Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ellen's Eyes

Ellen has sat for me before, and when she agreed to again I had high hopes that I could begin a new series that could explore some ideas that I have been researching; however her workload has about doubled and she doesn’t feel able to commit. Whilst I fully understand I am disappointed, though we both know that if she had of committed and then had to let me down it would have been a lot worse. We therefore decided that would use this session as a one-off and I decided to do a couple of things, more later, and Ellen did say that if time became freer again she would get in contact.

f11, 1/100th sec, ISO 200, 200mm
The eye is a principle means of contact between people and animals and whilst one of the exercises is about holding the lens/eye connection I decided to focus my attention on Ellen’s eye(s) as one part of the sitting. The other will be written up later as it is based on film and I have yet to develop/scan and edit the results – it will be very much different to this set!

The shot above used flash, a couple of 1mtr soft boxes. I used this set up at the beginning to "soften" the blow by taking a few shots in relatively quick succession. All the rest in this post and using film were tungsten. I prefer continuous lighting as I'm able to control the light fall more easily and experiment.

All of these shots have a short, or very narrow depth of field; isolating Ellen's eyes, in an attempt to draw the viewers focus to make a decision about connection with Ellen. The first edit here shows that I chosen mainly shots that deflect attention away from Ellen to whatever Ellen is focussing on, she is distracted by something else. In fact this is the case. I was using two cameras at the time. One was a zone - plate camera, which was taking up to four minutes an exposure and Ellen was asked to keep still and "focus" on the wooden box, whilst I used one of three other cameras to take other shots - of which this is a selection - (which will form a later post (I hope)). However I think the "lack" of perceived engagement puts another twist on these very "focussed" images becoming almost intimate/voyeuristic shots. Additionally these last few (four?) shots amplify this intimacy/vulnerability with no reference to clothing - especially the horizontal shot. I also feel the abstraction from any other visual references in the frame, other than Ellen, tends to amplify any vulnerability, and maybe the very shallow depth of field exaggerates the perception of that fragility? Not sure and will think about that more. What is missing is a set of shots that have Ellen engaging with the viewer via the lens, this would require another as these viewpoints were taken with the ZP camera - albeit with a significantly deeper depth of focus with an aperture of f48!

Technical details top left to right (all shots 1/100th sec):1 - f2.5, ISO 450, 60mm (90mm equiv'). 2 - f1.4, ISO 200, 85mm. 3 - f1.4, ISO 640, 85mm. 4 - f2.2, ISO 400, 60mm (90mm equiv'), 5 - f2.5, ISO 500, 60mm (90mm equiv'), 6 - f2.2, ISO 2500, 60mm (90mm equiv'). 7 - f2.4, ISO 1800, 60mm (90mm equiv').

Monday, 27 February 2012

Eye contact

A couple of weeks ago  had a commission to photograph two sisters partly as a record of their growing up, one off to university soon, the other in a year or so. The session went very badly soon after I had set up as one of the lamp units decided not to play anymore and after trying a few things I decided to give up and reschedule.
Here are some shots from yesterday's session and some inclusions from the previous session. On the whole the parents seemed happy with the original set - apart from maybe being a little too serious and a tad too contrasty. In order to get the best range of results I tried two lighting set ups. The first which had two soft boxes behind the sitters at about 45 degrees together with a couple of reflectors to bounce some fill back in. The second set up had a larger soft box and another 1metre box out front to give a much softer look, this second set up was all I used when I modelled them for their shots together - I didn't get that far the first time.

