Category Archives: Portraits

First exhibition print

This is my first print in an exhibition. I do not remember much of the details but it was in Coventry probably around 1976, could have been a Coventry Photographic Society annual show. I was out one Sunday morning on an old WW2 bomb site in the Hillfields area when these kids came along with their dog. A few quick shots and they continued on their way.

Camera was a Pentax Spotmatic F with 50mm F1.8 lens Not sure which film but probably Tri-X or FP4 developed in ID11 at 1:1

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What kind of photographer are you?

For many years I have been interested in both landscape photography and portraiture. The portraits I take are often of people who work on the land and sometimes in it. I do not see this as a difficulty or contradiction because I have come to believe that we are of the land. It is where we come from, what sustains us and is where we return after death. It cannot be anything else because this is the planet on which we live, there is no other source of life.

The only problem with all this is being a photographer. Some photographers I have met cannot cope with the combination of landscapes and portraits; evidently you have to specialise in one OR the other. There seems to be a set of rules somewhere which says you are either/or but not both. If you do landscapes you need a certain type of equipment e.g.  an 18mm – 24mm f2.8 zoom is a must have. When I admitted to one landscape enthusiast that I did not have one he questioned my sanity, competence and commitment. And for portraits I am told I need an 85mm f1.4 portrait lens for ‘natural’ perspective and the best bokeh. Nobody has told me what catastrophe would occur if I used an 85mm for landscapes or a 24mm for portraits. I have done both. I admit that you have to take care when using anything over a 35mm lens for close up portraits but the sky did not come crashing down.

This was either a 35mm or 28mm lens quite close up. There is distortion to the head but I would rather have got the pic than have fiddled around changing lenses, moving position and reframing and lost it.

What I am saying is do not let yourself be labelled as a particular kind of photographer and do not be pushed onto the ‘right equipment’ treadmill. Photography is about making photographs with what you have and not about endless striving for the ‘right’ gear. Do not feel pressured to conform, do your own thing. Most of all I am saying that the rigid distinction between landscape and people is artificial much like the unwritten rules of the best lens for the job.

A landscape with a 200mm lens.

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Residency – AA2A

3294_c1-sLast month I applied for a place on the Artists Access to Art Colleges scheme and have been accepted by Sheffield Hallam University. It means I have access to the facilities in the new Sheffield Institute of Arts for this academic year.

It is a wonderful opportunity to do some experimental work on alternative ways of printing and showing photographs. I hope this will lead to an exhibition maybe in late 2017 or 2018.

Today I made a print on fabric, 1350mm wide by 2020mm long,  of a miner I photographed in 2013. It took almost an hour to print. The print still has to be steamed to fix the dye to the fabric but from what I saw coming off the printer it looked good. More later.

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Revisiting an old digital file

Neil_CP1_A4Just been playing with an old image. This time I used Capture One Pro 9 for the RAW conversion and all editing. It took 10 minutes max as opposed to several hours  when I did the original edit in CS6. No need to darken the white helmet to retain detail. No need to darken the black to remove the purple cast. No hours if fiddling to get the colour balance right. No special noise reduction. Output from CP1 was at 1200x800mm, this is an A4 version. It is interesting getting back to CP1 after a break, I am beginning to realise its full potential. Techy stuff: Nikon D800, effective ISO 24,600, taken in a mine using available light.

I have no connection with Phase One apart from being a customer.

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What we cannot see

I went to the People’s History Museum in Manchester yesterday to see a photographic exhibition – “Industrial society in image and word”. There were images from the beginnings of photography as well as many from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The exhibition included portraits of urban industrial workers together with urban landscapes. I have seen other exhibitions like this over the years and I always come away thinking about the lack of documentation of rural work. I know about the work of Emerson and others but it seems rural work is depicted in a more pictorial way and I am left with the feeling that it is seen as a the opposite of the worst of industrial squalor. This makes rural work less important and less visible.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork. © Colin Shaw

The depiction of rural work is bound up with the rural myth, the idea that all was perfect in the countryside as opposed to the poverty and deprivation of the city. This incomplete view of rural life persisted through the twentieth century with little documentary photography of the realities of rural work.

Perhaps the most notable project was that of James Ravilious, 1939-99, who photographed rural life in the west of England. I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.

M40-027-e1s

Last milking on a Warwickshire farm before the M40 was built through the middle of the farm. © Colin Shaw.

The lack of knowledge and subsequent misunderstanding of what really happens in the countryside is still as strong today. The separation of the rural and the urban is made worse by the redefinition of the rural as a place of leisure rather than work. The fact that modern farms have become industrialised, by the necessity to compete in ‘the market’, means that a drive, or train ride, though the countryside shows little evidence of anybody doing any work. This leads to the mistaken assumption that the countryside is a deserted playground for urban visitors.

How can photography represent rural work in a different way? There will always be the feeling that however harsh country life is it is never as bad as life in the city. But people do still work in the countryside producing food and many other things essential for modern life. It is just that they are less visible and making them more visible would mean accepting a different view of the land.

See also the Farmwork project and M40 Warwickshire.

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Portraits – sitters, photographers and labels

A recent post on Facebook linked to an article on PetaPixel where 6 photographers were asked to make portraits of the same subject with each thinking he was either: “a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, and a recovering alcoholic.”

There are many ways to look at this, you can dismiss it as a load of old tosh and say that of course each photographer will make a different image. Or you can see it as showing some of the fundamental issues that all portrait photographers face.

Of course the photographer always imposes their stamp on the end result. Good practitioners will know that a portrait is as much about them as it is about the sitter and will be aware of their input on the resulting photograph.

The thing about this exercise is that the sitter was given a label which was passed to each photographer. They were also given just 10 minutes for the session. For me the interesting thing here is how each of them reacted to the label, how they did see not the man but the label he had been given. A professional portrait photographer should be able to get past that and see through to the real person.

When it comes to viewing the end result there will be other labels that affect the meaning. If each image was captioned with the details that had been given to the photographers the viewer would ‘know’ how to see the image; meanings would be imposed by the caption. That is one of the problems with photography, we tell the audience what to see instead of leaving interpretations open.

The subject was an actor, he was playing the part he had been given. So what was the purpose of the exercise? You could dismiss it as yet another example of internet rubbish or take it as a way of raising some important issues for both photographers and audiences to consider.

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