This month at ArtsmithLIVE

I’m now volunteering at the ArtsmithLIVE Gallery in Derby. It’s an artist-led gallery – that’s to say the exhibitions and events are arranged by by artists around Derby, not by petrol companies or the Arts Council.

After a month off, the gallery is back with an event and an exhibition. First off, Jordan Alex Smith is off to help in Nepal – here’s his fundraiser:

Jordan 600

A week later, Sam Walton launches a two-week show of his paintings:

slice1

So come on down and meet some artists and have fun!

 

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What’s a portrait?

… and there was me pontificating in the last post about depth of field for portraits and it turns out that I don’t know what a portrait is. I’d cheerfully assumed that the purpose of a portrait was to capture a likeness – physical and psychological – of a person. Wikipedia agrees (at the time of writing):

“A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.”

And then I sat down to read “Secrets of great portrait photography” by Brian Smith as recommended by David Hobby, or ‘Strobist‘. Now, if you don’t know, David Hobby has spent many years encouraging photographers to engage with their local community and more famously, to exploit what can be achieved with thoughtful use of a few inexpensive off-camera flashguns and simple light modifiers and a bit of thought. So, thought I, Smith’s book would be in a similar vein.

I was taken aback. The book consists of publicity photographs of random wealthy people, mostly American. The jokey captions in colloquial US English probably explain to people from that culture what the pictures are about, but I’m left in the dark. To my admittedly prejudiced mind there is only one portrait in the book, of someone who appears to be a Russian thug standing outside a lift. But for all I know he might be the new Mother Theresa. It’s just that this one photo seems to have a touch of sincerity about it. The photographs were commissioned by magazine editors or publicists who want the person portrayed in a manner that suits their commercial requirement. This is product photography not portraiture! The aim is to conceal the likeness of the person.

I’ve discussed this with several people. Some of them disagree with me – “a portrait is a picture of a person’s face” was the response from one person working in a gallery. When I make a portrait I want it to say something about a person and for me the greatest compliment my photographs received in 2014 was when this lady said she thought the photo did say a lot about her and her situation.

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But am I kidding myself? A ten-minute walk from home would bring me to Derby Museum and Art Gallery which has a collection of portraits by local painter Joseph Wright (1734-1797), a contemporary of Gainsborough. Now was Wright commissioned to reveal the character of his eighteenth-century patrons? I think not. He was hired to portray them demonstrating their wealth and beauty, not the psychological characteristics that had enabled them to acquire that wealth. And I don’t challenge the notion that these are portraits. So why am I disconcerted by the equivalent contemporary images? Because they are not equivalent.

The equivalent of the oil painting today – and nearly as expensive too – is the vanity (or studio) portrait. I once asked a studio portraitist if people didn’t want to be photographed in their own homes. “No”, he said, “it’s very difficult to squeeze a three-metre roll of white seamless background in to someone’s living room”. Now I’d have thought that someone who could afford several hundred or even thousand pounds on a vanity portrait would probably live in a house with a bit of character that would have added something to the picture, rather than detracting from it. But it seems not – the punters want to be photographed against white backgrounds. Strangest of all is that the white background requires the least skill from the photographer. It’s a world where people will only pay £500 for a joiner-built individually-designed fitted kitchen but £5000 for a self-assembly one from a down-market DIY warehouse…

And then there’s smiling. In both the product photos that kicked this post off and in vanity portraits, people smile. Often manically. Normal people don’t smile (hear me out). I was sent on an assignment in Derby, UK to surreptitiously photograph people smiling and then to approach them and to ask them why. In the course of ninety minutes on a busy day I saw four people smiling. One of them had a 24-pack of bottled lager and had cracked the cap off the corner one. She was drinking by lifting the whole case to her face. I didn’t photograph her… Bill Brandt, speaking of portraits, famously said “Don’t smile, you look stupid”. There’s a bit more to it than that, and the pros and cons of his style of portraiture are sensitively debated on the Bill Brandt site here. But if you’re like me, the reason why you think people smile in the street is that you smile at them! But do you smile at a stranger posing on a street corner as if to say “look at me I’m rich / have a Rolex / bodyguard / substantial codpiece”? Now I’d just hurry on past. And if you’d do the same, who are the people in this product photograph smiling at?

