Goldfish Ate My Cat

How’s this for a blast from the past? A project from my college days, February 1991 to be precise, which involved mocking up a newspaper front page using pictures and stories I’d covered during the course. Well, two real stories at least; read carefully and you’ll notice some fake news too.

I stumbled across this while having an office clear-out. It’s pasted into the back of my first ever cuttings book, so it’s not been shredded or binned along with the eight-year-old bank statements, receipts, accounts and long-defunct business cards from long-defunct businesses.

The purpose of the exercise was to think about page layout and to get to grips with the newly-emerging technology of desktop publishing. In fact I recall this was done on something like a Mac 1 (or thereabouts). Looking at the caption for Norma Major’s photo you can tell I wasn’t all that impressed with the image quality available at the time.

The lead story about Don McCullin was clearly the one item I was taking seriously in this exercise, given the rather pretentious journalism I employed when writing it. But I still have a proper silver print of that photo I made at the time. It sits inside the cover of my signed copy of McCullin’s Unreasonable Behaviour.

Luckily no one came forward to claim the space shuttle prize and I’m afraid the competition closed in March 1991.

Two Decades and a World Away

Yes, I was there too. Another press photographer who covered Diana’s funeral and because my words will be lost in the blizzard of articles and analysis on this the 20th anniversary of her death, I’ll point you towards this excellent article by Fleet Street photographer Brian Harris before offering a few brief thoughts of my own.

For myself, I was a lowly local news photographer at the time and was astonished to be assigned an official pass to cover the funeral from a position directly opposite the main door of Westminster Abbey.

Like Brian, I remember being hissed at by the crowd as I made my way to the position. I remember the weird atmosphere as people cheered the stars of music, TV and film as they arrived for the service. I also remember seeing the shot of the card on the coffin which just read “Mummy” and yes it was a cracking shot, but Brian’s was more graceful.

As for my effort, well it wasn’t the strongest image of the day, but I found myself focusing on the expressions of the pallbearers, members of the Welsh Guards who were clearly struggling to hold their emotions together. The shot summed up the occasion and emotions of the day in a fairly tight frame.

So considering it’s not a shot I had never wanted to have to take, I’ll live with it and leave it here as part of a much larger record of a sad day which changed all who were involved at least a little and for ever.

 

2016, a personal review

Normally I’d post a “year in pictures” round-up just about now, but I’ve decided to do something a little different this time just because.

Instead I’m going to focus on the more off-beat, off-diary photos I’ve taken. You’ll have seen most of them, but not all, in various blog posts through the year, but it’s fun to pull them together into a single gallery to enjoy again.

So sit back with your cuppa and your mince pie and enjoy…

 

 

No Snow Now

We’ve not had a real Winter for a few years now; no prolonged, hard frosts or heavy snow falls, but then I think snow fall has always been a bit special in England (unless you live north of the Watford Gap, in which case you probably spend most of your year digging your car out of 6ft drifts). That’s why when it does happen, everyone tweets about it and all transport grinds to a halt.

So when I got my first, ancient photographic portfolio down from the attic the other day, I was delighted to stumble across this snow picture which I must have taken circa 1988 when I was freelancing for The Bath Chronicle.

It must have been a slow news day when the flakes started to fall and I recall being sent out in rather un-promising conditions to go and get a photo to illustrate the “blizzard”.

The snow really was rather light, so I had a bit of a heavy heart, but as I made my way to Victoria Park in Bath, it started to get rather heavier. I recall this would have been mid-morning and the deadline for the last edition of the paper would have been imminent, bearing in mind I had to get back to the office, process and print my photos and get them to the subs desk before I missed the last deadline.

Thankfully, by the time I got to the park there was a decent covering. At least enough to show it had snowed, even if it wasn’t a white-out. I remember lifting my camera to frame the scene and being vaguely aware of the sound of a cyclist coming up behind me. I didn’t have time to look round, so just waited for them to pass into my frame, which is when I got this frame.

From memory I believe I took two or three more pictures in quick succession, but the first one was the best.

Happy that I had something I dashed back to the office and got the print to the desk on time.

Sadly I don’t have the cutting, so I can’t say which page it appeared on, but I do remember there was a letter from a reader a week later saying how much they enjoyed the photo. Bearing in mind they had to write and post a letter rather than just clicking a Like button and saying “wow” I was very pleased to have got some appreciation for the photo.

It’s not a super-dramatic weather photo, but I still like how I lined it all up and got lucky with the extra element of the cyclist. Even better that she was all wrapped up in black on a black bike, which just adds to the atmosphere of the scene.

