Get me a coffee!

Last week I spoke about the tentative shoots of recovery as I was starting to receive enquiries and bookings again, but I did temper this with a word of caution that times would be tricky for a while yet.

What this means for many, including myself, is a constant process of working out what’s next and how we can keep going. For my part I’ve already made quite a few adjustments and will have to continue to find new ways of working and earning until the economy recovers, whenever that might be.

Lowering Costs

One fortuitous decision I took at the tail end of last year was to quit the office I’d been renting for the previous 8 years and convert an outhouse at home into a workspace, nicknamed The Bunker. Perhaps I had some incredible foresight into future events because it’s been one of the most beneficial decisions I’ve taken in a long time. Now I’m working rent-free, claiming additional work-from-home tax allowances and I have an editing space designed to my needs.

During lockdown it’s also meant I had an office which opens onto my garden, which has helped save my soul.

Diversifying

I’ve also finally ventured into video. Adding a new skill will make me more valuable to my existing and future clients. It’s also really interesting and creative in a way I hadn’t expected, and allows me to play with sound, which has always been a fascination of mine. I’ve already had enquiries about that, so I’m hopeful it will prove beneficial to my clients.

Rattling the Tin

On the flip side of my client work are my personal projects, which are so vital to my practice. These have obviously suffered through lockdown, but I’m starting them up again as best I can.

There is a challenge here though; personal projects have always been partially funded through client work, which is, as I say, tentative.

Tentative also describes the level of print sales through takeagander.co.uk. These were always a longer-term goal as it’s tough to build them up, so currently they’re not supporting the personal work either.

So I’ve set up a ko-fi account (ko-fi.com/takeagander) where people can support me with small donations if they’re not ready to buy a print. The takeagander website is peppered with “Buy me a coffee” buttons which take you to the donation page. Even the smallest amount will help, so do please spread the word by sharing the link far and wide. And of course you can make a donation here too if you’d like to support my work.

Currently I have a modest £100.00 goal to raise money for film which is already 30% funded. Since it’s only been up a short while, that’s astounding! This will be used for my current project, an un-sentimental journey across Salisbury Plain.

More to Come

Other plans are afoot, but too early to reveal yet. So to get early notice of developments, keep watching this space, or sign up to my newsletter at takeagander.co.uk. You can also see projects unfolding at takeagander on Instagram.

Also, feel free to drop me a line, comment here, or send a carrier pigeon. Moral support really is just as welcome as the financial assistance.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride for all of us, so I’ll keep saying this; if there is some way I can help you and your business, drop me a line and let’s see if we can’t make the road ahead a little smoother.

On Being a Photographer

“Never Too Old to Learn” is the title of one of the assignments from the newspaper photography course I attended back in 1992.

I remember it particularly well because I ended up contriving a story in which a grandmother was learning to fly helicopters. Of course she wasn’t actually learning to fly helicopters, but since this was just an exercise in illustration it didn’t have to be a true story.

I found a suitably elderly model and a suitably cooperative helicopter pilot, put the two together and took some shots which worked pretty well. All lies, but it fulfilled the purpose of the assignment and the grandmother had a blast.

The reason I’m reminded of this particular college assignment now is because I’ve just bought a copy of “On Being A Photographer” by David Hurn and Bill Jay. Even as a photographer with 30+ years in his back pocket, I still expect to learn a great deal from reading this book.

The other college-days connection here is that David Hurn founded the School of Documentary Photography in Newport. I went to Stradbroke college in Sheffield because that was where budding newspaper photographers went if they wanted to get into the industry. Us Stradbrokers would scoff at the Newport photographers because they had a reputation for swanning about in desert boots while carrying Billingham bags and dreams of shooting for National Geographic.

We were “the real photographers” who would all go on to work for The Independent or Observer magazine, covering conflict and strife around the globe. In reality Newport was a very fine college (the very best for photo-documentary training) and we had as much chance of fulfilling our perceived destinies as those who went to Newport. In other words, not much chance at all.

Actually, most of us did at least make it on to local and regional papers and one or two of us worked with national titles. Even now, one or two of our cohort are still working (albeit occasionally) for international titles.

But Stradbroke for me was 28 years ago. So why have I gone back to the books? In particular one written by the founder of a course I disparaged at the time? Simple; I’ve grown up. I’ve changed and I continue to change. I’m always looking at new sources of inspiration and solid foundations for new knowledge. I slightly wish I’d been able to go to Newport, even better go to Newport AND Stradbroke; that would have been incredible, but it wasn’t possible.

On Being A Photographer has a particular focus on the kind of work I do in my personal projects now and in this regard it will prove invaluable. I know I’ll learn new, better approaches and I’ll have a clearer understanding of how a photo essay should be approached.

It might take me another 30 years, but I hope this book will put me on the path to being a better documentary photographer. I’ll have to let you know how it goes.

 

The Most Personal Yet

My regular readers will already be aware of the importance I place on personal photographic projects, without which I don’t think I’d be the photographer I am.

For the most part I tend to use film for this work because I prefer the change in workflow. However lockdown has presented its own challenges. With limited funds, do I keep shooting film, or save it for when I can next visit Salisbury Plain?

