With the landslide victory to the Conservative party today it looks like this country is in for another 5 years of rhetoric about the privatisation of the NHS, and restructuring of the benefit system. A few weeks ago I took part in a free portrait photography workshop organised by IdeasTap. In case you've never heard of them IdeasTap is a charity focused on helping young people (ie those under 30 years old) in the creative industries. I'm no spring chicken, but its doors are also open to older creative types depending on the form of the project. The tragic news, which I cant help but feel is a reflection of the narrow minded times we are going through, is that IdeasTap it is due to close down in June. This is a crying shame as it's a great resource for photographers, illustrators, actors, writers, and journalists.
The portrait workshop I attended was lead by Owen Harvey a photographer who has not long graduated from university. Owen's interest is in sub cultures, specifically in the club scene for skins, mods and 90's Brit-pop types. This can involve him spending all night in a club, capturing couples dancing in the heat of the moment. He does not like to hide in the shadows, but make a statement with his bulky camera and flash gun. In these clubs he is the unofficial resident photographer for the night, the partying crowd cannot help but be aware of him. For his personal work he uses film, working 'old school', avoiding anything automatic. This approach pays dividends feeding into his commercial work for companies like Fred Perry and Sony Music, which he shoots on digital.
There were 11 of us on the course a mixture of graphic designers, actors, scientists, film makers, curators and - oh yes - the odd photographer. The day was divided into three main sessions - a general discussion in the morning about portrait photography, a practical session where a group of us were sent out into the streets of Bermondsey to photograph strangers, and a studio session where we got to grips with the use of flash, focal length, lights and the light meter.
I was truly out of my comfort zone venturing into the real world to stop people in their tracks and ask if I can take their portrait. The work I am showing in our Open House show is cool and abstract, human beings are not really the focus of attention. In those photographs you are only aware of a foot or leg or a figure in the distance.
So there I was, being asked to confront perfect strangers and ask them if I can take their photograph. A whole range of scenarios passed through my mind; being completely ignored, being accused of stalking, being flatly told no. I simply expected people to be very suspicious. To my surprise most people were OK about it. Some people were actually quite pleased to be asked. I did find it nerve racking. My usual sensibilities for framing the shot at times got lost due to my anxiety; usually when I just wanted to get it over with. What worked best for me was to be spontaneous, not thinking too much about specific people, but asking permission in a random, relaxed way.
In the afternoon studio workshop I was much more at ease. The parameters were set. I knew where we were going with this; it was all about the science of light. I enjoyed being the centre of attention when it was my turn to stand in front of the camera. So a practical session. One that got me thinking about buying a light meter, upgrading my software, investing in some studio lights and flash.
At the end of the workshop we looked over everyones work - it was an impressive crop - really inventive. The best photography came from those who really took risks. I think we all stepped out of our comfort zone that day, but some people took it a step further than most. Gathering the staff in the local pie and eel shop together for a group shot, or carefully composing a portrait within the city landscape. A great day. Now I think it's time to invest in some lights, get a light meter and get started on some studio portraits.