From the Archive: The Musicians

This week I’m going to talk about a collection of pictures which are relatively recent, but which seem much older. To be honest, anything from 2020 now feels like a different era.

Rachel and Silas

One, a portrait of Rachel Byrt, is already in my Business Portraits portfolio. While the other, featuring Silas Wollston, hasn’t made it in yet, but I think it needs to because it’s a strong image. There are in fact a few potential candidates in the set.

Viola player Rachel and harpsichordist and organist Silas visited my home back in August 2020. It was part social/part portrait session, so for the portraits we made space in our kitchen/dining room for a mini studio. As ever through 2020, the prevailing Covid restrictions were observed.

Working Smart

Being such a tight space, I had to be creative with just a single studio light and a black backdrop which I used as a flag to control the lighting. Our bright yellow feature wall took up backdrop duty. This worked very well for both the colour and black and white photos.

Each portrait required a slightly different setup, but for an impromptu music session I took the studio gear away and captured some action using my medium format film camera.

Because Rachel and Silas are busy professionals, it was important to ensure they had a decent choice of pictures for different areas of their work. Also, without knowing where pictures will be used it was important to have a variety of upright and landscape oriented images. Both Rachel and Silas have their own picture galleries from which they can download what they need, when they need it.

Ready for the Comeback

I would love to do more musician profile work, but of course it’s been a tough time in the creative arts. Fingers crossed 2022 will be the year when live music really gets going again. When it does, I’ll certainly be happy to do my bit whenever it happens.

Continuing Landscapes

Photographically speaking, this latest lockdown has been pretty tough. Commissions and personal projects alike have taken a hit, but there are glimmers of hope on both fronts. This post is about the personal work.

An Alternative Plan.

As a result of the travel ban I’ve been unable to continue with the Salisbury Plain project, but that hasn’t stopped me making new work.

It’s definitely slowed me down because I’m having to learn a new landscape; the one nearer to home.

I could have chosen to ignore landscapes for now, but it’s an area I need to keep working on and improving so I don’t get rusty. When I do return to Salisbury Plain, I need to make sure I’m on my game.

Closer To Home.

I’m describing Closer To Home as an interim project. I nearly called it Treading Water, because that’s what it feels like. I’m treading water while I wait for lockdown to lift, and I’m often literally treading water as I hike through rain-soaked fields. But Closer to Home describes my (temporary) withdrawal from the Salisbury Plain project to concentrate on more local landscapes.

What I really wanted to find out was whether I could transfer the Salisbury Plain approach to another landscape. To an extent I can, but there’s a definite shift in tone when there’s no military layer to the project. Because the local landscape is quieter, I need to reflect this.

My Response.

What both types of landscape have in common is something I’ve always felt about the English countryside, that it isn’t as benign as we’d like to think it is.

Our countryside is industrialised, it is someone else’s business. It’s also constantly under threat from poor management, fly-tippers and development, which makes its existence more precarious and precious.

Whether I can express these themes through my images is down to me to keep working at them, which is why I haven’t let lockdown stop me.

So far I haven’t offered these images as fine art prints, but drop me a line if you’re interested. You can see many more on my Instagram account.

Because History Matters

Last Sunday there was a Black Lives Matter rally in my home town and I felt a strange compulsion to cover it as a photographer. Strange because I normally shy away from large gatherings for personal work.

However I support the aims of the BLM cause, and I also felt that since this movement had resonated all the way to the relatively small, rural town of Frome in Somerset, the local story should be told too.

Because no one was paying me to go I decided I would shoot black and white film. There was another motivation for this – given that in 100 years’ time it’s possible that digital images of today will be inaccessible, perhaps shooting on film would present an insurance against digital degradation. Future generations would be able to see us, in protest, working to change the future.

I approached the rally as if I had been commissioned by my local paper, creating a mini series of images suitable for a double page spread. That would give me a structure to work to beyond just taking a random set of pictures, so I prepared my kit, loaded film and set off.

At first I didn’t think many people would be there. The weather was cold and wet, social distancing is still in place, and I hadn’t seen much publicity for the event. However as the start time approached, people arrived in reassuringly high numbers.

There was one particular shot I knew I needed to get to justify my un-commissioned intrusion and it’s the photo I had in mind from the moment I decided to attend. It’s the final shot in this gallery and I was the only photographer with the foresight to capture it.

After the event I decided to turn the pictures around as fast as I could and I posted that last frame to the Frome Facebook page. To say the reaction was intense is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever had an image be so widely liked and shared online ever.

Perhaps it is a shame I wasn’t commissioned to go, but I’m glad I did because if such big stories are left to random photos on individuals’ iPhones, there is a risk no permanent record will exist for future historians and generations to refer back to.

In fact I bought this week’s local paper to see how they covered the story.

They didn’t.

Post Apocalyptic?

