Two portrait shoots today.
Two women artists.
One posed, one candid. One outdoor, one indoor. One established, one upcoming. One close-up, one long lens.
Firstly to King's Cross where the massive redevelopment of the area is allowing for some medium-term installations to take place, in this case a work by Rana Begum which will be on site for 3 or 4 years. Its called No. 700 Reflectors, Cubitt Sq., 2016 and comprises many many reflectors in dramatic patterns on a long wall which zig-zags along the edge of an open space. Shooting in drizzle which gradually hardened to proper rain, I used an ISO of 1600 to give me plenty of depth of field on a very grey day. Although the light was dull it was actually easy to work with -- no harsh shadows. The best photos came after I'd asked her to put her hood up -- suddenly she was framed within both the hood and the background shapes of the installation. A quick, easy, pleasant shoot.
The second shot was of Marina Abramović, who was signing copies of her autobiography Walk Through Walls in the Switch House bookshop at Tate Modern. She was chatting with loyal fans, some of whom had started queuing before the shop opened, even though the event didn't start until noon. She was obviously happy to be chatting to fans and seemed very friendly. However, the lighting was very low in the area where she was sitting but bright behind her -- contrast nightmare! I also had to work at a distance to get candid shots as there was no time in her schedule for a posed portrait.
Using a 200mm lens with the ISO at 4000 I shot at 1/100 sec which risked lens shake but I tried to minimise that by leaning against the tables of book displays in the shop. The aperture was only f2.8 so the depth of field is tiny. Having done quite a few shots from one side, I then moved round and got some with the publicity banner showing the book cover behind her -- I like the effect of her own eyes looking over her shoulders. Actually, in both cases, a large part of the skill in making a good composition is arranging the back-ground so that it works around the foreground subject.
You can clearly see the difference in image quality between shooting at the different ISOs and in Marina Abramović's photos her black top is slightly under-exposed. But I think that despite the technical problems, I managed to catch her and get a quite flattering shot. The rest of my photos of both subjects are with Camera Press.
As you will see from the main portraits page of this site, I've been doing quite a lot of 'soft news' shoots for Camera Press recently -- exhibition openings, press calls to launch campaigns, that sort of thing. On Tuesday I got invited to one of those, in which a Well Known Person was going to be photographed posting a letter to the Prime Minister in support of a worthy cause. It was scheduled for 2pm, then brought forward to 12.45. I rushed over there and then stood, with about 20 other photographers, for an hour on a street corner in west London, waiting for WKP to arrive. Alas, she was a no-show, apparently due to problems with a connecting flight. With travel time, that ate up three hours of my day.
Imagine my delight then, to have cycled 10 minutes over to Brixton and worked with Clapham Film Unit for the following two days and taken portraits of some lovely people with no agenda and no connecting flights. This is part of a project called 'For What We Are About to Lose', addressing the recent and on-going regeneration of Brixton and asking older residents to recall what the place used to be like. I've been taking still photos throughout the project. The result has been two documentaries directed by Charlotte Bill which you can see on the CFU website. Charlotte sees this as an on-going project as much more redevelopment is promised/threatened in the near future.
The photos here are of Etta Burrell, who runs Etta's Seafood Kitchen in Brixton Village. Eight years ago she dreamt that Brixton belonged to her and the next day she happened to be there when the council started offering units with the first three months rent-free. This brilliant scheme gave lots of people a chance to start a new shop or restaurant which they probably couldn't have managed without that financial break. Its a financial model that has been copied elsewhere since, not least because Brixton is now known as a foodie destination and the area has been revitalised rather than demolished. Of course it is also a testament to Etta's cooking skills that she has survived and thrived for eight years in a difficult business.
Last week I started working for Camera Press, a venerable news agency which has been representing great photojournalists since 1947. I feel rather honoured that they've taken me on. I approached them as there was a photo call for a new exhibition at the V&A; I have covered them several times for Demotix and needed a new outlet. Camera Press then asked me to go on to the London Book Fair to photograph Jeffrey Archer and Julian Fellowes. I went back the following day to photograph another author, Tracey Chevalier (her new novel At The Edge of the Orchard is brilliant) and then a third time because I just absolutely had to see Judith Kerr, above.