Well now that Winter is over and we’re into spring, maybe I’ll get a good, contemporary monsoon-style downpour photo soon. Something for people to Like and say “wow”.

Film vs Digital

This isn’t another article about whether film is better than digital. There are plenty of those out there and I’ve never read one which came to any kind of concrete conclusion. No, this is about the realisation that I’ve now been shooting digital for more than half my professional career. In fact I crossed the 50/50 threshold a couple of years ago and didn’t even realise it.

Let’s chart my film/digital timeline then. I started freelancing in 1988, went digital in November 2000, and pretty much committed myself to digital ever since.

With film I’d started with developing and printing black and white in the darkroom at the Bath Chronicle. When I became a staff photographer on The Portsmouth News I had to switch to colour, processing using a minilab in the office and having my work printed by darkroom technicians. Then with the march of progress, newspaper production got computerised and the photo department lost its print technicians.

Photographers then had to process their films in the usual way, but we then scanned the negatives on a Kodak scanner, captioned them on a Mac and stored the images on Zip drives, which were slow, unreliable and couldn’t store many photos. I remember the digital archive getting very quickly out of hand.

I left The News in 1998 before they went fully digital, but while I was there I did get to try a Canon EOS1 with a Kodak digital back at Wimbledon one year, so that really was my first experience with digital SLR photography. But digital SLRs back then ran to something like £15,000 just for the body, so I couldn’t afford one as a freelance.

At first I was shooting film and scanning using a portable Canon scanner and wiring pictures via my Nokia 6310 mobile phone connected to my Apple 1400c Powerbook. It was slow and unreliable to send data back then, but it mostly worked ok. I even got the odd scoop with that setup.

Then in 2000 the Canon D30 was released. A 3.4 megapixel SLR which could just about do a news job, but which cost a mere £1,600 for the body. It wasn’t really up to the task of fast news, but it was fine for features and objects that didn’t move, like the exterior of a country house I shot for a News of the World story. Thankfully my current digital SLRs are far better, far more responsive and the images produced are a world away from the early models and the price, while not cheap, is far more accessible.

I’m glad I started my career with processing film and printing in a darkroom. It taught me so much that you can’t learn if you start with digital. I still carry the lessons I learned back in the late 1980’s and it often helps me work faster by knowing what’s going to result from a particular set up even before I put the camera to my eye. I do sometimes use digital like a polaroid to check settings and lighting, but I’m usually pretty close to what I want before I even do that.

I’m keen to get back to shooting more film though. It does remind you of certain fundamentals and makes you work in a different way so I’m going to look for clients or projects which will allow me to get back to film once in a while.

Whether that will actually happen depends on many factors, time being a critical one, but I know the vast bulk of my work will be digital for the foreseeable future. As ever, watch this space because you’ll be the first to see if I shoot film for anything serious again.

Cold, wet and Poldark

Filming for the TV series Poldark is due to start in Frome this week and since yesterday was an admin day (boo hiss paperwork) I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and take a couple of shots in the street where crews are currently at work making sure all signs of modern life are removed or obscured.

The weather was pretty dire with high winds and plenty of rain and I didn’t have a great deal of time to work up a broad selection of photos, but it got me thinking about all the times I’ve ventured out with my camera when the weather is bad – mostly in the past in order to get extreme weather photos for national newspapers.

I still enjoy the challenge of getting pictures in adverse conditions, even if I’m not venturing into the world’s extreme regions. Seeing how people interact and cope with the weather is often interesting in itself. Sometimes the weather is just a distraction, as in the Poldark pictures. Other times it becomes the focus of the story (the 2001 Trooping the Colour is a fine example). More often now the weather is the story, as when there is flooding or gale damage.

Here’s a quick gallery round-up of extreme (or sometimes just mildly difficult) weather photos I’ve done over the years, from Trooping the Colour to yesterday’s preparations for Poldark.

Please click to enlarge and scroll through the photos.

My First Digital Photos

I’d like to thank commercial photographer Chris Pearsall for the inspiration for this week’s article when he posted his very first digital image to a photographers’ forum on Facebook.

My first digital SLR was a Canon D30, a 3.1 megapixel camera which I bought at the tail end of 2000 for about £1,600. It was a pretty terrible camera, but I was shooting a lot of news at the time and it saved me a lot of rushing to 1-hour processing labs to get my images ready for scanning and sending to the picture desk. The next model up, the rather more capable 1D was I think about £3,500 at the time and on the shift rates I was on at the time would have taken forever to pay off.

