I am saddened today to hear of the death of the artist Susan Hiller, aged 78, after a short illness.
In June 2018 Camera Press sent me along to a press call for Artangel, on the promise that Jeremy Deller would be there to have his photo taken. This was to publicise a fund-raising auction. To my incredible delight, Susan Hiller was also there, having donated a jukebox filled with songs about London, where she lived for over 30 years. She was charismatic with long salt-and-pepper hair, a smart black jacket and neatly painted nails. She sat drinking a coffee and waiting for things to start, so I went over and said hello. She professed she hated having her photo taken, "because I'll look like I'm 105," but then immediately asked me what shots I needed to get and where did I need her to stand. She had no ego at all and was so helpful to me. She had a wide smile and round dark eyes -- it was obvious she would have been a great beauty when young but she had that special beauty that the best kind of women have when they age naturally and are confident in their lives and abilities.
In September last year I saw her again at a prize-giving at another art gallery. I reintroduced myself and she chatted to me and my friend for a while, making astute and rueful comments about the art world. After that I emailed her some of the photos, thinking an assistant might pass them on, but I got a personal reply from her saying, "Thank you very much for the photos which are not bad at all (I hate posing) in fact quite pleasant." That might sound like faint praise but I think it also speaks to her modesty and I felt honoured.
Her solo show at Tate Britain a few years ago was full of intriguing and curious works. If you can take some time to look up some examples of her work, it won't be time wasted.
Last year I made a visit to New York City for the first time in over a decade. Its a much-photographed city and to walk round with a camera is to alternate between feeling exhilarated at the glorious sights and then worrying that you are repeating more famous work. Some of the classic NY sights are so familiar -- water towers! fire escapes! sky scrapers! -- that it can feel hard to create truly original images. I have the same problem with Venice, another over-photographed city. And yet, you can't go and NOT take photos...
Many years ago I was in New York and shooting black and white on Scala -- a monochrome transparency film that I used quite a bit in my pre-digital days. Perhaps because so much early street photography was done in the city, I find it easy to think in black and white when I'm there. One of the images I shot was of Brooklyn Bridge in the rain, which gives two wonderful effects. Firstly, most of the people who would normally be walking over the bridge give up and go away. Secondly, you get these great reflections on the wet decking.
That original photo sold a few times through the now-defunct picture library Corbis, so I knew it had appeal. So when I was back in the city for a week, I waited for a rainy day and went back. I spent over an hour on the bridge in heavy rain and got pretty cold and wet but I think its worth it for results like this. I posted a similar image on Instagram on the day and immediately had a friend say that she would like to buy a print of it, so I have started an edition of 25 prints which are available from me directly. You can order by email via the contents page here and pay by PayPal.
The images are archive digital prints on Canson Etching Rag paper in acid-free mounts, 290 x 290 mm in a 500 x 500 mm black frame. Framed price £125 plus postage and packing if I can't hand it over in person (I'm in London). Do let me know if you're interested.
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.
Anna Watson: photographer, parent, juggler