Monday, 25 October 2010

Highlights ....gah!

Here is the latest image from this ongoing series. I love the expression on his face, and it was actually amazing to watch him get almost instantaneously into 'the zone' with it after a lifetime of performance and he was already well practiced in techniques to centre himself, so needed no instruction. However the bane of my life is now turning out to be highlights on the skin, which I absolutely do not want, at all, anywhere, not even a bit. It is actually driving me insane. It seems not to happen with this lighting set up on female subjects if they are wearing matt make-up but I am reluctant to start asking the guys to wear it too!!! I have tried varying the subject distance from the light source but then I need to shoot on f1.4 to get a proper exposure, so that's no good. I have used two diffusing sheets over the light source in this one and still it is happening. I have also got subjects to stand further back into the shadows and this I thought had solved it but having done the same process with this shoot again, still the highlights are there. I want a perfectly illuminated, natural looking light that wraps the face but doesn't glare off it. I absolutely do not want to have flashes going off as it will not be conducive to the process I am asking the subjects to work with. I wonder if using softboxes without a flash would be any better.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Shadow Catchers Exhibition at the V&A

Friday, 15 October 2010

Questions of Representation - Feedback Appreciated.

One of the fundamental assertions originally made by the photographic portrait is a declaration of being a trace of the individual, the authentic presence of the person. According to Graham Clarke (The Portrait in Photography), this authenticity is problematic.

"The photograph displaces rather than represents, the individual. It codifies the person in relation to other frames of reference and other hierarchies of significance. Thus, more than any other photographic image, the portrait achieves meaning through the context in which it is seen".

This is why I have decided to strip these portraits of as much coding as possible. Clothes which might denote era, the style of the individual, the social group to which they belong, the persona they like to present to the world and so on are removed. We are left with the subject and a plain black background. To my mind this invites a different kind of viewing, a looking inwards to gather some sense of the essence of the individual. They meet the viewers gaze directly, and if I succeed in creating the right environment and conditions for the subjects, with a contained, settled sense of presence. So if there is a displacement here it is one of moving into a void, a socially constructed interpretation becomes impossible. We know nothing of their activity in the world, only that they have sat in front of the camera and looked into the lens.

Clarke goes on to say....

"Just as the photograph flattens physical bulk, so it also frames and crops-once again suggesting presence through absence. It consistently offers the promise of the individual through a system of representation which at once hides and distorts the subject before the lens. Thus the portrait's meaning exists within wider codes of meaning: of space, of posture, of dress, of marks, of social distinction. In short the portrait's meaning exists within a world of significance which has, in turn, already framed and fixed the individual. The photograph thus reflects the terms by which the culture itself confers status and meaning on the subject, while the subject as image hovers problematically between exterior and interior landscapes".

This leads me to ask the question, what does the empty void like space which the subject occupies itself represent. Can it be read as an invitation inwards? Do the obvious painterly comparisons to 17th century (and earlier) portrait styles evoke cultural notions of status and so forth and what does that word now mean in a postmodern context? Pierre Gonnord, whose work as we have established appeals hugely to me, utilises this same aesthetic device to create images of marginalized sections of society, the down and out, the addicted, the homeless, the itinerant. Attempting to be more critically engaged with that which inspires me, it can be said that there is a voyeuristic element involved with his work, in revealing in a dignified manner those whom we do not normally look at. Perhaps the beauty of the composition and lighting in these images and the removal from the difficult social context they inhabit makes this looking easier, less fraught with tension and bourgeoise guilt! We are not called to act through looking at his images, merely observe. I however do not read them this way, and see it instead as conferring a dignity to these people not usually afforded them in society and also a seeing of 'beauty' outside typical contemporary mores.

There is something that appeals to me about not making this project about one group or another; about a 'type' of person. A spectrum of individuals with the greatest conceivable degree of variation in looks, age, social situation and temperament perhaps is another way to avoid them being coded in a particular way, so that when viewed as a series they are clearly about the individual rather than the social group and in my idealistic world perhaps this might also conversely bring out something about the universality of the human condition.

Project Two Continued.

More portraits. Pleased with the results. Going to continue in this vein, widening the subject group to include more variation in age and also ethnicity and by the end of November hopefully, once I have quite a lot of images, take a critical look at them all and make some decisions as to how to proceed from there in a more focused way if necessary. I also intend to start using HD video recordings, effectively doing 'moving portraits' and experiment a little with that. Adam has also suggested to choose some subjects who are effectively not used to slowing down, to silence and so forth and see if the tension that creates would produce interesting results. Good one Adam.

Themes are clearly emerging, silence/presence and I will explore this further over the coming weeks. Also I have decided that it is best to shoot always from mid chest level and above as too much naked skin and the inclusion of nipples does something else to the reading of the portraits. The consistency of the direction of the poses above was something I was aware of, and although I would have like to have more variation in the last two, features such as the hole in the ear from a removed 'ear spacer' and the direction of the fringe meant that aesthetically it worked best to shoot them the same way as the previous two. However much more variation will soon occur.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

"form is emptiness; emptiness is form" ~ heart sutra.

