Tim Gander’s photography blog.

A Visit to the Barber

This isn’t about getting my hair cut, though my pre-Christmas trim is starting to get unruly. No, this article is about a quick trip I made to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts between Christmas and New Year.

As I said in my previous article, my intention is to make it to more exhibitions this year, but I’m not making this exclusive to photography. Any decent photographer will tell you they draw inspiration from other forms of art; notably painting, though sculpture and other art forms can also inspire. And so what if I’m just a humble corporate photographer? It’s incredibly useful to refresh my understanding of light and its effect on the emphasis of a portrait or scene. Plus, I love art.

If you’re not familiar with the Barber, it’s located within the campus complex of Birmingham University. The building itself, in particular the interior, is a splendour of Art Deco marble, brass and wonderfulness and well worth a visit in its own right, but within the collection you can view, free of charge (we made a donation), works of art by the likes of Manet, Turner, Monet, Picasso and many more. I highly recommend it.

When visiting galleries, I tend to avoid taking photos within the gallery space, even where it is allowed. I’m there to observe, enjoy and learn, not interpret or, more crucially, get in other people’s way. The photo you see here is of a light shining through the window in a door to one of the institute’s lecture theatres, which I took before entering the gallery space. So on this visit I sated my urge to click the shutter, without breaking my personal rule.

I’m not sure when I’ll next get to any kind of gallery, perhaps the Martin Par Foundation for a dose of photography, but I hope to get back to the Barber to really soak up some of what I saw last time. Don’t you find it takes a few trips to really understand a large collection?

2019?

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all had a peaceful Christmas and an enjoyable New Year.

I’m starting 2019 with an apology; normally by mid December I’d have posted a round-up of my year, but between shooting and delivering pictures for clients, getting my quarterly VAT return finalised (an annual Christmas joy for me) and having to lose my laptop for a week while a replacement battery was fitted, I just ran out of time. So yes, sorry about that. I know you were all looking forward to that.

To make up for this I’m going to post some thoughts on the year just gone and the year to come, because while I’m looking forward to some interesting commissions and new personal projects, I’m also raring to get going on the next stage of the Saxonvale project on its journey to becoming a book. Heaven knows if that will get finished this year, but I’m determined to make serious headway.

2018 got off to a pretty exciting start. I posted an article on Petapixel about my motivation for shooting film again. The response to that was pretty astonishing and led to me being interviewed by Bill Manning for the Studio C-41 podcast; the first time I’ve been cast in a pod! That generated further interest and I’ve been following the podcast ever since.

If you’re not already aware, Studio C-41 is a podcast (now also a vlog on YouTube) all about film, its resurgence, the cameras, film manufacturers and so on. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, this podcast has gone from strength to strength and has interviewed some of the most important names in film photography today (yours truly excepted). If you’re into C-41 (or E6 or black and white), check out C-41 on any of the links above.

It’s also going to be an interesting year for photography in other ways. I see Matt Smith (the actor formerly known as Dr Who) is playing Robert Mapplethorpe in a new film which I believe is being released in the USA this year. That should be interesting and probably eye-boggling, but I’m also wondering what’s happening with the biopic of Don McCullin, reported to be played by Tom Hardy, which was press-released in 2016. Hopefully we’ll hear more on that this year.

In January 2018 I was pleased to be able to make the launch of Niall McDiarmid’s Town to Town exhibition at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. I’m slightly in awe of Niall’s street portraits, and really thrilled that the MPF has been set up in Bristol, so finally there is a quality gallery and photographic resource not based in London.

This year I’m really hoping I can get along to a few more exhibitions at the Martin Parr Foundation and further afield. There really is nothing like getting to see photographs in the real world as opposed to online.

And in between all my corporate communications work, I’ll be beavering away on those personal projects which you’ll see slowly revealing (unraveling?) on Instagram. I’ve started Unsigned (see my Instagram), a series of images of torn-off posters, stickers and street signage which creates inadvertent art. I have no idea how long or big this project will get, but I feel it’s only just started. Rather like 2019, except I have a fair idea how long that will be, just no idea how big.

Work Experience Advice

Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer any student of photography when seeking work experience is let the application itself be part of the experience. I should preface by saying that I rarely offer work experience placements for a multitude of reasons I won’t go into here, but follow a few simple rules and your application will stand a better chance of finding success.

