It’s almost a year since I discovered Martin Bailey’s incredible photography podcast and was inspired by him to put together a first top ten images of 2014. After a year exploring his 500+ diligently produced podcasts, time has rolled around. Putting together a 2015 top ten has been in my thoughts for a couple of weeks, and I thought I’d share it here along with a loud recommendation everyone who doesn’t conduct an annual review of their work considers it.
Really I can’t outline the reasons for doing so better than Martin’s post in which he shares his top ten and selection process. Rather than repeat what he already says so eloquently, I just wanted to log a few points here by way of personal footnote, before sharing the images themselves as much for personal reference and to crystalise the whole selection process in my head ready for another year’s shooting.
Firstly, I’d definitely suggest a single set of ten images across all of the genres you shoot. While I understand the argument for compiling a landscape selection, a wildlife selection and so forth, it misses out the real challenge and the real learnings. Chiefly I’d suggest that compiling a top ten within a genre isn’t that far different from what we do everyday as photographers. Typically we have multiple shots of most subjects, and we compare different expressions, angles, sharpnesses-of-eyes, etc. to come up with a best image within a set of “similars” to ultimately utilise. Selecting between similar images then, is something we all address as a pretty mundane activity then.
Making comparisons between genres is far more interesting, and far more challenging. For one thing it’s not mundane. It’s rare we’re called upon to choose between, say, a tilt-shift shot of otters at sunset and a strobist street portrait of a Parisian stranger. It’s much harder to approach and I find the typical, easy guidelines we might use to sift between similars melt away. The comparison of shots becomes about the basic essentials beneath the surface; do they evoke the mood, the scene, the emotion? Do they capture the imagination? Do they transport the viewer, do they connect? As we can’t make easy comparisons, we’re forced to consider and explore the more subjective and wild dimensions of our work, and that I find brings new insight onto what we did well and what we missed.
Secondly, both years I’ve found it a useful exercise in stepping back and pausing to consider intent, direction and the path ahead. This year Lightroom tells me I shot 7,853 images (not including the instant deletions). Of that I’ve so far “used” around 350 (across Flickr, Getty and family dispatches). In that mad rush of shooting, it’s hard really to take stock of where we’re up to and where we’re going. I’m not going to ramble about my personal learnings from that review here, but merely note that without this review – this quick check of the map, or recalibration – it’s easy to lose direction and start shooting without conscious intent or goal.
One final thought perhaps is that to me this process is about a harmonious set. These aren’t a ranked 1 to 10, rather a gallery that I hope balances and resonates together in a generally coherent way. There are some stranger portraits from the year, for instance, which I consider stronger shots that the final candid of Jessica dancing. With those substituted, however, the set somehow lacked the spark of life to lift it from a series of gathered images to a distinct whole in its own right.
In sharing mine top ten though, my main advice would be to check Martin’s post on the matter. His process is a thing of wonder, and it’s thoughtfully described in detail. Have an amazing New Year though, everyone, and safe travel to all!
My daughter Jessica had asked for a camera to celebrate the arrival of her sister Sophie. As she said; “Sisters are special. Sisters can buy you ‘born gifts’. I would like a camera.” Being a soft touch, I complied and she’s making good use of a seemingly bombproof Nikon S33 – for example.
As she makes headway with that I’ve set myself the challenge of teaching her to shoot. Moleskine/Milk have a neat promotion to offer a free photo book to Getty Contributors, and I thought I would use my free credit to create a “how to take photographs” book for Jessica. In beginning the process of writing that book, I’ve been reminded of some of the reasons I shoot and – resonating with what I’ve taken from the inspirational David duChemin – have come to realise how much harder I could be pushing the envelope in terms of creative photography.
Intentional camera movement has stood out to me as part of that for a couple of reasons.
For starters, it offers benefits in terms of being an initially low pressure style of photography that can be practiced in brief moments, and is possible at night, without significant kit, whilst offering an infinity of new subjects within even a minute’s walk from the house. I’m also enjoying the more poetic quest to shoot “how it feels” as outlined in this original post. And I’m also seeing how intentional camera movement or ICM resonates with the core principal of my photographic style.
More and more my literal photography is feeding my stock library at Getty Images. There you’ll find those shots I consider well taken, technically sound images of scene or objects that I found interesting or thought might be salable.
The kind of photography I consider “mine”, and the kind of photography I’m trying to teach Jessica, is based on the idea of making the mundane appear fantastical. So far that’s taken a couple of branches.
The first, and longest standing, is long exposure and light painting. Shots like the following where by compressing time and adding light one can take a dull night scene and conjure something a little more magical, something one step left of reality.
