Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Photography competition and an album launch

A few weeks ago I was involved in judging a photo competition of images submitted by some of the youth of Dumfries and Galloway. The winners - aged between 15 and 20 - got to spend the day with me and Phil McMenemy on Saturday past.

In the morning I did some stuff on studio and portrait photography, while in the afternoon, Phil took them out to show them how he approaches landscape photography.

It was a fun and day - partly because of the interest and talent shown by the competition winners, and also because I gained a deeper insight into just how differently Phil and I approach photography. It's not just that he shoots landscapes while I focus on people, but the ways we learn, the ways we teach, and what we consider the priorities also vary tremendously. It all goes to show there are many roads to developing your path and your voice in photography.

Back: Phil, Nicola, Esme, me
Front: Lewis, Brodie

In the evening I took a couple of the winners with me to the Album launch of The Yahs, which I'd been invited to because they used my photo of them for the cover of the CD.

Photographing performances is a very different beast to studio photography. In ordinary portraiture you have control over the background, the lighting and you can interact with the sitter. With bands up on a stage, on the other hand, you can do none of these things. However, there are things you can do to increase your hit rate of reasonably successful photos and I did try and pass as much of this on as I could.

Below are a couple of the shots I took. The lead singer of The Yahs is such a great front-man - moving about, strutting, posing and engaging with the audience, that it's not hard to take a good photo if you can learn to anticipate his moves. Not always easy as he is moving pretty much constantly, but when you can catch him, the rewards are great.

For the rest of the set from Saturday, visit the album on my Photography Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.749543921726981.1073741838.114749591873087&type=1&l=3873c06eaf - you don't have to be a member of Facebook to view it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Workshop in Holland

I've always felt photography is primarily a storytelling medium and, while I have explored this through close up portraits, over the past year or two I've found increasing enjoyment in creating set pieces - images that require more thought to outfit, props, and locations.

My recent trip to Holland (see previous post) was part funded by the South of Scotland Visual Artist and Craft Maker Awards - a grant designed to assist "practitioners to develop their creative practice through new work, new skills or new opportunities" - and enabled me to do a workshop with a master of storytelling photography, Peter Kemp.

Peter's studio is this huge old building, full of high-ceiling rooms with wood panelling and elaborate fireplaces, and for this workshop he had brought along Katina, a professional model he's worked with on many occasions. Powerful lights, large softboxes, striking model, amazing studio - I wasn't in Kansas anymore, Toto.

This wasn't a workshop about what settings to use on my camera: I was there to gain insights into some of Peter's processes - how he goes about creating his images. The intention, though, was never that I would end up producing photos just like his.

Even if he gave me every last ounce of his knowledge, it would take me years to practice it enough to refine the techniques to create a convincing Peter Kemp photo (and by then he would have moved further on anyway). And even if I did finally produce a Peter Kemp image, everyone would say, "that looks like a Peter Kemp photo", not a Kim Ayres photo - and what would be the point of that?

The purpose of being there was to gain experiences and absorb information that will eventually find its way into my own photographic toolbox.

An interesting dilemma occurred to me while I was there: if Peter was coming up with the initial idea and advising on set layout and lighting; the model was choosing and creating her own costume and makeup; and I was making adjustments to the set to suit my vision - then who gets to claim ownership of the final image?

I might have clicked the button on my camera, but there's much of the photo that did not have my input. Additionally, Peter then took his own photos of the same setup. The reality is, it was a collaboration. It's not a pure Peter Kemp photo, nor a pure Kim Ayres photo - it's a Peter, Kim and Katina photo.

I've always been quite free with giving information on how I do things - I don't believe in trying to hold on to photography "secrets" to give me some kind of advantage. Peter has a similar ethos. It's the personal experiences, insights and visions of each person that will affect his or her interpretation of the scene before them - even a very constructed one.

And if I had any doubts about this before, it was certainly borne out by the different ways we both edited our images in the days following.

Below are Peter's and my versions of the scene. Same model, same set, same lighting, same post-processing programme, different cameras, different photographers.

"Shocked" by Peter Kemp, Kim Ayres and Cat Candy K

"Decadence" by Kim Ayres, Peter Kemp and Cat Candy K

A lot of what I learned will make itself felt over the coming weeks and months. It might be subtle or it might be profound - time will tell. But it was certainly a worthwhile experience on several levels.

Another bonus of my trip to Holland was I got to meet photographers, Willem de Vlaming, Ricky Siegers and Susanne Stoop - people I have known for 3 or 4 years online, but this was the first time I got to meet them in person.

Peter, Ricky, Susanne, Kim & Willem

The thoughtfulness and hospitality I was shown in Holland was quite a humbling experience. From a complete stranger phoning Peter for me from the train station as my phone had no signal (cliff-hanger from the last post now resolved), to being aware of sitting in a Dutch cafe surround by Dutch-speaking photographers where they all spoke English for my benefit, through to Willem and his lovely wife, Saskia, inviting me to stay my final night at their house and Willem giving me a lift to the airport in the morning.