First Shoot Project 2

I did the first shoot for project two on Friday and used the 5d to begin with, spending quite a lot of time trying to get things absolutely right with the very simply light set up being used for these portraits. Essentially in the end this was a single constant light source with diffusing cloth over it, a very low intensity softbox directed at the background and a reflector. Worked a lot with the idea of emptiness, of both trying to work from a place internally in myself that was very quiet and present but also asking the subjects to look away from the camera for as long as it took to settle into themselves, find as much silence internally as they could and then to look at the camera only when they felt they were in that place. I didn't want the immediacy of relationship that being in front of the camera usually invokes but rather the mindset of someone who had been standing for some time, as if being painted. So much more passive and quiet in a sense. I have been thinking about the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, emptiness or voidness; a concept that evolved on teachings about the non-existence of self. It strikes me as an interesting (perhaps insane) way to approach a project on portraiture!!! But it's all just exploration right now and further plans are afoot to work with this approach in a deeper way to see what kind of results might arise.

All in all I am really happy with the first results, though obviously need to work a little on the skin tones, which is an exercise in futility anyway until I get my laptop calibrated this week. In addition, despite the fact that the widest aperture settings, as used here, give a painterly feel to the look of the images the depth of field is too narrow for my liking and this will be rectified. I want all the visible body to be in focus for this series, something I have only decided looking at these results. Will also be experimenting with the leaf back, probably Monday or Tuesday, depending on when the studio is free. Have located another subject who is very contemporary looking with multiple tattoos and piercings and red hair. I think he will photograph well. I intend to shoot people a very wide range of people over the next few weeks and then see what works best at that point in terms of narrowing down criteria for subjects. It is all very enjoyable right now though.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Searching for Silence

I have now done some basic test shots with both the 5D and the leaf back Hasselblad. While I think the Hasselblad gives a slightly better picture quality the lenses are definitely a limitation in terms of portraiture and I wonder now which route to choose. I am doing a proper test shot on thursday with a subject with infinite patience and have the studio for two hours so I will try both again with a slightly modified lighting set-up. It is not quite there yet in terms of lighting, but have found some excellent studio resources which I think will help figure it out coupled obviously with some time experimenting in the studio.

Been thinking also about what it is about Pierre Gonnord's style that appeals to me so much, and also that of Hendrik Kerstens, whose work is similar. I have concluded it is the silence within them. The classic painting style, simple black background, no gimmics, no overt emotional expression on the face, all focus is simply on the eyes and on the face in a state of repose. I was imagining what it must have been like to sit for an oil painter for hours, if not days on end. There is a settling into oneself that must occur, a presence, a settled gaze. This is exactly what appears to me when I look at the work of these photographers. Clearly they also use classical posing styles, the position of the body and face to camera is carefully considered. I will need to work with subjects in a slow and relaxed manner I think, as with most portraiture it is a record of the relationship between camera and sitter in that moment as much as anything else.

I am not intending to simply attempt to replicate what he has done, but this is a jumping off point that feels right and I am curious to see how it all unfolds.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Well past the midnight hour.

Yet again inspiration strikes at stupid o'clock. Have definitely now decided to do the Ikebana dance sculpture idea for project three and will be incorporating video into it. Have had a steady stream of consciousness of ideas for the past two hours, so I guess I will start trying to find dancers in this area, about eight, and get going on this as well. Having plenty of time will be of the essence, as it involves a great degree of collaboration and experience has now taught me to plan how long it should take in an ideal world........about 2-3 months ....then multiply by at least two and factoring in for potential catastrophes (exploding cameras and the like)...about three. So I will start slowly now with optimism, gathering people, mapping the eight forms involved and sorting out costumes, which will be key (or finding a costume designer which would be even better!). That way, even with all things not going to plan, it should be ready in time. I really like this idea, feels like it has a lot of soul to it and it gives me a chance to play with video, which I am really keen to do. Working in a Bill Viola inspired way, which would be perfect for this, I want a single camera position with slow movement occurring within the frame. A sort of beautiful, gradual unfolding, which works with the flower theme. Good times. It's really nice when you can visualise things with crystal clarity before trying to do them.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Simplicity is good.

SO it turns out the lighting is not as difficult as I imagined it to be to get the whole Pierre Gonnord type look! In fact it is ridiculously easy, thank you Mike for helping with that. Now that is sorted it is just a case of getting on with some shoots and I have three people who are free to come in this week, one of whom I literally cannot wait to get into the studio....such a face. I can't pretend there is a concept yet, I am basically following instinct on this one, photographing people I find interesting for now. Just simply want to immerse myself in portraiture over the next few months and see what emerges, though obviously I have some key visual strands to follow in doing so.

Going to shoot on hasselblad again, at least for this series of portraits, only this time using the digital back. No light leaks, no developing time, no burgeoning cost....what's not to like. The picture quality is fantastic, great dynamic range and I am told the digital back for the hasselblad is much better than that for the large format, so it makes sense for now. It's a one light set-up. This is all refreshingly simple compared to the last project.