Category Archive: The Great Twitter Portrait Project
This feels like it will never end. While everybody else came to the party, stayed for a drink and left, I have been stuck in the room with all 140 of them for almost a year. It has taken me that long to gather up written pieces from as many of them as I can. Those that didn’t get back to me are too late. I tried, oh I tried. Nevertheless, over 120 people worked their brains to a pulp to give me something insightful, revealing, funny, thoughtful, worrying and optimistic on Twitter, photography, being photographed, 9/11, society, evolution and a thousand other things, as well as collectively creating an impression for future generations of what it means and feels like to be alive today.
The end result is a fantastic 172 page book, featuring written contributions from almost everybody who took part in my 2010/11 quest to photograph 140 of the people I follow on Twitter, as well as the portraits themselves.
In all the talking I’ve done on this project over the last year, time and again I have come back to the role technology plays in making human lives infinitely more convenient, while at the same time conspiring to drive a wedge between us physically. This has been so ever since the invention of the telegraph. The overwhelming response to ‘One Hundred And Forty Characters’ has been positive. The trolls have been contained to an area the size of a trolley and I am convinced that this is because the people who have seen it have innately understood and recognised that deep in our make up we understand that we are pack animals. We need to meet, gather and be together in common cause. OFC is that writ graphically and simply, only made possible because of technology, a lever to allow the conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy.
This has happened in several phases and stages. One, I invited people to my studio via Twitter. Right there they are out of the Twitter window and through my door, in my face. I can see how tall they are, what they sound like, what sort of phone they’ve got, where they came from and on and on. Two, when the project ended there was an exhibition and about 100 of the 140 came to the opening night. This made real a physical manifestation of Twitter’s daily virtual world, where they could all get up in each other’s faces and find out the same stuff I did, but with added alcohol. Finally, all of them are brought together for posterity, into hard copy format, ink on paper, with their thoughts to stand beside them.
“It’s a confessional, a Samaritan, a water cooler and a soapbox all rolled into one.”
As the years pass and we travel ever further into a world where online relationships will be nothing more than our daily reality, this combination of portraits and words will come to serve as a big old time capsule of what we thought social media was in its earliest days. Oh! how we will look back and laugh at our naiveté, I’m sure.
‘One Hundred And Forty Characters’ is available as a 172 page book, printed in England by F.E. Burman, in a limited edition format, on Fedrigoni Xper 140gsm with a blind embossed cover on Fedrigoni Xper 320gsm. Thank you to Wayne Ford for his beautiful design and art direction and also, Eleanor O’Kane, who proof read every single word and made the necessary corrections to the text.
The book is available directly from here for £35.00 for UK buyers. Click on the first link below:
For buyers from outside the UK the book is £40.00 and you should click here:
Finally, one more treat for you. So you can see just what you’ll be getting for your money, here’s a great little video of the book’s text pages, with a voiceover by me, that took 14 attempts to nail. Lots to look at, lots to read, get yours today. Thirty years from now your kids will be staring at this in wonder thinking, “How did they live like that?”
I was thrilled to be asked by the National Portrait Gallery a couple of months ago, if they could acquire my October 2010 portrait of writer Caitlin Moran, who despite being born in 1975 has had a column in The Times since 1958. She is, indeed, a prolific woman. I have a few things in the bowels of the nation’s collection and on a handful of occasions they have managed to crawl out of the sub-ground level darkness to make it on to the walls of the gallery itself. This time, however, the gallery wanted to fast track the photograph straight into the “Picture of the Month” slot for August. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the wall of Room 39 at the NPG later this week.
The story behind how the picture came to exist is a great example of the unforseen bonuses that can derive from getting off your arse in times when the Black Dog is upon your shoulder. Regular readers of this blog will know about the ‘140 Characters‘ project, in which I spent the best part of a year photographing 140 people that I follow on Twitter. What I haven’t really mentioned before is that I started the project at a time when work had been very quiet for several weeks. I had barely seen or spoken to anybody. In times like those your reserves of confidence can literally eat themselves up in minutes. Since the demise of analogue/film in my world, the opportunities to meet and spend time with other like minded types have been heavily diminished. Frankly, I miss it. In the days of going to labs it meant that you were meeting your contemporaries, getting to know them and even, in some cases, actually becoming friends with them. Those people know what it’s like and we would each draw comfort, support and fuel from each other during the dodgy periods. Since that’s all over, I don’t know what anybody looks like anymore. I feel like Ray Liotta at the end of ‘Goodfellas’ stuck in the witness protection programme. “There’s no action anymore. Just the other day I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce in a restaurant. You know what they brought me? Egg noodles and ketchup. I get to live the rest of my life like a schmuck.”
