The Moving Portraits
With the introduction of multiple digital-platforms in the 21st Century, our cultural landscape has undergone huge seismic shifts; the result being unparalleled by any other period in living memory.
Because of new technology, coupled with ever-decreasing costs, there have been significant and innovative possibilities enabling them to both materialise and flourish under what we see as the wide-ranging arc of portraiture. Being able to challenge what is now considered a ‘traditional’ method, is something that truly excites me from a photographer’s point of view, as it reinvigorates your own personal intrigue, which then in turn, leads to refreshed ways of thinking and the exploration of new working methods.
Since we live in such an ever-evolving environment, what we notice around us tends to be absorbed and then forgotten in literally seconds. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 5-word graphic poster, or high-end ‘money is no issue’ advertisement, they all have a propensity to get the same reaction, namely a cursory glance at the image, before rushing onwards to our next ‘thing’.
One of my aims behind the #facetoface project was to counteract the speed of modern life by seamlessly combining both the mediums of photography and video. I wanted to use nominal movement within the frame, for the viewer to then stand back and search for who someone is, by shooting video in real time, but then also presenting it as a photograph. The technique aims to capture the subject’s personality in greater depth more than how we (the public) perceive the conventional photograph ever can, through a new avenue of visual stimulation.
If we look back into history, during the very early days of photography, the pioneers set out to emulate traditional artists who used the most common mediums at the time; pencil, charcoal and paint. The sitters for the photographer would have to remain still for an extended period of time - usually 1-3 minutes - whilst the exposure was set onto a plate-glass frame at the back of the camera. There is a small amount of delicious irony here, as the basis for this project almost brings photography back around to full circle, by echoing 19th century photography techniques and delivering them to the modern audience in the 21st Century. The difference being, instead of a single exposure being imprinted onto a glass plate over a short period of time, we are now treated to a high-definition video; a truthful living, breathing, moving portrait of the sitter.
It’s this extension of the frame – a play on time - from a traditional 1/180th second to 3 minutes, which becomes the greater study of the sitter’s character. If you want to look at it mathematically, it has approximately over 30,000 times the duration of a single photographic frame (*fyi math’s fans, that’s calculated at a high-speed flash/camera sync time). I’ve engineered the concept to suggest the power of the orthodox single frame can evolve into its own unique narrative, allowing us to see the subject in literally a new light.
Music has always been the backbone of all my projects; it’s where I get my inspiration from (be it walking down the street, or listening to the radio) as it allows my mind to wander, focus on potential ideas that drift my way, and decide whether those thoughts can then be represented pictorially. So, it probably isn’t all that surprising to hear that for any shoot I undertake, music plays a substantial part. I normally curate a small playlist for whoever I’m working with that day, either by listening to their own music and recognising any particular influences, or reading every interview I can find, and searching for the sitter(s) to directly name check other artists/bands/songs/albums that they love listening to. (Un)Fortunately, it’s not always ‘OXLEYfm’ on set, the sitters are always welcome to choose whatever they want, but it’s a small detail I do know they appreciate on arrival, and at least for the start of shoot.
The decision to play a song of the musician’s choice to accompany each portrait, became integral to the project. It began during the early sessions, when a couple of artists requested we start the portraits with a song that’d coincidentally just been played on the studio stereo, as it was something they knew and felt comfortable with. After this revelation, I began to film – in one take - for the duration of the song chosen by the sitter (not their own music either). As you film them, there’s a point where suddenly, it feels they’re in their zone and oblivious to all surroundings; that’s the sweet spot, that’s the soul of the moving photograph, right there!
I find it all incredibly interesting, shooting these moving portraits up close and personal, brings out the real character of the sitter that can sometimes be hidden by their public persona. Consequently, they’re portraits that when seen face to face, have an intriguingly voyeuristic appeal. To see the sitters hold a rough pose for approximately 3 minutes, maintaining eye contact and engaging with the viewer, elicits an interaction, and a sense of connection and intimacy not normally seen by the public.
You do have to smile when talking about photography these days as I understand everyone is naturally an expert in the matter, with the latest smart phones, apps and social media to hand, (I know - I’m probably preaching to the choir); however, please indulge me briefly, as I would like to stress, just how much more there is to it, than simply pointing a lens and pushing a button.
For a portrait to create a striking visual impact, there are essentially three main elements that must be considered; a triangular equation with perfect balance. First, the photographer must engage with the subject through their own vision and energy. Second, they must present a seamless combination of the subject’s integrity and personality. Third, they must tap into the viewer’s psyche on an emotional level, and as a direct consequence the viewer feels the need to discuss, question and interpret the meaning through their own reaction and response. Now imagine the balance in that triangle fleetingly shifts; one moment it’s equal, the next there maybe one or two uneven parts of the equation. It’s because of this fluctuation in the ‘triangle’ that makes directing the sitters in the moving portraits so challenging during the duration of filming.
There is a magic number of attempts per portrait to get the optimum take. I know what it is, and those who have sat for me know what it is. Nonetheless, there were a couple of occasions, where the sitter was so good, so confident in their ability, the need for them to ‘perform’ was totally irrelevant, as the execution of their portrait was flawless, and done in the first take!
Speaking with one of the prominent sitters after his portrait, he passed on some critical information from an ‘observed’ perspective that I had never personally considered prior to shooting. His words were:
“You have to be careful not to act anything out and amplify it, but you’ve also got to be careful not to glaze over and switch off. The concentration needed to keep the balance between them is harder than it looks” – Johnny Fuckin’ Marr
What started as a singular and personal goal to provide alternative visual options to a niche market, has quickly morphed into a much larger plan than originally anticipated, covering many aspects of pop culture and even unexpected exhibitions in the grandest of places. I do hope I’ve been able to shoot the artists in a way that not only complements their own distinctive personality and style, but also in a way that is recognized and appreciated by the viewing public.
Beings a ‘pictures’ man, rather than a ‘words’ man, I find it hard to portray in words, ideas that I’ve had and worked on for so long. Again, I hope I’ve been able to outline with some degree of precision, what this project has been about from its earliest starting point until now. I’ve genuinely had such an incredible time on this particular journey, and I have to thank everyone who has been involved. From the artists themselves, to record labels, PR’s, magazines and naturally, friends and family.
Some additional notes:
It's at this point, where I do feel it’s necessary to disclose that the more recent portraits are without the correct music added for the final plate. We still shoot to music and go through the same process, I understand this contradicts what I’ve written directly above, but unfortunately there is a reason for doing so. There have been a couple of instances, where I’ve been approached by lawyers representing ‘x’ ‘y’ and/or ‘z’. I’ve been threatened (in legal terms) with being sued for using a song to accompany a portrait. Some may think ‘well yes, you have to pay publishing or get the approval in advance’, and here is where it gets tricky.
Firstly, I do not choose the music in advance. It is chosen by the sitter – more often than not, an artist or band member themselves- on the day. And sometimes when it’s not working, we try it out with other tracks. They are songs one musician listens to from another musician, a kind of aural respect for their work if you will. So, I hope it can be appreciated that advance approval is essentially impossible. Secondly, no money is made by myself for these moving portraits (in fact, it’s the exact opposite), they are undertaken for the pure love of it.
Also, I do not host the videos anywhere apart from Vimeo, and then they are embedded into my website. No advertising, no 3rd party sponsorship, nothing. If the videos have been copied and uploaded to any other site, such as YouTube, then I contact the relevant department to have it taken down for copyright infringement. In order to see the portraits in their full glory, with sound, can now only be seen at exhibitions, where I gladly pay PRS for the privilege of playing the correct music in public.