 

  • Get the photographer’s name right and use it. Just saying “Hi” suggests you’re sending a round-robin email.
  • Don’t send a round-robin email and NEVER use the CC or even BCC functions to send out mass communications.
  • If you cut and paste an email text, make sure you tailor it to each individual recipient.
  • Do your research. Look at the photographer’s website to establish whether they’re working in the specific field you’re interested in.
  • Talk about the kind of photography career you’re interested in, but more in terms of the business than the style. Saying you like to photograph people isn’t the same as saying you want to shoot pictures for businesses (what I call corporate communications photography).
  • When looking at a photographer’s site, look at the kind of work they’re doing and establish from that whether they’re studio-based, work only on location or a mixture of the two. Students often ask to join me in my studio, but it’s possible to work out from my website that I don’t have one.
  • Make sure your contact details are correct, including mobile number and email address.
  • Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar and get someone else to check it for you – this should be someone who is really good at checking these things, so ask a teacher, lecturer or other competent person.
  • Be sure to include your ability to travel – do you have your own transport?

I could go on, but hitting these main points should get your toe in the door at least.

Although I can’t often offer work experience, a competent application will at least get a response from me. Usually I’ll make an offer to have a phone conversation about what the applicant wants to do in the industry, the opportunities and where else to get advice, but I’m astonished how often my email reply goes unanswered. Which of course makes it harder for the next student to get a response from me.

Work experience can be invaluable, it’s how I started out as a press photographer, but the industry structures for training, nurturing and furthering a career have either changed or disappeared since I set out on my journey. Students today will need to find their own tracks into their chosen career, but get these basics right and you never know, you could find yourself ahead of the game and on your way to doing probably the best job in the world.

Christmas came early!

My film foray continues, and with it new ideas about how I want to work and the personal projects I want to use it for.

For a few years now I’ve had a hankering for a camera which had no reliance on batteries. Unbelievably, in all my 30 years as a photographer, every camera I’ve ever owned has needed at least a couple of LR44 button cells to make the shutter work.

It was never a problem, but when looking at secondhand film cameras now (s/h being the only option since nobody makes a 35mm SLR or rangefinder film camera any more), we’re talking about cameras between 20 and 40 years old which all have electronics in them, and circuit boards being rather delicate, specialist parts, it’s less likely they’ll be repairable in years to come.

My very electronic Canon EOS 1N cameras are going well and I’m confident they’ll keep going for several years to come, but an all-mechanical camera, albeit an old one, is still more serviceable than one packed with fine ribbon circuit boards, motors and silicon chips.

Which is why when a Nikon F2 popped up in my Facebook Marketplace, I stopped in my tracks and took a good look.

The Nikon F2 is something of a legend, but I won’t bore you with the full history of this model right now. Suffice to say, it was ‘the’ camera of choice of photojournalists from the early 1970s to the 1980s (when the battery-reliant F3 came out) and finding one in good condition now is getting tricky; they’re actually becoming collectible (aka stupidly expensive). It takes a couple of button cells, but they only work the meter. The shutter is completely mechanical, so if the batteries die, I still have a working camera in my hands.

The particular one which popped up in my Facebook feed looked to be in fantastic condition and even better, it wasn’t a million miles away from me. So I dropped a tentative line to the seller about having a look at it, while assuming I’d never hear back.

Far from it, the seller called me almost immediately and we got chatting. Long story short, we met an hour later and I bought the camera (with 50mm lens). An early Christmas present to myself then, albeit one with some serious intent.

Even though it’s had little use since it was bought in 1973, the camera will need a service. The slower shutter speeds are a little dodgy and it’ll do it no harm to have the original lubricants cleaned off and replaced along with any decayed foam seals (though the film door and mirror box foams look incredibly good).

The camera is already booked in to be serviced by the one person in the UK who specialises exclusively in servicing and repairing Nikon F2s, Sover Wong. Sadly his waiting list is over a year, but he’s assured me I should be fine to use the camera while I await my slot.

The downside of it being a Nikon is that I can’t use any of my Canon lenses on it, but that would have been the same if I’d bought Canon’s last mechanical camera because Canon changed their lens mount system for the EOS autofocus cameras, so my EOS lenses don’t fit older Canons. Complicated, ain’t it?!

Thankfully, I’m only interested in using a very limited set of lenses with the Nikon and I can build these up over time.

In the meantime, I’ve put a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X through this amazing machine and I’m happy to say it seems to be working just fine. Even the meter is accurate, which isn’t bad for a 45-year-old camera. Yes, it’s only 7 years younger than me, but it looks prettier and less wrinkly.

In time I’ll be using it for personal projects and personal work where the scream of my Canon’s built-in motor-drives are perhaps less appropriate. Keep watching for updates!

Zombie Down!

Well there you go. I wrote back in 2014 about how Johnston Press was a zombie company ‘living’ on borrowed time. It seems this particular zombie has finally succumbed to the self-inflicted blows it started raining down on its own head a couple of decades ago.

I don’t expect sympathy for the effect this will have on my JP pension because I was only there for about six years, but I do feel for those journalists and photographers who have had decades of working for local, regional or national who will have all their pensions in one pot and who may yet lose their jobs.

