Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From the shiny side of the lens .....

Monday, the 7th of February, I had my portrait taken.  "Big deal!" is probably the words going through your head - hundreds of thousands of people have their photograph taken every single day.  Of that number there would be a much smaller percentage who would be posing for a photograph that might be used in a company brochure or as a record of an event to be published in a local newspaper.  Or maybe headshots for theatre progammes.

And then there's the scary kind......

The kind where your character is captured - the essential you - frozen in time and on display for people to pore over.

For me it was a big deal.  I have always avoided having my photo taken even in group shots.  I was never a photogenic person but would have had my fair share of 'snaps' taken of me by friends when we were engaged in fun and frolics - nights out and the like.  I've even had two portrait sessions in my lifetime.  One was where I was the guinea pig for a friend who was trying to perfect his lighting techniques and the second was when I actually instigated the event and went to a professional photographer's studio.  This was because of a visit to a professional photographer in the mid 70s where I had bought a Mamiya RB67 from him.  At the time there were (I was told) only 12 of these cameras in the country so I was well chuffed.  While I was there, waiting for the guy to finish off his paperwork and find the bits and pieces to go with the camera I was looking at his work.  It was magnificent.  All low key portraits.  Moody but not dark.  He had portraits of university graduates in their black gowns against black backgrounds that were beautiful.  He could photograph a black cat in a coal hole!
In later years I went back to that studio to have my portrait done but he had passed on the business to his son and he was not the artist his father was so the results went in the bin.

So, in the last few weeks, when two friends of mine asked me to pose for them my initial reaction was to
run.  But lately I have been challenging my own reactions, and I chose to consider their requests and say "yes".  I thought it would be interesting for a photographer to be on the other side of the lens and wondered what effect that might have on the person photographing me knowing that I would observing their techniques - hopefully not in a negative critical way.  And yes, there may be a few more puns to come!

So the day arrived.  The photographer was a girl (any female younger than me is a 'girl') called Sinead McDonald who is in her third year of a degree course in the Institue of Technology in Tallaght.  She has a wonderful portfolio of work, an amazing colection of film cameras and is passionate about photography.  Recently she embarked on a continuing photo documentary of a veterinary practice where she photographed everything from the mundane to the gory.  The style is all her own and required not only a knowledge of the technical side of photography, an artistic eye but also an empathy for the work that the vets do.

As I drove to the place, I was increasingly aware of what I was letting myself in for.  Maybe Sinead considered this because she almost immediately showed me the style of photograph she had in mind and it immediately reminded me of the low key portrait images I had so wanted years ago.  She did tell me that I didn't have a 'smiley' face!  I knew what she meant.  I have a reputation for appearing sullen and grumpy.  I have been told numerous times in the past that it takes less muscles to smile than to frown.  On that basis there are no muslces (probably) used if you're not smiling OR frowning.  THAT is my face.
We went to the studio, got out the equipment and chatted as everything was set up.  One Bowens 1500 on me with a beauty dish with the 'baffle' removed to give it a bit more contrast and another unit with a snoot on the black background paper to lift me from the backgound.  The camera was a 5" x 4" view camera - oh boy!

Being aware that I was now the model I was very conscious that this was a very formal portrait where attention is paid to the smallest detail.  This is not just because of the cost - 5" x 4" negatives are not cheap - but also because it will be one pose and slight tweaks to that pose rather than the quickfire change of pose we have become so used to seeing on TV and movies.  A small movement of my head or even an eyebrow made the difference of having a catchlight in my eye or not.

In this kind of atmosphere there is also an awareness that you are exposing (pun!) your character and putting some trust into the other person to capture that essence without abusing it.  There are other mundane aspects that I keept drilling into photographers at studio workshops I give about treating the model as a human being and not an object.  Holding a pose for a long period of time can be sore and make you stiff.  Sinead, and her tutor who appeared now and again, gave me the opportunity to relax and move if I needed to and kept up a dialogue with me all through the session.  I have to say that there were moments when I became an 'object' and was spoken about as difficulties to overcome rather than a person.  I was amused.  Other' mightn't be.  I know that when I am photographing low key nudes I am guilty if treating my models the same way and must strive to be different - lesson learned.

The big moment arrived.  All the readings had been taken.  All the settings had been set.  It was now time to take a photograph.  In the days before digital there was a method of checking that your lighting, levels and pose was correct before you exposed the film - it was polaroid.  Very hard to come by these days but not impossible.  But you don't want to waste them.  Shutter cocked, lens closed off, polaroid back loaded and 'click!'.  The first shot was good.  Pretty much how it was envisaged.  I suggested changing my light coloured jacket for my dark coat and we set up again.  "Click!".  Second shot.  I was slightly impatient to see the result and when I did see it I wasn't disappointed.  It was the photograph I had wanted thirty odd years ago.  As was mentioned before I'm not a smiley sort of person and the picture, to an extent, looks melancholy.  That may be another's view but I'm a person who 'ponders' and whose mind is constantly whirring away even when I'm doing other things.  I think that picture captures that.  Because of that I am now (sort of) looking forward to my next photoshoot with another 'girl'.

Thanks Sinead.


  1. Sinead did a lovely job with this photo and I think it definetly embodies a portion of your your character. To me it's the look you get when you're thinking about what someone has said or you have an idea.

  2. You know already I love that picture. But reading now your perception of it plus the personal history makes it even better. Thank you.