Yesterday I was nominated by my friend and office colleague David to take part in a Facebook seven-day black and white photo posting challenge. A personal photo each day, no people, no caption or explanation and I’m meant to nominate someone else each day.

Now much as I love David, he knows I’m not a massive fan of this kind of thing, but he’s a big fan of my photography so couldn’t resist just to see how I’d handle it. He also likes to watch me squirm, so that’s two excellent reasons for him to nominate me.

You might wonder why I’m not a big fan of this kind of thing then. Well, since you’ve made the mistake of asking, I’ll tell you.

I’ve been on Facebook for, oh I dunno, many years. Twitter and Instagram too. Over the years I’ve posted pictures I’m very proud of and some junk I probably should have left on my hard drive or in my head. Of late I’ve been working to get my feeds looking more consistent in quality, more coherent in style and less scattered with random junk. This kind of posting challenge may not help.

Therefore I’ll have to be careful that what I post adheres to qualities I can be proud of. Tough to do every single day. But that isn’t the only reason – When I post pictures online I’m aware there is a trade-off happening; I’m exposing my work to a wider audience, getting more eyeballs on my pictures and helping my search engine optimisation, while the social media platforms are benefitting from a constant supply of free content and data they can mine, monetise and aggregate for future, as yet un-defined purposes.

Perhaps I’m being too conspiracy-theorist about this, but here’s a final point to consider; I’m meant to nominate one person every day of the challenge. That’s seven people over seven days (and even I remember from my school times tables terrors, that comes to 49). Each of those 49 people is meant to nominate 7 people, so that’s 343. 343 x 49 = 16,807. You get the idea, if nobody drops the chain we’re quickly into millions of people posting more millions of photos (I tried to work it out, my brain melted).

So mana for Facebook as it keeps people going back to their pages, interacting and laying rich soil for the advertisers who pay Facebook to display their wares in our feeds. We’re all working to feed it like we’re being paid, feeling guilty if we don’t, and so it goes on.

Thankfully we’re not all robot slaves. I was the only person David nominated during his 7 days. My wife got nominated, made it to day 4 and then forgot to continue. There is hope for the human race when we don’t follow the peer pressure and the made-up rules.

So my plan is to post a photo each day, only nominate if I can think of someone who would like to be nominated and I’ll state here that I won’t be accepting future nominations for this kind of thing. If it’s a nomination to be King of the World, I might accept that, but not another photo challenge please.

Impressions of London

The other week my son Joe and I took a day trip to London. We try to make it each year, normally in Summer, but this year was a little later than normal.

Apart from the tradition of the trip, Joe also had some pictures to take for his college photography course. So naturally I took a film camera to capture some of my own impressions and just to have a play with more film.

Joe’s work took precedence, so I did only get around to shooting one roll of Kodak Tri-X which, because it was a dismal day, I rated at 800iso.

Here are the results, with special thanks to Brick Lane’s finest leafleteer Charlie Kloos for posing while I messed about with a Pentax lens from the 1960s, which was a little tricky to focus as the evening light started to fail.

 

Expired Film Teaches Me A Lesson

I’m meant to use this blog to talk about nothing but corporate photography, hitting those all-important keywords, shoehorning them into sentences until Google says “I get it, you’re a corporate photographer shooting portraits and other corporate communications images for businesses who care about the quality of their image and the values it conveys, so we’ll put you at the top of the listings whenever we think you’re what the client is looking for.”

Thanks Google, you’re doing a grand job and I should apologise that I don’t always make it easy for you by writing instead about magazines I like, exhibitions I’ve launched (actually, singular exhibition, but hey I’ll keep working on that), or my return to shooting film as a way of working out new ideas and pursuing my passion for telling the stories of ordinary people.

And this week I’m not making it any easier as once again I’m on the subject of film.

My return to film has been a bit stop/start but it continues. More recently I’ve been working with expired film, that is stock which is well past its use-by date. Yes, film has a use-by date because the light-sensitive chemicals which react to light start to break down.

However, I managed to source a large, mixed bag of film; 35mm, medium format, colour and black and white and I’ve been working my way through it with various trial projects and one project which has been fairly fruitful, that of a series of photos documenting the derelict site in Frome known as Saxonvale.

Saxonvale is an area of the town which has been left partially cleared for many years now while the various landowners and interested parties take their time working out how to make the most money from its redevelopment. You might say I’ve used derelict film to record a derelict site, recording not just the waste discarded there, but also sometimes the people who pass through or visit for their own reasons.

Some of the film stock I’ve used has been in such a poor state it barely rendered an image. One trip was wasted because the film was so utterly degraded it was blank when I processed it. All part of the project and a useful reminder to me that the film is the boss on this one.

