The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

A Decade in Photos and Videos

For several years I've created a post at the beginning of January celebrating my favourite photos of the previous 12 months (see label, Annual Review), but as we enter a new decade I thought I'd look back at my progress over the last 10 years.

It does feel more than a little weird thinking back that far. At the start of that decade I had only just started my fledgling photography business, as a way of trying to feel useful, and maybe even earn a few pennies, while trying to live with the energy-depleting condition, CFS/ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).

When I began writing this post I thought I was just going to select a couple of my favourite pics from each year, but as it progressed I realised it could be more interesting to explore key photos which represented turning points, or even moments of enlightenment on my journey.

It's meant the post is longer than I intended, but I hope it's a more interesting read.

So may I now present to you...(cue fanfare...)

NOTE: nearly all the videos are between 1 and 2 minutes long

2010 – Portraiture: the deciding factors

Although I had officially launched my website in 2009, over the previous year I'd only photographed a few people. I was just as likely to pursue a winter landscape, a swan on the loch, or a rusty door handle. Then in early 2010 I was offered an exhibition at The Mill on The Fleet in Gatehouse.

I could have just put up a cross section of my work, but photographing faces – especially ones that weren't smiling – was fascinating me more than anything else I was doing at that time. I found I was really enjoying the interaction with the people I photographed, while simultaneously attempting to undermine the idea we should all be smiling and looking pretty for the camera.

However, I only had about six photos in my collection that fitted my vision, but I wanted two dozen for the exhibition. Time was short so I grabbed pretty much everyone I knew and asked them if I could photograph them, and within a few short weeks I just managed to scrape enough.

The positive feedback I received, along with the sense of achievement, cemented my desire to pursue portraiture as my main form of photography.

Here's a short video which contains the images taken for that exhibition.

Staring Back

2011 – Spring Fling, Wigtown Book Festival and Mickel Therapy

Buoyed by the success of Staring Back, I applied to be a part of Spring Fling – a selected Open Studio event in this corner of Scotland – and was accepted. I decided to take photos of everyone who turned up and wanted to take part.

I called it "Facing The Weekend" playing with 2 different ideas. The first, of course, was I would be photographing faces, but the bigger thing for me was it was going to be 3 long intense days, and I was very aware of the CFS/ME. How on earth was I going to be able to survive?

And yet a strange thing happened. When I was with people – talking, explaining, interacting, laughing – my energy levels seemed to last longer. I wasn't exhausted by people; I was energised by them.

Facing The Weekend

Feeling empowered, I started applying for other events and was offered the opportunity to be "Artist in Residence" at Wigtown Book Festival that Autumn. I would be given a studio space, and my pitch was that during the festival I would photograph authors, locals and visitors all staring moodily into the camera, which I would then print up and use to cover the walls of the studio. On every photo I would write the name of a well loved book each person had told me about.

This was going to be a different beast to Spring Fling, though. It was going to last 10 days – way beyond anything I thought I might actually be capable of.

Fortunately that Summer I began "Mickel Therapy", which gave me a much greater understanding of how I was being affected by the CFS/ME. It didn't cure me, but it did help me to manage the symptoms to a far greater degree.

It also helped me understand the relationship between the condition and the fight-or-flight response. One of the notable side effects of CFS/ME is if I get stressed, anxious, frightened or feel out of control, then I will become almost instantly exhausted – overwhelmed with fatigue and brain-fog. However, if I can find ways to stay calm and in control, then I can survive much longer between the bouts of extreme tiredness.

The enlightenment moment for me was realising that when I was behind the camera, I felt in control - which in turn relaxed me and stopped the fight-or-flight response kicking in. Combining this with regular meditation and making sure I didn't overdo things, allowed me to survive, even thrive, in a situation I would never have considered possible.

This shifted my expectations from seeing photography as a way to earn a wee bit of extra cash to becoming a possible career.

2012 – Authors as Characters from Literature

Having established a relationship with Wigtown Book Festival and its organisers, I had an idea for something that might help them with fundraising and publicity ("austerity" was beginning to bite and funding was being slashed for a lot of arts events), and challenge my photography: Authors as Characters from Literature.

The concept was the festival organisers would talk to the visiting authors, and any who were interested could be photographed as their favourite character, or historic writer. Fortunately a dozen authors signed up for it, giving us just the right number for a calendar.

By now I was establishing a reputation for producing moody black and white portraits, and I was getting pretty good at it, but this required an entirely new approach.

Each photo was different: different characters, different lighting, different outfits, different backgrounds, different editing style – quite apart from the very different personalities of the authors themselves.

John Hegley as Keats

Sara Sheridan as Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick

Daunting; frustrating; taking me completely out of my comfort zone.

But oh so much fun!

Not every photo was a masterpiece, but there were some I was really pleased with.

