Four or five times a year I prepare my latest work and head out into the Suffolk countryside for a photoshoot. You may remember in August I did just that making the most of the early morning light down by the River Orwell .
I usually take 250 to 300 photographs during the course of a shoot.
Now, not all pictures are attempts at capturing the essential ‘best’ photograph of model and scarf, some are simply capturing a moment.
Putting all the doggy fun aside, it’s not possible for me to know before I get back to my office if I have got the shots I actually need. Unlike professional photographers I don’t have a laptop with me on location to check pictures as the shoot progresses. And, looking on the tiny camera screen only gives a very vague indication as to the quality of any image.
Obviously, poorly framed, extremely over and under-exposed and grossly out of focus images can be immediately deleted, but it’s not possible to tell if any shot is pin sharp until I see it on my computer screen.
Finally, here’s a reasonable photo. However, it didn’t look like it on my camera screen, but thankfully it wasn’t deleted at first glance, made the cut and will probably be used on my shop at some point.
If we are honest there are signs and hints of the coming of autumn that occur most years during the course of the average British August. So the recent drop in overnight temperatures and the cooler, misty, damp mornings should not really be a surprise. Here, in East Anglia, as normal, plenty of late-summer flowering plants are still going strong.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to cut quite a few blooms, gather them together in different compositions and take photographs as a record for future work. I love the colours, individual forms and the various combinations. In my backyard the sunflowers are just getting into their stride and I have so much ammi visnaga finally blooming (after a late start from seed) that it is beginning to look like a weed infestation.
In the bright light on the kitchen table where I usually have any current ‘jug’ arrangement, my loose sunflower bunch looked okay, but when I came to take more formal photos with a dark background the cream jug dazzled and distorted the composition.
Hunting around for something less white I remembered my mother’s copper kettle and switched the bunch to that instead. Annoyingly, in the process of rearranging the flowers into the new container several of the sunflowers dropped all their petals.
As I mentioned the other week the dahlias have been flowering well and the more you cut the more you get – my kinda plant! And, as you can see, the verbena bonariensis eventually grew to its full height and began to flower despite the less than ideal conditions.
There’s not really enough hours of full sunlight in my backyard to create a flower-filled space bursting with colour. In all honesty I think I have been overly optimistic about what I could grow successfully.
I did plant out the sweet pea seedlings in the best, sunny position available, the prime site. They have flowered reasonably well, but despite doing my usual trench preparation I’ve definitely had less flowers than I did from my old ‘suburban’ garden. I have a feeling I need to make some serious efforts at soil improvement this winter. That will mean adding garden compost to the depleted backyard soil perhaps with the odd handful of chicken manure pellets and finally topping off with a mulch. Additionally, any spare compost mix will be needed to beef up the small area at the front of the house too. No doubt by next spring I will be enthusiastically sowing flower seeds again optimistically hoping for a glorious display all summer.
It’s not really surprising, but it is very annoying and it most certainly isn’t flattering. One of my photographs of my original work has been used by a website promoting mass produced scarves.
Last week I was doing my monthly online research and tidy up, and checking my Google Analytics, when I saw this search results page and noticed one of my scarves. Naturally, I had been expecting to see my work on an image search for ‘hand painted silk scarf’, but not my photograph associated with another website, and, to add insult to injury, wrongly describing the scarf as hand dyed and not hand painted.
Over the years I have been contacted by various people and asked if they could use a photo. I’ve always said that’s fine and mentioned in passing it would be nice if they included a credit for me. However, these people have not only purloined my photo, they are also using my painted scarf to advertise their website, all entirely without my permission and with no acknowledgement or link to my online shop. I did a quick recce of their site and it is a puzzle, oddly changing and without any details of who or where in the world it is based. Something doesn’t feel quite right about it and I won’t be clicking on any of their links again even if they do pinch another photo.