Other photographers are just names now, not faces. The ’140 Characters’ thing was my attempt to meet people, as well as ‘self assign’ a project that would fill up some time, inspire me and also serve as a big, barbed stick with which to keep the Black Dog away. I don’t like spending days at a time on my own. The mental lanes my mind tends to wander down always lead to gloom, pessimism and an assumption that all the future has to offer is an unpleasant ending. It’s boring and lonely. Twitter was/is the closest I have come to filling the hole that has been left by the eradication of house leaving opportunities.
The portrait of Caitlin that is now in the NPG was a byproduct of the Twitter project. I had been following her for a while on Twitter and loved watching the way she would interact with other people on there, particularly Alexis Petridis, the Guardian’s music critic, who is someone I know as an acquaintance, having worked with him a couple of times on stories for The Guardian Weekend. Watching them, and others, was the virtual version of sitting in an office with very funny workmates. As I developed the idea for the project in my head, I wanted it to be a place where I could bring people together in a photograph who were clearly doing things together in a medium like Twitter. Equally, I also wanted it to serve as a platform in which people who previously had had no contact could come together and the white space of the frame would be the canvas in which they could form something unique amongst themselves. So it was with this theory in mind that I persuaded and managed to co-ordinate a visit to my studio from Caitlin and Alexis at the same time and on the same day. What I love about these pictures is that they are a clear visual manifestation of how their relationship regularly plays out on Twitter.
After photographing the pair of them together I then spent some time on each of them as individuals and it was here that the headline image was made. I knew that I had the time of someone special, even magical, so I thought it best to exploit it while I had the chance. So, as well as doing some of the white background stuff, I also decided to do something different. When I say ‘different’, what I really mean is that I just wanted to do a classic Penn/Avedon style of 1950′s black and white character led portrait. I felt that I didn’t even need to wind her up and let her go because she winds herself up and lets herself go. It was me but it could equally have been her bedroom mirror or an audience of legal executives. What ensued was a 15 minute period where I documented, in real time, certain elements of a mesmerising, clever and very funny woman. One image doesn’t do her justice, so here ‘s a selection of the outtakes – the ‘rejects’. What comes over, looking at them now, is that fundamentally Caitlin is a performer, except she does it for a mass audience with a pen. I’m quite convinced that, given the opportunity, she could have done it with comedy, radio, telly or even films. Singing, I’m not sure about.
In all probability these pictures would have then languished for eternity on one of the gazillion hard drives that my work, post analogue, now lives inside. No one would have seen them and they’d have drifted further from my frontal lobes with each new subject that came my way. However, in an idle moment a couple of days after our time together I sent her a selection of them via email. Here’s her reply:
So, the pictures went from Caitlin to her publishers, who after much umming and a lot of aahing picked the one they wanted, which then went on the cover of her book ‘How To Be A Woman’, and which now, 6 weeks after it was published is right up there in the top ten of Amazon’s UK sales chart. They put a silly red/pink tint on her polka dot top in the photo, for no discernible reason whatsoever, and because as someone once said about Martha Stewart, “She can never let a pine cone just be a pine cone”, but this is what happens when you let ‘wordy’ people loose on imagery. They always think they can improve it. It’s my ambition to one day stand behind a literary person and, every few minutes, lean over their shoulder and randomly change a sentence they just wrote. In return I will allow them to come on a photo shoot with me and point at things they’d like me to photograph, for the purposes of providing some sort of visual affadavit to the words they think they will later write.
Luckily this didn’t put off the nice people at the NPG who saw it and asked if they could buy it ‘for the nation’ and print it in it’s full monochromatic glory, with Caitlin’s polka dot top rendered in a fine shade of greys.
As I said at the beginning, what I am most thrilled about in all this is the way that what began as an idea motivated by the realisation that I was feeling unmotivated and in need of creative stimulation has, in hindsight, led all the way to the walls of the place that any portrait photographer yearns to have their work. So, thank you to Caitlin for turning up and thank you to Alexis Petridis for forcing her to turn up.
See the picture and viewing information on the National Portrait Gallery website.
In July 2010 I decided to begin photographing people that I follow on Twitter. The idea for this came at a moment when I realised I had not seen or spoken to any of my best half a dozen real and actual friends for over a month. Some of those people on Twitter I communicate with several times a week, in bursts of 140 characters or less, and yet I had never met any of them. As we are now well and truly living in a digital age I am aware that this state of being is only going to deepen and the traditional forms of friendship, although they will not go away anytime soon, are going to have to make more room for the new way of doing things. Where Facebook might be considered as the place in which you tell lies to all the people you went to school with, I had begun to think of Twitter as the place where you tell the truth to all those that you wish you’d gone to school with. The project rolled on indefinitely for almost a year but when, one day, I counted up the number of subjects to date and came to a number in the mid one hundred and thirties, I immediately knew where this had to end. So here they are. My new friends. 140 characters. No more and no less.
