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.
This morning I hoofed down to Mayfair to photograph the installation of an exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Gallery. The artist is Alex Katz, who I always associate with the highly stylized portraits of Blur he did for one of their album covers: pop art for Brit Pop.
This new exhibition is called 'Black Paintings', portraits in oils on linen, all with black backgrounds. Just as Rembrandt and all the old masters knew, the power of a person's face and body set against a black background concentrates the eye and the mind. Unlike the very flat pop art portraits he did earlier, these are quite painterly with visible brush strokes.
I particularly loved this painting, 'Nicole'. In this shot it is seen heavily cropped and with the corners of other canvases framing it. I like this kind of work where you can play with the shapes. As this wall was filled with panoramic canvases, each with one or two figures, there was plenty of black canvas to arrange against the white walls and focus attention on the woman in red.
Sadly, although Alex Katz was directing the installation of the work, he didn't want to pose for photographs. At the age of 87 he looks twenty years younger and is clearly still on an artistic roll. The rest of my photos are on Demotix.
Last Sunday I did a shoot for Clapham Film Unit. I have worked on several of their documentaries now, shooting production stills which are used both as publicity shots and as a record of the work done. (This is essential for projects such as this which are partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.) Its interesting work, though great care has to be taken to keep a very safe distance from the sound-man's microphone while they're actually recording. If I need to be close in then often the shots are grabbed just before the director Charlotte Bill says, 'Action!' (yes, they do really do that) or just after she says, '... and cut!'
This project is called These Dangerous Women, which is how Winston Churchill referred to them. It is about the efforts of a group of women peace activists to attend an international congress in The Hague in April 1915. Their aim was to bring World War I to an end. These pioneering women, who didn't yet have the vote, travelled to Tilbury docks in Essex, where they had been promised a boat to Holland. Despite having permits to travel they were thwarted by the closure of the shipping lanes and an 8-day wait at the docks ended in disappointment.
The documentary will be finished to coincide with an exhibition opening in Edinburgh next March to mark the centenary the events of April 1915.
Part of the process of making the documentary has been to get contemporary women to research the fascinating lives of those pioneering peace activists. In Edwardian costume these volunteers travelled from around the country to London, then on to Tilbury, and you can see my photos of the days events here.
I do different kinds of work for different clients, and often spend my working days sitting at the computer captioning, key-wording and removing dust spots from images. Quite dull stuff. So sometimes its just a treat to do a nice simple shoot. The key ingredients? One soft box, one close friend, her 2-month old son.
The set-up couldn't have been simpler. I had the camera on manual and measured the exposure with my light-meter, which goes way back to my days of working with a Hasselblad. But these I shot digitally on a second-hand Canon 5DS which I bought back in January. Shooting digitally makes for lots of quick shots (at least as fast as the light will re-charge) and also ease of printing for the client.
I shot in colour and used Photoshop adjustments to convert to black and white. Adjusting the different colour channels separately allowed me to hold the strength of the dark tones in his blue eyes and tone down a bit of redness in his skin. It would have been possible to make the image more high-key but in fact I wanted a bit of bite to the darks as I think it makes for a stronger image. The client has the option of using the colour version instead but I think there's something wonderful about monochrome for portraits.
The V&A Museum held a press launch yesterday for their exhibition Horst: Photographer of Style, which opens on 6 September. I went along to cover the story for Demotix.
The lure for photographers was a photo call with 83-year old model Carmen Dell'Orefice, a New Yorker who started modelling at the age of 14. In an interview on the Today programme, she said she used to roller-skate to her early shoots. She worked for Horst regularly over the following decades during the period when he was regularly supplying Vogue covers (94 between 1935 and 1963). The Vogue covers are all in the exhibition, as well as some huge C-type prints taken from his original transparencies in the Conde Nast archives.
Carmen came out and posed next to a photograph of her which Horst took in 1947, in which she's wearing a white lace dress with a green sash, by Hettie Carnegie. Frankly, I think she looks better now, in a sleek trouser suit and huge gold pendant. She struck lots of poses, showed her fantastic animated features at their best and threw her head back in silent fake laughs. She had a dry wit and lots of charm, wrapping up the session after 15 minutes by saying, 'If you haven't got something by now, you're not professionals.'
