Opening instalment of a 3-part look back at the first 6 months of 2015
They were almost the first words she said to me.
“Why do you take photographs?”
I hesitated (I’m never all that swift with my replies) then mumbled something lame about liking to take pictures that are pleasing to look at. And went on to talk about always having had a fascination for cameras and photography – all quite inadequate as a response.
From that point on conversation became easier, and the shoot went well. Very well. One of the best two hours I’ve ever spent working with a model. As you might expect with a model the calibre of Nina Sever. (You will shortly be able to see some samples from the afternoon spent in the Cre8 studio space in Hackney Wick, in the shoot resume.)
Nina’s question may have been disarming, but it deserved a better response, and especially one that explains why I have spent the past eighteen months shooting almost exclusively portraiture.
The bit about always being fascinated by photographs is true. I would spend hours looking through black and white photos that my grandmother kept in a biscuit tin, many of them showing photos of her home and family in Melvich, a little place at the tip top of Scotland in Sutherlandshire (my great-grandfather was a shepherd on the Duke of Sutherland’s estate). My grandmother had left home at the age of fourteen for a life in service to various grand families in England, and had ended up in a Sussex village, where she was, when I was a child, a (semi-retired) lady-in-waiting to the ‘Commander’s wife’. Many of the photographs in the biscuit tin showed notable visitors to the country estate, including Princess Margaret.
For a young boy, photos such as these were windows into an exciting world of possibilities. We used to spend the majority of every school holiday at my grandmother’s house, and every Sunday we would go and have tea in the cook’s residence at the Court. My sister and I would dive straight for the cook’s collection of National Geographic magazines and when we weren’t busy giggling at photos of naked African tribes, I would marvel at the stunning photography from all corners of the earth. The Cook was a frequent world traveller and often had slides of her own to show us. My grandmother and parents would groan, but I never minded, happy as I was to look at any kind of still image.
I was about 10 when I got my first camera. It was a grey plastic box-like camera made by Kodak, and if I’m not mistaken took medium format sized film. We lived in Wembley and I would go out on my own with it on forays into the local park and side streets. Very few if any of those early snaps survive, save a few I took on family holidays.
My first 35mm camera was a Zorki4k, bought when I was about 18, and which I still have. It has lost its self-timer lever, but is otherwise still working.
I loved this camera and it was capable of taking some beautiful photos, but accurate focusing was awkward, and the proportion of good to poor shots when the prints came back from the developer was often rather disheartening.
I did not do my own darkroom developing till much later, by which time I was using a Minolta dslr. I used it almost exclusively for family photographs and in my work. I ran a photography club, took all the photographs for the school newspaper and for events such as sports day and performances.
The establishment of my children’s books news and reviews website ACHUKA coincided with the advent of digital photography. I bought myself a Sony point and shoot and from that point onwards all my book event (launches and parties) and school event photography was taken digitally, while I continued to use my two Minolta film bodies for more personal work.
As I replaced the first Sony digital camera with improved models I began to use the film cameras less. By the time I joined Flickr in 2005 I was shooting all my work digitally.
I had never been in a position to spend large amounts of money on camera bodies and lenses and so although I ogled the camera magazines and read reviews of the latest Nikon and Canon models I never felt in a position to invest the necessary capital to become the owner of what might be considered a full set of ‘pro’ kit.
And anyway much of the best and most innovative photography I was appreciating on Flickr was being taken with modest digital cameras of the type I was using myself.
When Sony announced its first digital dslr I was immediately interested because it meant I would be able to use my Minolta lenses with the a100 – not that I had many, but I would be able to supplement the kit lens with a 50mm prime and the lovely soft 75-200 Zeiss Jena.
After the a100 I moved to the a580 and now use a full-frame A mount a99. My portrait lens of choice with this camera is a Sigma 1.4 85mm.
Another reason I was rather slow to acquire professional quality gear was that for much of my early life I considered myself primarily a writer, rather than a photographer. While I was researching my novel about Melville and Hawthorne and later writing my biography of Tennyson, I had a membership card for the University of Sussex library and would bring back big bags loaded with relevant titles, but usually found room as well for two or three oversize photography monographs.
I had always studied the lives of artists (Gauguin, Van Gogh, Vuillard, Cezanne, Turner) and now studied the lives of photographers (Weston, Adams, Stieglitz).
Likewise I had always had an interested in fashion magazines, despite maintaining the most unfashionable personal appearance. Without being aware of it, I realise that what I was admiring was the styling and creativity that goes into the best fashion shoots.
I have a very low tolerance for non-figurative, abstract art. My favourite paintings are portraits, or at least paintings that contain a human figure.
So as soon as I had rid myself of a fulltime salaried position in education I knew that I wanted to devote much of that freed-up time to taking photographs. I had never been in a studio or worked with studio lights until February last year (2014). A short, very well taught introductory workshop and the highly functional internet modelling website Purpleport provided me with plenty of shooting experience with models and make-up artists.
Two or three group shoots and a couple of catwalk shows along the way and I was well and truly hooked.
I’m 63 going close on 64 but in portrait and fashion photography terms feel more like 23/24. I know I have some things to prove. Models are apt to refer to men in my age bracket who want to work with them but have no particular prowess as photographers as gwc’s (guys with cameras) so at one elementary level I want to photographs and build a portfolio that emphatically states “NOT a gwc”.
I have an ambitious streak and a desire, not to be approved, but to be respected for an ability to produce work that is worth looking at.
I like to take photographs because every now and then I feel I produce a photograph that stands the test of scrutiny – and that is a richly satisfying thing to be able to do.