The original shots first, both at f10, 1/125th sec, ISO 200, 85mm

And now some shots from yesterday - the styling is something they have seen before and have expressed a liking for - these (apart from the laughing shot) are ones that won't be shown to the parents - I may post the final selection. All at f11, 1/125th sec, ISO 200. Left shot is 200mm whereas the second two are at 85mm

I think (hope) the parents will be happy with these, the sitters are both more at ease than last time (though my frustration at the failing system couldn't have helped). The fourth (laughing pair) shot captures a moment between the girls, which is contrasted by the last shot which has them very much at ease with themselves and me. The parents were a bit concerned in the first (albeit limited) set that the eyes were a bit "starey" which I have tried to control by lowering the contrast with reflectors in one lighting set up and with the frontal soft boxes in the other.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Ubiquitous oblivion

It’s  a curious thing oblivion. Not the willful omission of something but rather the ignorance of something or someone that has played (albeit a small) part in the recording of the history, of not only local dignitaries but that of many important figures of the twentieth century. I couldn’t imagine this happening in France or  America, and maybe especially in America, with it’s fascination with image and whose border is a (relatively) short distance away from the capital of Canada, and something that I still find strange today.
Whilst on business, about a decade ago, I stayed at the Chateaux Laurier Hotel in the Canadian capital of Ottawa. Inside the hotel is rectangular a lounge area with a high ceiling that had mounted on each wall, large elaborately framed portraits in black and white. If I remember them well, one was of Pablo Casals, one was of Albert Einstein and another was of Pablo Casals, not inconsequential figures you might say. The hotel was home to a photographic studio that belonged to Yousuf Karsh born Dec’ 23rd 1908 died July 13th 2002. In his lifetime “…he photographed every Canadian Prime Minister since Mackenzie King, every French President since Charles De Gaulle, every British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill and every American President since Herbert Hoover. He made historic portraits of countless other heads of states, members of royal families, religious leaders, Nobel Laureates, industrialists, scientists, and humanitarians. In addition, he documented almost every major writer, artist, and thinker of that era.” – Jerry Fielder “Karsh a biography in images” MFA publications p69.
Whilst I was on that visit, which was soon after Karsh had died, though not in Ottawa as he had moved to Boston in his retirement,  I wanted to get more of a picture of him whilst I was in his adopted home – Karsh was an émigré from Armenia and arrived in Canada when he was seventeen. I found a gallery almost next to the Hotel, clearly the Chateaux Laurier still had a fond regard for him so I thought I had good reason to be hopeful. The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography – it’s current exhibition at the time was of Michael Semak, I went in search of Karsh material, but they had no information, no books or prints on Karsh. I thought that the National Gallery, situated not far away (nothing is far away in Ottawa – it’s a small city) might have something on Karsh; but they too had nothing, in fact most of the staff had not heard of their local photographer of the great and the good.
Yousuf Karsh’s images from his portfolio were everywhere, almost literally. Requested as he was to photograph Queen Elizabeth II his image of her was imprinted on the Canadian $1 bill. Now I suspect most of the population of Canada had at one time or another at least one note of that denomination. Similarly, in an age before email when the letter post was the mainstay of long distance communication, his image was transcribed on to sets of definitive stamps in the '40's and early ‘50’s (though the Queen's design proved to an unpopular and were replaced by another, though the transcription was thought to be blamed, not the original image). Quite a few of those were produced I would have thought, which I suppose a good proportion of the inhabitants of the former colony licked and thumb pressed onto envelopes – handling his image in a very personal way! More than that, his image of Winston Churchill, that is the famous one from 1941, not any of the later ones he did, was used on a US 5c stamp in 1965 – one can only guess at how many of those were franked by the US postal service. Australia also used the same photograph as did Royal Mail. One can estimate a seven figure number of images stemming from a couple of photographs that literally orbited the globe – truly ubiquitous.

George VI by Karsh, photo taken 1943

Princess Elizabeth by Karsh, photo taken in 1951

A couple of commemorative stamps of Churchill by Karsh, photo taken in 1941


Enough of the philately.

Karsh's work stands on it's own and is emblematic of a now largely defunct school of pictorial portraits, though highly recommended all the same. Jerry Fielder, his curator and long time assistant claims that he had 15, 312 sittings and from those he made just 150,000 negatives - one can only imagine what he would have done with a digital camera.

A good sample of his work can be found here

Friday, 24 February 2012

Heads Up!

