Yes, but is it art?

Last week I was setting up to photograph an industry awards event in Bristol which I knew would include some group photos as well as individual presentations.

During my preparations I took this photo of a row of chairs to check my lights and their outputs so that when it came to doing the group photos, everything would be pre-set without further setting up.

It wasn’t until I got back to base and started editing the images that the photo sort of jumped out at me. It has a quiet, expectant air. It is clean, but imperfect (stains on the seats, the 13 amp socket on the wall). I’m not much good at artistic analysis so I’ll resist too much hyperbole.

I posted it as a bit of a joke on a photographers’ Facebook forum and was pleasantly surprised by how the other photographers saw and participated in the joke. I titled it “Consciousness of Dolphins #5.”

Yet every time I look at it, something about it stirs me. The geometry of the wall behind and the way one edge exactly intersects with the chair back; the simple colour palette (here I go again, cod art terms I really should resist), and even the way the chairs anticipate the use to which they are about to be put. I can’t help feeling I’ve created something which might, had I been born with a triple-barrelled name or tutored in a Zurich art college, have been considered art.

But no. My belief is that art isn’t random. The artist must know what they are trying to achieve before they create a piece and that the art is what happens between the idea forming in the artist’s mind and the finished article coming into existence. You can’t screw up a piece of tin foil, mount it on a mahogany plinth and then decide what the message is. Likewise I can’t take a test shot with the purpose of checking my settings, then decide I’ve created art.

Still, I will say this: without being pretty, it is an engaging photograph. While I could say that’s good enough for me, what’s even better is that when the groups turned up, my settings were correct. Insofar as the photo has a purpose, that was it and that really is good enough for me.

It’s SOE Challenging!

Last month I was asked, for the second year running, to take pictures of the Institute of Road Transport Engineers (IRTE) Skills Challenge which takes place in Bristol.

This is a three-day event during which teams of individuals are put forward by various bus and coach operators to test their skills in, amongst other things, vehicle electronics, braking systems, fabricating, testing and diagnostics.

The photos are used by the Society of Operation Engineers (SOE) to help promote the event through their website, printed material and for the first time this year I was also sending “rush” pictures to the PR team for live use in social media.

It’s fair to say the three days are quite a challenge photographically too. I have to ensure I get good pictures of each entrant because the photos will be used at the subsequent awards event to accompany the prize presentations to winners.

As the challenges are live and timed I have to ensure I get my shots with as little disruption to the participants as possible. At the same time, because of the nature of the challenges, it would be all too easy to just run around getting nothing more than pictures of the tops of peoples’ heads as they concentrate on what they’re doing when what I really want to see are their faces and expressions.

The lighting can also be quite tricky. Sometimes it’s relatively easy as the event takes place in a large engineering hangar with some daylight coming in through skylights in the roof, but this isn’t always ideal, especially when there’s not much sunshine outside or where a contestant is working in a tight corner with little light on their face. I like my lighting to be clean, with as little colour cast as possible.

So I work fast with a small set-up; usually with a wide zoom lens for flexibility and a single flash on a stand, firing into an umbrella for portability and to reduce the influence of the indoor lighting. The umbrella also keeps the light looking natural and soft.

The greatest challenge is always in the machine shop where contestants will be working with metal cutters, grinders and welding equipment. It’s hot, noisy and there are all kinds of health and safety issues to consider.

Photographing welding is an especially tricky art because I have to wear a welding mask to protect my eyes which means I can’t see so well to compose and focus my shots, but the results are often the most interesting, with sparks flying and the intense glow from the welding torch.

Of course a shot of someone welding doesn’t show their face, so I’ll always ensure I get a shot of them doing something else as well, such as inspecting a weld or measuring for a cut.

What’s really great though is that tomorrow I’ll see the entrants again as they go to a prize-giving at the Jaguar Experience in Birmingham. I’ll be taking pictures of the prize presentations and of the overall event for industry public relations and again to promote the event for next year.

As I’ve never been to the Jaguar Experience and don’t know what the venue will be like for photographs, it’ll be a whole new challenge!

Portraits of Brexit Britain

Overview of the call centre at's office in Bristol where fundraisers took pledges from the public. A large sign is on the wall at the back of the room as call handlers sit at desks, watching computer monitors and wearing telephone headsets. call centre, Bristol. Photo © Tim Gander 2016

Sometimes I see a fellow photographer reveal a new personal project and it really interests me, which is why I’m sharing Steve Franck’s post with you here this week.

Steve is a London-based photographer working mostly for commercial and corporate clients, but he’s also pretty inspirational in his personal work too.

The plan for his latest project is to do a series of post-EU Referendum portraits, one each of 100 people (52 Leave voters, 48 Remain voters), in their own homes, examining their backgrounds and reasons for voting the way they did.

And the reason I’m posting this here is because Steve needs volunteers from a range of backgrounds and situations in order to capture a broad section of society. So if you’d like to be photographed (and receive a free print for your time), head over to his project page to find out more and to make contact with Steve.