Screenshot 2015-01-02 17.08.14 (1)

© Brian Smith 2014

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Starting again

A very helpful review of my work by Claire Kern at the Third Floor Gallery prompted me to get my arse back into gear. Having lost confidence in being able to shoot anything meaningful and lost interest in photographing things that aren’t, there I was with a DSLR and a bag of gear wondering how to carry out The Plan. Yes, at least there is A Plan.
The Plan is ambitious – to document Derby at work. Maybe some street style. A focus on older crafts, skills, workplaces. I want to do urban exploration while the people are still there, while the workplace is still functioning. Like this photograph of a bell tuner in a bell foundry
 Bell Tuner
 which is admittedly in Whitechapel, London, but you get the picture.
Places in Derby that appeal:
– the pub
– a traditional bakery
– the markets
– a clothing factory in the Indian quarter.
I need some contacts to get me in the door and I’m away. Or would be I had any confidence that in return for half an hour of somebody’s time I will be able to give them a correctly exposed, sharp photograph of themself that they can show to family and friends to communicate what they do. That they might pin to the wall at least for a few weeks. What’s stopping me?
Let’s start with technique. I’ve now got a full-frame DSLR that will produce sharp black and white photographs at ISO1100 with a 35mm lens with an exposure of 1/90s at f/2.8. Or at least, which has done once:
Can I consistently get sharpness at 1/90? How slow could I go? Could I get adequate depth of field at f/2? How far can I go past ISO1100? At higher ISOs I seem to lose sharpness – but is that a focussing problem in low light or is it noise? Only a good bit of experimenting will show. Fortunately I have a willing victim model.
Why black and white, by the way? It can stand higher ISO because grain looks ok, colour noise doesn’t. Colour balance is hard work – my first experiments were in a pub where the economical landlord has installed energy-efficient lighting which is to say every bulb has a different colour temperature and of course they’re all fighting with daylight. Drinking is mainly done at night, but the cellar work, cooking and cleaning is done in the day:
Elena
Yes I considered the Martin Parr ‘puff of flash’ technique – but that’s just one more variable to juggle. Yes, I have seen photographs taken down a Derbyshire fluorspar mine with healthy skin tones and barely-noticeable noise, but I can’t do that. Yet. Black and white suits the subject I think and can better hide background distractions.
So, I have the kit and I have one tame workplace. The next steps are:
– experiments to see how far I can push the exposure and achieve sufficient depth of field
– photographing in a small kitchen – how do you photograph a cook who spends her day with her back to you?
– have a look at what others have done – David Hurn, Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Walker Evans, Blazej Marczak  – who else?

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She’s gone

As dusk approached on a grey January day I went into her room. I felt the cold, the emptiness. I saw the blu-tack blobs on the wall where her pictures used to be. And, hanging incongruously on the back of the door, a chemise, its burgundy satin glowing in the dusky blue light, a reminder of more intimate times.

This is a fiction, but I did stumble upon the nightie and the blu-tack and it made a grey day a lot greyer as I imagined an abandoned lover’s grief.

So now I want to photograph it. All I need to do is get the soft blue light, but bright enough to shoot at f/22 as I think the blu-tack and the chemise both need to be in focus or at least the blu-tack needs to be recognisable.
This is as far as I’ve got. The natural light was too dull to get more than f/5.6 so I used two flashes bounced off the ceiling to give as soft a light as my present skills allow. In Aperture I straightened and cropped it, pulled the colour temperature down to 4000 to get the blue, gave it a touch of definition for the lace and in levels dragged the highlights quarter point to the left to darken the highlights. I then selected the burgundy and tweaked hue, saturation and luminance to compensate for the colour temperature adjustment. I added some vignetting to deal with the viewers attention leaking out of the right-hand corners
It’s nowhere near where I want it to be, but I’m posting it in the hope of some wiser people suggesting how I could recreate the mood.

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