Solitude

Alright, not quite solitude; rather, eight photographers standing in a row.

But you know what I mean.  Eight photographers on a lonely loch beach at dawn, hoping that the drifting rainclouds will cut the island off from the mountains behind it.

I’d never thought much about landscape photography until a recent trip to Scotland.  It’s a different way of working for me.  And it’s got me thinking about solitude.  There’s something really lonely about the landscape photography that I like; I’d love to be able to convey this in my own work.

So I’m hatching a plan to return to the place where I experienced the greatest isolation of my life. Schleswig-Holstein, in the north of Germany, where as a twenty-year-old I lived in a shed, with a radio, a bicycle, and a small flock of geese to watch outside my window.

I didn’t have a camera in those days (or rather, I didn’t have any film.)  If I’d had one, I’d have photographed the flat land, the river, the canal, and the endless mist.  I might have hoped for a glimpse of a Storm-like Schimmelreiter approaching through the fog on a white horse.

I’ve not been back for over twenty years, but I think it’s about time to revisit, with my camera.  And, much as I might like to go with seven friendly photographers, I think this one is a trip to make alone.

 

 

 

The Mirror and the Mind

Lately, I’ve been talking to people about what they think and feel when they look in the mirror.  It’s fascinating.  Sometimes it’s about a cursory check of your appearance on the way to work.  Sometimes it goes deeper, and is about your very identity, your sense of who you are and who you want to be.

Some people are comfortable with it; others find it unsettling, defamiliarising.   Poet John Ashbery writes, “This otherness, this ‘not-being us’ is all there is to look at in the mirror.”

There’s a wealth of psychological research on this topic, most of which I have still to discover.  Art, film, poetry – all of these have explored the relationship between the mirror and the self.

Rachel has been kind enough to go along with me in exploring some of these ideas.  We’ve swapped poems, articles, photographs – anything from fairy tales to poetry, from academic texts to exhibitions about superheroes.  This latest was our third mirror shoot together.   Her acting skills are considerable and she brings all these ideas to bear as we shoot.

I imagine and hope there’s more of this project to come.  I may well be looking for some more volunteers in the autumn, once I’ve dusted down some physics textbooks and worked out some fiddly issues to do with optics and the like.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with the words of artist Nathan Sawaya, in his Art of the Brick exhibition on Lego Superheroes and Super Villains. On Bizarro, the mirror-image ‘negative Superman’, he writes:

“I think you have to be careful of mirrors. You don’t want to look in them for too long.  The longer you look, the less reality you see.”

 

 

Let them stare if they want

Though I really should be past caring by now, I do remain self-conscious about just one or two things in life.  One thing that doesn’t bother me, though, is making a fool of myself for the sake of a shot I’m after.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m perfectly well aware that people look at me strangely. The ramblers in the park, wondering why I’m flat on my back pointing a lens upwards at a hole in an oak trunk. The big blokes with their big cameras at the gig, trying (or not bothering) to step over me as I’m lying in dust and spilt beer. The sweet couple attempting to hide their giggles as I slip down a muddy bank in pursuit of a stag, and emerge, filthy, from the bog, holding my precious camera high in a caked right hand. (Yeah, it might have been nice of you to speak to me, instead of just smirking to yourselves.)

I don’t care about climbing on chairs and tables in public. (If I’m in a school, the pupils always imagine I’ll be in fearful trouble.) I’ll hold a squat, a lunge or a crunch at millimetre-precise height to be on just the level I want.  As long as I don’t shake or collapse, you can stare all you like. I’m happy.

So the lesson?

  • Never wear good clothes on a shoot
  • Appropriate footwear can spare you humiliation
  • Cleanliness is next to lifelessness
  • Core strength is even more useful than they told you
  • Let people point and stare if they want. Your photos will be more interesting than theirs.

But really, I should have been more careful with the goose poo last night. That was just silly.

Photographing Your Baby

If you’ve got a baby, the chances are your phone is full of gorgeous snaps of the delightful creature.

