Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Friday, 15 October 2010

Sophie Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch

When I set out last Thursday my schedule looked pretty leisurely. One profile portrait in the late morning and one in the late afternoon and clear space in between to ingest, do an initial edit and acquire from raw. But Schedules have a habit of sliding. Job one gets put back an hour Job two becomes job three and then hey presto! at the last minute a fourth portrait has to be filleted into the ever contracting time-scale.

Of course, by the standards of any Fleet Street news photography this would still be a pretty cushy line-up but I wanted to light all of these and really take time to get it right.

My first assignment was the film-maker Sophie Fiennes to be photographed in a soho club. She was delayed and given her family name it would be easy to assume that she was running late from a clutch breakfast TV appearances. But in truth, it was simply that she had a bit of a nightmare with getting her baby buggy onto the bus from South London where she lives. Ah how refreshing!

It turns out that my vague expectation of theatrical intensity couldn't have been wider of the mark. The night before I had tried to do a little research including watching a clip from her 2003 documentary "The Perverts Guide to Cinema." This is a serious and thought-provoking philosophical examination of cinema. So I'm still not quite sure why I imagined that she would be late due to extended carousing with the green-room glitterati of the morning TV circuit. It is a patently ridiculous image but there you are - the mind is a funny thing.

Anyway, it gave me time to prepare and pre-light. When I first invested in portable studio lighting I decided to go the Profoto route. This was mainly because of their abundance in the rental market. I had used all sorts of kit for various shoots but Profoto seemed to be the industry standard for rental in the US and not only was it therefore the most familiar but also it meant that any additional kit I might need from time to time would use the same reflectors and light-shaping tools that I was already buying.

For these short shoots I tend to use the old-style 600ws mono-block because it is so quick to deploy and the fine-tuning is child's play - one twisty dial with clearly marked stop-fractions on it. So up it went, with a medium Chimera soft-box and an egg-crate to limit the spill and reflect black into the skin for punchy details.

Having finished the interview Sophie arrives in the room set aside for photos. Completely friendly and down to earth, she breezes through the shoot and even jokes about trying not to look too stern. Her only concern is to get back to her new (and first) baby so with that in mind, I aim not to take any more time than is needed.

At the other end of the day; a late arriving assignment to photograph the actor Benedict Cumberbatch whose recent portrayal of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes won praise from critics and (more significantly) from my teenage son!

At the BBC building where the interview is scheduled they do not allow photography so we agree to take the movable feast across the road to the lobby of a rather smart hotel (who asked not to be identified in any pictures) and I go with his publicist to speak with the manager for permission to take photos there.

Manager arrives and the Publicist sweetly explains that we are doing a little interview and would it be possible to take a couple of pictures. She promises that there will be no disruption and wont take long. Manager agrees as long as we make no mention of the hotel in the pictures or captions.

All good! We return to the lobby and I get to work.

Ezra Stoller claimed that location work is 5% inspiration and 95% moving furniture! This however is nearer 99% and soon the pristine lobby looks like an unprovoked act of aggression by the Furniture Liberation Front.

For some insane reason I decide to use a grid spot for this picture and end up with a beam of light that is a bit too narrow and without adequate space to move the light back to soften the fall-off. Switching beween grids and then repositioning the light is easy with a bit of help but on your own it's slow and each adjustment feels like it takes forever.

Luckily for me, Benedict is completely chilled and HIS only concerns are a change of shirt and not appearing to be Sherlock in private life as well as professional.

It's at this point that I really wish there was enough in the day rate for an assistant. Every tweak of the lights eats a little more time and a little more patience. I get tantalisingly close to the picture I want but in the end we just run out of minutes and space.

Chalk it up as a draw rather than a victory.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Diary picture - 29 May 2010

Just had my fix of caffeine at the Monmouth coffee shop. Steps away I see this torn poster and the bricked up frames to avoid the old window tax. Compelling but simultaneously creepy.

Light's just right. One shot, wide open, walk on.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Magwich country

Even though I live in north-east Kent and frequently travel across the marshes riding the train to London, I have never actually spent any time walking there. On sharp autumn mornings they are quite stunning in their stark beauty but, like much that is close at hand, there is a tendency to take it for granted. And to my shame, I've never explored them.

So it felt like fortune was smiling when Sophie at the Independent on Sunday called and said, "I have a treat for you - travel piece about the Kent Marshes. Should be right up your street... quite literally!"

It had threatened to rain all morning but as I parked near Cliffe in north Kent the cloud had thinned just enough to see some detail in the sky and the occasional slip of blue. Armed with a printout of the piece, written by Tom Connolly, a really evocative read, I instantly wished for a few days more to try and get a variety of weather to do it justice.

A camera over each shoulder and two pouches on my belt (one with an extra lens and the other one with cards, batteries and my extension tubes for any close-ups) I strode out over the network of gravel pathways. I decided to work with three prime lenses (35mm 1.4L, 85mm 1.2L and 135mm 2.0L) rather than any of my zooms. Partly because I had the luxury of doing so but mostly because I craved simplicity and discipline.

Photographers always talk about the quality of image you get from fast prime lenses but they also have the benefit of forcing you to move around more to change your shot and in doing so you often see things that could easily be overlooked by just constantly re framing with a zoom.

The landscape is a strange compelling mixture of rural, coastal and industrial, In some ways it feels unchanged since Dickens but then there are the docks, power stations and oil refineries that serve as constant reminder of modernity.

I love this kind of solitary observational photography and I only saw four people during the course of the day. Walking their dogs or carrying binoculars and wildlife books they mostly just gave a slight nod of the head as we passed each other.

One of the things that makes this area so compelling for me is the bleak expanse of grasses, ditches and pools set amongst the crumbling remains of industry. A WW1 munitions factory had been here but long gone now and leveled to the point of near invisibility unless you get close. What little remains by way of bricks and structure is slowly, inexorably being reclaimed by nature, covered by grass or providing a wind break for the horses and cattle. Occasionally a bit of random rusting pipe-work bursts from the brambles, both incongruous and somehow perfectly appropriate here.

Heading east I drove to Chetney Marsh. The shortening days of autumn drawing in by then and the sky had become a misty featureless veil. Through the fading perspective duo-tone of grey and green I could make out the Island of Grain docks and the smallish shipwreck that Tom had described in his copy. In the middle of a field was an old stile. The fence it once brooked had been moved or broken down. Just another of those strange traces of man's history here that had decayed and been left a hostage to the landscape.

Ironically it was the marshland closest to my home that ended-up unphotographed. By the time I returned the weather had made good on it's early threat of rain and a persistent drizzle had reduced visibility too much to continue. The next morning was much the same story so I'll have to make the effort to explore it at a later date.

Tom's wonderful and atmospheric piece is published here please treat yourselves and read it. There is a link on the page to see more of the photographs. It turned out to be exactly what I needed - a break from traffic and rain and overstuffed schedule in a week that was to become all of those things.