Friday, January 28, 2011

Life behind the eyes

Far too much portrait photography is little more than product photography featuring people instead of objects. Just like photographing a pewter plate, a necklace or a dressing gown, the idea is to create an image of the best achievable version of the subject. And any flaws still there after lighting the product as perfectly as possible, can be conveniently removed afterwards in the digital editing process.

This is why there are so many complete make-over and photo sessions around (do your hair, make-up and soft lighting), and why every model on every magazine cover now looks like a computer-generated, plastic doll.

What all these things lack is a real, human, emotional connection with the viewer. I find them flat, boring and, ultimately, sad.

However, getting someone to relax with you, trust you and buy into your vision as a photographer looking for something deeper, is no easy thing. Fears, insecurities and reservations all have to be overcome in a very short space of time. Months of psychotherapy are not available: at best I have a couple of hours.

Last weekend I had less than one hour to photograph Dr Bashabi Fraser before The Bakehouse event, at which she was the guest author.

For mutual benefit, I’ve begun an arrangement with The Bakehouse, where I will be taking portraits of their guest poets/authors/performers before the events, and over time this will build up a collection of images for a “Hall of Fame” for the venue, while it gives me the opportunity to photograph people who invariably have an interesting background and/or take on life.

Bashabi was the first of these and, given the time constraints and less control over the lighting arrangement than I would have in my own studio, it’s fair to say I was feeling the pressure – hence the nervousness expressed in the last post.

Fortunately all my instincts and experience kicked in at the right time, and although I over ran a little, everyone felt it had gone well.

Here, then, is the photo some of you requested me to post. Rather than a bland, plastic, soulless portrait, I hope this hints at the intelligent, fascinating person she is.

(Click on the image for a larger version)

Sunday, January 23, 2011


What ever happened to excitement? Pure, unadulterated excitement?

Perhaps the key is in the word unadulterated – not contaminated with adultness.

I was heading off to a photo shoot this evening and was feeling a bit nervous about it. I was running through my head all the things that might screw up and attempting to work out solutions in advance. This is, of course, fairly pointless, as it’s only when I’m in the situation will I be able to fully assesses what the actual problems are and devise suitable work-arounds.

It’s one thing to know this intellectually and an entirely different thing to feel it emotionally.

Part of me was definitely looking forward to the shoot. Although the set up was not ideally lit and time was much tighter than I would have liked, the person I was to photograph was a creative, intelligent writer with a fascinating cultural background, and it was likely to be an interesting experience creating a connection with her in the process of trying to produce a captivating portrait.

On the drive there I found myself mulling over my nervousness. Was it not possible to feel excitement instead of anxiety? And then I was struck by the thought, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt excited about something - really, truly excited - not infected with anxiety about what might go wrong.

And I really do wonder whether it was as far back as childhood.

As an adult I have learned to suppress feelings of excitement to try and avoid crushing disappointment if things don’t work out. I haven’t dared to allow myself to completely let go. There is always a part of me – that adult voice – which steps in to protect me from my own emotions: “What if it all falls apart? What if they fail to turn up? What if you embarrass yourself? What if it turns out to be a mistake? Then where will you be, eh?”

I can feel interest, enthusiasm, even passion – but excitement feels like a word I used to understand but no longer do.

Is it possible to hold on to pure excitement as we grow up, or even recapture it? Or is it something that requires a level of innocence – once lost, never to be regained – and as such, is left behind in childhood?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Uncky Rogan

When I was a kid, I never knew what to do with smaller kids. And when I was a teenager I would avoid these strange creatures at all costs.

As a father I have a bit more idea how to cope with them, but I wouldn't say I'm a natural. Certainly I find it easier once they are old enough to play chess or discuss philosophy.

My son, Rogan, on the other hand, has always been wonderful with kids. He has a knack for making them laugh and get over excited. Quite simply, kids love him.

My stepdaughter and grandchildren were down at the weekend and I was fortunate enough to capture some of that relaxed connection between him and his youngest nephew, Cormac.

As always, you can click on the images for larger versions.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

A different direction

Any one of the thousand awful steps that led here could have turned in a different direction, and this point would not have been reached.

At any time, a different path could have been chosen.

We have watched each step taken, waiting for, hoping for, even trying (without success) to steer the course in a different direction.

This precipice should never have been reached.

One more step and everything will tumble so far down the chances of recovery are so unlikely they cannot be realistically considered.

We desperately, achingly, hope, while watching powerlessly the shuffle along the edge, that the next step will be in a different direction, a new direction, one of a better life.

Despite all the appalling damage already done, it is still not too late to turn in a different direction.

All we can do is watch as events unfold in slow motion.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dorian Gray

I'm continually getting a shock each time I look in the mirror.

My eyes are not bloodshot.