The second path is one of shooting street portraits of strangers, usually with a dash of adding light from a reflector or strobe or more, with the aim of taking an average person from the street and elevating them to a Vogue style icon.
ICM seems to offer another path on that journey – expressing an element of fantasy from everyday scenes, like the trees above, or from leaves on a pavement/sidewalk.
Apple tree at night, single second exposure, tight, rapid loops
Autumn beach leaves in sunlight, 1/5 second exposure, fast vertical sweep
As I approach the final portrait in my 100 Strangers street portrait project, I’ve been reflecting on the photographers that inspired me to start and continue that journey. Some of them proved elusive, but ten of them kindly agree to let me share their street portraits here with a few words as to what I enjoyed in their portait work, and how it inspired my photography.
Perhaps the biggest spur to shoot strangers at all was Gerald Emming’s incredible 30 second project. Seeing Gerald’s work for the first time I could not quite believe this was possible on the street – everything was so clean, pure, intense. The stark, desaturated sheen and bold, intimate crop gave the series an unmistakable look, so consistently delivered time and time again. This one especially stands out in showcasing what struck me:
Gerald’s work is maybe most appealing to me in that it establishes such an instantly recognisable look, that he’s able to play with it in a number of portraits, introducing candid moments or twists on the style – without distracting from the core. This next one is perhaps my favourite of those, catching a chance, candid expression within the shoot. It’s that mix that strikes me in how I try to shoot my work. Striving for the consistent, recognisable look, whilst accommodating the opportunities each individual presents, and threading them together like alchemy into a magical whole.
Heading over to the 100 Strangers group on Flickr I found Peter’s work. Of many incredible shots, there are two I particularly admire. The first of Elle I’ve returned to a number of times, in awe of the wild light. When shooting Lily #69/100 in tough lighting conditions, it’s exactly this portrait of Peter’s that I thought of in trying to harness the wayward sun. I like the genius economy of the lighting – a single tilt of a reflector in the sun at once adding drama to her expression, depth and texture to her dress, tone to her hair and emphasis to the wall behind.
Compared with the pure drama of Elle’s portrait, there’s an intimate narrative almost to this one of Avalon. I’m as guilty as many others for getting lost in the compressed, tight headshot. For all their power, they sometimes lack that hint of environmental intrigue, of story. I love way all that plays out in Peter’s portrait of Avalon. Despite the consistent crop of head/shoulders, the wider angle lens brings so much more to life around her. Wider angle backgrounds can be so hard to compose to prevent distraction, and I love how Peter uses the chair on the left and the partition on the right to create a kind of “lead in step” effect in harmony with the centred composition. With all that going on that pure, smooth light and engaging mix of flirtation and ambiguity in Avalon’s expression is sorcery itself.
Tim shoots all kinds of incredible characters. There’s an amazingly raw character to his portraits of Melvin and Eddie, yet it’s one of his diptychs that I especially admire. Perhaps its the way the two shots both echo and inform one another. The power of class and character to Stefan’s headshot on the left is kind of at odds with the shorter looking, quirkier character of the environmental portrait on the right. Yet it occured to me that this is the beauty of what we do – so many of those people we pass, the quirky, the mundane, all of them – have this same inner core if you only stop and speak and look for it. This shot became kind of touchstone for me in that regard. A reminder that sometimes we should ignore the cover and take a proper look at the book.
Jeff’s work over at the 100 Strangers and more recently at The Human Family always struck me for his variety of subjects. Even writing that note on looking beneath a person’s superficial appearance alongside Tim’s work above, I have to admit I often end up shooting with the obvious “strangers of interest”; the Vogue/Glamour-definition young and beautiful. Jeff has an incredible talent for seeing and expressing that beauty in a huge range of subjects.
This one of Iman particularly struck me – the skillful technique in difficult light, the beauty of character, the balance of foreground and background and that masterfully judged depth of field retaining a sense of the world whilst ensure even cluttered lights supported Iman, rather than distracting from her. There’s a magic to shooting in the night which is so well communicated here.
Meeting Colin at my Stranger #5 was an important moment in my project. It’s what turned it from a solo endeavour to a social project, through which I’ve met a whole legion of fantastic photographers. As well as his advice, wry humour, and willingness to pose (generally stooping a foot or so down to simulate a typical subject’s more diminutive frame), his tight headshots especially grabbed my attention.
Ines flirtatious smirk and billiowing hair, and Tiger Lily’s smooth gaze with spiked shoulders are so powerful against that deftly dropped background, and they’re just two of a whole legion of thoughtfully approach, skillfully shot strangers I’d encourage you to check out.
