
Call time for crew was 7am at Spring Studios in Kentish Town, London, on Saturday 11th August, four days after Laura had won her second gold medal and three full days after the shoot had first been proposed to Laura. Having worked for magazines for almost 20 years, I had never known a shoot or story come together so fast and at such short notice. Laura was due to arrive at 9am and we would have her for two hours. One hour would be taken up with hair and make up, so that would mean an hour of shooting time. In theory that is plenty but we had also agreed to try the shot in several different ways, with variations on props, hair and medals. I have always felt that less is more ever since I heard Michael Caine tell a story about how director John Huston told him “Do less Michael, do less. I can see you acting.” However, Monica thought it important to give the art director at the magazine plenty of options. We had several Britannia style shields to hand but Monica had the best idea of all; to use a wheel from Laura’s bike.
The first thing for my assistants to do was get the canvas backdrop up. Much of Penn’s greatest portraiture was done using natural light. I couldn’t do that here, the studio’s daylight source was in the wrong place and it’s just not strong enough to give me what I wanted. I set about trying to replicate Penn style daylight with artificial lights. I do this by building a replica window from 12 foot by 4 ft polystyrene flats (polyboards) – which forms a three sided room with the open side bound by layers and layers of thick diffusion material. I use all sorts of things – silks, rolls of spun glass, trace, plastic bags, anything that impedes the light from travelling in a straight line. The lights then go inside that room and the diffusion hopefully acts in the same way that thick cloud does on the sun.
We shoot a lot of test pictures and I can get incredibly fussy about whether or not light looks right. To me it either looks right or it looks fake, it just looks wrong. Sometimes the journey there is quick and everything falls into place and other times it seems to take forever, with detours and wrong turns but when it feels right it just, well, feels right.
By the time Laura arrived we were pretty much ready. I was genuinely moved to meet someone who had done something so special at such a young age and, whatsmore, who really did seem to wear it so well. I asked her who had presented her with her medals.
“I dunno really. Just a couple of randomers.”
Once she came out of hair and make up (incredible job by Hamilton Stansfield) and through wardrobe I could tell that all Monica’s worries about not pulling this off were just that, worries. Everyone had done their part perfectly. All we needed now was to get the right shot. And after trying several permutations of prop and pose we settled on this. The movement in the canvas was provided by my 2 assistants, Andras & Phil, rippling it from each side.
Once Monica had selected the image it was sent over to Rick Carter at Paperhat FTP who put Lee Rouse to work on creating a Union Flag from the blank canvas behind her. We had to provide him with a whole slew of measurements from the lens to different points in the shot so that the computer could work out angles and plot points that would allow it to overlay the image of the flag on to the ripples and folds of the blank canvas. He spent all of Saturday night working on it. By lunchtime on Sunday the finished image at the top of this post was completed and sent to The Sunday Times. They had held back printing for four days to accommodate this as the cover of their Olympics special issue, which is out today, seven days later.
So, after all that, why do I feel this is right? The right way to have done it, not the wrong way. I’ve said before that twenty years of experience adds up to a lot of mistakes. These come back to you in the form of wisdom. This doesn’t mean that you become complacent though. As I’ve got older I’ve realised that the only way to not become complacent is to stay paranoid.
It’s all there. It feels true, even though it’s a constructed image. It has honesty at it’s core. The colours, the tones of her skin, the strength, the quiet confidence, ready but not offensively aggressive, not an ounce of empty bombast. Who wouldn’t want her on their side? She should be on town hall walls all over the country.
It has the one ingredient I mentioned at the start of the process. It has spirit.
With about ten minutes left before she was due to leave, I took her over to a separate set up we’d prepared earlier and took a portrait of her as herself. We barely spoke. I didn’t need to say anything. Everything she is was right there in her face.