Most importantly it opened me up to an entirely new way of approaching photography.

The notion of photography as a truth-telling medium I had already left behind when I decided to get people to stop smiling and play with different expressions. But now photography as a storytelling medium became completely embedded in my psyche

2013 – Humphrey Bogart and the Rise of Narrative Photography

Enthused by the notion of dressing up, my next Spring Fling event I called, "I'm Humphrey Bogart, and So's My Wife." I bought a trench coat and a trilby, and photographed visitors to my studio dressed as the famous film star.

While it was a lot of fun, it actually ended up playing against me. It seemed to embed in people's minds that I was a sort of "photo booth" photographer. Instead of it being an introduction to the idea you could become a hero, heroine or even villain of your own epic photo, I started getting enquiries from people who thought they could turn up and I'd have a bag full of props and it would cost them £20.

"Do you do children's parties?"


However, determined not to be derailed, I looked for opportunities to create more narrative photography. So when Anne Lindsay asked me for an author's head shot for her forthcoming book of poetry, "The Undefended Hour", I suggested we could create a photo that reflected the themes of sex, death, and humour that pervaded her book.

We played with numerous ideas, then once we had the outline, we roped in a couple of friends to create a scene full of narrative interpretations.

I’d already worked out the broad composition, but it’s the details that can make all the difference – a shift of the shoulder here or there, the direction of a hand and where the shadows fall. I tethered the camera to a laptop computer so I could make subtle changes each time I clicked the camera until all the parts were in place.

The Undefended Hour

An unexpected side effect of the tethering was just how much more involved and excited Anne became. She could see exactly what was going on and make suggestions.

This empowerment of the client became another light-bulb moment for me. No longer did anyone being photographed need to feel like it was a process being done to them. Instead they could become part art director, and shape the image in a way they had never believed possible. Their sense of accomplishment and ownership of the image increased dramatically.

I realised at this point that it wasn't just about getting the final image – it was about the whole experience of creating it.

Since then whenever possible I will tether the camera to a laptop or tablet when doing a shoot so all those involved can follow the progress and contribute if they want.

Later that year I was asked to create an album cover for Sparo and The Yahs. Various ideas were bounced about, but they all seemed to revolve around the idea of lead singer, Grant, in the middle of the photo with the others serving him in some way.

Tethering the camera once again allowed me to keep changing and tweaking the photo until it flowed the way I wanted it to. It might have been a static image, but I wanted the eye to wander through it, taking in the details.

A lot of the feedback I got from the photo was how painterly it looked. It wasn't just about how I'd edited it, so I had to try and figure out what people meant.

Eventually I realised it was the composition and style of the image.

A lot of artists from history weren't just creating a likeness, they were creating a story. From Da Vinci's Last Supper to Caravaggio's The Calling of St Matthew, these paintings are going way beyond just a snapshot of a moment. The compositions draw they eye around the image through the use of light, line, colour and shadow, while the expressions and postures of the characters tell stories of emotions and possibilities.

I suddenly realised the "Old Masters" had created these techniques centuries before the camera came along, which meant I could learn as much from studying them as I could from the works of other photographers.

2014 – Behind-the-scenes videos

When Rebecca decided she wanted a photo shoot celebrating reaching a birthday with a zero in it, we chatted about books, films and music as inspiration. Initially she was drawn to the glamour of Moulin Rouge, but as we discussed it further she decided she was really captivated by the idea of after the show, back in a slightly seedy or run down dressing room, away from the bright lights.

We would need outfits, props and a place to create a set. This meant pulling in favours from friends and relatives and before we knew it we had a small team in place, including her nieces who wanted to do her hair and make up.

I got chatting with Rebecca's brother, Dave, about the video capabilities of modern cameras and before I knew it we'd decided he would video the process. He'd never done any kind of video in his life, and much of the footage was unusable. However, in a steep learning curve of video editing, I discovered that if I just used a couple of seconds each time, making relatively fast edits, then shoved a sound track behind it, I suddenly had something that gave a real insight into the creating of a narrative photo.

When I put the video online it attracted a lot of attention and comments from people confessing they'd had no idea so much went into creating one of my photos.

It was another eye-opener for me.

In these days of mobile phones with built in cameras, everyone is used to just whipping their phone out of their pocket, taking a few pics, sticking on their favourite Instagram filter, and within a couple of minutes have an "it'll do" photo.

So with that mentality, why would they consider paying someone else to take photos for them?

I realised 2 important things:

1) I had to go where the iphone couldn't, and
2) I had to educate my potential clients if I wanted a market for what I could do.

And behind-the-scenes videos were a really good tool for this.

A little later in the year I did a shoot for Mrs Green's Tea Lounge, which has a whole retro vibe going on.