What I had anticipated (hoped) to see after my break from rehearsals last week was a discernible difference.  What I expected to see was an assertive cast that had grown in confidence, the directors had instructed "books down" a week or so ago and so I wanted to see "heads up"; and with a minor exception that is what I found. The cast were strong, confident, enjoying their roles and delivering with only minor recurrence to the prompt.

f4.0, 1/100th sec, ISO 12800 70-200mm @ 70mm
I wound the speed up to try and compensate for the lack of lights, the director was using the hall lights to cue action and I thought I would need additional speed, this has led to a softness which is unfortunate in terms of the effect I wanted to create. Karen and Ken kicking things off - looking skywards, the antithesis of looking for comfort in a script. It may be that the part calls for them to look up, but it told me that they were confident (Ken later said it the apparent confidence is just the normal panic at this stage, nevertheless it worked to instill confidence - and that is central to what an audience needs). I later wound the speed down and that has improved the quality of the photographs.

f4.0, 1/100 sec, ISO 10,000, 200mm
ditto as before ISO 9000, 105mm
Trying to capture moments, both in terms of the relationships between the players and in terms of the psychological nature of the performers and how, as I say above, they project confidence to an audience. I purposely sat in positions in the hall that would represent a member of the audience when photographing the actors; to get that perspective from that viewpoint - albeit from different positions in the hall - left right, central etc. Karen - looking upwards as she "looks down her nose" at something that Ken is saying. Ken in exuberant pose and the two of them in mid conversation.
ditto as before, ISO 6400, 70mm

f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 5600, 70mm
f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 6400, 80mm
I should like to contrast these growing confidences with the two directors who still feel the need to "hold onto" their scripts. I know this feeling very well, it is similar to leaving your script when you are an actor; but for the director the original vision comes from the page, the written words contrive to bring the play alive and holding on to the original reference "anchors" your vision to that point of view. Needless to say that what was originally envisioned doesn't turn up on stage precisely as you originally imagined, so there is a need to constantly refer to the "reference". I think these scripts will go soon, the confidence of the actors will allow the twin directors to "let go". I think they will enjoy it even more when they do so.
f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 5600, 70mm

f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 4500, 200mm
 Moving back to the stage, another key element of any production is the entrance. Again, confidence in the entrance is another vital part of convincing the audience to suspend belief, which is what this game is all about - illusion. The entrance, left, has had a lot of work on it done by Martin and Ken to make it secure and safe. As I've mentioned before actors who use entrances that include doors need to feel confidence (there's that word again) that it will open freely and will shut when required reliably. The sign of the cross has no specific meaning in the photograph, but I thought it interesting as a token some may see of faith! I also noticed a lot of shadow play as players approaching the door readying for entrance could be easily discerned.

f2.8, 1/60th sec, ISO 6400, 200mm

f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 4500, 200mm
f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 4000, 100mm
Three different entrances, all of whom are "in the role" as they enter.

f2.8 1/100th sec, ISO 2500, 200mm
f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 5000, 200mm
Props are important to any production, Alex is carrying her handbag and wearing "those" shoes, they help the player to feel the character and I decided to portray their role on stage with these photographs:

f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 5000, 200mm

f2.8, 1/80th sec, ISO 6400, 160mm
f2.8, 1/50th sec, ISO 6400, 160mm
Returning to previous attempts at depict various elements of the development and techniques of the production. I again attempted the cut edit with focus shots that I had previously failed at. Here are two shots where I have tried to depict a conversation between Jeff and Ken and using focus as the arbiter between the two. I think if I had been further away it would have helped to compress the perspective and emphasise this, or had an even more expensive lens. I think it almost works. The shot below contrast with earlier shots where I have attempted to use focus as a metaphor. Previously the players on stage were out of focus, now that they have moved on tremendously the switch can be made. Clarity on the stage contrasting with that on the floor - although it wouldn't be fair to suggest that the floor doesn't know what it is doing!

f2.0, 1/60th sec, ISO 2000, 23mm

f2.8, 1/100th sec, ISO 5000, 70mm
f4.0, 1/60th sec, ISO 2000, 70mm
As I have mentioned before there is usually a lot of fun at these rehearsals and humour always helps to break tension as the group work hard to develop a production. Alex and Sharon in a short "disco" scene and the "audience" reacting to  the action on stage (not, I hasten to add Alex's dancing!).

f2.0, 1/60th sec, ISO 1250, 23mm
And lastly a couple (in fact one ) shots people watching: Jean and Pat in conversation over the tea break. I'm not sure whether the crop was needed, so I included both.

