Monday, 16 February 2009

An orange in a sock!

East London MP George Galloway is a complicated man. Politically  he is a staunch left-winger who's firebrand opposition to the war in Iraq led to his expulsion from the Labour party and onto the front pages of the news-media in 2003. Accused of being an apologist for Saddam Hussein and subsequently vilified by the tabloid and right of centre press he is definitely someone who cleaves opinion. So it was with great enthusiasm that I took the assignment to shoot his portrait for The Independent on Sunday last week.

Stylistically I have been repeating myself recently and was looking for a strong face to try something a little different.

My portraits are not from the "gurning" school of facial expressions, preferring a more subtle slow-burn that reveals itself gradually, maybe long after the viewer has stopped looking at the picture. 

Like an orange in a sock; no mark on the surface but I aim to make my presence felt internally! 

Whilst that may be the desired effect of my pictures, there are many routes to get there, and recently I have been taking the same path too often. So I turned for inspiration to Denmark - where else? In the 2008 World Press Photo there was an excellent essay by preternaturally talented photographer Eric Refner featuring the exhausted faces of competitors in the Copenhagen Marathon. Aside of their strong composition, they struck me also for the amazing look of the pictures. They had strong contrasts, saturated colours and yet retaining a highly detailed mid-tone that left a lasting impression on me and formed the seed of an idea for the Galloway portrait.

The location for the shot was going to be his offices near parliament, and being familiar with the building, I was prepared for a challenge. The offices are modest and often have very poor light, presenting the twin problems of how to provide illumination and where to find enough space to set-up. There was an additional consideration - time. With twenty minutes in total I did not want to spend much of it fiddling with lights and with no budget for an assistant it was a non starter in any case. In these situations I find it helpful to be flexible and rigid in equal measures. By limiting my kit to two bodies, two prime lenses and two flash units (*details at the end) I gave myself certain constraints. But knowing my boundaries left me with the breathing room to use what I found at the location and concentrate on gaining enough trust and respect from my subject to get something honest.

Knowing that I would be photographing Mr Galloway on the eve of a four week journey to Palestine and at the end of a long interview, I was prepared for him to be pressed for time and possibly a little distracted. However, he was full of energy and good humour. We talked about the joys of fatherhood, the route that he would be taking on his "Viva Palestina" aid convoy to Gaza and his enthusiastic appreciation of photography. 

He cited a portrait by Jane Bown as his favorite, marvelling at the deceptive simplicity with which she worked. I have shot several of Jane Bown's subjects and they nearly all cite her as their favorite photographic experience but one thing was now clear to me: the battle would be won or lost in the first salvo rather than the last charge. Twenty minutes might have been the time allotted but the best pictures would probably have to me made in the first three.

And thus it was, one minute and twenty-nine seconds after my first frame that I got a fraction of a seconds worth of real candour from my subject. Open, uncompromising with a little shard of the flint for which he is renowned and yet still somehow vulnerable. In the edit there were a few that I liked but only one rang out. Fortunately the Independent agreed I hope you do too if you read the article by Cole Moreton (here).

As you can see, the final word has to go to Capture One. It was post-production that allowed me to get away with the fact that the lighting was poor and the time was tight and while I did nothing that couldn't have been done under an enlarger, C1 meant it took minutes rather than hours! 

*Equipment used; two Canon EOS 5D bodies, (one with a 35mm f1.4 and one with an 85mm f1.2) two canon 580 speedlites, a canon infra red trigger and a rubberised clamp that allows me to fix one of the speedlites to almost any protuberance without damaging it. 
Post - Mac G5 running Capture One 4.0

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