My hair is not greyer than it was, nor is it falling out.

I don't have dark shadows under my eyes.

I don't have excessively pale or sallow skin.

I don't have huge sagging bags under my eyes.

I don't have a haunted look etched into my face.

It astounds me I don’t look anything like I feel.

Perhaps this is just as well as, if I did, small children would start crying and bury their faces in their mother’s skirts when I walked past, and even the most hardened adults would probably cross the street to avoid me.

Somewhere out there must be a terrifying painting of me twisted in an exhausted emotional mess.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010 in photographs

Last year I did a post 2009 in Photographs, and the general consensus was I should do it again. Well 12 months have now passed...

It's not easy to pick only one image from each month, and the chances are if I'd done this tomorrow or yesterday, different ones might have been chosen. But in the end I think they do create a snapshot of my year.

As always, you can click on the images for larger versions.

January - Winter Sunset Through the Trees

We had a lot of snow back in January, and accessing this place turned out to be trickier than anticipated. The 3 mile winding back road had not been ploughed, salted or gritted and I was just driving on compacted snow. The concept of winter tyres doesn't exist in Scotland, so it was a small miracle I did not end up in ditch. However, the winter sun setting through the trees with long shadows over the mostly frozen river was a stunningly beautiful sight.

February - Sea Fishing in the Mist

It was cold and misty down at Rascarrel Bay. Just into the distance I saw a couple of fishermen on the rocks. The sea was as still as I've ever seen it and it was difficult to tell where it ended, and the mist began.

March - Michelle

Most of March was spent running about taking photos of whoever would let me. I had been asked if I would like to have an exhibition of my portrait photography at the Mill on the Fleet in May. I'd said yes, then realised I didn't have enough of the kind of photos I wanted to display. This one of Michelle is still one of my favourites, and a version of it appeared on the cover of Prole Magazine back in early December.

April - Self Portrait

Realising it was highly unlikely I would sell any of the photos I would be exhibiting, it was important I use the opportunity to promote my photography business. This required a leaflet to be designed and printed to be handed out to anyone who strolled within distance. I'd been playing with magnifying glasses and reading glasses, enjoying the way they distort light, and I thought this photo made me look a bit interesting.

May - Rooftop Sunset

Remember the volcanic ash cloud that disrupted flights across Northern Europe for weeks? One of the side effects was some glorious sunsets for several weeks. This was taken from our bedroom window with my new Canon 7D - a real, grown up camera.

June - Cytisus Scoparius Andreanus (Broom)

I discovered the wonders on a 50mm f1/8 prime lens. Basically, it allows you to take photos with a shallow depth of field. And what that means is only a small bit of the image will be in focus and the rest will become increasingly blurred. Used right and the background blur becomes as much a feature of the photograph as the main subject. I had hours of fun in the garden with the flowers and shrubs.

July - Burning the Wickerman

The highlight of The Wickerman Festival is the burning of a 30 foot high willow sculpture. These are created by a friend, Trevor Leat, which meant I was able to get unprecendented access to photograph both the building and burning of the Wickerman. It's a seriously impressive construction (and destruction).

August - Flying Teenager

My son, Rogan, has been getting into Free Running, which involves lots of running, jumping and attempts at acrobatics. Fortunately for me as a parent, it doesn't require heavy investment in clothes or machinery. It also offers up the chance to have a go at action photography.

September - Maggie's New Studio

In September my wife, mixed media and textile artist Maggie Ayres, managed to get hold of a workspace in a building converted into studios and workshops aimed specifically at artists, in the nearby town of Kirkcudbright. With white walls and 2 south-facing Georgian windows, the light is wonderful. An additional bonus was it meant she no longer needed her space at home, so I now have that room for my own photography studio.

October - Limestone Pavement

During the kids' half-term we managed to get away for a much needed break to Yorkshire for a week. Up in the Yorkshire Dales there is an area where the limestone erodes in such a way as to create regular cracks and fissures, causing it to look like ancient man-made paving. Known as Limestone Pavements, they really are quite amazing.

November - The Sex Pistols Experience

As well as seeing them live, Rogan and I got backstage access to The Sex Pistols Experience at their gig in Bathgate back in November. A tribute band, their sense of theatre is superb as they swear at each other and goad the audience. It gave me a real taste for band photography, and it's something I'd like to develop over time.

December - Winter Landscapes

Up until this year, we hadn't had a great deal of snow in this part of Scotland over the past decade. Occasionally we'd get a flurry, but it would all be gone the following day. Scottish winters, for the most part, are grey, wet and miserable affairs. But topping and tailing 2010 we have had the most wonderful white winter landscapes across Galloway. I know the snow causes disruption but when the sun comes out it fills me with a childlike awe and wonder.

I quite enjoyed putting this post together. Perhaps I'll do it again next year.