In due course I’ll be updating my main website with some of these images, but in the meantime here’s a mini gallery to give you a flavour of the Saxonvale project. If you want to see more of it and some of the other film images I’ve shot lately, head over to my Instagram account where you’ll find me as @takeagander.

My Latest Camera

Regular clients will be delighted to learn I haven’t stopped investing in camera equipment, though they may be surprised that my latest Canon purchase cost me exactly two whole British Pounds. Yes, £2.00.

On Sunday I paid a visit to the Frome Wessex Camera Fair at the Cheese and Grain venue (where The Foo Fighters recently and very famously played a surprise gig).

There were no superstars on this occasion, but the entry fee was a mere £3.00 which I happily paid. So let’s pretend a portion of that should be considered part of the cost of the camera, but since I also bought a cable release (£3.00) and a handheld light meter (£4.00), at worst the camera cost me £3.00.

My reason for this particular purchase, a Canon Sureshot Supreme, is that this was a camera which came out in the 1980s when I was working at London Camera Exchange in Bath. It caused quite a stir at the time for its modern styling and fast, accurate automation of focus and exposure settings. There was a huge advertising campaign behind it, and though it wasn’t a budget model of its day, retailing as it did at around £120, we sold bucket loads of them.

I spotted this particular one on a table at the fair, but when I looked at it more closely I thought it might be dead (the battery level showed good, but the shutter wasn’t firing). So I negotiated £2.00 for it, took it home, popped a fresh battery in and BINGO! it worked. Clearly the battery level indicator is a die-hard optimist.

So then I thought, what can I do with this? Would it be possible to shoot a set of pictures which might present an interesting project? Does the camera actually work as a photographic tool, or might some part of the electronics or optical system be so old as to be non-functioning? Only one way to find out.

Loaded with a roll of Kodak Tri-X black and white film and with the help of my son Joe and his friends, I set about making a series of portraits that I hoped would make a mini series on skaters and their boards – battle scars and all (the boards more than the skaters).

I tried using the built-in flash in the outdoor setting to see what effect I could conjure with that, but it was pretty horrible, so I went with the daylight-only images in my selection.

My verdict on the camera is it’s not the sharpest lens in the world, but the exposure is good and the overall effect is quite interesting. Not bad for a 30-year-old pocket camera, the current value of which is quadrupled by the loading of a roll of film and a fresh battery.

The result is a series of portraits of these young lads, each standing confidently as teenage boys do with their skateboards acting as shields – to be fair, I asked them to bring the boards up into the frame. But each has their own way of confronting the lens. A couple look away, one would only be photographed blindfolded with his bandana, but I love the unexpected in a photo and if someone chooses to hide their eyes, avert their gaze, or perform some other unexpected motion which reveals something about them, I’m happy to include this as it says more than a straight portrait.

Whatever I like or don’t about these pictures, your opinion is more important and if you’ve a mind to, I’d love to hear what you see in these pictures.

Whether I’ll shoot much on the Sureshot, or just keep it as a museum piece, I’ve yet to decide, but heck, for £2.00 and a roll of film it’s been an interesting exercise.

Thank you to Finlay, Ben, Christy, Joe, Toby and Danni for your help. It probably seemed a peculiar request on the day, but I hope you like the results.

 

 

Adventures in Film: Canada

You know if you’re going to travel to Nova Scotia in Fall the trees will be spectacularly colourful. So when I went over a couple of weekends ago for the wedding of a couple of friends, I chose to take black and white film.

Let’s be honest, if you want to see great pictures of anything, anywhere, taken at any time of year, you may as well look online. I chose to take my old film camera and some rolls of black and white film so that I would avoid clichés like the plague (nice cliché).

For the most part I took pictures of the friends there, and some new friends I made, but the shot I wanted to share this week is of Cape Split, the very tip of a spit of land which when viewed on a map resembles the swept-back ears of a racing hare. From this point you can look across the Bay of Fundy and at certain times of day you’ll see the colliding tide swirling around the isolated rocks which jut up from the sea off the end of the spit.

My photo can’t compete with an Ansel Adams masterpiece, but the use of grainy, black and white film on such a dramatic, craggy subject adds I think a certain extra texture to what could have been just another tourist shot.

My adventures in film will continue, but as a side-project to my main work. I’m finding it invigorating and exciting to recall old techniques and try new tricks and tweaks and I’m sure it’s refreshing how I approach my corporate work too, but I’ll probably be keeping it under wraps a bit more until it evolves into something more like a coherent body of work.

Black and white view of Cape Split, Nova Scotia, Canada looking over the Bay of Fundy.

Cape Split, Nova Scotia, Canada

First Film Results!

Last week I told you about my new adventures in black and white film photography, well here’s a selection of the results. I need to work on my digitisation process a bit more because of course this is all still a bit trial and error.

I’ve owned a scanner in the past, but the results were never more than “ok” in spite of it being quite a high-end Nikon machine, so I’m using a digital camera and a copy box which I constructed myself.

