After six months and 180 portraits posted to Instagram and Facebook I find myself at a point where I’ve shown enough archive imperfect portraits for now. It’s nearly Christmas and it feels like the right time to hit the pause button on, what has been, a very enjoyable diversion from the woes of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, restrictions and the lack of new work on offer.
As I sit here and contemplate what has been good, bad and indifferent about posting so many of my favourites from 1988 to 2008 the temptation to perform some sort of statistical analysis has been quite strong and the parallel temptation to draw conclusions from the feedback has been stronger still. For now I am going to settle for some general impressions and some feelings that have struck me during the whole process so here’s a bullet-pointed list of some of them:
- Portrait v landscape: Only 61 out of 180 of the portraits were actually portrait or vertical in their orientation. There are lots of reasons for this including the page layout demands of the assignments at the time despite the fact that there would have been both upright and landscape images shot on most of them. My gut feeling is that I tend to prefer my portraits to be landscape!
- Wide angle v telephoto: Where I have the metadata to tell me what lenses I used I can say that the widest was a 14mm and the longest was a 300mm but that a sizeable majority were shot around the 35mm and 135mm focal lengths although 101 of them were shot on cameras with a 1.3X crop factor, 28 were shot on cameras with a 1.6X crop factor and the other 51 were shot on 35mm film. Where the metadata doesn’t exist I can make some informed guesses based on what kit I owned and favoured at that point in my career and on what is happening in the frame.
- Colour v black and white: Only 37 out of 180 were shown in black and white and 13 of those were converted from a colour original.
- Likes v comments: When it comes to “likes” on Instagram and Facebook there weren’t as many as my vanity would prefer but that’s OK because people have been in touch and said how much they enjoyed the series. The most liked pictures were that of Niall Laming running on Weymouth Beach in 2007 and of Vivienne Westwood in her studio way back in 1990. Those which were conspicuously lit and/or of very famous people tended to get bigger numbers. If I were doing a forensic analysis of the data I’d expect to find that certain days of the week were better than others from reactions but I have decided not to be that anal about this.
- Words v pictures: The biggest surprise is that so many people say that they enjoyed the mini-stories from my diaries and from deep in my memory. That’s the power of photography; it transports you to a time and a place and when you were actually there the power is even greater. I have always wanted my pictures to make others feel as if they were there and I guess that I have achieved that in many of these portraits.
- Into the camera v away from the lens: One colleague commented on just how many of my portraits feature the subject looking away from the camera. As a general rule I would have shot pictures with eyes to the camera or, as many great portraitists have said “establishing eye-contact with the reader” but when choosing favourites it is often the case that having a point away from the axis of the lens to look at was a better option. Those who followed my technique posts from the late 1990s and early 2000s would know that I often used the subject looking into the light to overcome technical shortcomings but it wasn’t always the case. Just for the record 66 out of 180 were looking out of camera and the other 114 were looking into the lens.
- Tops of heads v tighter crops: Based on the first 120 of these portraits I gave a Zoom talk to a camera club and one of the questions was about how often I chopped the top off of people’s heads and that they would have never got anywhere in one of their competitions had they done the same. I have never found tops of heads particularly informative and so I think nothing of framing or cropping them out – especially if that helps to concentrate the viewer’s attention onto the eyes. Again, for the record, I only did it in 35 out of 180.
- Hands v no hands: I have always been a fan of including hands in portraits and I try to do it in at last some of the edit on each portrait that I shoot. I don’t have a problem with folded arms (although some subjects refuse because they say that it makes them look defensive) and positively encourage gestures when the portraits are shot during interviews.
- Hashtags v content: I know that hashtags drive social media better than almost anything else but at the beginning of the series I wasn’t bothering much with them and then I started to get a bit more comfortable with the idea but by the end I was a bit bored of them and so I tended to use the same old dozen in various combinations on every picture that I posted. That tells me two things I guess. The first is that I’m still not very social media savvy and the second is that I desperately want my pictures to speak for themselves. Of course both are eminently stupid!
I’m sure that there will be another Instagram and Facebook series from me. I have thoroughly enjoyed doing these and portraiture only made up less than a third of the assignments that I have done in the last 35 years. I have another fifty archive images from the 1988 to 2008 era that are decent enough pictures but about which I remember very little or, in a couple of cases, nothing at all. My diary says I was there and I have the pictures but nothing is triggered in my memory and so those pictures have failed the basic test for inclusion in this set.
I have now finished digitising the film archive that I have and I have catalogued everything that is now digitised. I have made a list of the ‘ones that got away’ – portraits that I remember as being pretty good but from which I have no negatives, prints or transparencies. They would mostly be from the period 1995-1998 but there are others from before then that are missing too.
If the lack of work caused by the pandemic continues then my next big job is to scan or photograph all of my old tear sheets and cuttings but I doubt that any of those will hit Instagram unless they are particularly great examples from the missing list.