The story isn’t over yet, which of course means continued instability and unease for staff and pension-holders, as the majority shareholder, Christen Ager-Hanssen, has vowed to unwind the deal Johnston Press has signed with a group of investors.

Johnston Press’ chief executive David King claims “our business is profitable with good margins,” but this misses the point that it was the margins sought in previous decades are partly the cause of JP’s woes now. Not only were they too high, they were sought through asset-stripping as opposed to making high quality publications that readers would be loyal to.

Perhaps what is more troubling is that this is the same business model pursued by other publishers, so is this an isolated case? Were JP management just especially inept?

The Cairncross Review was set up to examine the current state of the UK news publishing industry and to look at how it can be protected and helped to thrive, but I fear by the time the review comes to publish its findings, there won’t be any news publishers left to save.

Women in Business

Have you ever noticed how male-dominated a lot of business imagery is? And then if there is diversity, it tends to be a rainbow nation of ethnicities and all genders in a slightly bizarre “aren’t we all just so happy to be here with our lattes and iPhones pointing and laughing into the middle distance” sort of a way.

My advice always is to avoid the cliché by featuring your own business and your own colleagues in the images for your website. That way, you’ll represent a natural cross-section of your team.

However there is one area of my own website where I will always favour an image of a female business person over that of a male. The reasons aren’t purely for promoting women in business, but that too is a factor in my policy when deciding which photo should be on the home page.

The thing is, my work consists mostly of corporate portraits, with editorial-style business pictures, conference photography and various other forms of corporate communications photography following in behind, so it makes sense to make my main image a portrait.

Following on from that, for the most part people looking to book me for the work I do will find my website through Google (other search engines are available, but nobody ever uses them) and more often than not it’s marketing managers, office managers and personal assistants who find me. And they’re overwhelmingly female.

So yes, perhaps cynically, I want to make sure that landing on my home page is a comfortable experience for those most often given the responsibility of booking me. Certainly I see no reason why the “hero/ine image” needs to be male, and there’s something to be said for offering a main image to which my core clients can relate.

There is also the practical consideration that if someone landing on my home page sees a male face, there’s a risk they’ll think they’re looking at a photo of me, which if not necessarily upsetting, might at the very least appear conceited. I save my site visitors that particular pleasure for the About page, which when you see it you’ll understand why vanity is probably one of the few vices I don’t suffer from. The reason I feature my face at all is because I believe in practicing what I preach.

This post was inspired by the person who is the latest to be featured on my home page, Hazel, who works for a firm in Bristol. The other week I asked Hazel if she’d mind being featured, and the points outlined above are pretty much how I framed my request. Hazel completely understood and had no qualms about being featured on my home page, which is great because not all headshots necessarily fit, but her company’s portrait requirements work well within the space.

So thanks Hazel! And to anyone out there I photograph in future, especially women, don’t be surprised if I ask you too – I do like to update that page whenever I can. Equally I’ll understand if you’d rather not be featured, but at least if you’ve read this article you’ll understand why I’ve asked in the first place.

 

So, what I said before…

Only the post before last I posed the question of whether or not I ever stop. Thinking about photography, that is, and the answer surely is confirmed as a resounding NO.

At the end of that post I mentioned the rolls of film I was waiting to process from my holiday in South West Brittany, France, and just writing that line gave me the uncontrollable urge to get those rolls processed. So I processed them and here are the results.

Looking at these photos you might assume I had a rather peculiar holiday, but I actually really enjoyed it. But when I take pictures in my down time, I’m still working on approaches and processes. It’s a constant exercise in “how about” and “what if I”. I’m also developing a new method of digitising film, which will be useful when it comes to putting the Saxonvale book together, so a definite research angle too.

On this occasion I was working with basic kit, with a single stock of film, and exploiting the properties of the film to get a very graphic look from what I shot. This in turn influenced what I photographed and here’s a gallery of some of the results.

For those with the technical interest, these were all taken on a Canon EOS 1N camera with a 40mm lens, using Kodak Tri-X 400 rated at 800iso and push processed in Rodinol. A classic combination of film and developer which yields beautiful results.

Holiday over, back to work.

Learning to Assist, Assisting to Learn

The work of a business or corporate communications photographer (which is what I do) is rather different from that of a truly commercial one, by which I mean a photographer who shoots commercial images for advertising campaigns.

Most of what I do is pictures for business communications (website, brochures, press releases and so on), which while it’s commercial in the sense that I make money from my work, it’s not commercial in the strict photography business sense of being for commercials/adverts.

That may seem like a rather fine, specific point to open an article with, but it’s pertinent here because a few weeks ago I found myself assisting a commercial (as in advertising) photographer.

Now the other stand-out point of this article is that I was assisting another photographer at all. In 30 years of being a professional photographer I have never assisted, but when I was asked if I’d be interested in helping with a series of shoots I didn’t have to think too hard about whether or not to dive in.