I have worked hard to promote my business. During the past five years, as well as designing and painting the silk, I have spent hours photographing, photoshopping and managing the presentation of my online shop. I have paid for and attended a photography course to improve my product photography and photoshoot skills. I am both angry and disappointed that my work (the silk painting and the photography) has been used in this way and my luxury scarves have been linked to a dubious, mystery website. I suppose this kind of episode is to be expected in the ‘Wild West’ world of the Internet even for a minnow venture like mine and it’s simply a case of shrugging your shoulders, forgetting about it and getting on with business as usual.
Recently I have been sorting and collating and trying to delete some of my thousands of photographs. It’s what I call a New Year’s task and as usual I have already been completely sidetracked!
This time it was all St Gabriel’s fault or rather should I say the talented Victorian stained glass artist who created this work. I think it could possibly have been painted by somebody who worked for James Powell & Sons. It has an Arts and Crafts feel, and, the overall design of the complete window has a look very similar to the late-19th/early-20th century works by that famous, London-based stained glass makers.
It wasn’t so much the beauty of the window, although I really do love the restrained aesthetic of this style of glass, but I wanted to know who had made it and so the hunt began. I was sidetracked.
Disappointingly, I was not successful, however, I did come across a little thread of discord from 2005 regarding the taking of photographs within National Trust properties. The above stained glass window, that had captured my attention, can be found in the chapel on the Oxburgh Hall estate in Norfolk.
Inside the chapel there are a few artworks worth attention. There is the tomb of the 6th Baronet, Sir Henry Bedingfield, complete with a fine, marble effigy and alabaster tomb chest.
There is also a further stained glass window by Thomas Willement, this time featuring heraldic motifs and . .
there is an oddly, overblown altarpiece arrangement. This is not the original 1839 altarpiece. In fact the painted and gilded wooden structure we see today is a retable with wings that was purchased sometime in the late-19th century. It is unclear when and who put together the full arrangement with the upper retable, the sacrament tabernacle and the bottom, carved altar table.
As you can see from my photographs, when the wings are opened displaying scenes from the Passion and the life of St James of Compostela, the whole effect is unbalanced and out of proportion within such a small chapel. Flemish altarpieces from the sixteenth century are often seen these days in museums and art galleries, but originally they would have been erected in cathedrals or larger churches set beneath high vaulted ceilings and tall windows. Perhaps the entire Oxburgh construction was purchased during a moment of Victorian religious zeal. Strangely, according to the official guidebook ‘The retable was acquired by the National Trust in 1982 with the aid of grants from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Victoria & Albert Museum’ thirty years after Oxburgh Hall had been given to the National Trust. If you are at all interested in the baffling and convoluted arrangements for keeping some art accessible to the public you can read about the retable provenance here.
Now, after that minor digression, I come back to the issue of taking photographs, such as mine of the Oxburgh Retable, in National Trust properties. Back in January 2005, Simon Knott, who has made a fine photographic record of much of East Anglia’s church art, was visiting Oxburgh Hall. And, in 2005 photography was not allowed inside any National Trust properties for ‘security reasons’. However, Mr Knott attempted to photograph inside the chapel and was caught by the room steward. Mr Knott subsequently recounted this episode on his website. He was mildly critical of the NT’s over zealous no photography policy and then latterly received a sharp slap down in reply. Below is a glimpse back to those pre-selfie, pre-Instagram days!
Postcript, June 2005: Teresa Squires, House Steward at the Hall, was alerted by, as she put it, ‘a concerned National Trust volunteer’, and contacted me [Simon Knott] : I am most concerned about your puerile comments regarding the “sneak” photography. The National Trust has a No Photography rule for a number of good reasons, of which one is security. If you had taken the trouble to enquire of the steward, you would have found out that the No Photography rule only applies during public visiting hours, and an arrangement can be made to photograph for bona fide reasons at another time. Your irresponsible attitude is likely to cause others to think they can buck the system with impunity. Remember, the National Trust is a conservation charity, not a subsidised Government organisation. Yes, it is most unlikely that someone will steal this particular altarpiece, but art crime is on the increase everywhere. If you are truly concerned with recording and disseminating knowledge of church history, I would expect you to show a little more respect.