Alongside the cast and crew growing with confidence, I am starting to feel a naturalness in the technical side of these shots. I'm starting to feel some confidence in how I approach what I have envisaged for this series. I will continue to attend these rehearsals, but the big test will be to generate enough "stock" during the production, which lasts for three nights - one of which I am away, to complete my second assignment. It's been fun so far, but when I have to incorporate, dressing room, make-up, technical set-up, the public as well as the actual production it will seem a little more frenetic I imagine!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Facing the abyss

I’m looking at a print, not one of mine but one of Adrian’s. It is a warm toned monochrome image of a thicket on a common not far from where he lives. It is quite heavily post processed. The vignette is strong and there is nothing quite rigid about the image, in the sense that nothing is visually in focus; blur and diffusion have long been an artistic tool that he has worked into his photographs. I seem to remember Adrian saying that he was using a Holga lens onto a compact digital camera. The tones are quite compressed. There are a few completely burned out specular highlights and areas that are fully “blocked”.
I had been asked by him to look at it and some others and I specifically asked if I could retain this and “study” it for a while before we meet up again and discuss prints and photography, as we have been doing for many years. It’s a matt print on, I think, Hahnemuele photo rag 300gsm paper. There is no doubt that the image was thought worthy of such treatment, along with the twenty or so others that he brought to our last session.
I didn’t find any immediate compulsion to the image, there is a tree that crosses the diagonal from bottom right to top left which appears to bar entry into the image from a visual and metaphorical sense; the brightest part of the image, the natural draw to the eye, is “closed” to us by this tree. So why does this image compel me to come back to it on a regular basis? Well I suppose it could be that I said I would look at it and let Adrian know what I felt; which is true in an of itself. But if I didn’t find anything to draw me back to it, I know I wouldn’t offend by saying that it didn’t move me. However it does draw me back to it, it’s absence of apparent narrative compels me to think about what it might mean, what might be contained as I fight my way through the undergrowth. The photograph has engaged me.
In our discussions about photographs Adrian often bewails his lack of imagination, we will discuss some photographer or other and he will say things like, where does the imagination come from to be able to get to that image (I paraphrase)? We were looking at Susan De Witt’s work at our last conversation and both agreed about the beauty of her work and he wondered about how to begin that sort of  “journey”. Well I think he is on the journey, his train left the station some time ago – this print, which lays here beside me, is testament to that fact. His freedom to express himself and commit his ideas through the medium of print has long been a quality of his that I have admired. Adrian's website is here

Whether it is because I have largely been a photographer ploughing my own furrow for so many years, whether it is because I have this engrained mode of thought when it comes to imagery that I can’t seem to break out of, that when I look at my own work I see only conformity. A rigidity of composition, of static and sterile imagery that doesn’t pose a single question, let alone profess to answer any. I feel I need to generate some meaning through this medium and I feel the need to make some jump, cross a divide, make a leap of faith. Let go. The more I study photographers in this course, the more I read, the more I feel that I am at a crossing point. My tutor said, amongst many positive comments that I was largely very pleased with, that with the images I had provided, I had taken “quite a traditional route”. I know I wasn’t being damned by faint praise, the other comments that made in the report were very positive, but I feel I need to produce work that draws me back to it, to question the intent of the work. Whether that is possible with your own work I am unsure. I know that with my best work that I detest it for a while after completing it – only to come back to it after a while. The need to let go and take a leap into the abyss is not one I’m frightened of, but it is more what I should let go of and in which direction to jump that is holding me back.