Every photograph of your baby is special, of course, and you’ll enjoy looking at them over and over again. But what if you want a photograph that’s more than a quick snap on a phone?

One option is to go to a studio for a professional shoot. At the moment it’s fashionable to Photoshop the little things into tin buckets, or have them floating in a neutral-hued softness, all glowing skin and cute headwear. These certainly have a charm and require considerable skill to pull off.

Or you could engage a photographer to come to your home – perhaps a ‘lifestyle’ photographer, who will capture your family more naturally than in a posed shoot. It’s like a cross between documentary photography and a more classic portrait, and lots of people love it.

I’m not sure I fit into either of those brackets. I admit I’m not terribly interested in Photoshop manipulations. And I don’t much care for the word ‘lifestyle’ in any context, thanks to an English teacher at school who had a horror of it.

But this is my approach to photographing babies, and you can try this too, even without a fancy camera and special equipment. These are not ‘rules’ – just ideas.

  •  Put the playthings somewhere there’s good light. Window light is my favourite, especially if it’s a north light. You can use a reflector (a piece of white card will do) to bounce the light into shadowy areas of the baby’s face.
  • Follow the baby about – on the floor, in a baby seat, in a parent’s arms – and get a variety of views. Again, always look out for a light.
  • Get down onto the baby’s level and look right in their eyes. Much more interesting than always looking down from above. (If you’re outside, don’t worry about getting dirty. There’s so much laundry you’ll never remember an extra load– but a great photo is with you forever.)
  • Get in really close and fill the frame with a tiny detail.   A portrait doesn’t have to show a face. If you’ve got a macro setting on your camera, use that. (It’s the small flower symbol.)
  • Include favourite soft toys. Children enjoy looking at these as they grow up.
  • Look for the love. Images that show family bonds are really precious.

And if you want to get technical:

  • Babies’ movements are faster than you might think, even when they’re not yet mobile.  If you want clarity, keep your shutter speed relatively fast,  at least 1/250th sec, but preferably faster.   If you want a bit of blur, to show how fast that fist was waving, take it slower, perhaps 1/80th or 1.60th Experiment, and see what you like – it’s your picture.
  • Think about how much you want to have in focus. Sometimes you might want to show a couple of big, sharp eyes, with everything else gently blurred. If so, you’ll want a nice wide aperture (lower f/number.) The other advantage of this approach is that it blurs out all the background clutter there is when you have a baby in the house.
  • If you’re photographing the baby with other people, think about whether you want them all to be in focus, or only the baby. If you want everyone to be completely sharp, use a narrower aperture (higher f/number.) Alternatively, stick with a wider aperture (lower f/number), and focus on the baby alone. This can look really appealing and is also a nice metaphorical comment on who really is the centre of this world!

AND FINALLY

Print those photographs! It’s all very well storing them on your phone or on a hard drive or even on the cloud. But that’s a risk, no matter how good your systems are. Print them out, date them, put them in an album – or even just shove them in a shoe box and stick them in a cupboard. One day, those prints will be like treasure.

 

 

Villers Hill

This is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Villers Hill, near the village of Villers-Guislain in northern France.

On April 14th 1917, alongside thousands of others, a soldier was killed at the Battle of Arras. One hundred years on, to the day, two of his great great grandchildren laid a wreath on his grave.

The card on the wreath reads, “from your grandson, great grandsons and great great grandchildren. One hundred years; we still remember.”

Like all CWGC cemeteries and memorials, there’s a stillness, a calm and a peace about this place, despite the horror that unfolded here a century ago. Even on the bleakest of days, there’s a warmth in that stone that catches the light and glows.

 

Darkness Visible

 

To satisfie the sharp desire I had

Of tasting those fair Apples, I resolv’d

Not to deferr; hunger and thirst at once,

Powerful perswaders, quickn’d at the scent

Of that alluring fruit, urg’d me so keene.

 

 

 

Rachel says she’s not as brave as she may look. But I think it’s pretty brave to bid at a charity auction for a photoshoot with a photographer you don’t know, to set about constructing a story together, and shoot it in Windsor Great Park early one morning, to the bemusement of passing cyclists and runners. This was great fun, and I’m already looking forward to our next collaboration.