From commentary by Simon Knott
How times have changed! Fortunately, in 2009 the National Trust changed their policy regarding photographs. It is, of course, still no flash photography (so damaging to delicate artworks), but the sensible decision to permit paying visitors to photograph and share their experiences can only help attract more visitors to National Trust properties. Furthermore, sharing pictures of minority interests such as the needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots, can only be a positive addition to our shared culture.
Now it’s time for me to return to my original task and get deleting those underexposed, overexposed and just slightly out of focus photographs.
I use photographs a lot for my work. I am always looking for inspiration from the world around me and use my camera to capture these moments. Recently, when reviewing and rearranging my current online shop collections, I recognised subtle influences from my photography. I had been searching through my various memory sticks of stored images to freshen up my product listings. It was clear from comparing dates on the files that after a few sessions of photographing some summer garden flowers, shades of peach started to appear in the pink scarf I was painting at the time. Although I was not directly using the flowers photos as source material their influence was quite obvious with hindsight – up until then peach was not included in my work.
I also opened my Bury St Edmunds memory stick. There were plenty of photographs of the glorious stained glass in the cathedral, both motifs and colours from the glass I have since featured directly in my silk scarf designs. However, after working in the cooler tones of the glass for a few months I can see I gradually moved to a palette of warm, rich colours. This was not the conscious process as before but I think the beautiful rich red windows had left their mark. Looking at the dates on these files I think the autumn weather was also a factor.
It hasn’t only been colourful images that have unconsciously influenced my work. When you are looking for a good shot you examine your surroundings with more attention and details so often overlooked are literally brought into focus. Shapes I hadn’t thought I had noticed at the time have been added to my stock of motifs such as the details on these sculptures.
In the end though sometimes there is no obvious inspiration for the colours of a scarf. With one of my favourites, this blue and green scarf below (long sold), I worked up the design layer on layer adapting my choice of dyes after each layer was steamed. A less controlled more serendipitous process. . . . . . . but I had been recently photographing seascapes!!!
The English autumn has yet to turn chilly and most of my garden is still verdant with the heavy, dark green leaves of late summer, but autumn it is and the light is changing. Last week’s photoshoot certainly underscored this change for me. The full sunlight was less harsh than summer sunshine and it cast longer shadows. Happily, I have bagged some interesting modelled product photos for my new Fenella series.
And, additionally, a couple of photographs have been featured in this month’s UKHandmade Autumn Showcase pages 18 and 19 (not the ones shown above).
Now, it’s time to get working on a new design. Lines and shapes first then paint the initial background wash.
When it comes to selling products online the received wisdom is that the white background rules. Even if it’s an item of clothing and being modelled on a human being more often than not the white background is de rigueur. Of course, there are still beautiful fashion shoots intricately styled and shot on location. Turning the pages of any fashion magazine or Sunday newspaper supplement and you see these photographs printed. The same images will also appear online on the opening pages of the brand’s website, but once you start clicking through to any specific product, there’s the model/product positioned hovering in the white, computer void.
I have to admit that I have bent to the norm of the white background, but in my heart of hearts I think colourful and complex, or dark and moody shoots produce infinitely more engaging images.
Back in May I tried out a new recipe for cranberry and white chocolate truffles. They were too sweet for my taste so I rolled them in toasted, chopped almonds to add a nutty flavour. It was a slight improvement, but in all honestly they looked a lot better than they tasted so I decided to photograph them before chucking them in the food recycling caddy.
