Friday 20 October 2017

59 Productions artwork, "Reflections" for 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim, Bilbao

An animated Gif from pictures taken on an intervalometer at the amazing projection mapping artwork, 'Reflections' by 59 Productions, commissioned for the 20th Anniversary of the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Diary Picture - 20 Apr 2011

Newcastle - late night/early morning, working as an assistant and location manager on a friend's massive advertising campaign. 

It was cold and I was feeling it, despite having a decent coat… all the locals were wearing t-shirts - naturally! 

I remember it as a strange day full of tension and sadness. A few hours earlier Abbie had called with the horrible news that Tim had been killed in Misrata. Hours before that I had been in a photographic gallery (we worked at night and had the daytime to ourselves) looking at an underwhelming exhibition of protest pictures, the highlight of which had been finding Tim's extraordinary book on Liberia, sitting amongst the various publications in the gift shop. A week before that, I had been forced to reluctantly turn-down an assignment to Misrata myself, mostly because of my commitment to assist on the massive advertising campaign. 

Friday 15 November 2013

Double Header - Wilco Johnson

In January this year, during an extraordinarily frank radio interview, Wilco Johnson announced that he had terminal cancer. What could have been a sympathetic but heartbreaking revelation turned into one of the most inspiring audio broadcasts I've ever heard. No grim, stoic pronouncements, or determinedly upbeat optimism that so often suffuses a tragic revelation of this nature. Instead Wilco spoke with refreshing directness, strength and a no-nonsense sincerity - all tinged with warm humour and not even the most microscopic trace of self- pity.

His words reached well beyond the legions of fans already familiar with Wilco Johnson's music and have given him a somewhat folk-hero, national-treasure status. 

Fast forward to a Friday morning in early August, just getting everything set-up for a busy day of work before heading to Sussex for a shoot in the afternoon, and an urgent call from Sophie at the Independent. An opportunity to make a portrait of Wilco had just arrived on the diary, but it was slightly complicated because the only details they had were the time and location. Nothing else, no other contact details.

"Leave right now because it's a long way and you only just have time to get there"   -   So I did.

Arriving at Wilco's house, I knocked on the door and waited for a response… Nothing. So I waited on the doorstep for a few minutes, trying to discern if there were any sounds of movement in the house. 

I knocked a few more times - never certain how loud or how many raps would be considered polite. When there was no reply, I phoned the pictures desk, they had a number for someone who deals with incoming enquiries for Wilco, so I called and left a message on his voice mail.

Knocking repeatedly on the front door of a dying man, whom you personally admire (and a 'national treasure' into the bargain) is NOT a good feeling. So, assuming that it might be cancelled, I withdrew a little way down the street so as not to look like I was hounding him and I waited for word from his publicist.

After an hour or so, with no call, and time receding, The Independent decided to call it off and reluctantly told me to go. However, I got my start in photography at a press agency and the golden rule is that you always give it one more try before you leave. Old habits are hard to shake so I headed for the door. 

Almost before I got to the step, it yawned open and there stood Wilco himself in a black t-shirt and jeans, looking somewhat quizzical.

I introduced myself and he explained that he had no clue that I was coming but that if I could wait a few minutes he'd have a shave and put a clean shirt on.

He came back downstairs and continued chatting with an old friend of his, who was there in his house, while I set up my lights. He smiled constantly, talking and laughing... until I raised the camera, at which point his face became serious and he took on a piercing expression. It was like being stared down by an eagle.

I asked him if this look was a response to the nature of the interview.

"No," he said, "I just don't like smiling in photographs very much."

Time (and backdrops) were fairly limited so I settled on a location in Wilco's hallway, daylight flooding in from the window above the door and my portable flash jammed into what little space remained on the opposite side to try and give some variety of tone.

In the short session we spoke a little about music and his passion for astronomy and what he liked about his guitar. It was hard to reconcile the open, cheerful way in which he chatted with a complete stranger (me) whose journey to his door was mostly precipitated by the fact that he was (and is) terminally ill. 

We use many expressions when we talk about terminal cancer. We say 'battling with cancer' and 'suffering with cancer' or we refer to 'the fight against cancer'. All of which embody the struggle with the disease on both a personal and clinical level.

