academic

Another anniversary

© Neil Turner 11/09/2008 The Petchey Academy in Hackney, London, E8 opened to pupils in September 2007.

© Neil Turner 11/09/2008. The Petchey Academy in Hackney, London.

The eleventh of September will always be remembered for the tragic events in New York in 2001 but it also has another, altogether more positive, place in my calendar. Today is the seventh anniversary of my first commissioned job as a freelance photographer having spent fourteen and a half years in a staff job. In those fourteen and a half years I had shot assignments in thousands of schools and it was somewhat ironic that my first freelance outing came from a Picture Editor with whom I had previously worked and was back in a London school. So much was exactly the same – only the end user of the pictures was different. It wasn’t even an educational publication, it was a specialist magazine for facilities managers.

It should have felt like the kind of job that I’d been doing for so many years. I was using the same cameras that I had been using for four years and the same lights that I’d had for at least eight years. I even arrived in the same car that I’d been driving for the previous couple of years but I was nervous in a way that I hadn’t been for a very long time. It didn’t help that I had been on ‘gardening leave’ for a month by then and so I had actually just gone through the longest period without shooting a job since I had left college twenty-two years previously.

The brief was to get pictures of the school, it’s facilities manager and his team. I like to think that I always go beyond the brief where I can and on this job that involved lugging my lighting kit onto the school roof to shoot a portrait as well as waiting for ages for people to walk through my carefully set up building shots.

© Neil Turner 11/09/2008 The Petchey Academy Facilities Manager Alan Gilbert MBIFM.

© Neil Turner 11/09/2008. The Petchey Academy Facilities Manager Alan Gilbert MBIFM.

Everything went well and I shot some nice pictures. The magazine used them very well as a cover and across five pages inside and, best of all, the publisher started to give me a sizeable amount of work over the next couple of years. Most importantly – I was off and running.

I find it remarkable that all of that was seven years ago. A lot of water has passed under a lot of bridges in the meantime and I have experienced those same nerves on more than a few occasions as I try new things, work for new people and take very different sorts of pictures.

Thank you to those friends and colleagues who helped kick-start my second freelance career. I’m still here and I’m still loving taking pictures.

© Neil Turner 11/09/2008. Facilities Manager Alan Gilbert MBIFM whose deputy is his brother Les Gilbert.

© Neil Turner 11/09/2008. Facilities Manager Alan Gilbert MBIFM whose deputy is his brother Les Gilbert.

Technical stuff: Canon EOS1D MkII cameras with Canon EF 16-35 f2.8L, 24-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses. Lighting Lumedyne Signature Series 200 w/s pack and head.

A nice request for a picture

A few weeks ago I received a lovely email from the widow of a philosopher that I had photographed back in 1996. She had been looking through some of his papers and found a cutting from the Times Higher Education Supplement that had an interview with him along with my portrait of him. She saw the tiny 8 point byline and knowing that search engines are wonderful things she tracked me down. Emails went back and forth and today I got a photocopy of the cutting in the post.

I don’t have much of the work that I did between 1994 and 1998 but her luck was in and I had a Kodak Photo CD with some half decent scans from the job in my loft. It was an easy enough task to find the CD, grab the relevant image from it and get it ready to send to her. The old Kodak Photo CDs used an unusual and proprietary format that Photoshop doesn’t recognise so if anyone else comes across this issue I can confirm that the old Graphics Converter application will happily handle the format and convert your files into useful formats such as PSD, TIF or JPG.

Like most photographers I get regular requests for ‘free’ pictures and I am always wary but somehow a hand-written note from the widow of a very nice man where the words “please” and “thank you” chased away my cynicism rather easily. The portrait is of philosopher and Oxford Professor Bernard Williams (he became Sir Bernard a while after I shot the picture) and here it is…

©Neil Turner/TSL. Oxford, October 1996

Geek footnote: I was using a pair of Canon EOS1n bodies with Canon 28-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses at the time and this was almost certainly shot on the 70-200. The film was Fuji 200 ISO colour negative scanned on a Kodak RFS scanner.

Niall Ferguson, 1997 portrait.

When an email from Channel 4 television landed in my in box with an advertisement for an upcoming and very interesting looking) new programme “China: Triumph and Turmoil” presented by a gentleman called Niall Ferguson. I knew that I’d photographed him before. A quick trawl through my catalogue confirmed that I had indeed shot a portrait of him in 1997 when he was an up and coming star of academia – a professor of History at Oxford University at the age of 32. He was actually born in the same year as me and I was amused at the time by the way he was dressed in the academic uniform of tweeds.