And without the ability to roam about taking the pictures I would normally look for in a personal project, I’ve retreated to the most personal subject of all, my own home life.

Yes I have shot some film, but found myself reaching for the digital camera and developing a new theme: The Home Front.

The Home Front is my deeply personal reaction against the war rhetoric which has been liberally applied to the Covid-19 crisis, in particular by our politicians. I’m a firm believer in the importance of language and how it is used, and since we are not at war, I find it inappropriate to use conflict terminology now.

Apart from anything else I believe it sets a combative tone in the national psyche, and this can have unintended consequences in society. Too much of the “don’t you know there’s a war on” attitude can lead to unnecessary conflict between individuals, or groups.

What The Home Front sets out to illustrate is that while we are facing undeniably difficult times, there is also a great deal to be thankful for. There is also beauty in the small, normally un-observed corners of domestic life.

I know I’m particularly lucky to have a home with a garden, and to be living with someone who is may absolute first choice of lockdown partner. Not everyone enjoys these simple luxuries, but I wanted to illustrate that whatever one’s situation, we are not being shot at or bombed.

The Home Front has been featuring on my Instagram feed this week, and if you’d like to see the set to the end you’ll either have to follow me there, or keep an eye on my Facebook page. In the meantime, here are a couple of the images posted so far.

Sound Move

In this post I’m back to talking personal photographic projects, this time with one of the quickest I’ve ever done!

A few weeks ago, the local record shop in Frome, Raves from the Grave, was preparing for a move to a new location within the town as they’d outgrown their current store.

In fact they were only moving a couple of streets away, but they’d been in the Cheap Street shop for 12 years (22 years on the same cobbled street and Catherine Hill even before that), so in all that time had become something of a local institution.

I remember my first trip to the Cheap Street store. It was astonishing, with CDs on shelves which extended right up to the ceiling, with more squidged in wherever there was a nook or cranny. The same with DVDs, though I was never a big purchaser of those. The real pleasure though was that they also specialised in vinyl, new and secondhand.

So when I heard about the impending move, I decided someone (me) ought to go in and capture the essence of the place – the heady mix of chaos and order, the colours, lines and hopefully some of the people too.

Of course being a personal project, it had to be shot on film, which also seems appropriate for a record shop (in particular, one selling vinyl).

I only had a two-hour gap in my day and three rolls of film with which to capture what I could, so there was a bit of a challenge, but as a series it sits together pretty well.

Of course Raves from the Grave and I were able to trickle the images out on social media over the course of a week and it was fun to see the reactions to the images. I even started meeting people in town who told me how much they enjoyed the series.

Now the move is pretty much complete and the old shop is soon to be taken over by a new business, a chocolatier I believe, so I’ve captured the end of an era. What with that and Saxonvale, I seem to have a knack of capturing era ends. Maybe I’ve found a new niche!

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!

Get Shorty

Even this short blog post is longer than the super small Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 lens, my absolutely favourite lens. It’s tiny, sometimes referred to as a pancake lens, but so sharp you could cut your thumb on the images it produces, yet costs just £200.00 new. I got mine for £90.00 secondhand.

It’s been the most-used lens through my Saxonvale project, but whenever I get the opportunity I use it for corporate photo sessions too, including portraits as well as for fly-on-the-wall work.

And in my experience it’s tough! I once slipped and fell and landed with my camera (40mm mounted) between me and a mud bank. I heard a click which I thought was the lens mechanism breaking. It wasn’t, it was the sound of one of my ribs fracturing! That hurt for a few weeks, but the lens was fine.

I wanted to write this post after seeing Neil Turner’s post about his favourite lens. Go here to find out which one he reaches for most.

So if I’m ever on a job for you and I put this dinky lens on my camera, check out the smile on my face.

 

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Just when I thought my Saxonvale project might come to an end it seems it’s not over yet.

My original plan was to shoot the project until either my original stock of expired film ran out, or when the site got cleared or developed. Well the site got partially cleared and I’m down to the last few rolls of film, so it would have made sense to bring the project to a close.

However, the site is still accessible and the story is still developing as a couple of “tenants” have moved onto an area which has yet to be cleared and secured, and so rather than reaching a conclusion, the story has simply evolved.

Because of this I took the decision that I wasn’t prepared to let my film supply run out just yet. I put out a plea on a Facebook group for photographers and one in particular, a notable veteran of documentary photography David Hoffman, came forward with a very generous offer to help. This morning an intriguing mixed box of film arrived which should keep me going for quite some time yet!

There’s a freezer drawer at home which was starting to look rather empty, well it’s about to get indigestion.

Niall on a par with Parr

It isn’t often I get to see the launch of a new photographic exhibition. I either seem to be working, or have other family commitments, or it’s too far away, but yesterday evening was a real treat as it brought together two very excellent photographic forces in one space and time.

Niall McDiarmid’s Town to Town exhibition launched at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, and this was too good an opportunity to miss and I’m glad I didn’t.