Some pictures from last week. Pretty aren't they!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Eryl, a portrait

Eryl died last year. September 4th. The cancer that was thought/hoped to have been eradicated in 2007 came back and mercilessly took her in what was an unseemly and unwarranted haste.
Kierkegaard said “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never be really understood in time simply because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it – backwards.”
Well Soren, someone else can! This is a portrait of Eryl using photographs that I have taken over years (all except one photograph); starting with the last photograph that I had taken of her, that she expressed she really liked.
I have discussed this many times before, about the "air" the "essence" of the sitter and whether a single photograph can deliver same. Whether this has achieved it or not is not for me to say, but the fact that Eryl said it captured her and that Maurice therefore wanted it at her funeral service and he wanted it hung in their house as a permanent reminder of a few months (six) before that light was extinguished is good enough for me. The portrait was one of a set I did for a "cast" shot to be used in a programme; I did these regularly for over twenty years and they were also used to decorate the Hall where we stage the group's productions and so I have a few of these to draw from.

Moving back in time I asked Eryl's daughter Carys, to supply her "Facebook" avatar that she currently uses as another reference. These two images "bookend" the portrait and the primary image introduces a central figure in Eryl's life, her daughter.

Here they are sitting for their portraits many years ago (I can't remember, this is film and I never thought about cataloguing my negatives in those days!). Like many children of the group Carys was often involved in the Pantomime which the group stages every two years. Carys is the same age as my son Mark and they went to the same school for all their schooling. Carys is an Occupational Therapist, which came in very handy when Eryl was in hospital.

A few years later the same couple, both seem more relaxed about the photograph, Carys perhaps a little more so!  Central is the role that Eryl made her own over the two and half decades, that of "The Good Fairy". Eryl and I shared a love of singing, but unfortunately we also shared the lack of a singing voice although we never let that condemn us to silence. One of my favourite stage moments is singing a duet with Carys about always looking on the bright side of life - on a similar vein to the Eric Idle song. We shall sing it together again soon at a commemorative evening celebrating Eryl's life.

There have been many events through the years we have known Eryl, and of course this portrait is my personal portrait, there must be many more as she revolved in a number of different circles. These two have her with her husband Maurice, the left at a friends 50th birthday party, long before the cancer was to strike for the first time and below at Alison's 50th party a year after it had struck. The treatment of course plays havoc with weight issues and Eryl fought that as well. And right at my half century.

Right is another aspect of Eryl. On stage during a production I made of Priestley's "When we are Married". I incorporated here surrounded by photographs of her with Maurice. Her character's marriage vows weren't under question, nor were they in life either.

And here she is lining up with hundreds of others in a "Race for Life, again about 18 moths after her first diagnosis. A tremendous "giver" she was very active in various charities and organisations. On the right giving a helping shoulder for Carys. Below celebrating with Carys and two friends. The left half of this photograph had both been touched by breast cancer at this stage, Alison some years before and so its recurrence in Eryl has sent shivers down our spines.

Eryl went to university in Keale and trained as a teacher, she moved to our village soon after Carys was born. After the cancer struck the first time there were changes and difficulties at the school where she worked and so she decided to have a change. Cancer seems to do this people, it changes their perspective of life and whilst Eryl remained as Supply teacher she retrained as a registrar. Left shows Carys at the centre of their life.
Thessa, the daughter of one of our closest friends wanted Eryl to perform the service at her wedding to Jim. Eryl was naturally quite proud and I wanted to get a shot of her performing the act of betrothal, capturing Thessa, her father to her left, Jim and the best man at an open air ceremony. The next shot is at the next day party playing croquet on the bride's parents lawn. It was late June, within 10 weeks of these last two pictures being taken Eryl had passed away.

Eryl had a faith, she belonged to the Woodstock Methodist chapel, but when the funeral arrangements were being made it was clear that this wasn't ever going to be big enough. St Mary's was then commandeered and even this large old church was filled to the brim with well wishers. She is missed. To conclude this tribute with photographs to Eryl I thought I would append the piece with a poem written by the author of all the Panto's that Eryl was a Fairy in. The photographs were all by me. There were five verse's and there were five of us who stood and orated. I delivered the last one.