I am one week short of taking a full year to get to this point and, for those of you that are interested, here is the original post from July 2010, explaining it all right at the start. Reading it back, I am struck by how much my inspiration stayed the course. The digital nature of being a photographer today remained the prime raison d’etre for the project. Humans are pack animals, despite what we may or may not believe at any given point in our daily/weekly/monthly/yearly cycle of highs and lows. I am definitely happier when in the presence of stimulating company and the demise of film and all the trips to film related places (photographic stores, labs, printers etc) has played a big role in the erosion of those opportunities, as well as leaving a huge social void that is yet to be filled by something equally physical or new. Nor is anything likely to, we are too wedded to the convenience of the computer and the immediacy of digital delivery. I mean, come on, who is going to go back to sitting around waiting for clip tests ever again? Or be full steam ahead with heavenly raptures of transcendence for the deadline dodging motorcycle courier? Then there’s international clients. Fedexing contact sheets? You’re out of your frigging mind. So far, Twitter has plugged the hole, in the sense that it has created an opportunity for me to talk to people on a daily basis while I’m at work. What constitutes me being at work is vast swathes of time during the week, where I am sat alone at a computer for hours and hours and hours. The furthest my intellect gets stretched during these periods is when I get to do ‘Ctrl+C’ followed by ‘Ctrl+V’.
In addition, I’m also really, really nosey and I wanted to see what all these people that I had begun to ‘talk to’ were like and, equally importantly, what they sounded like. I needed to meet them. Further down this post is an audio/visual slide show that features a whole load of the one forty alongside an audio edit of many of them talking about Twitter. What it reveals, that Twitter does not reveal by itself, are the accents. I love just hearing all the accents and I love that the British Isles, despite what we may think about the gradual homogenisation of our regional dialects, still throws up a wonderful ploughman’s platter of chat. I played it to my dad, who is a 69 year old retiree, out of the world for 4 years, and does not engage in Twitter or any other forms of social media. After listening to it he said: “I’m not so pessimistic for the future after hearing that. In fact, I’m quite optimistic. People are still thoughtful, still intelligent and still funny. We’ll be alright.”
I never joined Facebook, or any of those other ones, so why has Twitter, after two and a half years, remained entrenched in my daily life? I can only come to one conclusion. Whereas Facebook seems to allow the user to construct a perceived or projected existence for themselves through the deployment of various convenient aids, Twitter just strips it all away and leaves the user with nothing but the utilitarian tool of 140 characters and the imagination of language. Over a sustained period of time or patch of ground you are always going to betray yourself. By that I mean that you will, layer by layer, reveal who you are and this will continue to be an ongoing and ever revelatory process. Other users will continue to be attracted to that or not, and vice versa. It’s really quite binary, whilst being relentlessly deep and wide, which I like. A lot.
As someone said to me, Twitter is “a huge, massive, endless free flowing conversation with lots of interesting, witty people.” What more is there to say? If you don’t get it, then you just don’t get it.
To celebrate the end of the project I have commissioned a limited print run of 500 posters. Designed by Wayne Ford, the posters (shown above) are A1 in size (840mm x 594mm) and were printed in England using a lithographic tritone process consisting of a warm grey 4, a book black and a process black on 135gsm Omnia paper stock. They are £30 each, including delivery. Mine is framed and on my hall wall. Hit this little button here and Paypal will make it all nice and smooth.
As if that ain’t enough! Here is a 14 minute slideshow of all the portraits that were produced for ‘One Hundred and Forty Characters’ accompanied by a fantastic audio edit of many of those who took part talking about Twitter with wit, thoughtfulness and insight. Warning! Contains accents.
And finally, if you’d prefer to just listen to the audio, which is just the straight 14 minutes of human ingenuity and interestingness on one subject all by itself then click here to listen to an Audioboo file while you go about other important tasks.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know about my plan to photograph as many followers/followees as I can over the next few weeks.