©Neil Turner/TSL. Oxford, January 1997.

I can very clearly remember shooting this portrait. I had driven to Oxford to do another story and the picture desk had rung me and asked me to drop what I was doing, dash across Oxford to do the portrait and then go back to the feature shoot in a primary school. That was the one and only time that they ever asked me to do this and I remember thinking that this must be one important guy if I was being asked to do that.

Since then, he has written yet more books, starred in yet more TV programmes and been seen as a talking head on dozens of television shows. He is clearly still a star of the academic world and obviously a clever chap. His website came up on a quick Google search saying “Niall Ferguson endorses Mitt Romney for President”. Hmmm?

Geek stuff: Portraits shot using two Canon EOS1Dn cameras with 28-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses on Fuji 200 ISO colour negative film scanned using a Kodak scanner onto a Kodak Photo CD. The software for extracting the PCD format images doesn’t seem to be available any more but Graphics Converter does a wonderful job of extracting a TIFF or a JPEG from the old files.

Note: I need to start wearing my glasses more. The web page for the Channel 4 programme says ” … apparatus” referring to the Chinese state but I read it as “… vast asparagus” – I am getting old!

Contact sheet: Dame Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, Oxford, September 1998

When this set of photographs, one of the last of her, was taken Dame Iris was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s and her husband described her as being like “a very nice 3-year-old,”. She died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. In his memoir “Elegy for Iris” John Bayley portrays his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally. He was in turn very much in love with her and very caring about her when I spent a brief time shooting this set of pictures. She was unaware of who I was or what I was doing but his hand was always in hers and she seemed to accept that everything was OK because of that.

The original caption simply read: Professor John Bayley and Dame Iris Murdoch photographed in the back garden of their home in Oxford. 09.09.1998 photo: Neil Turner/Times Higher Education Supplement. ©News International

The Times Higher Education Supplement was running a review of Professor Bayley’s book about his wife and the Picture Editor had asked me to drive to Oxford to shoot his portrait. While I was driving between London and Oxford I was told that at least two other photographers would be shooting before me and that it was “unlikely” that Dame Iris would be in the pictures. I don’t mind doing portraits of authors on those days when you form an orderly queue with reporters and television crews for your chance to do the same five minute job but this one seemed a little less “organised”.

I arrived in that part of Oxford where it seems every second home is owned by a Nobel Prize winner or a celebrity academic to find their house looking a little sorry for itself. The front garden, the fences and the paintwork all needed some TLC and I quite like to shoot portraits around those areas. I had twenty minutes to wait and started to think about the light, the colours and watch for other photographers and journalists to come out. Nobody appeared so I grabbed my gear and knocked on the door. When Professor Bayley answered, he looked like the gardener but spoke exactly how you might imagine an Oxford Professor would.

In the film “Iris” which stars Dame Judi Dench as the older Iris Murdoch the house is untidy. Actually having been there I can tell you that untidy doesn’t even come close. There were books and newspapers everywhere. Televisions were on the BBC in almost every room and there was Dame Iris herself sitting quietly at the kitchen table. I was nervous about asking if she would be available for the pictures but Professor Bayley seemed to know what I wanted to ask and told me that he wanted her to be in the pictures with him but that she found flash disturbing. I was shooting 35mm colour negative film at the time and so we decided that the house was too dark and too untidy to be a good location for a portrait. Ironically these days I would have probably done some pictures on my 5D MkIIs using the small amount of available light indoors at 3200 ISO but there was no way that 800 ISO colour negative would cope.

The beauty of these pictures is that nobody from the publishers had been round to tidy up, dress them up or even attempt to sanitise the images. Because of that we were able to make some lovely portraits. We chatted about garden birds, foliage and the English weather. It was a surreal time.

In the end I shot 72 frames (two rolls of 200 ISO Fuji Colour Negative film) which I drove back to London where the film was processed by the newspaper darkroom and all scanned onto a Kodak Photo CD at a resolution unthinkable for a digital camera at the time – the equivalent of a 6 megapixel camera when the Kodak DCS520 was just becoming available with it’s 1.9 megapixel chip. The cameras used here were a Canon EOS1V and an EOS1N with 28-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses.