A happy new year to you all. We kicked off 2016 with the Chair’s evening and this year Maurice brought in a tutor to help us with our portraiture. So a good start with cameras and tripods to hand we welcomed Ruth Bennett, photography lecturer at St Brendan’s College, who led us in an informative, practical, evening.
The portrait, of course, predates the invention of photography by a long way, well about 2,500 years, which qualifies for me. Within the history of photography the invention of the Daguerreotype broadly signifies not only the start of the process as we know it, but also a gradual democratisation of the art form. It was still prohibitively expensive. The posing times came down though, as we have noted before, that probably troubled the dead subjects rather less than the living ones, as did the costs but it wasn’t until the 1860’s that the momentum really started to grow. And that required a change in technology. Shorter but by no means fast by modern standards exposure times, simpler processes, better image fixing to more widely available materials, such as paper, overall combining to bring the costs down and speeding up the production.
As the technology changed so did the scope of the imaginations of the photographers. Classical art initially was the ruler of taste and composition, especially the Neo-classical and the Rococo, but as the interest in and accessibility of art grew, styles changed, Romanticism and Realism developed as movements and it’s hard not to see that photography as a technology has an influence in this, at least as a provocateur – the French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire, thought it the “Enemy of Art” and was often rude about the medium at some length. The middle classes took up the form as it was more affordable than portraiture in oils, the number of professional photographers and the subjects they captured, grew. So did the uses of photographs. In the late 1850’s Carte-de-visite (visiting cards featuring portraits) became popular in France, then across Europe.
The first “Celebrity” photographer was Felix Nadar (1820-1910), who used optical and lighting, including artificial lighting, experiments to bring new qualities to his portraits of people such as Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, Franz List and Claude Debussy. Nadar (real name Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) managed to fit in the photography around drawing caricatures, writing novels, journalism and ballooning and used his interest in the latter to bring the mail into a besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Photography continues to borrow from art, Rembrandt (1606-1698) lighting taken from the artists use of a single high window to give a distinctive light and shadow, Renoir‘s distinct diffuse lighting is practiced through the use of reflectors. The medium moved on but truly became democratised by the Box Brownie in 1900. Arguably this is the point where photography as art and photography as pass time part company and the whole question of photography as art takes a class based twist.
The interpretation/record debate takes on a mass dimension, but family, friends, occasions people in different circumstances still remain the important subjects but with less artifice. That, however, is a different topic and one we have touched on before. The other great photographic expansion at this time is also film based, but one where the images move and after 1927, talk. But the key to promoting them was the still picture of the stars, possibly as an art form at its height in the 1930’s and 40’s. Butterfly lighting came from the cinema, it is also known as Paramount lighting after the studio, sometimes Glamour Lighting. Loop lighting, open and closed (closed see Rembrandt link above) and Split Lighting come from the same base makes for dramatic effects in quite subtle ways using shadows on the facial features (an overview of some of these techniques can be found here).
The style started to shift in the 1950’s with the impact of photojournalism on the portrait style, though movie stars were still the people setting the pace – rather the studios’ publicity departments were the people setting the pace. The style was more raw, more like today’s street and environmental styles, but the output was still strictly controlled by the studios. That control thing is still pertinent if harder to control today, if only because cameras are pretty much universal. As the 50’s became the 60’s this more casual style of portrait became the norm as the conventions of traditional art were thrown down. Andy Warhol fused the fine art and photography in his silk screen paintings of Marilyn Monroe based on a publicity still for the film Niagara. Bert Stern, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn picked up the baton laid down by the likes of Bob Willoughby, Phil Stern, Sid Avery, Peter Basch, Andre de Diene who had taken up where and others had lead in the 50’s. The movement towards a more candid approach to portraiture continued. On this side of the pond Snowden, Bailey, Donovan, Jane Brown and others.
Robert Mapplethorpe, is probably best known for his homoerotic images taken in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but that was only a part of his oeuvre and he was, in a sort of full circle, influenced by classical styles in his portraits. Yes he was often sexually explicit, yes his subjects could include Sadomasochism but pushing boundaries was part of who Mapplethorpe was. Well not so much pushing as driving a truck at, but that does not fundamentally undermine his technical abilities or his vision, regardless of your views on his distaste for convention, ironically using conventional, classical, ideas of beauty to deliver his art. The sensationalism of this part of his work often overshadows the portraiture of many well known artists and he was never short of sitters. Patti Smith, Marianne Faithful, Bruce Chatwin, Philip Glass, David Hockney among many others.
The late 80’s and 90’s also saw the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber rise to prominence among many others, technology changes, the spread of affordable video for instance and the growth of and acceptance of installation art – we have touched on this before so I’ll skip it here – and with them the shared mission of portraiture to go beyond just the image of the sitter to some other truth of character and moment. And it starts with lighting, which is where we came in.
N E X T M E E T I N G
John Chamberlain – “Images from around the World”.