Its main drawback was the slow, and not very reliable focusing. I could have my finger jammed down on the shutter button, desperately trying to get it to lock focus and take the photo of some celebrity or other rushing from their front door to a waiting taxi. If I was lucky I’d get a photo of the back of the taxi as it pulled away.

On slower-moving people and static objects it was fine, but not perfect. It’s fair to say that digital cameras have come a long way since 2000.

The earliest image I can find is a rather dull exterior of a house. It was to accompany a non-story about a gameshow contestant.

A big house at a distance... yawn

A big house at a distance… yawn

Another story I covered using the D30 (I wasn’t using it for everything at this stage) was something of a struggle, it being a nighttime air crash near Aldershot. Focus was difficult and the image noise further softened the images. Nothing I took that night made the paper.

Late in December 2000 I covered a visit by the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to the Millennium Dome before it closed and went on to become the O2 Arena. This shot of the director of the attraction, P Y Gerbeau, is a typical example of the struggles I had with that camera to get sensible colours and to get fill flash to work convincingly. I’m so glad things have improved since then, but it was interesting to go back to my very first CD of digital images. Another thing it showed me is just how much my photography has improved since then too!

firecrews examine the wreckage of an aircraft after it crashed into an industrial building near Aldershot.

It was a tragic accident on a dark, wet night and the D30 struggled to work reliably

P Y Gerbeau at the Millennium Dome, Greenwich, London

P Y Gerbeau at the Millennium Dome, Greenwich, London

The News is History

With their history of breaking everything they touch, it was only a matter of time before Johnston Press took their dull-edged, leaden axe to the staff photography jobs at The News in Portsmouth, and so it has come to pass.

As a former Portsmouth News photographer (I joined as a trainee in 1992 and left as assistant picture editor in 1998) I’m sorry to see some highly dedicated photographers losing their jobs. I’m sorry to see a daily newspaper , once highly respected by readers and sought-after as an employer by trainee photographers, reduced to running poor quality reporter and reader photos like some small town weekly paper. Not that small town weekly papers should run rubbish photography, but I can’t be Canute to every paper which dumbs down.

The internet effect will have been a factor in this, but papers like The News had a chance to invest in their print and online publications and take their cut of internet ad revenues and readership. Instead they wanted unrealistic profit margins and ever-upward share dividends. This was achieved through asset stripping and a lack of investment in talent and inevitably devalued their product. Readers aren’t stupid, but if you treat them as if they are, you’re bound to lose a few. Or a few thousand.

I’d risk a bet this latest move will be followed by the paper going weekly. In the longer term it’s hard to see what future there is for a newspaper with no photographers and eventually just a handful of reporters whose sole task will be to copy and paste public relations and reader-submitted copy and insert fuzzy photos into the gaps in between. Advertisers will continue to flee and spend their money elsewhere as the readership continues to leach away.

According to its Wikipedia entry, the paper was founded in 1873. Johnston Press took over in 1999, which means it’s taken them a mere 15 years of the paper’s 141-year history to kill it. Nice one.

I thought I’d furnish this post with some of the portfolio photos I was allowed to take away with me after my time at The News, some of which hold quite interesting memories and pretty much none of which could ever happen again if it’s left to readers and PR managers to fill the picture boxes between the copy and the adverts. No more big events covered in an interesting way, or un-planned photos which end up being a story in themselves. Just an endless parade of big cheques, big groups and readers’ sunset photos. Which is fitting when you think that the sun might finally have set on creative, engaging and entertaining newspaper photography.

A Royal Marine reservist emerges from freezing arctic water as part of his training

A facility to photograph the Royal Marine Reservists on arctic training in Norway resulted in this shot of one marine learning how to escape a frozen lake.

Anthea Turner has makeup retouched on set of National Lottery Live, Portsmouth

Anthea Turner has her makeup retouched during National Lottery Live. My taking this photo nearly resulted in the show being cancelled until Ms Turner was convinced I’d destroyed the film. The picture ran with the headline “The Photo Anthea Turner Didn’t Want You To See”.

A youth threatens a pensioner near Hamble, Hampshire

I stopped on my way to a job when I spotted this lad kicking another who was lying on the floor. I called the police and took photos. The fogging on the film was where he kicked my camera open. The story grew when it became apparent Police powers were inadequate to dealing with the incident as ABH laws had just changed.

Blast from the Past – Frome Pine Range Fire

Sometimes I like to pull something from my archive and share it with you, so here’s a photo from February 1991 showing the Pine Range furniture factory in Frome being attended by fire crews as it’s gutted by fire. I apologise for the quality of the reproduction here, it’s an old newspaper cutting and I no longer have access to the original negative – a common occurrence of my very early work which is held by The Bath Chronicle (more likely the negatives no longer exist).