First of all there’s the Foundation itself. There are highly regarded photographers who have achieved great success without necessarily putting anything back into the profession. Of course this isn’t a prerequisite of success, but it’s wonderful when someone of Martin Parr’s renown decides to set up a foundation and an exhibition space dedicated to photography which includes facilities for research, teaching and more importantly the patronage of photographers who don’t get the exposure they deserve.

All these principles are at the heart of what the Martin Parr Foundation is about, and this is such a rare thing in the world of photography that it can only be a force for good. That it’s in Bristol rather than the capital (Parr lives in Bristol and clearly loves the city) is an added bonus as London is already well-served with gallery space.

Town to Town is drawn from many years’ work by Niall, who has travelled the UK in search of the diversity and colour which makes up our society today. You can read more about the exhibition and Niall’s work here, but it’s clear from seeing this work that in an era when documentary photography often struggles for an outlet and recognition, it’s incredibly important that our society is documented.

We all live in our social bubbles, online and in real life, and seeing such colour and diversity reminds us that other people live lives which may be different to our own, but with many of the same hopes and dreams which we carry too.

If you do manage to get along to the exhibition (entry is free and it’s easy access from Bristol Temple Meads station) you’ll be rewarded with an astonishing array of characters all captured with Niall’s subtle eye for colour and detail. There’s a definite formula to his photos but the uniform approach, broken only occasionally, simply reinforces the fact (to me at least) that all our differences are what make us all so similar.

Oh and it was a delight to see Martin Parr there (he doesn’t know me, but I did a cross-the-room man greeting* and he responded in the universally accepted way**), and I also managed a quick word with Niall who is just such a humble being and deserves a great deal of recognition for his work. And before anyone says it, no he’s not the new Martin Parr; he is Niall McDiarmid.

*A mimed “alright?” with a nod and a smile. When walking around Frome, this is a common greeting between males who don’t know each other.

** A mimed “yup” or similar with corresponding nod and smile as above.

Slave to the Algorithm

Photographing events doesn’t get more funner (new word) than when I’m left to get on and be a fly on the wall, and the NWERC is a fine example of an event packed with opportunities for any keen-eyed, camera-toting fly.

Now, rather than me trying to specify the essence of the event, and getting it horribly mangled, how about I let the event speak for itself. From the NWERC website,

“The Northwestern Europe Regional Contest (NWERC) is a contest in which teams from universities all over the Northwestern part of Europe are served a series of algorithmic problems. The goal of each team is to solve as many problems as possible within the 5 hour time limit.”

Got it? Good, but what’s my role in the event? Well obviously to generate photos which can be used by the event organisers, host and participating universities in order to generate publicity for future years’ events.

My main task is to capture the runners-up and winning team as they take to the stage once all the scores are in, which is all good fun in and of itself, but the bit I really enjoy is when I’m roaming the hall during the last hour or so of the coding time.

That’s when the teams are either at their most ecstatic or at their wits end. Last November’s event was the second year running I got the commission, so I knew what to expect and where to go for the best images.

Starting with a fairly spectacular scene showing the sports hall packed with aching brains, I then made my way to ground level to get in amongst the coders and record the triumphs and tragedies as they waged war with algorithmic problems.

And if you’re wondering what’s with all the balloons, a team would receive one each time the automated scoring system detected they’d cracked a problem. You can imagine the pressure of seeing other teams amassing more balloonage (another new word) than yours. I thought some of the teams were ready to float off!

Sadly for me the event isn’t happening in Bath this year, but it may return another year. If it does, I’ll be ready and waiting to get my wings buzzing and my segmented eyes trained back on the subject. As long as I don’t go completely Geoff Golblum, I’ll enjoy being a fly on the wall once again.

So… 2018

Having looked back at 2017 in my previous blog post, it’s time to gaze into the crystal ball, check the tea leaves and the alignment of the planets and hazard a guess at what this, my 20th year as a freelance photographer, will bring.

It’s always hard to predict. Each year brings surprises, both good and bad – mainly good thankfully, and if the last couple of years are anything to go by, I will continue to find new clients while work from others will go quieter. It’s the natural cycle of business and no longer terrifies me the way it used to.

I look forward to working with new people just as much as I enjoy undertaking repeat work for established clients and I know there will be a similar mix this year as ever.

2017 was incredibly busy, and it’ll be interesting to see if 2018 can match it, but even if the shape of the year is different I’m sure it’ll be just as much fun.

What will make 2018 quite different from previous years will be the level of personal work I hope to undertake. The Saxonvale project continues to grow and there’s a possibility it will come to fruition this year, though I have a funny feeling it will continue into next year. It partly depends on how much longer my stock of expired film will last.

In addition to Saxonvale I have ideas for other, possibly smaller, self-contained mini projects which I would like to pursue. One thing is certain, my personal projects will be shot on film. Getting back into shooting film has transformed my approach to personal work and I find it a great way to separate the personal from the commercial. It also informs my commercial work and keeps me fresh, so there’s no going back to digital-only now.

Whatever 2018 brings for me, I hope it brings my loyal readers, clients and friends every success in whatever they set out to achieve and I look forward to hearing from some of you over the coming months.