Last year I was commissioned by ESPN Magazine in New York to go to Iffley Road sports ground at the University of Oxford, where, in a glass case, is the stopwatch that was used to record the time of Roger Bannister’s record breaking mile on the 6th May 1954. This was the first time the mile had been run under four minutes.
ESPN were preparing a photographic feature on great pieces of sporting memorabilia and my shoot with the watch was one of many others they had arranged.
There were actually three watches used that day, in the event of a breakdown or doubt. You could call it belt, braces and glue. The other two are now in private hands and this one is still the property of the club. The other interesting thing about the watches is that they are 30 seconds to a revolution, so the hand had to travel just short of eight complete circuits to do it’s job that day.
In the excitement, joy and pandemonium immediately after the race the watch was knocked from the timekeeper’s hands and the glass on the front cracked on impact. Part of it is forever missing and you can see that in the picture above. Bannister’s record breaking time is preserved though – 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
The club secretary took the key to the glass cabinet that the stopwatch lives in out of his desk drawer, unlocked the door and handed the watch over to me. History in my hands, reassuringly heavy too, a wonderful thing. I set up my lighting and table top backdrop in an empty squash court and spent a lovely afternoon messing about with light, shadows and time.
After the story ran I was asked by the magazine’s then photo editor, Catriona Ni Aolain, if I could make a large print of it for the editor in chief. Of all the items they had photographed for the story, this was the one he wanted to hang framed in his office.
My second campaign for Agent Provocateur, a shoot for their 2012 Classics range of underwear, kicked off with a 6am start on a cold, dark February morning at Spring Studios in London. My set was to consist of 20 square metres of charcoal grey silk and a yellow perspex floor. This later became off black in post production but for technical reasons I needed a light floor to reflect some light back onto the model. The AP team built a frame to support it all, at a height off the ground that would allow me to get far enough beneath the models to be able to shoot from the low angle that I wanted to achieve on these.
For inspiration I had been thinking a little bit of Bill Brandt’s work, particularly his beach nudes. I wanted to light these pictures so that there was nothing direct coming from in front of the model. All the lights, 6 in total, heavily softened and diffused, came from behind and were directed towards a long screen of white polyboards in front of the model. I wanted the tone and texture of the skin to take on an alabaster feel which I felt I could only really achieve by bathing the body in purely reflected light. Think of it as being done under the thickest, whitest, blanket cloud imaginable, with only the subtlest kisses of highlight round the edges of the body. This was what I had in my head before we began and, unusually for me, I stuck to it on the day. The second part of the Brandt influence was to take the idea of using quite a wide angle lens and to shoot from extreme low angles, so as to exaggerate the length of the legs. Wide angle lenses are anathema in fashion photography, longer lenses are more flattering to the features and compress the subject so that it’s easier to make everything look softer and more beautified. I liked the idea of going against the grain for Agent Provocateur in this way.
As the crack of dawn showed it’s face outside the studio windows two of my all time favourite collaborators, make up artist Kay Montano and hairdresser Eamonn Hughes, set to work on the blonde Valerie and the brunette Charlotte in their own talented way. Meanwhile, the rest of us sat around and ate carbohydrate products until we were ready to start shooting.
Two wind machines, two laptops and two camera bodies later, we had 19 shots in the bag and a tray of Margheritas to end on. The great thing about working for Agent Provocateur is the attitude and energy that creative director, Sarah Shotton, contributes to the day. She has a brilliant way of ramping up the girls to a level that brings out a great performance. Her red headed presence is the living embodiment of AP, she is the AP girl and can get away with saying things that, coming from my mouth, would just be plain wrong.
To see more of my work for Agent Provocateur please visit my website.
Here’s a montage of behind the scenes shots. Thanks to Nic Serpell-Rand for doing these.
I’ll be honest. I’m not big on Harry Potter. Or all that stuff full of people from New Zeland. Nor am I all that keen on Heavy Metal. When I was at school I loved Madness. Everybody else was obsessed with Iron Maiden. It’s no surprise to tell you then, that when I got a call from the Wall Street Journal to photograph Ben Hibon I had to back peddle quite some way to learn about him and what he does.