As much as possible I want to preserve the beauty of the negatives (and they are quite lovely) and while this might only be truly possible by making direct prints from them, that’s not so practical when it comes to showing them on my blog.

But away with all this technical talk, what about the subjects of the photos?

There’s the shopfitter in Bath who didn’t mind me taking a few frames while he was on his cigarette break, but wasn’t going to pose. That’s ok, I just wanted an interesting face and some half-decent light for my test photos. He was the perfect candidate.

Then, back in Frome, I met Bad Rasta who travels the country selling balloons and novelty toys at carnivals. He was on a break before the start of the evening carnival in the town and was great fun to chat to and was very happy to pose for me with his van and balloons.

Finally Geoff, a Frome local who I met while wandering around the funfair in Frome. Full of interesting reminiscences, a face full of character, and a pig skin jacket that belonged to his father.

There are more photos of course, but some were just tests to check the camera metering and to see how the Kodak Tri-X film would handle different lighting situations. I wanted to make sure I had a few engaging portraits to share.

Of course the question has to be is this worth all the effort and expense? And of course the answer is yes. Ok, I could have taken these photos digitally with better technical quality for web, but these negatives would print beautifully well, and even if I never get the pleasure of doing that, it does give me satisfaction.

There is also the fact that knowing how to do this improves my work as a digital photographer. I’ve always firmly believed that having a background in processing and printing my own film work back when I started has always been a big advantage over photographers who didn’t get that grounding. So to continue it now is helping me keep in touch with the basics.

And besides all that, getting out and about to discover personal stories and just talking to people I wouldn’t otherwise get to photograph makes the whole exercise utterly, utterly worth it.

Back to Black (and white)

For the past 16 years I’ve shot exclusively digital images for my clients which is brilliant for client work.

Deadlines have reached a stage where pictures are sometimes needed for social media even before an event has finished, and even for more polished work the turnaround required often needs to be pretty rapid. It’s also fair to say that on a purely technical level, digital has matched or exceeded that which was ever possible with film.

And of course I can do so much more with digital than I ever could with film, but whatever my medium I work hard to keep things “honest”. I don’t use filters or add grain to my digital images. My style is in the lighting, composition and final presentation of my work. Anything else risks dishonesty in my view, and even when I’ve shot digital and converted to black and white, it’s not the same as shooting a black and white original.

Ah, but film. I spent the first 13 years of my career shooting film; the first couple of years shooting only black and white. In recent years I’ve had a real itch to get back to film one way or another. I doubt I will ever have another client request that I shoot film, though I’d be delighted if the opportunity arose, so it has to be a self-motivated project.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago I could take it no more. I started to research what I needed. I still had my old film processing tanks, measures, thermometer and bits and pieces, so just needed film and chemicals to get started again.

To be fair, it had been so long that I had to remind myself of exactly what was required – vague memories of Ilford ID-11, stop bath, fixer were all very well, but I needed to refresh my memory of the specifics. As an initial competency test I found an out-of-date roll of colour film that had been languishing in the back of my fridge which I sacrificed to practicing loading film onto a spool in the dark bag. It all came back like I’d never stopped, so that was a good start.

Of course film is no good without a camera. I still have my Canon EOS 1N which must be 20 years old, but works with all my current lenses so I dusted that off, popped a new battery in and it still works perfectly. I confess I spent a while lusting over old Nikon and Leica mechanical SLR cameras on eBay, but collectors have turned these into objects of fetish obsession and the prices are ridiculous for anything which hasn’t been dropped in salt water or run over by a bus.

The EOS 1N isn’t a “refined” camera, but it’s solid and dependable and I could spend £450.00 on an old, mechanical Nikon (not including a lens) or replace mine (if it ever dies) for about £90.00 because it doesn’t look cool and retro enough for collectors to lust after it.

Now this is the point at which I’m going to tease you to death because I have already shot and processed my first two rolls of Kodak Tri-X film, but they’re not yet digitised (oh the irony) for display here. Looking at them on my old Cabin light panel they look pretty damn lovely. Film really does have something digital lacks; the difference is greater than that between vinyl and mp3s in the music world and it’s just a shame that short of mounting an exhibition there’s no getting away from digital if I want anyone to see the photos. I guess I’ll just have to mount an exhibition then.

Seriously though, in an ideal world I would get myself into a darkroom with a Durst enlarger with a Schneider Kreuznach lens and make beautiful prints on fibre-based paper, but if I can manage that ever at all it’s unlikely to be in the next few weeks. In the meantime I’m working out a system for achieving the best possible digital versions of the negatives.

When that’s done, I’ll definitely update you with images here. I honestly can’t wait. It’ll be interesting to see if the conversion to digital retains any of the character of the film. I do hope so!