A very old favourite portrait

I don’t know if it happens to you when you are looking for something specific but I often search for images and, quite by accident, find something I wasn’t looking for and then that sends me off on a trip down memory lane. I’ve certainly blogged quite a few times in the past about images that meant something to me – either personally or professionally. This portrait of former General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, John Monks (now Baron Monks of Blackley) was taken in his office at the TUC during an interview with the Times Educational Supplement about his appointment to the Government’s Learning and Skills Council in October 2000.

©Neil Turner/TSL, October 2000. John Monks, TUC General Secretary.

©Neil Turner/TSL, October 2000. John Monks, TUC General Secretary.

The reason that I like this picture is that when I shot it I was delighted to have turned a complete disaster of a shoot into a really nice image. The interview wasn’t going well and the room had a huge picture window which Mr Monks insisted was behind him. The room had dark walls, very dark furniture and no matter how hard I tried the pictures weren’t coming together. I had moved the light (I was working with a single Lumedyne battery powered pack and head with a 70cm shoot through umbrella) to the left of the interviewer and the picture was still boring. There was a decent reflection of the subject in the highly polished table but balancing the lift between the ambient coming through the window and the flash in the room was proving tricky. You need to remember that in those days we were shooting on 1.9 megapixel Kodak DCS520 cameras with tiny LCD screens and you could only get a basic idea of lighting balance.

I was limited where I could place the flash because at that time I was still using Wein optical triggers and the lights in the room had a fault which made them flicker – enough to trigger the flash every second or so. That meant reverting to the emergency back-up synch lead and all of the range restrictions that it placed on where the cable could reach and how it ran around the room.

Gradually I kept changing the shutter speed to allow more and more ambient light into the exposure. I had started at 1/125th of a second at f5.6 on 200 ISO and by the time I got to 1/15th of a second the ambient light really started to kick in and the light reflecting off of the blue tiles and glass in the courtyard outside his window magically took over and eliminated virtually all traces of the gloom and dark wood in the room. I managed to turn the main light off in the room without causing too much trouble – I had to do it because the ambient light inside the room was starting to have an effect on the exposure.

A colourless portrait of a greying man in a dull room sprang into life and I started to relax. This was one of the last frames, shot just as the interview was winding up and it was at 1/8th of a second with the camera resting on the table to try to make sure that there was as little shake as possible. I shot almost all of the interview on a Canon 70-200 f2.8L with a few frames on a Canon 28-70 f2.8L and my old 17-35 f2.8L. Apart from having overcome some difficulties to shoot the portrait, I genuinely loved the colours and I loved the placement of his spectacles. This is a gentle crop that got rid of anything that didn’t add to the overall feel and it quickly became a favourite for a few of the right reasons and many of the wrong ones. That means that it is a good picture and possibly worthy of a place in my portfolio back then but that I was too pleased with my own input to judge that properly!

Sometimes when you shoot pictures through an interview it all goes well and you listen to what’s being said because you are so relaxed. If the pictures are going badly you pick up on the mood of the interview but don’t really hear the conversation. This was definitely a case of the latter. I had no real idea that the interview had been a tough one!


  1. I like it and in part it’s because of his hand position and inward-looking stare, and in part the fact that the shirt is in need of an iron and adds many little areas where the ‘reality’ of the photo can bite.


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