“When I was (more) geeky I was much more familiar with animation/digital creative, his stuff for Playstation for example. But honestly, the Deathly Hallows shadow puppet sequence is probably the most beautiful piece of animation I’ve ever seen. I went to the cinema three times for it and it’s 5 minutes of the whole bloody movie. It’s a shame you can’t see it before Wednesday. It makes sense as a standalone from Harry Potter……the perfect reminder to me of how beautifully dark story telling can be.”
So, in case you didn’t get that, the director of Harry Potter gave him carte blanche to create a 5 minute animated sequence that explains the backstory of the legend of the three brothers in HP & the Legend of the Deathly Hallows. Poppy’s email led me to spend a bit more time researching his work. I put a call in to my friend Gez who knows about stuff like this. Gez spends all day with his dog in the park and just, sort of, knowing about stuff like this.
“Oh totally. He made a video for Slayer. Greatest thing ever”
I said to Gez, as a joke: “He’s like a kind of Picasso of the digital age”
And Gez said: “Totally, dude.”
Hmmm….Picasso Picasso Picasso Picasso. Animation animation animation.
Which is how the pictures here came about.
In the back of my head was a memory of some incredible photographs of Picasso from Life Magazine taken in the late 1940’s by a photographer called Gjon Mili. Mili had shown Picasso some pictures he’d taken of ice skaters with tiny lights attached to their skates jumping in the dark. This set Pablo off and together, him and Mili, made some beautiful images of Picasso drawing with a torch in the dark.
I emailed Ben before we met to see if he’d be interested in doing an homage to Mili’s pictures and he said he would be, as long as it wasn’t going to take hours. No, no, no, no….we’ll be able to knock this off in 90 minutes.
After one false start, Ben calling to bale on me the day before our original appointment, Gez and I pitched up at his flat in Blackheath, south east London on Friday 21st January. It was a small and packed, but tidy, affair in a 1930’s council style block. Weird to think that someone who can create the worlds that he has created inside a computer lives in a suburban British high street above a dry cleaners and a florist.
Gez was, again, my secret weapon here. Knowing that he keeps his fingers in the Metal pie enabled me to deploy him to gas on endlessly to Ben about Slayer and the awesomeness they both felt after the appearance together of something called “The Big Four” at the Sonisphere Festival last summer. Always learning, always curious is the motto I try to live by and in this case what I learned was that ‘The Big Four’, in Metal terms, are Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax & Megadeath. I still love Madness.
This chat distracted Ben for long enough to allow me to roll out reams and reams of cinefoil, a kind of thicker, black version of kitchen foil, which I used to completely black out his living room. I put up one single flash unit on a boom arm above his head and had an LED bicycle light to act as our light pen but, after a couple of test frames, it turned out to have too big a circumference so we covered that with cinefoil too, before making a hole the size of a 5p coin in it. About the only thing in the room not covered in cinefoil was Ben himself. Gez’s white t-shirt was causing light to reflect and bounce around so I had to make him put his coat on.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not big on technical bleurgh. Technique is something that should be learned and quickly forgotten, so as to allow one to be fully creative and engaged with the subject, rather than hunched over an instruction manual. Thorough technique is freedom but bad technique is a prison. However, so many people have asked me how I did this and it’s so simple to do that I felt I should put it on here for anyone who’s interested. This is the photographic equivalent of one of Jamie Oliver’s 3o minute meals. Invite your friends round and you will blow them away with this simple yet totally tasty nosh. Sweet as.
So this is how we did it. The room is totally blacked out now. The only light in it is from the bicycle light, which Ben is pointing towards the camera and not illuminating him in any way.
