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.