Huge thanks go out to all the people I met during my weekend in Holland. My world now feels larger and more exciting.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

95% Chance of Crashes, Terrorist Activity and Body Cavity Searches

The only time airports and aeroplanes are drawn to my attention in everyday life is via the news, TV dramas and movies. So once I'd booked my flight to Amsterdam my brain had decided there was probably about a 95% chance of crashes, terrorist activity and/or body cavity searches before I'd reach my final destination.

I was heading over to Holland for a workshop with a master of storytelling photography, Peter Kemp, but it's over 10 years since I was last on a plane. Having had to renew my passport, sort out my EHIC and book an outrageously expensive parking space at the airport, I was feeling more than a little apprehensive.

For those who are seasoned travellers, I guess it's just a glorified bus or train ride, with a bit more in the way of security checks and passing time in waiting areas. But for me it's a strange and unfamiliar world where I'm unsure of the rules and expected forms of behaviour. My entire time at the airport is spent in a state of mid-level anxiety of the kind when you notice a police car behind you and while you're pretty sure you are within the speed limit, you are not entirely certain you don't have a bald tyre.

I sit in the departure area wondering if it's OK to take on board the exorbitantly priced bottle of fizzy water I'd purchased 10 minutes earlier. I know they can get really twitchy about liquids these days and I'd already had to put my toothpaste into a clear plastic bag as I passed through the x-ray and metal detection zone. I'm pretty sure... well, mostly sure... well, not sure enough to stop me worrying about it - that stuff bought this side of the barrier is all right. I decide to leave it in my pocket and push away visions of being wrestled to the ground by big burly men in suits, sunglasses and earpieces, confiscating my spring water and leaving me in a cell somewhere until my flight has departed.

Once on the plane I remember a cartoon strip I saw many years ago, where a woman is looking out of an aeroplane window and her husband, sitting next to her, is saying, "They are ants, dear, we haven't taken off yet..."

As the plane accelerates I wonder at what point it is going faster than the Aston Martin Vantage I drove back in the summer. Suddenly the nose lifts - it doesn't feel like we're going fast enough yet - and then we're airborne.

I deliberately chose a window seat. I'm staring out the small portal with the grin and excitement of a 7 year old child. It's magical.

The ground drops further away and starts to look flatter; the cars, houses and fields become smaller. The sun is now bouncing off the clouds below us and this new environment reminds me more of scenes from an alien planet in a Star Wars movie than anything I'm familiar with.

Between Scotland and Holland

Despite all the previous fears, the flight was uneventful, the passport checker didn't pause and look at me in a strange way, and I wasn't called over to one side by customs officers to see if I was trying to sneak an illegal haggis into the country.

In the end the biggest problem I encountered on my trip was once I'd left the airport and was on the train to Delft - I discovered my mobile phone wasn't connecting to any networks in Holland, so I couldn't call or text Peter to meet me at the station, and I didn't have an address for him either...

Monday, November 04, 2013

Tomb Raider...

Problem one - costume.
Well that turned out to be the easiest bit for me because Gina created it herself, including painting black some bright blue toy guns.

Problem two - location.
In the original games, the action mostly takes parts inside underground tombs in tropical countries. This corner of Scotland is hardly tropical. However, I realised all we really needed was an old stone passageway, and ruined castles are more commonplace round here than Aztec pyramids. After asking around and investigating a few places, I found the ideal spot.

Problem three - a flaming torch.
If you're going to be exploring underground passages, you can't call yourself an adventurer if you don't have a flaming torch. I had no idea how to create one. However, half a day on YouTube and various experiments in the kitchen and back garden led me to discover one way that worked:

Take half an old cotton t-shirt and soak it in some melted wax. Wrap it round your stick and bind it on with garden wire. When you're ready to use it, dribble lamp oil over it. Result: about 10 to 15 minutes of reasonable flame time. I made 3 of them.

Problem four, five, six, etc... getting the rest of the lighting right in a narrow stone passage; getting the right composition and angles in a narrow stone passage; stopping the model getting hypothermia on a cold, wet day in a cold damp tunnel, with cold water dripping down while she is wearing a costume is designed for tropical, not Galloway, conditions.

Earlier in the year, when we were wondering if Spring would ever actually arrive, I did a photo shoot with Gina of Gina Lillycrop Designs, which required a whole series of problems to solve.

It was coming up to her husband's 40th birthday and she wanted to present him with something special. Her idea was based around the fact he is a huge Tomb Raider fan, and even had a poster on their wall of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft - the heroine of the games/films.

Would it be possible to photograph her as Lara Croft, so she could create a poster of her in the role, which she would then swap on his birthday?

Despite barely feeling her extremities by the end of the shoot, Gina was determined to keep going so we could make the best photos.

And huge thanks also have to go to our friend, Heather, who held flash units, jackets and gave moral support in abundance.

Here are a selection of the photos.

The image that replaced the poster

Finally, heartfelt congratulations to Gina and her husband who have just revealed they are expecting a baby next April. Looks like we got the timing right for the photo shoot then - the images would have had quite a different look with a pregnant belly...