Peter’s another 100 Strangers photographer I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with a couple of times now, and a 500 miles per hour dynamo with it. He’s another who’s diptych in particular inspire me. This one of Thamanay for instance, which comes with a kind of movement to it – a sense of meeting at a distance, and then a sudden, more intense turn in events.
This one of Anna is great too, offering a different contrast. He shoots fantastic portrait format shots especially – people like Abigail or Emily. More than anyone else, Peter’s portfolio buzzes with an energy of encounters. I love the moments when he’ll zap in a shot of strangers tattoo as well as their portrait. That eclectic mix of street fashion, photo journalism, energetic documentation and fast paced encounter is so full throttle and constantly flexible.
For every posted portrait, we all endure unseen hours on the streets. Often this is not so much due to rejection, as due to an absence of that perfect stranger to match a background we have seen. When a stranger does appear, that echoes, enhances and lifts a background it’s like rocket dust at Christmas, and this shot of Barbara’s is perhaps the most perfect instance of stranger meeting perfect background. Such an incredible mix of vision, patience and execution with so much on the line.
Then there’s the artistry of this one – where the match of stranger and background is less dramatic, less obviously perfect, yet still so evocative. Perhaps more so even, with the beautiful balance of costume, style, tone set and expression.
Arnab’s willingness to experiment and seize left field opportunities is perhaps the thing I most wanted to feature here, but I’d first kick off with this “straight” shot to establish his credentials in a more traditional sense. Super direct headshot. Cool.
For me, though, Arnab is the guy who hung out at the National Theatre to buy a stranger a glass of red wine, and shot her posing indoors whilst he was outside in the rain. True story. Sometimes you can see the edges of those experiments, and sometimes he just blows you away – like with this one of Jesse. I’d definitely check out the description behind the link for the story and thought process – awesome. The result with that clean palette of whites and the nuanced balance of diagonals is epic, held together with Jesse’s super gaze.
It’s a big regret that I missed Sylvia on her recent(ish) trip to London. Of her incredible portfolio, the following two shots grabbed my attention for the way she harnesses natural light so skillfully. When you read the detail of that first portrait of Jazmyn and see it’s all achieved with a single small reflector, it makes me feel like a proper plonker carrying lighting gear around with me. The hazy gold of the distant pillar, the way it infuses the edges of Jazmyn’s incredible mane of hair, and then that smooth even pop from the reflector are all so perfect. The depth of field is so cool too – getting those diagonal highlights sweeping back into the centre of the frame.
Another amazing reflector shot below, but this time with a superbly matched tonal theme and a totally different background effect, speaks to Sylvia’s flexibility. This time I love how the reflector changes the tone set up, introducing that warm glow to complement the pale, smokey blues.
There’s such a raw drama to Davide’s (w@@t) portraits. I’m a big advocate of the idea that “no one cares it’s a stranger”. By which I mean that when approaching a street portrait, the viewer is judging your portrait just as if it were a portrait of a model or family member. Maybe when they read the story behind the image they care, but when they first see it, no one knows. It’s just a portrait, fighting for attention against all portraits. You’d think you’re at a disadvantage then – shooting random strangers, compared to shooting professional models – but when the situation is handled well, you have an edge. There’s a spark to street encounters that one does not necessarily find in model shots. A certain frisson. Davide’s a master of harnessing that spark.
In these two shots that harnessed spark shines through. The almost feminine expression of Cristiano, with his quirky angled glasses, and the swish of hair framing that femme fatale gaze of Lera. I’d love to shoot with Davide and see him working with his subjects – inspiring these moments. Hopefully we’ll get to hook up in the New Year!
Please note, all images are copyright of the linked photographers.
As I draft a couple of posts of tips for taking better street portraits, I’m reviewing my portfolio. Among the portraits are scattered, however, the various near misses that are the backgrounds that never found their stranger.
Above, thick fog diffuses the soft winter light, whilst fresh snow acts as a natural reflector. Last night’s blizzard has turned The Mall into a giant light tent, with a vanishing point arch of stately trees running through it, but no one is around to ask…
One of the main divides I encounter speaking with others who shoot street portraits are those who advocate a stranger led approach, and those who advocate a background led approach. I’m generally the latter, for reasons I’ll sketch in coming posts, and so my shots generally start as a stage. The actors, however, don’t always show on cue. Sometimes time simply runs out, and you simply have to walk away, leaving these relics behind on the CF card – test shots to nail down settings, compose, prepare, all for naught. I thought I’d share what that sometimes looks like.
A quick note of thanks to Humza over at The Art Voyage for a short feature on my 100 Strangers Project. One of the most rewarding photographic projects you can undertake – I’d always encourage people to get involved over at the 100 Strangers Flickr Group.