Kerr is probably best known for her Mog the Cat books, given a new burst of publicity by being used in Sainsbury's Christmas adverts last year. I loved her book The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which I read regularly to my children when they were younger, and we even went to see the stage show. Being interviewed at the book fair she told of how her family fled Germany two days before Hitler was elected, having been warned by a family friend that their passports would be confiscated if they stayed. She wrote about this in her book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, though she admitted that it was very much a child's view of things and she had not realised how stressful it was for her parents. Her life might have ended when she was 9 years old and she seems to have taken everything since then as a bonus. She is approaching her 93rd birthday, still writing despite recovering from recent hip replacement surgery. She just seemed like an utterly delightful woman and, I don't know if you can tell from this photo, but there was something of the genial look of the tiger about her -- it was most definitely a friendly, though magnificent, tiger.
She also told the story of how her father, before he was married, had rescued an orphaned seal pup in France and brought it home to Berlin in a box on the train. He arrived late at night so took it in a taxi to a restaurant so he could give it some milk. He tried to keep it on his balcony but it had grown fond of him and honked to be let in. Sadly the zoo couldn't take it and he couldn't feed it enough to keep it alive but apparently this story -- with a happier ending -- is what she is reworking for her next book. With the kind of parents who bring home a seal pup, perhaps having a tiger come to tea isn't so surprising.
Technical notes: I did a few shots of her with flash, right at the beginning. After about 10 shots I was tapped on the shoulder and asked not to use flash but I sat on the floor clicking away throughout her 30 minute interview. I upped my ISO to 800 and despite using a longish lens (200mm) managed to shoot at 1/80th of a second because I was balancing the lens on my knee, so managed to avoid camera shake. I uploaded the colour photos via my laptop at the fair but when I got home I converted a few to B&W, which I think gives a more timeless look. Its a bit of a shame about the microphone (I got one shot at the end when she'd taken it off) but then again it shows an elderly woman in a modern world and a public speaking role so there's no harm in that.
Coming back into work after taking time out to have children, one of the ways I got myself going was to submit images to Demotix, and on-line news agency. You would shoot, upload, and a couple of hours later the images would be available. Once you had done 10 stories you could upload and publish immediately, which obviously helped.
The great advantage of this for me was that I could do shoots while the kids were in school. Sales were far from meteoric but I liked the fact that the images remained on-line for potential re-use and you could see how many views they had received. I shot some political launch events, art events, gallery openings, some demos. There was a massive gap in what sold: famous people sold, other things did not.
Demotix was bought by Corbis a couple of years ago, which didn't worry me as I was already a Corbis contributor; it was one of the first contracts I signed when I left photography college 16 years ago. From each story of 20 to 25 images that I submitted to Demotix, Corbis would pick about 5 images to go on their website, and it was through this that most of my sales were achieved.
Sadly, in January this year, Corbis was sold to Visual China Group who are merging them with Getty Images. The Demotix website was closed down with no notice, leaving many photographers distressed, confused and angry. Soon, on 2nd May 2016, the Corbis website will be closed down too and not all of the material will be available through Getty.
The stock industry has been getting harder and harder over the last 10 years. Fees have got lower and lower, companies turn to Flickr and Instagram to source photos from people who are flattered to get a credit rather than asking for fair payment. Picture libraries have reduced again and again the proportion of fees which go back to the photographers. Demotix seemed like a good antidote to this but evidently it was not sufficiently profitable to be kept going.
Any previous blog posts here which I have linked to Demotix no longer work, so all I have from that time is a couple of screen shots.
RIP Demotix and good luck to photographers trying to still earn a living.
