Characters

At the end of last year I sat down with my good friend Douglas Adams and I produced some photographs with him. We didn't really plan them out. I asked him to wear a suit and that was about as planned as it got. I set up a white background and one flashgun firing into an umbrella. We chatted and I built some photos. I want to show you three of them.

These are my favourite images from that portrait session but I think each of them is a very different representation of one person. These photos were taken over the period of about half an hour. They all use the same camera settings and the light, thought it moves, always hits the same side of his face. We never changed Doug's hair or clothes and yet the images, at least to me, show very different people.

Fig 1: 100mm - f4 - 1/200 - ISO 100

Fig 2: 100mm - f4 - 1/200 - ISO 100

Fig 3: 100mm - f4 - 1/200 - ISO 100

I think the first image (Fig 1) is powerful, a strong, contrasty image. His shoulders form a broad triangle here, he is relaxed and self-assured. It evokes presidential portraits for me though its possibly too shadowy for that.

The second image (Fig 2) is more alert. Though Doug's expression is neutral and his head faces away from the camera the focal point of the image is his left eye, which stares out towards the viewer, at odds with Doug's stance. It creates a great tension in the image and I think makes it somewhat theatrical or cinematic.

The last image (Fig 3) is subtly softer than the others in both expression and lighting and is my favourite I think (it's a close run thing between 2 and 3). It is taken much closer to the subject and as such seems a little more intimate. It also differs from Fig 2 in that he is looking into the photograph rather than out of it (by which I mean he is looking into the space in the frame where as in Fig 2 his face is turned away from the space). The photograph is not necessarily brighter but it features less shadow and I think this also helps to soften the image a little.

All of this, of course, is subjective. I know Doug well and so may have a different view of these photographs to someone who doesn't know him at all. You may prefer Presidential Douglas as I think he does. Does that make it the better picture if Doug prefers it? As the subject is his opinion more important than mine?

I'd love to know people's opinions on this. Do we become characters in photographs, that other people will interpret when they see the image? Do these images show less of Doug's character and more of my perceptions of Doug because I helped him pose and asked him to wear a suit? Would a candid/un-posed shot be a better representation of him purely because it is candid? Please do let me know.

Taken or Made

I have mixed feelings about the phrase ‘taking a photo’. I don’t mind it generally, I say it myself. I show people photos that I took on holiday. I send client’s photos that I've taken for them, having selected the best and then kept my fingers crossed that the best were good enough. Mostly they are. Would I worry about the quality of those photos so much if I had simply ‘taken’ them? My guess is probably not, if I’d just grabbed them in passing, stolen them out of the air.

There are photographers out there who dislike the term. They prefer to say that they ‘made a photo’. It’s a fair point. Photography is, of course, art. You create a representation of your subject as any painter or graffiti artist would, or any of those people who can look at a face and, miraculously, cut the silhouette of said face from black card within moments. It is reasonable to suggest that the word ‘take’ rejects all the creative input that the photographer had over the components of the photo.

Even in an environment where you have no control over how the location is lit or how the people within it are styled or posed you, as a photographer, have a vast amount of control. You can position yourself in the room to find the best lighting for your subject. You always have control over your framing. Your camera setting offer yet more control over how a picture will look and you can manipulate these to produce the photographs that you want. You’ll forgive me, however, if I don’t say that I ‘make photos’. I find it a clunky phrase for conversation. I appreciate people who do use it though. They are recognising the skill that goes into an image and have made a concious decision to articulate this.

Recently I've been warming to the idea of ‘building’ photographs. It appeals both to my artist brain, my compulsion to create things, and my scientist heart, my need to rationalise rather than romanticise. I think the word 'building' encapsulates this, to create something in a methodical, logical way.

100mm - f2.8 - 1/100 - ISO 8000

The projector screen stood behind Mohamed makes it difficult to properly expose for him without overexposing the projector itself.

100mm - f2.8 - 1/100 - ISO 100

Reducing the ISO turned the well exposed but badly lit photograph on the left to this interesting silhouette.

I've chosen to include some images here to test my points. This image (above right) came from my frustration with a projector screen. It was (as seen above left) far too bright compared to my subject and I saw it as a distraction. My options to move were limited; I was hemmed in by an audience and their chairs. I turned to my settings. I concluded, after a few moments of internal irritation, I would have to use the light from the projector rather than subduing it. I reduced my ISO to its lowest setting.

The projector now cast Mohamed into silhouette and created, I think, a more pleasing image and one with more context, now that the writing on the projector is legible. I produced this image with a very simple alteration of my settings, a change that yielded very different results.

Did I take the photograph? Well, maybe in the first instance. I did what was expected, I took a photograph of my subject so that he was as well exposed, or as could be expected given the circumstances. It’s an expressive photograph of Mohammed but I wasn't happy with it. The high ISO makes the image noisy but the room was too dark to lower it.

Did I make the photograph? I think I made the photo on the right. I used my knowledge of photography to produce something different. I photographed something that people at this event were seeing and I made it new. Now a silhouette is nothing new to photography, nothing ground-breaking, but it was unexpected and effective as a photograph.

Did I build a photograph? I think this description fits as well. I built upon my frustration with the situation and turned it into something worth looking at. The image is built from my camera settings, framing, my choice of lens. It is also build collaboratively, with Mohamed. He is the one performing, the focal point of the image. Without Mohamed there is no picture here.

On the back of that picture of Mohamed, I built a series of four images, one featuring each of the poets at the event as they performed. They’re not perfect images but I think I built great photos out of a less than ideal situation and as an event photographer especially, that's quite often your job.

For context, all of these photographs were taken/made/built for TOWIEthics UK. They're a very intelligent group of people who are training (amongst other things) to educate children about big topics like politics, immigration, the news and democracy which is more than enough reason to check them out at: www.towiethics.uk

Mohamed (@MohamedWrites on Twitter)

Gabriel (@GabrielAkamo on Twitter)

Kalina (@MsKTCG on Twitter)

(@CKbreeze on Twitter)

Each of these silhouettes works well I think. Honestly, I consider the photograph of Mohamed is the weakest of the four but it did spawn the technique I used to gain the next three shots. Had I caught him in a similar pose to his previous shot I may have been happier but such is life. The photograph of Gabriel is my favourite. He is very expressive, with outstretched hand and the sharp angle thrown into the outline of his face by his glasses adds a little something. Kalina makes an excellent silhouette and I think, even without her expression we see some of her character there, standing upright and looking straight out of the right side of the frame. I'm ashamed to say I don't know the name of the last subject but he makes a striking portrait, the outline of his headphones around his neck and the strands of his hair. I think it captures his character well and he probably does too because this is his currently his profile picture on twitter, which pleases me greatly.

So, which term will I use from now on then? Ultimately I think it's all down to personal preference. The majority of people, photographers or not, have bigger things to worry about than this. However, this topic has been stealthily serving a higher purpose. It gave me something easy enough to talk about for my first blog post. Hopefully something more interesting and insightful will follow this.

My fingers, once again, are crossed.