When I sorted through the photos I’d taken this one (above) stood out and the more I looked at it the more it reminded me of something. And, then it clicked – it had a ‘Chardin’ like quality. I think it’s the restricted palette and lighting, and the pared back nature which made me think of Chardin. It was totally by accident as when I tried to deliberately recreate a Chardin style photograph I found it impossible.
Every now and then it’s useful to step back from your own work and refresh your creative juices by looking at the visual world through another’s eyes. I thought attempting a Chardin style photo would help me to look and observe in a new way. For this exercise I chose the still life painting ‘White teapot’ as my starting point.
Firstly, I collected together the subject matter including a couple of bunches of grapes saved from the blackbirds.
Instantly I realised I was going to have to change the background for something plainer and less obvious.
Then plenty of looking and re-looking at the original painting and adjusting the position of the objects to work with the effect of the camera lens in an attempt to achieve an image more like a painting. Of course, a photograph does not reproduce how we focus on the world anymore than an artist’s interpretation does. But, through looking at still life works by artists such as Chardin you can certainly appreciate how skilfully and subtly artists manipulate what is in focus, what they guide us to attend to and how their compositions evoke a response from us. In the end, for me, my most interesting photograph was the shot that captured a sense of drama through the lighting. And, the lesson for my own work – ‘think tonal contrast’.
There’s been a delightful buzz and critical acclaim for the documentary film ‘Iris’. It is refreshing, no, it’s actually amazing to see that a film has been made about a 93 year old lady. Iris Apfel is an eccentric, New York born interior designer not only renowned for her work, but also famous for her personal style of outsized glasses and exceedingly bold accessories. I was hoping to go and see this film at a cinema, but despite living in a large English county popular with folks for their retirement not one cinema will be screening this film! All I can guess is that the film distributers decided nobody would be interested. It is available ‘on demand’, but a film showcasing such a vivid character with many shots of vibrant textiles, almost psychedelic outfits and rich interiors would be so much more enjoyable on a big screen.
Of course, it’s easy to criticise and it made me think more generally of how we visually represent older women and on the whole we don’t. Apart from the Queen (90 next year) and those sweet, fluffy grannies beaming out from residential/care home brochures, pictures of women over 70 years old in the wider media are notable by their absence. In an era when there have never been more photographs taken and every third image is somebody’s selfie why do we have this absence? Here’s hoping following the return of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ this week with the fabulous Mary Berry (80 years old) back on the telly, other active, articulate, interesting elderly women will become visible.
Sadly and guiltily, I have to admit when scanning through the many photographs I took during the last family get togethers before my mother died, I’d only photographed the children and the dogs, but fortunately my teenage daughter took a few snaps of her granny.
Sometimes it is really obvious that something is just plain wrong with a picture. Of course, you can deliberately have the sea sliding off planet Earth for an effect, but usually it’s just you haven’t noticed the background or in my case trying to photograph the sea/horizon (above) was not holding the camera properly (excuses, excuses).
Photographing water – oceans, rivers, canals and even a glass of liquid comes with expectations. It feels right when the liquid looks level. Well, obviously getting a flat calm sea horizon level is pretty easy, but it all becomes more tricky when the waterline isn’t the main focus of the picture.
Since I took these canal photos I’ve been more careful when framing a shot that includes water, but I really, really struggled with this City of London skyline.
And, in the end – defeated – adjusted it in Photoshop.
A few weeks ago I was in Norwich’s City Centre which despite having two covered modern shopping malls still really radiates out from the old market place. It was a sunny, working lunchtime and the market was busy. I took some pictures, but nothing special.
Then The Reluctant Retiree posted about her visit to Warsaw and uploaded this stunning photograph of a pre-war Warsaw.
The contrast between these two images prompted some questions. Firstly, does our familiarity with our own everyday surroundings numb us to their intrinsic charm and energy? Or, are we always wearing our rose-tinted spectacles when viewing images of the past? Or is it much more to do with the art of the photograph and the difference between an image constructed by the professional photographer and the happy snaps of the amateur?