The shutter is set on the camera to open for 16 seconds. The entire time it’s open it will record every move the bike light makes but because there is no light on Ben we will never see him at all. To capture him in the picture frozen, in mid action, not blurry, is what the flash unit above his head is for. That light fires for 1/1000 second which freezes him. It also has cinefoil around the outside, to stop the light from it leaking all over the place and lighting the room up. I just want the light from that to only illuminate Ben’s face and body.
The first few times we did it, I was firing the flash at the start of the 16 seconds but quickly realised that we were capturing him before he had begun to draw, so we changed it to have me open the shutter without firing the flash and watch him in the dark before firing remotely at some point in the middle of the exposure while he was in full flow with his drawing. This made the picture more dynamic and gave it an injection of energy, as did his choice of subject matter, the head of the Death character from his Harry Potter piece.
To see Ben’s work click here.
This the story of a shoot I’ve just done for American GQ and while we’re here, I’ll tell you straight what Chris Albrecht has done for you. Once upon a time, Chris was the chairman and CEO of an American cable television outfit called Home Box Office that you have to pay a monthly fee to get access to. I seem to remember that 15 years ago about the only thing that was on that channel that was worth paying for was the odd heavyweight championship boxing fight. But then Chris came along and during his tenure he brought you these:
Sex & The City, The Wire, Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, From The Earth To The Moon, Extras, Deadwood & Curb Your Enthusiasm, among others.
Quite a feat. Wait though. There’s more.
He once told his friend Robin Williams that he called his Sicilian grandparents his nana and his nanu. Hence “Nanu Nanu” from Mork & Mindy.
He co-founded the American arm of Comic Relief.
And he more or less discovered Chris Rock. From the piece in GQ by Amy Wallace: “In 1989, when Rock was a 24-year-old no-name comic with crooked teeth and “a fucking weird haircut,” he says Albrecht gave him a development deal at HBO. The reason: He’d heard that Rock’s father had died, leaving the family in debt. “This guy figured out a legit way to put some money in my pocket. He really took a chance on me,” Rock recalls. “Shit, we still ended up losing the house, but God bless him.” ”
Quite some guy. However, Chris then went and did a bad thing. In May 2007, outside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, he tried to choke his then girlfriend in the middle of a drunken row. He was arrested. After he was bailed he sent an email to all of HBO’s staff to apologise for what he’d done and that he would be taking a 6 month leave of absence to seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous. Not long after that, the Los Angeles Times reported that 16 years earlier he’d had an affair with an HBO employee that finished up with some behind closed doors physicality and a payoff settlement to the woman herself. Almost immediately, the Chairman & CEO who had turned the channel into the most consistently brilliant producer of original, quality programmes was fired.
He has since spent a couple of years in the wilderness and last year quietly raised his head from beneath the parapet to take over a smaller and far less well known rival of HBO’s, called Starz, where it is hoped he will be able to do for this channel what he did at HBO.
I was commissioned by Justin O’Neill at American GQ to photograph Chris in Dublin, where he was visiting the set of the first production he’s given the green light to since taking over the helm at Starz. The show is called ‘Camelot’. I don’t want to give too much away but I can reveal that it stars Eva Green, Joseph Fiennes, a lot of swords and an hombre named Arthur, who becomes some sort of king.
I’d wanted to work for American GQ for a long time and the call from Justin came totally out of the blue. When I lived in New York he worked at New York Magazine and we had worked together a couple of times then, so it was peachy to hear from him now that he’s at GQ. To get to Dublin for the shoot, however, would entail my assistant and me having to travel directly from another assignment I was doing in Switzerland the day before this one. It seemed to be no problem. We planned to leave Basel after that job and fly to London Gatwick, where we would stay in an airport hotel for the night before climbing onto a plane bound for Dublin at the crack of dawn the next day. What I didn’t take into account though, was the capability of the French public to drop everything at a moment’s notice and shove it’s hands in it’s pockets for a snidey little 24 hour national strike. As we walked into the airport check-in area we actually saw the departures info board go from everything showing as being on time and whatever the Swiss German is for ‘tickety boo’ to “cancelled cancelled cancelled cancelled…..” Included in the strike was the French air traffic control. Nothing can get from Switzerland to London without flying over France.