But Wilco Johnson has such an easy manner that you get the impression he's almost been liberated by cancer

To be clear, I do not of course mean to imply that he is happy about it, or that he doesn't have to deal with the pain and the countless other horrific symptoms of his illness. But his response is a kind of laser-clarity, born of the decision to live in the moment.

I thought about this for a while on the journey from Essex to Sussex and began to suspect that this is how he's probably always been - decisive, straightforward, un-phased by life.

Maybe the greatest testament to his character is not how terminal illness has changed him, but the way in which he hasn't allowed it to change him at all.

Friday 25 October 2013

Diary Picture - 21 Sep 2013

Just after sunset on Ipanema Beach, a little relaxation at the end of a good day's work, shooting photos in Rocinha Favella. From the imprint of my trusty Alt-Berg boots, it looks like I'm over-dressed and maybe heading in the wrong direction.

Saturday 5 October 2013

The reluctant Mr Baker

Ginger Baker was, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic about being photographed when I arrived on his doorstep at the end of the first week in January. 

He explained that he was suffering from the remains of a cold and nursing an injury to his ribs which he sustained at a recent gig. How exactly he was injured was not something he felt like sharing, but he politely made it clear, with an enviable economy of language, that he was only consenting to the shoot under slight duress and that I shouldn't read too much into the fact that he was wearing a freshly ironed shirt.

We discussed locations in the house and he explained that there was only one way it was going to happen and that was if I was prepared to take his portrait while he sat down and had a cup of coffee in his favourite armchair. Which was fair enough. 

So I set-up, while he watched a David Attenborough documentary on television. 

My key-light, a medium Chimera soft-box, suddenly felt hugely intrusive in the modest space and I was struggling to get back sufficiently for minimum focus distance. 

As I checked the lights and fired a couple of test shots, Ginger completely ignored me. 

He continued to ignore me for the next several minutes as I tried to engage in a bit of light conversation while shooting pictures, asking him about the current band and talking about my son's passion for playing music. His replies, when they came at all, were brevity incarnate, spoken with eyes straight ahead, steadfastly fixed on the large, loud TV in the opposite corner. 

Finally he turned to look at the camera and I got this.

I should point out that while Ginger was broadly unresponsive to what I was saying, he wasn't rude or hostile about it. He was just a man who didn't really enjoy being photographed, who was patiently tolerating a process he felt was unnecessary and doing so at a time when he felt under the weather and in pain. 

When I eventually asked him to sit up a bit in the chair he did so for a while but it was immediately apparent that this was very uncomfortable on his ribs and it seemed churlish to request that he continue sitting that way.

I'm not one to ask people to smile if it's not in their nature, but I try to elicit one in conversation just to see if it makes a decent picture. Nothing I said delivered even so much as a twitch. Eventually I fell back on an old photographers cliche.

"Imagine something that would make you happy." I said...

Then after a few seconds I added, "Like me, spontaneously bursting into flames?"

A glimmer of a smile spread across his thin lips and he gave me a sideways look. I was done... and we both knew it. So I packed my bags and thanked him for his time.

- - -

** I've just yesterday heard that the above picture has been selected as part of this year's Portrait Salon exhibition after being passed over in the National Portrait Gallery's Taylor Wessing contest earlier this year. I'm very proud to have a picture included in the Portrait Salon which is a prestigious "second chance" exhibition with a consistently high standard and a reputation for intriguing work. Many of my friends and the photographers I admire have had work shown there and I'm thrilled to be included this year.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Margate - avoiding "The Martin Parr thing."

Joe lives and breathes the re-invention of Margate. Affably radiating quiet purpose,  dressed in a knee-length brown shopkeepers coat and sporting a parted pudding-bowl haircut, he doesn't just sell vintage objects and retro clothes for a living, he utterly embraces the ethos. Rediscover, repair, reuse, - find the things from the recent past that elicit a feeling not just of nostalgia, but of individuality and the path less-traveled.

In this way he and his wife Kelly could be considered a perfect example of the changes going on in the town. Like their businesses, Margate has borrowed from past glories and is in the process of adapting the best of those things coupled with a growing artistic community to create new prosperity.