Which is 1200+ words of saying more or less the same thing as my original inadequate muttering, which at least had the merit of brevity.
So, good enough after all: I like to take photographs that are pleasing to look at. Just that.
But thanks, Nina, for prompting these extra thoughts.
It’s time I summarised the shoots I have done in the first six months of this year, and will be doing that in three instalments – coming next, Jan/Feb 2015.
It was good to see a selection of Ryan Schude‘s carefully choreographed work featured in yesterday’s Observer magazine…
Pool parties, teenage riots, trailer parks, vintage Fords and a toaster in the bath … for a decade, Ryan Schude has photographed raucous snapshots of America, making hedonistic tableaux that turn partying into a fine art
First inspired by the timeless portraits of Hollywood greats such as Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, Stefano first began photographing women at the age of 13. After a short diversion into travel and landscape photography in his late teens Stefano returned to his first passion, editorial fashion, in 2007.
On Sunday, May 3, 2015 from 1 to 3 p.m. the Gunn Museum in Washington, Connecticut will host a free opening reception for their new exhibit, Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Nell Dorr.
This retrospective exhibit commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Horace Mann School’s John Dorr Nature Laboratory in Washington and the 75th anniversary of the Dorr Foundation. Nell Dorr’s photographs and artifacts from the Massillon Museum in Ohio, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas, and area residents are featured in this show. New touch screen technology has been incorporated into the exhibit allowing visitors to watch friends and descendants share their stories about Nell Dorr and the lasting impact that she made on their lives and our town.
Nicholas Nixon was visiting his wife’s family when, “on a whim,” he said, he asked her and her three sisters if he could take their picture. It was summer 1975, and a black-and-white photograph of four young women — elbows casually attenuated, in summer shirts and pants, standing pale and luminous against a velvety background of trees and lawn — was the result. A year later, at the graduation of one of the sisters, while readying a shot of them, he suggested they line up in the same order. After he saw the image, he asked them if they might do it every year. “They seemed O.K. with it,” he said; thus began a project that has spanned almost his whole career. The series, which has been shown around the world over the past four decades, will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art, coinciding with the museum’s publication of the book “The Brown Sisters: Forty Years” in November.
Who are these sisters? We’re never told (though we know their names: from left, Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie; Bebe, of the penetrating gaze, is Nixon’s wife). The human impulse is to look for clues, but soon we dispense with our anthropological scrutiny — Irish? Yankee, quite likely, with their decidedly glamour-neutral attitudes — and our curiosity becomes piqued instead by their undaunted stares. All four sisters almost always look directly at the camera, as if to make contact, even if their gazes are guarded or restrained.
Flickr has just announced the top 25 photographs of 2014.
Of the hundreds of millions of photographs you’ll find on Flickr, these 25 photographs were found to be the “top” images based on a number of “engagement and community” factors, including how many times they’ve been viewed and added as a favorite image.
#25: “***” by oleg oprisco
#24: “And when it all comes crashing down, who will you be?” by Chris Hieronimus
#23: “The Backyard Falcon” by Vesa Lehtimäki
#22: “Red Anemone” by Jacob Edmiston
#21: “320/365” by alex currie
#20: “Fim de tarde” by Johnson Barros
#19: “The Dreamy Coast” by Rob Macklin
#18: “on the neighbour’s grounds” by Rosie Anne
#17: “I will learn to love the skies I’m under.” by David Uzochukwu
#16: “Such is the price of leaving” by Whitney Justesen
#15: “Chinatown” by Masashi Wakui
#14: “Here, once again” by Alex Benetel
#13: “Oil Pastels” by Jon Smith
#12: “NAVCAM top 10 at 10 km – 10” by European Space Agency
#11: “Bear Lake – Pentax 67 + Portra 400” by Trent Davis
#10: “loopy sky” by SoulRiser
#9: “Besides my dad, she was the only one in my family who was like this…” by Brandon Stanton
#8: “Night Reading” by Laura Williams
#7: “ixspreparation2” by Mark Rademaker
#6: “Lightbulb” by Alexandr Tikki
#5: “John.” by LJ.
#4: “Wherever you lay your head” by Rosie Hardy
#3: “persist | lofoten, norway” by Lorenzo Montezemolo
#2: “Nightly shower 130812 F4332″ by Pete Huu
#1: “***” by “Elena Shumilova
Image credits: Photographs copyright their respective photographers and courtesy of Flickr
Jane Bown 1925 – 2014, one of the greats
In stark contrast to her mostly male peers, Jane was supremely uninterested in camera equipment. With some reluctance, she abandoned her beloved Rolliflex in the early 60s, first migrating to a 35mm Pentax before settling on the OIympus OM1 – she owned about a dozen Olympus cameras, all bought secondhand. Throughout her career she referred to herself as a “hack”, and even when her reputation was at it height, she always deferred to the picture editor. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and ignored the camera’s in-built light meter, preferring instead to hold a clenched fist away from her body to see how the light fell on the back of her hand. In fact, Jane once admitted to me that her preferred setting was f2.8 at 1/60 second and that she would, if at all possible, conspire to make the environment work at this setting – indirect sunlight from a north-facing widow would usually achieve it.
Jane tried colour in the mid-60s – largely in response to the launch of the Observer colour supplement – but abandoned it after three years, finding the medium too inflexible. But I think her true motivation had more to do with aesthetics – using available light to dramatise the subject with the infinite gradations of grey between pure black and white provided the subtlety that was her stock in trade. “Colour is too noisy,” she once said. “The eye doesn’t know where to rest.”