Years ago, when I moved into a flat with white walls and big windows, I did a series of black-and-white photographs of white flowers with shadows cast by window frames adding dramatic diagonals to the images. I'm still a sucker for a strong diagonal in any composition but now I've come back to colour images and moved away from white backgrounds. This series of still lives that I've been working on over the last few months uses the back of an old wooden-framed armchair as a back-ground. The light is simply what comes in the window -- I've not even used a reflector.
I love the drama of the dark shadows and the glowing colours of the flowers set against the rich, warm tones of the wood. In some cases a copper side-table or the glass of a small vase adds more colour. Taking the photos has involved a lot of sprawling on the floor whilst trying to get my verticals straight. And also, you really realise how fast the planet spins when you do this -- the sun moves fast and I have to adjust the positions of flowers and background every few minutes.
My aim is to put on an exhibition once I have a few more suitable shots.
Happy New Year!
Welcome to the Year of the Monkey!
Ten years ago I went to Shanghai to take photographs of Chinese New Year. I loved being in Shanghai (though I found its sheer size quite alarming) and the atmosphere of people celebrating with their families. There were shops full of colourful decorations, there were beautiful lanterns all over the place, and I noticed that the default colour for a winter coat is red, not black as it is in Britain.
Some of the photos I took then are already on the Travel page of this website, so I won't repeat them here. On Chinese New Year's Day itself, I went out to the Longhua Temple and spent the day taking photos of the celebrations. People were lighting incense, burning paper money, saying prayers and so on. As the day wore on the piles of ash from bundles of burnt incense grew higher and higher.
Normally I'm very reticent about photographing people that I can't talk to about it, but people seemed to be very relaxed about my presence and sometimes sign language and smiling a lot was enough to get a portrait taken.
I am usually a person who works hard but with regular breaks for snacks and meals: I need to be fed and watered regularly! But that day I started taking photos at about 11am, after having taken 2 buses to get there. The first time I stopped and thought to myself, 'I need a drink and some food,' was about 5pm. I have never worked with such obliviousness to the passage of time.
If you're on Facebook, you will have got those messages telling you your 'memories' from the same day a year or more ago. Apparently a year ago yesterday I made two New Year resolutions: to sort out my garden and to get myself set up for a home portrait studio. I think of myself as someone who doesn't make resolutions, so I was surprised to realise I'd made them. Its a good thing Facebook keeps these memories as apparently my own brain doesn't! Even more surprisingly, I have accomplished both those resolutions. The garden is no longer entirely covered with brambles and I have started doing studio sessions.
The set up I have is that a very wide paper backdrop hangs from a rail between two stands. This is collapsible and packs away between shoots. As my office/studio/junk room is what was formerly the garage attached to my house, there's plenty of width. The lights I use are a pair of portable lights in a kit from Calumet, which I've had for years and have often used on location. They can be triggered by on-camera flash or, as in the shot above, by directly connecting the camera to the soft-box.
My first shot was a family with two children. They perched on bar stools to keep them still, though they were still pretty wiggly! Mum stood behind them to make a tight family group and then it was a case of trying to catch the moments as they chatted and mucked around. I shot in colour but my favourites are the converted to black and white. Its worth customising this in Photoshop as you can adjust the channels. I find that reducing the red component gives much brighter complexions. I did a tiny bit of cleaning up in Photoshop as well, as one child had a scratched on their face which didn't need to be immortalised.
I'm hoping this shoot will be the first of many. Please do get in touch if you're interested.
There are people crazy enough to go outdoor swimming on Christmas morning in several places around the UK. There are also swims on Boxing Day and New Year's Day in quite a few places, including the sea which, even in a mild winter such as we're having this year, must be toe-curlingly cold.
Brockwell Lido in south London has run a Christmas morning swim for the last 2 years and this year I went along to take photos for Demotix. The water was at 10 centigrade, a big improvement on the bone-chilling 4 centigrade it was last year. Even so, many people only managed a couple of lengths before heading for the showers or the sauna. Clearly some people are regular cold-water swimmers though, because many did several lengths and some even managed to look relaxed while doing it. I particularly liked the elegant lady with the tinsel in her hair -- she seemed to have some self-contained sense of enjoyment as she swan length after length.