Stood together in the Margate Retro General Store, one of two shops they own and run, Joe was attempting to give me the inside track on his hometown, so hard to define or categorise, and explain why he and his family moved back.

"There are two things everyone knows about Margate," said Joe, "The first one is that  song by Chas and Dave, you know, Daaahhhn to Margate," he half sings, "And the other one is Only Fools and Horses where the coach blows up."

I blinked several times. Certainly, I knew the song, no matter how much I would like to pretend otherwise but Only Fools and Horses is a genuine gap in my TV viewing.

"But the thing is," he continued, "it was never that place, or should I say, never JUST that place. Margate has always been a much more complicated town."

This was something I could definitely grasp. After two solid days of shooting - documentary and portraits - it was hard to escape the feeling that I had barely scratched the surface. The photographs were to illustrate an article by Iain Aitch that spanned decades and his observations from growing up in this misunderstood, misrepresented British seaside institution at the far end of Kent. Reflecting the scope and sweep of the piece was not my only problem, there was also the inevitable spectre of Martin Parr. 

Parr's vision of UK seaside towns will never be equalled in my opinion. Their humour, observation and photographic aesthetic are so brilliantly combined that they still cast a long shadow over any British seaside-related photojournalism. Those that criticise him for ridiculing or demeaning his subjects are missing an essential point. His work reflects an intimacy with and affection for the traditional coastal destinations and the families who choose them for their holidays.

So it left me with a quandary - On one hand, I cannot pretend that his work hasn't made me scrutinise and evaluate my own photography and techniques. On the other, the last thing I want to produce is a pale imitation of someone I admire. Most troubling in this equation is the use of flash. I don't know how Martin Parr started to use strong flash in his pictures but I suspect it was in response to a simple technical problem. If you don't want deep shadows on a sunny day then you have to fill them in somehow, either with reflected light or flash. It is something I have occasionally done, using a radio-triggered Q-flash, held off-camera to give a very directional, contra-lit image. It's purposefully different from the ring-flash approach he used but I still worried that it might end up looking too similar.

However, with very little time to get all the pictures completed and a budget that meant I had to limit myself to a couple of days shooting, my hands were somewhat tied. 

I attempted to blend two very different looks into one story. The weather was very variable on both days. The first day I limited myself to strictly working with available light, either diffuse, reflected or just shooting with the sun when it was at it's strongest. On the second day (a Saturday as it turned out) I persuaded my wife Jane to step into the gaping budgetary hole that I would otherwise have spent on an assistant. Armed with the Q-flash, she patiently followed me as I tried to get a number of lit portraits that might thicken-out the edit.

Having already posted the tear sheet, I thought it might be interesting to also make a short gallery, including those that made it into the piece and a few that I liked but weren't chosen for the layout.

The original brief had called for a small number of final images to suggest the changes that Margate had undergone. The culture clash caused by the arrival of the Turner Contemporary and the cultures of an artistic community in a traditional seaside resort. 

What became apparent very quickly from talking to locals, visitors and shopkeepers was that far from a clash there had been a cross-pollination. In the sunny weather, the beach is the great magnet but on overcast days, the cafes and shops of old-town still draw-in visitors looking for authentic vintage and non-label fashions that are concentrated in the small accessible area. 

The designers at the New Review came up with a minimalist take on the idea of postcards which worked well in the final layout but the last word should go to Iain Aitch's writing.

"It has always had the feel of a frontier town - Always about to mutate." He wrote.

Iain made reference to a how the real renaissance began one Saturday night in 2007 when a huge Anthony Gormley sculpture was burned as part of a film and artistic performance. This, he said, was the spark that gave Margate the arts momentum which is now being continued by the Turner Contemporary and planned revival of the famous, but now defunct, Dreamland.

As luck would have it, I was there that night and had taken photographs - on assignment for The Independent's news section. Here is my favourite, taken just before it was set ablaze showing the giant art-work made of furniture, already glowing orange in the setting sun.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Tearsheet - The New Review, 25 Aug 2013: Welcome to Margate

Four pages in The New Review, Independent on Sunday. My pictures accompanied a brilliant, personal and enlightening piece by Iain Aitch. 

I recommend you read it here (article).

