Anybody who knows me or my work would put wildlife and nature photography somewhere near the bottom of my interests. We were out as a family at the weekend having a drink and a snack at a cafe when a table of people enjoying an all-day breakfast behind us got up and left without clearing their plates. A mass of starlings descended and grabbed anything edible off of the plates. All I had to do was turn around and grab a few frames!
For as long as I can remember I have shot pictures of my wife and I on holiday with a compact camera at arm’s length. I have examples in the family album dating back to 1984 and, whilst I’m not claiming to have invented “The Selfie”, it really isn’t anything new in our house. We started doing those pictures just because there was never anyone else around to take the picture for us and so it was very much a second best picture. Slowly and over the many holidays that we have enjoyed together it became something of a tradition to do at least one of those arm’s length couple pictures but we always liked to get a passer-by to do the picture if we could. It is a phenomenon that I am fascinated by and I often shoot pictures of people as they perform the Ritual of the Selfie.
I was prompted to compose this blog post because I suddenly realised why it works so well. One of the media team working with Prudential RideLondon had offered to take the picture and the three young women dutifully posed but their faces didn’t come alive until they rescued the phone and performed the ritual of the selfie. There seems to be a confidence and a joy in taking your own picture of yourself and your friends or, in this case, you, your friend and an Olympic and Commonwealth champion. Is it because these days that can see themselves in the screen and only shoot when they are happy with what they see? I believe that there’s an element of that in it but the sense of self-reliance is just as important as far as I can see. There is a joy in The Selfie that is missing from a perfectly well taken group photo. Time after time we all saw people enjoying taking self portraits during the event and that’s the case almost everywhere almost every day.
Where I depart from the celebration of The Selfie is where media outlets and PR companies encourage people to do it and post them as part of marketing campaigns. For me the innocence and joy of the ritual gets lost when it is prompted like that. Where I also have an worries about it is when people do it dozens or even hundreds of times a day. I had a link request on EyeEm the other day from a guy who have over 6,000 images on his account and, from what I could see, they were all of himself.
I don’t object to The Selfie at all. In fact I indulge in the ritual myself from time to time. All I’d ask is that marketing people without another great idea stop trying to make something from them that isn’t really there. Photography is about a lot of things and fun is right up there as one of the most important.
A lot of photographers have been playing around with various image sharing sites. Most are doing it because it’s fun and others because they have been told that it’s a great way to get noticed by new audiences and to be seen by clients as “up-to-date”. I simply wanted to ‘have a go’. Get with the fun. A lot of photographers that I like and respect have been uploading some lovely work using EyeEm over the last few weeks and, although I’ll never beat them, I thought that I’d join them.
I missed out on Instagram and I have publicly parted company with Flickr. I’ve used Moby to share a few images in Twitter and of course TwitPic has seen a few of my pictures too.
A couple of weeks ago I set myself the challenge of uploading a few pictures to the EyeEm sharing site to see what happened. The experiment isn’t over – far from it but I am starting to find it a bit limiting and I’m starting to worry that the lens of the camera on my iPhone is showing it’s 3 years and 4 months age.
Anyway, if you are on EyeEm please let me know and please think about following my experiment. I promise not to bombard you with art – even if I’m tempted! Most of the images have nothing to do with the kind of professional work that I do and a surprising number so far have been shot around my home town of Bournemouth.
The picture that you can see above is about the most extreme treatment that I’ve given any of my pictures to date. For the geeks amongst you it was processed (contrast, sharpening and cropping) in Adobe Photoshop Express on an iPhone and then given the moody treatment and distressed border in the EyeEm app on the phone.
This is not a claim to any act of great heroism, it’s not even a particularly accurate heading but I’ve been wanting to tell more ‘stories behind the pictures’ for quite a while and I’ve decided to give them all pretty eye-catching headlines. This portrait of the author Philippa Gregory has a story behind it that I have enjoyed telling many times over the years since I took it in 2004.