The fact is that, these days, I communicate with people that I have never met far, far more than I ever do with my real, tangible friends. Of the people on there that I actually know, only one, Martin Deeson (follow him @martindeeson ) is what I would call a proper friend, in the long standing and traditional sense of the word. We have known each other for 16 years, we’ve been all over the world together, at my wedding he was my best man and once, in Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day, I saved him from an unpleasant immediate fate in Mountjoy Prison by coming up with £1000 at very short notice, in order to pay his debt to Irish society for the terrible damage he did to one of it’s CCTV cameras after becoming socially involved with internationally acclaimed herbal entrepreneur Howard Marks, a man who has appeared in more passports than anyone ever. And yet, he and I see each other maybe once every 3 or 4 months. We speak every 2 weeks or so and that’s it. We communicate through Twitter more than anything else. In fact, while staying at his house just before election night, we both lay on separate sofas watching Question Time and tweeting from our phones. We barely spoke and at one point, 4 feet from me, he tweeted me a message offering to top up my whisky glass. I accepted his offer via Twitter. If you grew up in the 70′s & 80′s, like us, then there’s a big part of you that finds that weird but you do it nevertheless because it’s what we are evolving into. None of my other proper friends are on Twitter and I don’t speak to them very often. I miss them.
Then there’s the way my job has changed in the last 5 or 6 years. In the old days, I would take my book/folio to meet someone at a magazine or ad agency or record label and then maybe they’d commission me. You’d have more meetings, shoot the pictures, take the film to a lab, hang out for a while, chat to other photographers that were in there at the time, go home, sit around for 2 days stressing about whether anything would be on the film, go back to the lab, collect the contact sheets, sit in the lab and look at them, have a cup of tea, chat to some other, different photographers, hang out for a bit, chat to the printers that work there, leave the lab, take the film to the client, put it on a table, gather round, look at it, discuss it, go home, sit around and stress that they hate it, get a fax (A FAX!!!!) with their print choices, go back to the lab, hang out while the printer that you liked the best made prints of the clients choices, chat to more photographers that were in there that day, leave the lab, take the prints to the client, have a little chatty time with him/her, go home, type an invoice, go to the post office, buy a stamp from the lady in there and post it, go home and sit around stressing that you’ll never work for that client again, for reasons real or delusional. The point is that there was so much more opportunity for randomness in the encounters one might have with persons known or unknown.
Nowadays, as Ray Liota says at the end of Goodfellas – when he’s in the Witness Protection Programme – “There’s no action anymore. The other day I went to a restaurant and ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce. And you know what they brought me? Egg noodles and ketchup.”
Shooting digitally is the photographic equivalent of being in the Witness Protection Programme. People don’t want you to come out. “Shall we meet and talk about this Sistine Chapel ceiling thing then?”
“Ermmm…Y’no I don’t think we really need to. I’ll email you over some photos I took on my phone and you can work it all out from those, can’t you?”
But we are still communicating. We’re just doing it differently. I sit in front of a computer all day, being incredibly productive, without ever leaving the house. It’s possible to go for days without getting dressed or conceding to the routines that are a vital part of entering into the actual world. When I have a job I leave the house for the duration of that job and then I go home and do all the stuff that I used to do that also involved travelling around town and meeting people and communicating with them- but I do it in front of a computer, which means I don’t do any travelling anymore and I don’t ever meet anyone anymore. And my friends are all doing the same thing too.
And I think it’s sad that a whole way of being has passed away without anyone really noticing, but I also quite like it because, at my core, I’m a melancholic and without that constant sweet sickness I’d probably feel way off balance.
In my life now, I have Twitter and it seems to have taken the place of all that sliding around town. I have the little Tweetie thing open on my screen and as I sit at home doing all this stuff I have one eye on that. It has become like taking part in a virtual grown up school classroom while the teacher’s been called out to speak to the deputy head. But instead of it being like Facebook, which I’m not on and which seems to just be all the people you went to school with, Twitter is like all the people you wish you’d gone to school with and I thought it would be interesting to try and actually bring them together, rather than virtually bring them together. What if I tried to bring a whole load of people who only exist inside an application window on a computer screen into my actual world? This is what I’ve been doing the last 3 days and it’s been a real ride. Tying to shoot video of them, photograph them, live tweet the results whilst continuously reminding Twitter of the invite to come down to London W10 and be a part of it and then manage the reactions and find time to fit everyone into convenient time slots has been the fun part of it.
In virtualand there isn’t really any meaningful space or time. You can come and go and still collide with people when you need to. In actualand if you want everyone there at 10am on Monday then it’s got to be 10am on Monday, as simple as. Getting specific groups together for this project has been the difficult part but I’ve found that if I plead with them enough they can bend their space & time to fit the needs of the group.
The next thing that happened was that once people began to show up for their portrait they would tweet about it afterwards, so there has been an exponential rise in the tweeting that is covering the project. The more people I photograph, the more tweeting there is about it, the more people become interested and curious. Today is day 3 of the project and it’s gone 1,2,16 in terms of energy surrounding the idea. Tomorrow is day 4 and I’m looking to go from 16 to 64.
If you are interested and would like to take part then Tweet me @chrisfloyduk – for now, please enjoy this short film of day one on The Great Twitter Portrait Project.