Friday 23 August 2013

Double Header - Jessica Swale

After talking this week with long time friend and colleague David Howells I've been spurred on to start a new series of posts on Cover featuring some of my personal favourite portraits from the last few years. In each case, presenting two pictures combined into a single frame with a short explanation. As the series progresses it will give me the excuse to dip into a wide variety of editorial and commercial portraits and how they came to be.

First up, Jessica Swale, who after becoming one of the UK's most successful young theatre directors decided to write 'Blue Stockings' her first full-length play. Naturally, being a first time playwright the venue for it's inaugural staging was that tiny, little-known, back-street flea-pit... Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. This kind of talent goes beyond amazing and into the very slightly intimidating realm.

To couch it in Zoolander terms, the phrase "Jessica is so hot right now!" does not even begin to cover it.

The original idea (or 'concept' as they like to imagine it should be called) was to do a portrait of Jessica with the auditorium of the Globe theatre in the background. Still not quite sure who's idea this was - I suspect it might have been the section editor.

Literary types think literally, and if the office had their druthers I would have been doing a picture of Jessica Swale, dressed in blue stockings, in the Globe Theatre auditorium, carrying a sign that read "I'm Jessica Swale and my play 'Blue Stockings' is on at the Globe theatre." Of course, that would still be a bit subtle by their standards but they could have underlined the point by stating the whole thing again in the caption.

Fortunately fate intervened, and a freak delay during my journey to London meant that by the time we came to do pictures, the auditorium was full of theatregoers and we had to make do with what we could find outside. After spending ages trying to fulfil the brief of Playwright + Theatre in the same frame I decided that we should do a photograph which concentrated on Jessica herself rather than the building.

Here are my two favourites and I'm pleased to say that while the Independent didn't use either of these actual frames, they did at least ditch the original brief in favour of one of the shots from this second phase of the session. The article which was headlined 'Woman on fire' can be read here.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Mr Middleton - The last best hope for professional photography

Question: How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Just one, but I’m not sure I would have done it that way myself…

Professional photographers can be famously sceptical of other people’s pictures. Often the criticisms can seem petty and peevish but the news that the first “official photographs” of Prince George were taken by his grandfather, Michael Middleton, elicited immediate reactions from photographers everywhere.

Those reactions were howls of protest and gales of laughter in about equal measures.

In case you haven’t seen them, either because you’ve been locked in a bunker for the last day or you are the partner of a Guardian journalist currently transiting through Heathrow, I’ll describe them for you.


They are not spectacularly bad. Not so awful that we might be tempted to think they’re good in a in a post-modern ironic sense and certainly not so mind-bendingly pointless that we could expect to see them as finalists in the Deutsche Borse prize next year!

No, they are bad in an ordinary, approachable way. You do not need to be a connoisseur to know these are crappy pictures, absolutely anyone can see that they are grindingly mediocre.

Taken in what we assume is the garden of the family home, they convey two essential messages to the outside world.

Firstly, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are normal, down-to-earth people who enjoy relaxing in the summer sunshine with their son just like any other parents.

Secondly, that they, in common with so many families throughout the world, have relatives with a really nice camera and no clue how to use it!

Let’s leave trifles like technique and camera-handling aside. After all, Mr Middleton certainly did. Instead we’ll concentrate on some of the more baffling features of the first picture.

It’s supposed to be a photograph of the Prince and his adoring parents right? So why are the family dogs more prominent than the future heir?

“Congratulation your royal highness you are the proud parents of a retriever! No, my mistake, there is a baby in the picture - just fading into the lawn. Hang-on, that’s a dog too! Where’s the baby? Oh I see it, masquerading as Kate’s massively developed right bicep!”

Did nobody spot this before the pictures were sent round the world’s media? Who looked at that and thought it was OK? What has happened to the famous concern for the royal image we have seen in recent years?

Better yet, where was the quality control from the papers themselves? Certainly someone on the picture desks of the various international publications and news-outlets should have called up the palace and said those time honoured words,

“Errr, do you have anything else?”

As if to answer this un-asked question there is another, similarly dreadful shot. No longer seated this time but still in the shade of a tree.