Angela Green talked about Mrs Green's being as much a concept as a place, and as such we didn't necessarily have to do the shoot in the cafe. We bounced many ideas back and forth and eventually settled on Dumfries Aviation Museum. She, and half a dozen of the women working there, all got hold of various retro outfits and we spent a wet Sunday afternoon doing a photo shoot in the middle of an old plane.

I dragged along a fellow photographer friend to do some behind-the-scenes video for me

2015 – The Ballet Dancer and Cafe Largo

Alexandra was 66 years old. She had been a professional ballet dancer until she retired at 40, then went on to become a fitness instructor. We were introduced when a mutual friend told her about the "Women Over 50" project I'd started, and she was interested in taking part (for more about that project, see "Body Image and the Older Woman" in 2019).

A year or so earlier I'd started attending life drawing classes – not through any desire to become an artist, rather to learn how to look in a different way.

Despite the continued panic and feeling of being completely outside my comfort zone, as time went on I realised it was beginning to change how I viewed "line."

It's one thing to look through a camera, compose the image and then click, but it's quite different when you have to train your hand to create a line on paper based on what your eye is seeing.

So when I met Alexandra it felt like too good an opportunity to miss, and I asked her if we could try taking some photos which would be all about the line. And she agreed.

In essence, the idea was to shoot her against a black background, with a single light source to one side and slightly behind her. This would create a highlighted edge, showing the shape of her body, which she was able to move into sublime positions due to her ballet dancing past.

We were both delighted with the results

Cafe Largo wanted a Jack Vettriano inspired shoot with the band down on the beach. During one of the wettest winters on record, we managed to find a few hours where the rain held off.

One thing I'd been starting to find, that this photo illustrated extremely well, was that a really good photograph can get exponentially more coverage than a mediocre one.

Cafe Largo used the photo for the D&G Arts Festival brochure, but when Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine came to do their 5-page feature on the festival, it was this photograph that took up half of the first page, setting the scene for everything that came next. Despite the fact Cafe Largo were only doing a tea dance, by the coverage you would have been forgiven for thinking they were headlining the festival. Their profile was raised massively and they got a lot more bookings on the back of it.

A quick "it'll do" photo taken on a phone would never have had the power to grab attention in the same way

2016 – Bring in the hairdresser!

Meeting Ralph Yates-Lee of Basement 20 Hair Salon lead to a step up in what I was able to create photographically. With other stylists working for him, and connections to make up artists, it gave me the chance to assemble a team and work on higher level imagery.

I was in discussion with textile designer, Morag Macpherson about doing a shoot with models wearing outfits she'd designed against a mural she'd been involved in painting. We had the models lined up, but bringing in Ralph enabled us to move it up to the next level and create a shoot that wouldn't look out of place in any fashion magazine

So when I was asked by Comlongon Castle to create a set of romantic period style photos, where I'd managed to get hold of award winning Scottish singer, Robyn Stapleton, I called on Ralph to make sure the hair would be right. He also brought along make up artist, Jayd Jamieson, who I've since called on several times for other shoots.

Phill from Comlongon Castle also brought in Gary from the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre who was able to provide Willow the owl. Apparently you can hire Willow to fly down the aisle and deliver the rings to the best man!

2016 was the year I realised I could take on more or less any sized job by assembling a team of people who could do all the bits I couldn't.

If the budget's available, anything is possible.

2017 – A Horror Movie, Motorbikes and a Cherry Picker

When Signwriter films decided to create a low budget horror movie in Kippford, they asked if I would be their Still Photographer. This meant taking behind-the-scenes photos and the key image to be used in the poster.

It was a very different experience being on a film set, but intensely fascinating. One thing I discovered very quickly was I couldn't take any photos when they were doing a take, as the sound of the camera clicking would get picked up by the microphones. It's not a mistake you make twice...

The biggest photo I've done to date, in terms of the sheer number of people involved, was for Dumfries and Galloway Blood Bikes - a charitable organisation set up by local volunteers to deliver essential blood and urgent medical supplies, in and out of hours, between hospitals and healthcare sites.

The idea of a hospital bed with kid, nurses and doctor on the side of the road, with volunteer blood bike riders disappearing into the distance behind them, seemed like a great plan when we were fuelled up on coffee and cake bouncing ideas around. But the logistics of finding a place where we wouldn't have to worry about public traffic (thank you Drumlanrig Castle), as well as arranging a date when as many volunteers as possible could make it along, took an immense amount of advance planning.

Additionally, I'd realised that with the amount of people we were talking about, I would never be able to fit them in if I was standing at ground level. However, immediately one of the committee members said they could get hold of a cherry picker to give me whatever height I needed.

If you have the right people, anything is possible.

2018 – Factories...