Ten years I’ve aspired to work for GQ and here I am, about to head off on the job, so the first thought that entered my head was not “oh, I’m so totally on the side of the French citizenry in their day of protest regarding President Sarkozy’s proposal to raise the national retirement age from 60 to 62.” It was actually a whole different thought entirely. The shoot was scheduled to take place at 11am the following morning in Dublin. Here we were, in Basel, 14 hours to get there, with 1600 miles and two bodies of water between us. Two words: no chance.
I called Justin in New York and gave it to him straight. I was out of the game before I’d had a chance to get in it. His reaction, however, was that which only an American is capable of.
“There’s no other flights?”
“Justin, nothing is getting out. There are no planes, no trains and we have a Swiss automobile that we have to return to a Swiss company.”
“Could you fly from there to Dublin directly in the morning if I can persuade Albrecht’s people to put back the start time?”
“I don’t know. I can have a look on the internet and try and find something.”
“Great! Then you do that and I’ll get our travel people here to look too. Lets talk in a while.”
This stuff was only made possible by the internet. Ten years ago we really would have been stuffed but there we sat, in the Swiss half of Basel Airport (half the airport is in France and the other half is in Switzerland, each side has it’s own customs posts etc) working it out on a laptop while a few yards away the French half of the place sat inert, sullen & moody. Incredibly, we found a Swiss flight from Zurich to Dublin at 9am the following morning, with seats available. Arriving at 10.30 in Dublin, we’d need an hour to get to the set and an hour to rig up our lighting etc. Conceivably we could be ready to go by 12.30 at a push. My assistant, Ben, and I left Justin to set about enacting the plan in New York while we jumped back in the rental car and started out for Zurich, an hour’s drive away.
Justin put the call in and Albrecht’s PR came back with a willingness to co-operate which is, honestly, not particularly common when dealing with PR people, who often seem to think that their role in life is to self generate a crisis which they can then rescue their client from, thus making themselves appear to be indispensable. This time though, they couldn’t have been more accommodating.
Ben and I bedded down for the night in a Zurich hotel room and got about 5 hours sleep before exiting the city of discreet banking practices and assisted suicide clinics via its airport and onwards, to the more earthly pleasures of Dublin.
After hightailing it all the way round the city’s ring road, the M50, to the set at Ardmore Studios, south of Dublin, with an extra assistant that we picked up on the way, we arrived to find the place swarming with hundreds of extras dressed and made up as the dregs of 6th Century Arthurian legend. Mostly sitting around they were, doing nothing but sudoku, crosswords, sleeping and tweeting. It was exactly like how it looks in ‘Extras’, another one from the HBO canon.. The production is using three enormous sound stages, one of which they had set aside exclusively for our shoot. This set is known as ‘The Great Hall’ and was built entirely from scratch. I’m sure you can imagine the scenario. Flaming torches, moss, a throne, even the stone floor was shipped in from somewhere else. Our plan was to make a portrait of Albrecht on the Great Hall set and have him surrounded by some of the cast. It wasn’t made clear which ones it would be until we arrived, though they were quick to tell me that it was to be Jamie Campbell-Bower who plays Arthur and the six hail fellows who form his gang of knights.
After the co-operation of Albrecht’s PR, the next best thing to happen was that the producer of the series gave me full loan of the Best Boy to help with lighting the set. The Best Boy is number two to the Gaffer. The Gaffer is the head of the electrical department on a film set and is responsible for the execution of the lighting plan, under the command of the D.O.P. (Director of Photography). I had thousand and thousands of pounds worth of lighting equipment at my immediate disposal with a Best Boy who was not only willing to help but positively game on for the idea of making the frame we wanted to construct rivetingly glowy. He then called on half a dozen other sparks and together we began to light up this 6th Century, Arthurian construct.