DEADLINE! Entries for the CREATIVE ROUND
Life Begins at 40 ….. the Title was disingenuous in that our presentation last meeting was a delightfully in character tour of the 1940’s by Carol and Bob Burton.
Having celebrated the fact that we had our first AV show for a fairly long time last week we get a second. This, split into 14 parts, really did site how it needs to be done in order to keep an audience’s attention. Presented in period dress by the husband and wife team this bumped along at a pleasant pace, was informative and varied. It used a mixture of contemporary images as well as modern images taken by Bob and Carol at the in vogue 1940’s events around the country
As regular attendees of these sort of events, and photographers too, Bob and Carol manage to merge two interests. We all have our favourite things to do and the discipline of making an audio visual presentation – whether it sees the light of day in public or not – is a good way of improving our photographic skills. This is because it forces us to think in terms of sequence and logic and to look at the images in a more critical way. It also, if we set out to make an AV in the first instance, rather than make one of what we have, effects what we look for. It’s because we have a purpose and that purpose affects the way we look at things. We have a story in mind, not that that should blind us to serendipity when something else presents itself, and that we can use to discipline what we look for.
So this week’s potter will be around event photography, in a very broad sense. This is because what people determine as an “Event” covers a wide range of situations, numbers, ambience, lighting, venues and purpose. At the bigger events or at corporate ones then there may well be official photographers and videographers; at hobbyist and life style events the atmosphere may well be very different, more relaxed. Regardless the key to success is having an idea of what you want and the likelihood of getting that is dependent on knowing what is going to go on. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography. Not a cast iron guarantee, it won’t cover a skills deficit, that can only be addressed through, first and foremost, recognising the deficit, then determining to do something about it and finally doing something about it. Repeatedly. Having mentioned serendipity it’s well worth repeating that you make your own luck by being prepared for it.
Yes wedding photography comes under Event photography, but that will be covered on another evening of this year’s programme, so won’t be covered here (and we have visited it before). The sort of event that amateur photographers are likely to attend are less the corporate and art gallery affairs, more festivals, fetes and fun fairs, when we take the wider view. Bob and Carol use of a blend of contemporary and their own photography worked because they didn’t attempt to pass off their own as period. Their use of the modern was to augment the contemporary, but it paid off that they were prepared to go the extra mile to get the shots they need by varying the angles and cropping tight.
Outdoors it’s usually a case of matching your white balance symbol to the cloud cover or switching to auto white balance (AWB). Indoors it can be different. My own experience of the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), for instance, has been one of mixed lighting: 2400K tungsten mixed with 5500K daylight and for some reason never being quite consistent between two successive shots unless taken from the same position and facing in the same direction. That means that shooting in RAW is probably your best bet (unless doing Photojournalism for Reuters where, from this last week, only JPEG direct from camera will do) so that colour casts can be easily corrected. There is also more detail that is recoverable too. I also find that using auto ISO helps when the lighting isn’t even or when flash is banned or inappropriate.
Some people will, of course, never be persuaded that anything other than full manual is ever to be countenanced, but you have to be pretty quick and very confident of your camera controls to make that work effectively. Also it is pretty perverse having all that automation, paying sometimes very large sums for that automation, and not using it. The trick is not to let it dictate to you what you can and cannot shoot, but to know its limitations, practice with those limitations. There is a corollary to this that pays dividends and that is knowing what is there to shoot and under what conditions. A weather eye at outdoor events is a valuable piece of intelligence. Being prepared to shoot everything from dawn till dusk is greatly helped by having advanced knowledge of times and attractions. Then it is, as we mentioned above, a question of an eye for detail, an eye for shots developing, good reactions to shots that are there already, getting in tight on details, showing things in relation to others in broad panoramas and everything else in between – and, of course, try to tell a story.
Lenses are a matter of what you have not what would be ideal, then all lens choices are. Fast primes where wide apertures mean faster shutter speed are all very well – if you have a fast prime lens. Then it’s all very different if you are getting paid for it. Comes back to the old adages that the best camera gear in the world is what you have on you at the time and you can never have too many batteries and memory cards.
Perhaps the best lesson that Bob and Carol had to show on this topic was that you need to keep your wits about you and your eyes open to the unusual or the candid. These sort of things have many of the elements of street photography about them, to all intents and purposes shooting at themed events such as the 1940’s festivals are a version of street, the big difference being you are less likely to get people not wanting their photograph taken. After all if they have taken the effort to dress up, sometimes very elaborately, then they are going to be happy to show it off for a camera. Don’t take anything for granted, though, play nicely, be social, it pays dividends.
So, a lively and engaging presentation that was made seamless through the application of skills, knowledge and confidence of its deliverers who are passionate about their subject and who have honed that passion and those skills into a package that has a broad appeal. That sounds like a plan to me. Yes the appeal is not going to be universal, but if you try and please all of the people all of the time you end up pleasing no one.
N E X T W E E K
How to size and profile images for competitions. A practical evening.