My offer of a photo shoot in their prize draw fundraiser, contributed to Dumfries Historic Buildings Trust managing to secure ownership of Rosefield Mills – an old factory on the side of the River Nith in Dumfries. As a thank you, they said I could use the building for a photo shoot if I wished.

So when I spoke to Tracy, who won the prize, and it transpired she was a huge "Peaky Blinders" fan, it seemed like an ideal location. And then when she said she had several friends who had outfits, and she had a black horse, I knew we had to do something cinematic, involving off-camera flashes, coloured gels and smoke bombs!

The story of the photo shoot ended up in D&G Life magazine

Towards the end of the year I was asked to do a shoot at a very different factory – The Nail Factory – which is a small art gallery in Dalbeattie.

The owner, Rupinder, wanted a photo of the artists who were exhibiting there. After discussing further, it turned out she had a love for the Old Masters style of paintings, so we wondered if it would be possible to photograph the artists using the same style and tropes.

After deciding to have them round a table, each with something to do with their art, the real difficulty was working out how to do the lighting. In old paintings there wasn't any electric light, so everything was either lit by a window or candlelight. As the shot was taking place on a winter's evening, daylight was out of the question, but the candles weren't strong enough to light everyone up. So I put an off-camera flash with an orange gel over it, behind the fruit bowl, below the candlestick – and it's this that's actually lighting the faces and causing the shadows on the walls behind.

It was a very difficult shot to pull off, but we were all delighted with the end result.

2019 – Body Image, and the 7 Deadly Sins

In a direct challenge to the impossible ideals of the female body we are bombarded with every day, in every media, Women Over 50 is an ongoing project creating a series of nude photographs of women in this age group, that are neither vulnerable, apologetic, nor seeking the approval of the male gaze.

Bodies as they really are, with nothing enhanced or adjusted in Photoshop, with each woman looking directly into the lens, unapologetically owning the body she has.

In May 2019, as part of Luminate – Scotland's Festival of Ageing – over 3 events I showed these photographs before joining panel discussions, aimed at exploring many of the ideas and questions they raise. Most of the women taking part have done so either for political reasons, artistic reasons, or have been on a personal journey to explore their perceptions of their own bodies in light of society's attitudes towards older women.

The events were rich in debate, questioning, insights, and challenges to the dominant societal narratives. I am now in the early stages of collaboration with some of the participants about creating a performance and travelling exhibition based on the project.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Chocolate

18 months in the planning, with a team of more than a dozen people, the 7 Deadly Sins of Chocolate photos created for In House Chocolates was my most complex shoot to date.

7 different models, each representing one of the sins, 2 different images of each interacting with the chocolate according to their "sin" attitude, as well as a group shot with all 7 sins together, hairdressers, make up artists, stylists, as well as the client and someone to video the shoot.

I hired a village hall to have enough space for the shoot and the people, picking the keys up at 9.30am and returning them at 8.30pm. I also borrowed some large black backing boards from local theatre company, Fox and Hound.

For all the time taken in the planning, the shoot itself, and of course the endless hours of editing, it all paid off.

In addition to having a delighted client who printed the group image 1.5m big as part of her Christmas Window Display,

it also won first prize in a competition and featured as a double-page spread in the Canon Camera magazine, PhotoPlus

thereby reinforcing the point that a really good image gets exponentially better coverage than a mediocre one.

My journey over the past 10 years has taken me from photographing people the way I wanted, to photographing people they way they would like to be seen, to working with several people on set and behind the scenes at the same time, while juggling everyone's hopes, fears, insecurities and agendas.

Yes, my skills with the camera, lighting and Photoshop have grown massively over the decade, but I think my people skills have had to become the bigger part of what I do.

The biggest lesson I have learned since I began my photographic journey is that it isn't just about creating a great photo - although of course that's important – it's also about making a great experience for the client: one where they feel listened to, involved, and empowered.

If you have a favourite photo, or any of this resonates with you, then please leave a comment and let me know.

And if it makes you think you might like to explore ideas for your own epic photo shoot, then please get in touch and we can arrange to meet up and bounce ideas about over a coffee.

Wishing you the very best for the coming year and decade ahead!


daisyfae said...

Just back after another round of travel, and wanted to catch up - and WOW! What a catch up! Seeing the evolution of your process - i only came to 'painting with shadows' a few years ago - is fascinating! Appreciate that you've shared the impact of your 'side job' with your overall wellness. i'm working on developing that level of self-awareness. Guess it's never too late! Here's looking at the next 10 years! Wonder if you'll be doing photography from a flying car by then!

Kim Ayres said...

Daisyfae - a bit of an epic post. I was never sure if anyone would actually read it all the way through, let alone comment - so thank you :)
I've been waiting for flying cars since before 2000. I mean, the original Blade Runner was set in 2019, and that's now in the past!
And where are the off-world colonies too? :D

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