The thing is, assisting is one of the best ways to learn and evolve as a photographer. I never did it because I trained as a press photographer and cut my teeth with news photography at college and local papers. This was a typical career path for many newspaper photographers.

For commercial and studio photographers, assisting was the way to learn the ropes, develop techniques and evolve your own style.

If I have one gripe about those starting out as photographers now (ok, I may have more than one gripe, but let’s keep this brief), it’s that too many of them think that to be a commercial photographer, all you need to do is read the camera manual and start taking pictures. If a friend or your mum tells you your pictures are nice, you launch a website and hey presto you’re a fully-fledged commercial pro. Believe me, without a few years of assisting, training and a baptism or two by fire, this just isn’t going to cut it.

Anyway, back to the plot. In my case, the call came from friend, fellow photographer and all-round-good-egg Jon Raine whose work you really should take a look at.

Jon’s background is very much in the commercial sphere, shooting pictures for big brands, and one of his regular gigs has been to take portraits of TalkSport presenters which is what he was asking me to assist him with on this occasion.

The obvious benefit of this gig for me was to work alongside someone who has deep experience as both a photographer and a commercial art director. Seeing how Jon plans and executes his work was a great insight, as was seeing the similarities between his methods and mine. It helped reinforce some of my practices for me, which is also useful.

The benefit for Jon was not only that he got to listen to my jokes all day, but there were also one or two small tips I was able to offer back.

Also, being a photographer myself meant I knew what to look out for as his images came through to the laptop – an errant hair, a badly placed crease in a shirt or white fluff on a dark top (not always easy to spot until flash hits it).

Another advantage for Jon was that I could take behind the scenes photos while he worked, which he could then use for a record of his work and social media if he wished. Of course that was a mutual advantage because now I’m using one of the photos for this blog post, a BTS shot of Olympic champion and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins.

So everyone’s a winner! Including the subject.

Don’t I Ever Stop?!

Even when I’m not taking business photos for clients or shooting a personal project, when I go away on a break I take yet more photos. Which would be fine except that I obsess about not taking the kind of holiday photos I ought really to be taking.

If I tell someone I’m going for a break in wherever, the common reaction is for them to suggest things I should take pictures of while I’m there. It might be the pretty houses, the beautiful landscapes, the amazing night lights by the river or whatever. The problem is, most of these photos can already be seen on Google, so why would I just repeat what someone else has already done?

I’m not entirely sure it’s a healthy state of affairs, but whenever I go away I end up treating it like some kind of mini assignment. A good recent example is when my wife Helen and I went to Kent for a music festival she was performing in. We decided to make it a weekend as the weather was glorious and we were very close to Dymchurch Beach.

So instead of a snap of a sunny beach and blue skies, I zeroed in on the detectorist who was kind enough to chat and be photographed.

And during the festival, instead of photographing the beautiful little church where the music was being performed, I honed in on the side details of the event. Which would be fine if that just meant drinking the tea and eating the biscuits, but I came over all Martin Parr and took wry, dry observational shots of tea cups, trays of mugs and helpers in the cake tent.

Just to make it even more of an inconvenience for myself, I took all my photos on expired film (yes, I still have some from my Saxonvale project).

Now you may ask what the heck’s wrong with me, but the thing is a break is about enjoying yourself and having freedom to do what you want. It just happens I enjoy shooting film (expired or not) but with the freedom to explore a subject however I want.

It might not be everyone’s idea of a break, but I fid it liberating even though there’s still a background static of wishing not to fail to get good shots.

Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I need a break. Which reminds me, I’ve got four rolls of black and white film from my holiday in France to process.

What Happened Here

I’ve settled on this as the title for my Saxonvale series because it sums up the nature of the project; a semi matter-of-fact record, with touches of humour, drama and sadness. The title hints at the disappointment that land which should have been developed decades ago was left to ruin, but perhaps I should be thankful it wasn’t or the project would never have existed.

Things are definitely winding down in terms of new pictures and the site has now been almost completely boarded out. I’m seeking a final few closing images to round out the project, but I really have to get the next stage (a book) moving.

What has struck me is the incredible timing with which I came to start the project. Early on I wasn’t sure I had a project, but once it became obvious it was happening I knew I had enough expired film to get me through about a year of shooting it. Sixteen months later and I’m down to one last roll of the original batch of film (I did find a second source, just in case it overran) and the site has been bought, boarded and awaits demolition and reconstruction.

Unless Saxonvale is about to enter another extended period of neglect, I think my timing has been incredibly serendipitous.

So while I’ll try not to bang on about it too much on my Instagram account (@takeagander) or here, do watch this space and I hope to bring occasional updates regarding the progress towards a book. When the time comes, I hope you’ll be able to support it!