In this photo they appear to be standing on the banks of a huge yellow river that turns out to be the lawn - over-exposed by eight stops or so. The dogs are gone - mercifully – but it still has the same clumsy, depressing, second-rate atmosphere as the first picture.

Is this some misguided attempt at man-of-the-people accessibility? Is it a demonstration of extreme contempt for the very idea of aesthetic standards?

We are living in a time of austerity and cut-backs so I would be the last person to advocate that Mario Testino needs to be deployed to the Middleton household on a round-the-clock basis to record the infant Prince’s every move. That would be profligate and wrong.

Nor do I think that merely because the Royal family are publicly funded that automatically means William, Kate and George have to become public property. But really, basic self-respect should have kicked in here. A suitable professional photographer could and should have been found for this first official record.

On the bright side, this may be good news for professional photographers. A few years ago we were treated to some beef-witted, waste of blood and organs on Radio 4’s Today Programme, telling us that photographers were a thing of the past because modern cameras and software meant anybody could take a decent picture.

Finally we have a comprehensive irrefutable rebuttal to this assertion.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Michael Middleton!

* this is an edited version of the piece I wrote for Pixelrights Blog earlier today.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Diary Picture - 10 Aug 2013

Years ago I lived in Bristol and worked on the press agency South West News Service. Whilst there, I was assigned to photograph the Bristol Balloon Fiesta which was a lot of fun. But in the intervening years I've never had the chance until the weekend just passed. 

The Fiesta is much bigger now and very professionally organised but the smooth sensation of hot-air ballooning hasn't changed a bit.

The press team introduced me to Colin, one of the pilots from Cameron Balloons who had kindly offered a to take me on a flight so I could get shots for the Independent on Sunday.

We rose steadily into crisp morning air, floating over the city that used to be my home. 

Colin seemed rather underwhelmed as I pointed out the landmarks of my former life. The offices on Hotwells where I learned my trade. A few of my favourite haunts - even the hill where I was thrown in front of a moving car by the co-designer of a famous middle-eastern weapon of mass destruction after I had tried to photograph him as part of a Sunday Times investigation. 

Ah, the carefree days of youth!

As we passed the south-western suburbs of the city our intended landing area was lit by a shaft of light breaking through the clouds. 

Gliding silently but for the occasional roar of the heater, I felt completely 'meshed-in'...

Thursday 25 July 2013

The perils of trying too hard...

It may sound strange but sometimes we, as photographers, try just a little too hard to be creative and can end up producing pictures that say more about ourselves than our subjects.

I may have been slightly guilty of this when I recently photographed the multi-talented Frédéric Beigbeder, french author, critic and celebrity (amongst a dozen other acheivements) for Radar magazine.

I had this idea that I wanted to portray his fizzing energy and somehow retain the reflectiveness that I strive for in my portraits. So I purposefully shook the camera on a long exposure to make wild shapes with the ambient light while holding my subject motionless with flash.

Here are a couple of the results.

From a colour perspective I really like the mixture of strobe lighting mixed with the very warm tungsten on the extended exposure. The Camera movements were intentional but slightly random and hard to predict where the light was going to wash into Frédéric himself.

Maybe this one is has more stillness to the pose and more reflectiveness but it wouldn't hold a page and Radar went with the frame above...

Frédéric himself was very patient through this slightly unpredictable process although he did think I was having some kind of medical episode when I first started shaking the camera around! He was very cool about the whole session and much funnier in real life than he appears in the pictures.

PS. I would appreciate any comments and opinions as to whether these shots work or if they are just a bit too contrived...

Diary Picture - 7 Mar 2013

St Pauls in the early evening of late winter, looking from the offices of Marie Claire during a break from packing up after a shoot.

Diary Picture - 14 Jun 2013

St Pauls looking from the Millennium bridge. A couple in the midst of the foot traffic at lunch.

Monday 15 July 2013

Diary Picture - 13 Jan 2012

The Olympic village and athlete's accommodation in the final stages of preparation for the London Games, taken from the roof of Westfield during a break in a leasing brochure shoot.

Friday 12 July 2013

Diary Picture - 27 Oct 2012

A walk in Blean woods on a crisp cool October afternoon. Either an antidote to the blazing sun or a reminder not to take it for granted...