Yesterday I photographed the dress rehearsal of this play, written and performed by mums, about mums, for mums. (Sorry dads but sometimes we just need our solidarity.)
The creator of the show, Emily Beecher, suffered from post-natal depression and wrote her way out of it. Not the standard cure but the result is a sad and funny play which alternates between the kind of monologues that have you blinking back the tears (bad photographer! focus!) and the kind of song and dance numbers with somewhat gynaecological language which will have everyone roaring with laughter. The 5 actors are all mums, as is the director Helen Eastman (sporting an impressive baby bump too) and their characters meet at a toddler group which is a mixture of competitive and supportive.
The play is actually being performed in places and at times specially designed to suit the parents of early years parents. I hope its a great success. Apparently the audiences usually leave feeling much better about their own parenting skills. I particularly loved the scenes where the actors all suddenly become the toddlers and get up to some serious mischief -- that's what's happening in the photo above. The rest of the pictures (or rather, 25 of them which is what Demotix allows for a photojournalism piece) are online here.
So, yesterday I had an email from Demotix, the online news agency to which I have submitted a few stories. It was an automated message that a story of mine is "becoming popular" because the page had been viewed 1000 times. Now, ruling out that about 50 of those are me viewing it to see how many people have viewed it, etc, etc, that's still quite satisfying.
Anyway, the story in question was of a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, as part of the One Billion Rising day of action for women's rights around the world on Valentine's Day this February. In fact, there were so many eminent speakers at the demo that I split the story in two: the on-stage speakers are in another story, which has only racked up 187 views.
Quite a difference!
All the off-stage shots are in the more popular story, such as a candid portrait of the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper with a very jaunty Union Jack brolly. And also, perhaps most significantly, of the singer Skin, formerly of Skunk Anansie, with her American wife, Christiana Wyly.
Now, living in London you quite often see famous people going about their business. Professor Brian Cox outside a corner shop. Gabriel Byrne at a cafe table. But I have never ever ever whipped out my camera or phone and taken a shot. Never. I just don't want to intrude into someone's life. So why did I do it this time? I had turned away from the stage to do a wide shot of the crowd cheering the speakers and spotted Skin there. She was due on stage about half an hour later and was part of the event. Her sound check had blasted her amazing voice across Trafalgar Square and stopped many passers-by who had no idea what the event was. So it seemed that Skin standing in the crowd listening to all the activist speakers -- some famous, some not -- was a public act of support. She was not hiding away being a prima donna; she was part of the demo and she was cheering with the rest of the crowd.
I hesitated and caught Skin's eye. She had spotted me and though she didn't quite nod at me, she clearly knew I was going to take a photo and was obviously comfortable with it. After I'd taken a couple of shots, Christiana Wyly noticed me too and purposefully snuggled up closer, looking very proud of her partner.
I'm impressed with them both. Rich and famous, they stood in the rain on a cold London winter's day and listen to serious speeches about women's rights. I will never be a paparazzo but clearly, just having dipped my toe into celebrity waters, the interest is there and the page views reflect it in stark numbers. As of this minute, its celebrities 1016: feminists 187. Its a good thing some celebrities are feminists too!
I'm just going through some pictures I took in Ukraine in 2006. I was blessed with good weather and found Kiev (aka Kyiv if you're local) to be a beautiful, peaceful city packed with amazing historical architecture. Clearly timing is all! I'm so sad to hear of the troubles there. But to give some historical context, my notes for this photo are that it shows the "flying buttresses of the church of St Michael's Monastery (reconstructed in 2001 after the original, dating to 1108 was torn down by the Soviets in 1936)." So the fact that I found Ukraine independent and peaceful seems increasingly like a historical fluke.
Well, here it finally is, the new website. My previous website was a certifiable antique in internet terms -- 15 years old! Did the internet even exist then? Yes, but not with mass broadband so its nice to say farewell to tiny low-res images and show off more of my work.
Its been an interesting trawl through my archive of images. Just choosing the pictures took far longer than actually constructing the website (I used weebly.com which made it wonderfully easy) and I've realised how many of my favourite images come from Finland -- must go back there again when I get the chance.
Returning to work after time out raising the children is a bit of a shock but now I feel ready to go and am going to be seeking out more commissions and concentrating more on portraits. Wish me luck!
Anna Watson: photographer, parent, juggler