If the cat won’t come to the studio…

 

6f3a7046

…then the studio must come to the cat, of course.

This family really wanted a portrait with their three cats, including, in particular, seventeen year old Isabella.

Clearly an outdoor, ‘lifestyle’ kind of shoot wasn’t going to work. The cats would have run off straight away, and torrential rain was forecast in any case. Added to which, my brief was to photograph faces, not a slice of life.

Neither, of course, could the felines of the family travel to me.

The only option was to do a studio-style shoot at the family home, for maximum control of the kitties.

This wasn’t necessarily a convenient option for the family – I turned up in the early afternoon with a car full of kit, and set about moving the furniture, installing backdrops and setting up the studio flash and reflectors.

The just-turned-eight year old was a very able assistant and helped me get the lighting just as we wanted it. I showed her how to work the DSLR, and she even took a nice picture of me – this really doesn’t happen very often!

The house went into lockdown, doors closed, catflaps shut. We built the scene bit by bit, person by person, cat by cat. Finally, we went for the money shot: four humans, three cats. It was tricky for the person holding the wriggliest cat, but Isabella herself was a model of poise and gravitas.

This was fun, and I’d happily do it again for other families. To enquire about prices and availability, click here.

6f3a7166-edit

6f3a7228

6f3a7145

6f3a7131

6f3a7122

6f3a7097

 

The Poplars

In the world of the novel Exeme, The Poplars is a boarding school for the wayward daughters of America’s elite, set deep in the Virginia countryside. And I am their new “official photographer.”

I know a little about this world. I’ve seen some images, heard some tales, spied some secret documents. It’s fascinating, and not a little sinister. If I have free rein, I think my pictures may offer a rather different view of the school from the facade the authorities like to present to the parents…

For more about the forthcoming novel by the incomparable Karina, have a little look by clicking here.

To visit my photography website, click here.

6F3A2846

 

 

The Axe Bass, the Chessboard and the Queen

Our friend Claire has described herself as an ‘actual classical violinist, wannabe rock guitarist.’ She recently bought a Gene Simmons style axe bass, and to my great excitement, agreed to let me photograph her with it. I love photographing people with their musical instruments, and this was a new one for me.

Planning the shoot was a lot of fun, and gave us the chance to be very playful and a bit daft. The concept evolved over a couple of months, and started off with the single idea of a red ball dress. My son suggested a chessboard, and this developed to include giant chess pieces, and a tiara for Queen Claire, who dominates the board. Finally, we threw in an amp and smoke machine, and set to work in the garden at dusk one night last week.

To light the scene, I used, or attempted to use, my portable studio flash system. Frustratingly, the three flash heads wouldn’t talk to one another outside. So I improvised, using a single flash head plus umbrella wired to my camera on one side, and an off-camera speedlite (with wireless trigger) on the other. In front was a large silver reflector, variously at 30 degrees and flat to the ground.

I used my Canon 5D MkIII. For the wider angle shots, I used the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L II USM lens, mostly at around 35mm. For closer up, I chose the 100mm macro f/2.8 L II USM. I would have used the 70-200mm zoom from a distance, but I was limited by the length of my sync cable! The 100mm macro is actually a really nice lens for portraits, so I wasn’t worried.

Claire herself looked fantastically dramatic. Her hairdresser had given her an up-do reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts – a nod to the fairy tale atmosphere and Alice references suggested by the chessboard. In her red dress Claire looked imposing, powerful, beautiful, and most definitely regal. (Except perhaps when laughter got the better of us.)

And so, may I present Queen Claire and her amazing axe bass.

 

Thanks to Will and to Ellie for ideas and practical assistance. Thanks to Martin for all the help on the night. Thanks to Simon for going on about sky.

All images Copyright Kate Carpenter.  For licence types and image prices, please click here to contact me.

Hair by Gemma at Mario Hair Studio in Chertsey.  Dress from Cherlone.  Chess set from Mastersgames.com.