I was shooting a lot of portraits of authors and academics at the time and I was given the job of meeting Philippa Gregory who had just written “The Other Boleyn Girl” and shooting her portrait to accompany an interview in one of the magazines that I worked for. No problem, run of the mill? Well… yes and no. The location that I was given was rapidly becoming an issue.
Let me explain: in the three or four years leading up to this particular job I had been sent to shoot three portraits of authors at a particular hotel in central London favoured by one or two publishers as a place for them to stay if they needed a hotel or as a great place to hire a private room for interviews and photography when they were on the publicity trail promoting new books. Once again, pretty run of the mill stuff. Except. Except the three previous subjects that I had shot at this particular venue had all died within a few months of having their picture taken by me. I’m not superstitious. I live at No13 and I couldn’t care less about black cats crossing my path. I have a healthy respect for ladders and I try to avoid blindly walking under them – that’s a mixture of common sense and the fact that my Father once dropped some turpentine on me when he was painting our house when I was about six or seven years old. Superstitious I am not but I did have a 100% record of people that I photographed at this hotel being dead pretty shortly after having their picture taken.
This presented me with a few issues.
I didn’t know how well I would be able to put the idea of another ex-author on my hands when shooting if I decided to ignore what was rapidly becoming a curse.
If I wanted to go elsewhere, how was I going to explain that idea in mid-October to the author and her publicist?
Where else could I go and how far should I be away from the hotel to avoid worrying?
What would the reporter who was doing the interview think?
Driving to the location I decided to try my best to get the subject away from the hotel. Hyde Park was only a couple of hundred yards away and it shouldn’t be too tough to get her to cross four lanes of fast moving traffic in heels just to have her picture taken under the trees. Well, I arrived nice and early and I spoke to the publicist about atmosphere and about getting a picture that nobody else was going to get. I laid on what little charm I have and we agreed that a short walk (using the underpass rather than running across the road) was going to be OK. I got in before the interview, Philippa Gregory seemed happy to get some fresh air and we had ten productive minutes under some trees shooting a pleasant set of portraits. I even delivered her safely back to the hotel-of-doom in time for the interviewer to do her bit.
Now I’m not claiming to have actually saved the author’s life as such. I don’t even believe in curses or even in extended coincidence and the real truth is that all three of the authors that died were in their late 80s and 90s when I took their pictures. I was telling this story to an author’s agent the other day and she asked me what I would do if I was sent back to the same hotel to photograph an elderly author who was, for argument’s sake, wheelchair bound and it was a day when it was bitterly cold? Tough question…
For those amongst you who always want to know about gear and settings:
Canon EOS1D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8L IS lens at 145mm
1/22nd of a second at f5.6 on 100 ISO
Lumedyne Signature Series flash kit with 32″x24″ Chimera Softbox
Jez Coulson is a great photographer and he is one of my oldest friends in the industry. We went to college together, shared a house and even started a business together – you get the picture, we are friends. A few days ago he was obviously looking through some old pictures and stumbled across one of me that he shot for a brochure. I was “posed by model” playing the part of a young, upwardly mobile, business type talking loudly on his old Motorola mobile phone on a train back in either 1987 or 1988. You can read his blog post here.
The thing is that we often acted as models for each other’s commercial shoots – which was a good way to put a few pounds in each other’s pockets when we were starting out. It happened all of the time and we used a lot of other friends and colleagues for the same purpose. We didn’t really do it on editorial shoots (unless the pictures were captions “POSED BY MODEL”) and definitely not on news jobs.
Anyway, Jez posted a picture of a twenty-something me in a suit so I thought that I’d do the same. This was a brochure for an insurance company who covered employees against legal issues and this picture shows Jez leaning on a car that happened to be parked outside our office (no idea whose it was) being given a good talking to by another friend, Peter Anderson, wearing a rented traffic police uniform. Enjoy…