In terms of press photos, what I was looking for were photos with people in costume or people grimacing in the cold water. Sure enough, there were a few Santa hats around and inevitably some face-pulling as people went into the lido. It was a grey morning, though it brightened a bit as the morning went on. in fact, that's quite good for photos; no problems of harsh shadows or blown highlights. I shot at 800 ISO to give myself plenty of depth of field even when using a quite fast exposure -- about 1/250th of a second -- to capture splashes of water and to avoid camera shake when using a long lens.
If anyone who swam there would like to order a print of their photo, they can do so here.
Perhaps because I worked in book publishing for several years before becoming a photographer, I have a tendency to think about what will be a 'useful picture' when I go somewhere. So if I go to Budapest or Lisbon or wherever, I try to get a good shot of the local trams, of souvenirs, of the main buildings. The kind of thing that might get used in a guidebook or on a travel website. And of course it should be sharp and bright and carefully composed.
This has meant that sometimes I have not taken shots of things which are abstract or trivial or too quirky. But lately I have tried to relax a bit more and reconsider what might be useful -- once you put pictures with stock libraries I think its very hard to predict what might get used.
Recently a poetry publisher asked me to send a selection of images for them to use on the cover of an anthology. As is the way in publishing, they need a front cover long before the choice of poems has been finalised, so there is no specific subject matter for them to brief me on. I just had to think about vaguely poetic, abstract images and hope for the best.
The top image here was taken from the front seat of a London bus stuck in traffic. I drew the heart myself to pick up on the red lights, which are the tail-lights of the vehicles in front. Next is an image taken from a train in Finland. Because its blurred it isn't a 'good' photo in the ordinary sense but the trunks of the silver birches and their yellow autumnal leaves, plus a glimpse of blue sky, give it some kind of atmosphere which a sharp image wouldn't have.
The last image, below, is actually sharp -- it just doesn't look it! This is taken at Tate Modern in London, where there is a Members' Room with a frosted glass wall allowing light through to the stairwell. A woman with her hair in a bun, sits on a bar stool, waiting for someone else to arrive perhaps... Lets hope that's sufficiently mysterious and poetic.
Yesterday I was showing my portfolio to a picture editor (yes that still happens sometimes) and we got talking about mixed light photographs. This is one of my favourite things to do so I thought I'd share two images from a trip I did last month to San Sebastian in Spain (also known as Donostia in Basque).
I had one lovely sunny day taking pictures of beaches and views, and on that evening took the shot above with the camera on a tripod. The exposure length was 1 second at f10, 400 ISO, which gave a good mixture of blurred figures walking past and, in this frame at least, a couple standing still looking out to the sunset on La Concha bay.
The waves in the bay are slightly blurred but that gives a softness against which the railings of the promenade stand out nicely. They are also picking up some orange light from the street lighting in contrast to the blueish glow of the sky and just a hint of red in the sunset.
The next day the cloud started and I had a rather irritating day of wandering around finding details to shoot: tapas bars, souvenirs in shops, interiors of churches. By dusk it was pouring with rain but I doggedly took out my tripod and tried again.
The only advantage of photographing in the rain is that you get reflections off the wet pavements and roads. This can be put to good use with the right situation. In this case, I headed over to the Kursaal, a cultural centre which is a dramatic bit of architecture with two blocks of illuminated glass facing the sea.
It was raining so heavily, and windy too, that I did slightly shorter exposures -- in this case 0.5 second -- and thus shallower depth of field, f5.6. I had to wipe the lens clean before every shot but I like the dramatic effect of the reflections. Also, although the sky seemed entirely grey to the naked eye, it gains a bit of blue in camera.
The key things to successful mixed light photographer are to get the timing right so that the artificial lights are balanced against some remaining light in the sky -- a pitch black sky doesn't look nearly so atmospheric -- and to use mirror lock and either a tripod or place the camera on a firm surface so that there is no camera shake.
Anna Watson: photographer, parent, juggler