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.

Six feet up is bad?

©Neil Turner, October 2000. Oxford.

©Neil Turner, October 2000. Oxford.

This was first published in the Autumn of 2000 on the DP Review website as a follow-up to a review I did of the original Canon G1 Powershot

It is very easy to hold the camera to your eye and take a picture. Good photography requires us all to think about where we are taking the picture from as well as what we are taking. The best photographs are made when the photographer chooses a vantage point to suit the subject, and it is surprising how few subjects are suited by the height of a human standing at their full five to six feet. This is compounded by the fact that when someone views the image they will see pretty much what they themselves would have taken because they haven’t been told about bending your knees or climbing a ladder to shoot better pictures.

It is no accident that many of the world’s best photographers wear denims most of the time, and I take pride in the fact that I spend so much of my time kneeling that I have “housemaids knee”. Sooner or later I will end up flat on my face or up on a chair to give something extra to a composition – namely a point of view that the person looking at the image would not have seen themself.

This image was shot in the beautiful University City of Oxford on a Canon G1 using the swivel LCD to get the camera at ground level without having to lie in the dirt myself. The lens was less that two inches from the cobble stones and this ultra low angle gives the image a dynamic quality that would have been missing had I been standing at my full five foot ten inches. The photograph is different from most pictures taken of this tourist magnet and I’m sure that my antics were the reason for the puzzled look on the passer by’s face.

My point is that when you get your camera out think about the height of the lens. If you end up shooting from a standing position, well that’s OK – but I will lay good money that 90% of pictures are better when taken from below four feet or over seven.

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.