Fire crews attend the fire at Pine Range, Frome, February 1991

Fire crews attend the fire at Pine Range, Frome, February 1991

I vaguely recall the circumstances surrounding this call-out. I was a freelance at “The Chron” at the time and I was probably working late, printing the day’s shoots ready for the next day’s paper, when a reporter came into the photography department to see if a photographer might be around to attend a breaking story. Luckily for them, I was.

The story had come through of a big fire in Frome, so we headed out in my car (to be pedantic, probably my then-girlfriend’s car) to see what was up. I know it was late at night, might even have been around midnight, when we got there to find a few fire crews in attendance at the building which was billowing smoke.

It was such a bitterly cold night that the run-off water from the fire hoses was freezing to the road, and I recall struggling to walk up the incline to the scene because of all the ice under foot.

There wasn’t a huge amount to photograph, I just had to make sure I got the building and fire engines to fill the frame. After taking a few different angles, I was pretty much finished. There wasn’t much light about, and I recall using my large hammerhead Metz flashgun to illuminate the entire scene.

It was hardly a moment for great art, but I would have headed back to the Chronicle offices straight after to process my film and make some prints so the picture desk could choose one for the paper the next morning. I probably rolled into bed in the early hours and would have been back on duty about half eight the next day.

One small coincidence of this job is that from where I currently live my living room window overlooks the site of the Pine Range building, which was subsequently demolished and is now a block of flats. Hardly Circle of Life stuff, but curious all the same.

Oi! Tim! What’s the best photo you’ve ever taken?

I don’t much enjoy trying to answer that question (especially when it’s asked like that), but since it’s a question I get asked, well sometimes at least, I thought it might be an idea to do an article on it.

Probably the simplest answer is that I tend to like whichever was the best photo from my most recent assignment at the time of asking. I do tend to prefer more recent work, perhaps because with every brief, with each new location, there are challenges to be met and overcome and I still love to learn something new from each shoot. And maybe it’s that having a press background, I tend to see older work as having passed its sell-by date.

Of my press photography, I’d still say my favourites are my photo of Tony Blair campaigning in Oldham in 2001 and the portrait of Tony Benn in Bath. Those pictures seem to sum up the evangelical character of the former prime minister, while the other sums up the thoughtful, statesmanlike manner of Mr Benn. More recently, the unguarded shot of Richard Noble of the SSC Project pleased me in its informality and got a decent showing in Director magazine

news cutting bath chronicle 1992 election showing chris patten defeat

Capturing a historical moment has a certain buzz.

When I look at my recent commercial photography, I’m often drawn to the simple, relaxed corporate portraits, especially where I’ve captured something of the subject’s character, but I also have a fondness for the beekeeper portrait, which was not only tricky to light, but was tricky to shoot since I was in full protective gear and surrounded by bees at the time. The beekeeper was a decent chap too, and gave me some honey after the shoot. Of course, what’s important is how the photo looks, not what was involved in getting it to look that way, but each picture has an emotional attachment for the photographer, which is why we’re often the worst judges of our own work.

Looking at my gallery of public relations photography, I’d single out the portrait of the barbary lion, partly because he’s so handsome and also because everyone who sees that photo reacts with a “wow” or similar, which is always encouraging.

Apart from the lion, I’m quite fond of the PR photo which I took for the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative. The idea of making it look as though the fridges in the middle of a field might actually be working tickles me, and adds an extra dimension of interest to the shot.

portrait photo actress penelope keith

Actress Penelope Keith in mid-interview. Never published, but still a favourite.

There are many photos and assignments I’d rank as favourites, but going back beyond the last 12 years leads me to that period when I was a staff photographer, so don’t have the copyright in those shots, which means I can’t publish them here.

There’s the shoot I did in Norway with the Royal Marine Reservists, which included a striking shot of a marine bursting up through freezing lake water during a survival exercise, his shocked expression and the water droplets cascading from his hair making it almost uncomfortable to view the photo. Or the single frame I managed to get of HM The Queen arriving at Portsmouth Harbour train station on a drizzly night, simple headscarfe and clearly not expecting a photographer, though smiling all the same.

Delving even deeper into the past, I’ve featured here a couple of favourites from the very beginning of my career, when I freelanced for the Bath Chronicle. Now I think about it again, it isn’t just my recent work I’m happiest with. I think I have some pretty cracking older shots too…

How about you?

Whether you’re a professional or amateur, do you have a favourite of your own? Or perhaps there’s a photographer you admire, or a particular photo that sticks in your mind. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.