Primarily I wanted to employ the heavy, warm tungsten lights, that they are using across the production, to light the set and the characters of Arthur & Co. I would then pick the spot where I wanted Albrecht to stand and mask that area off from all the red/orange light that was illuminating everywhere else. For the lighting of my main subject I would be using 3 or 4 Profoto flash heads that give out a much cooler, daylight balanced light. We had had these delivered first thing from a rental company in Dublin. So, visually, the warm, soft, diffused, continuous light that bathes the set & characters is completely different in tone and colour to the icy, crisp, sharpness of the electronic flash that is directed onto Chris Albrecht. A man from the 21st century inside the world of the 6th century that he has been fundamental in instigating.
We did all that in about an hour. Chris Albrecht strolled in, followed by a retinue of courtiers and the only thing he asked me was “Do you think this tie? Or something less lilac?” The lilac is fine.
We shot the whole thing in maybe 20-30 minutes. To be honest, the time goes by in a blur. I’ve written about this before in a post on the subject of photographing Andrew Lloyd Webber. Everything that my assistants and I have worked towards is concentrated into this one machine gun burst of intensity where you spray the target with everything you have in the way of energy, focus, determination, chutzpah, charm and chat in order to nail the subject to the cross. Anything to prevent him from wandering off, literally and metaphorically, to somewhere else. “Someone call 999, this place is on fire!” I seem to remember bellowing at one point. When I ask them all to sing the theme tune from Dirty Dancing, ‘I’ve Had The Time Of My Life’, which I often do, it’s not because I necessarily want them to actually sing it. It’s because I want to see what kind of reaction I get from asking them to sing it, and from that reaction will come something that will be it’s own unique thing. That is about throwing them off balance, but in a creative way, a way that causes them to realise that they need to be in the here and now in all it’s forms, not physically here but mentally on a beach. And all the while I am doing this there are about 20 people standing behind me, watching the images float in on a computer screen and they are saying things like, “Meh, his mouth isn’t quite right in this one, you’ll have to fix that in post.” If you let it, that stuff will eat up your confidence in seconds. We are working towards a peak, a mountain top here. Don’t get halfway up and tell me you don’t like the view.
After about 350 frames I can feel that we’ve topped this one out and I should let these guys get out of all that iron and leather, just leaving me with a few minutes to grab what I call the ‘rejection shot.’ The rejection shot is the one that I give to the client that allows them to believe that I have enabled them to make a choice, rather than forcing them into a corner with no option but to go with the one and only set-up that I presented. In this case it was a tight, half length portrait of Mr. Albrecht tying his tie, whilst looking all mogulish.
The risk with this smart political move, however, is that in the words of the late, great Bob Richardson, “You give ‘em a choice of two photographs and you KNOW they’re gonna pick the wrong one. Fuck that! They get one and one only.”
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.
One of the things I don’t like about shooting on the medium format digital back I have is that setting it anything higher than ISO 100 causes a most noticeable decline in quality. This makes it difficult to work with my favouritte kind of lighting – the given to us from on high by God himself Kino Flo. This is because, as gorgeous, lustrous and sexy as the light they bestow on us can be, they are also devastatingly low in output. You need loads of the buggers to get the pace of your game on, they have to be really close in to the subject, specifically placed and angled and once achieved it can feel a bit like being inside a mass light sabre brawl on the Death Star.
Nevertheless, just yesterday I decided that no longer could I allow the digi-wall to come between my beloved Kinos and me and that the day had come to withdraw the heavy artillery that is flash from the battle and deploy my Delta Kino force of Snipers and a 2 man SAS HMI outfit. Enough of the military metaphors, I’m a lover not a fighter. Here’s the finished picture from a previous shoot using the same stuff – Naomi Watts in an eighteenth century East London corn merchant’s house. He wasn’t present on the shoot though. I believe he was otherwise disposed in another dimension.