Not sure if you are getting my reference there in the title. I am trying to represent Henry Mancini’s iconic Pink Panther theme to set the mood for today’s *ooof*. And now it is clear which of the latest Dunn photos I am going to talk about…
Is Dunn the new Ascroft? At the beginning of 2013 we were teased and tickled by a seemingly never-ending trickle of Armitage images by photographer Robert Ascroft. Dunn has obviously shot plenty of images of her buddy Armitage, too, and Armitage in turn is doing his best to promote them. As a result – and no doubt thanks to the impending release of the third Hobbit film – we are being treated to a flurry of new RA pictures. Too many to keep up with *ooof*ing them all. Well, at least for now. But luckily they won’t run away.
Running away, however, is exactly what Armitage is doing in today’s *ooof*. For the two people who don’t know the context of the image: In August 2014 Armitage announced via Twitter that he was going to pose for Dunn for new images due for the Hobbit release. At that time still on the London stage as John Proctor in TC, Armitage was vainly unhappy about what he termed the “Proctorian 1692 Salemite period weird beard” and asked his Twitter followers to suggest ways of hiding the “facial thatch” in the photo shoot. Three of the recent Dunn images are the result of that scheme – the objective being to hide the Proctor beard in a shoot that was of Armitage, the man. The picture above puts the beard-hate into a humourous context. In it we see RA dressed in black trousers and a woollen coat. He has turned up the collar of the coat and is hiding the lower half of his face behind it.
Not quite successfully – I see a bit of beard peeking out behind the collar. Armitage is pictured mid-stride, walking from (our) left to right. His body almost at a 90° angle, he is slightly hunched forward in the walking pose and has turned his head almost directly at the camera. He is not connecting his gaze with the viewers’ but is looking slightly to the left of the camera. This, as well as the walking stride and the use of the coat’s collar as a prop, make him look like a man who is trying not to be seen. A spy on a mission? A PI discreetly observing a target? Or is it just the beard on the run, avoiding detection?
I quite enjoy the way this image tickles my imagination. In contrast to the other two beard-hate images from the same series, this one is telling a story. Where the other images were static poses, this one involves movement. It contains more clues to a possible scenario than the image of RA with his hand covering most of his face, or the head and shoulders version of the collar image. As a viewer, I can pick up these clues and concoct from them a story. I may see less of RA himself – because he appears smaller in a (near) full-length than in a close-up – but
thanks to my frankly quite creepy familiarity with all features anatomical of the man I can imagine more.
As a photographer I also appreciate the technical skill that goes into producing this image as opposed to the other two. Static poses are comparatively easy to photograph. Movement OTOH is always a bummer in photography. If you want a sharp picture of your subject in movement, you have to make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to “freeze” the movement without blur. Working in studio conditions with strong flashes and with a bright white background, Dunn can quite easily control that – at the cost of having a slightly distracting shadow of RA in profile on the backdrop and some glare at the bottom. The shutter speed for studio lights is 1/160 s – which will easily freeze the movement without blur. In the past photographers often cheated when it came to capturing movement in a picture. Take for instance Helmut Newton’s famous image “They are coming” of four models walking towards his camera. Except they didn’t walk at all. They had to hold their poses to look as if they were walking. (Click the link to compare the two Newton images and spot the mistake that slipped through! Case in point!) However, Armitage in this image *does* walk. You can tell by the way the coat-tail has flapped open and is trailing behind because he is moving forward. It takes a number of tries to get that *one* shot where everything comes together. How often did Armitage walk back and forth in front of that backdrop???
The focussing is more challenging. Whether using autofocus or manual focus, the photographer basically has to tell the camera which part of the set-up to focus on. When a subject is moving, that is much harder to do, as the subject can move in and out of the focus area within a split second. The solution to the problem is setting an aperture that produces a long depth of field, i.e. a high f-stop number. This way Dunn gets all parts of the image into sharp focus. Using a very small aperture, however, means that less light comes through it onto the sensor. So she needs strong light to illuminate her sitter, especially as he is dressed all in black. At least the backdrop is white – that means more light will be reflected back into the camera. However, the difficulty is that she will lose the details of the black coat if she meters the lighting for the face – and she will overexpose the face if she meters for the black coat. Thank goodness for the current trend for overexposed, pristine white backgrounds. Dunn seems to have a weakness for them – last year’s Hobbit portraits were shot the same way. And she replicates them here (at least for the beard-hate images).Personally, I am not overly fond of that particular set-up. Slightly overexposed portraits on a white background are a fad and have been over-used – is there anyone who hasn’t got one of those ubiquitous family portraits of smiley happy people in front of a glaring white background? It’s the mottled brown 1980s high school photo background of the 21st century… Over the hill – as soon as such set-ups appear in the shop window of your local photographer, you know that the trend is ice-cold.
A deep black background, for instance, is much more dramatic, allows you to meter fully for the sitter, and makes him/her stand out from the background in full glory.
Mind you, that is a scathing but merely a personal opinion
based on my penchant for all things black… I really like the way Dunn has directed Armitage here. I like how the edge of the coat happens to run from his hand upwards to be continued by the bridge of the nose. Total hand-porn alert! That thumb is giving us directions right up to the gorgeous, slightly intense stare. The whole image is defined by (almost-)right angles – the right angle of the coat edge at the bottom, the almost-square expanse of skin of RA’s half-hidden face, the forearm across the body, the square created by the angled arm and shoulder and coat edge. The composition seems like a collection of rectangles, stacked on each other, with the smallest square jauntily perched on top like a Christmas pressie toppling off a pile of presents… (see picture right).
There are no doubts that Dunn has skill. And the criticism that I come up with are niggles. I am not particularly fond of her editing choices in general. Here she cuts off RA’s shins *ouch* but leaves negative space at the top of the image. With the interesting angular pose of the arm and the angled head, this could’ve made a fabulous half-length portrait with the added bonus of possibly giving us a bigger, more detailed view of the
sexy thumb hand and face. But as I said, I am niggling. She produces attractive images of Armitage although I am not entirely sure whether they truly reflect the personal relationship between photographer and sitter. Armitage and Dunn have emphasised their friendship, calling each other “favourite photographer” and “love you, matey”, indicating familiarity and enjoyment of each others’ company. When working together, being comfortable with each other is a huge advantage – I can easily see RA putting on all sorts of antics in order to get a great image for his friend. But I don’t find these images more personal than those by Ascroft or Hassler or any other studio-based photographer.
Or is that because Dunn’s photos of RA seem to be received controversially within the fandom? There is, of course, the usual *thud*, *sigh* and *OMG* when they first appear – especially on sharing-friendly networks such as Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. But there is also criticism regarding Dunn’s quid pro quo approach to releasing new photos of RA. Many people feel really put off by that. Dunn’s
demand request for likes and follows in exchange for new photos, is seen as exploitative or abusive, or as if she is devaluing something by making it a commercial transaction. There are various points to be made about this. First of all, the way Dunn chooses to publish her photos should not detract from the simple enjoyment of the photo or the appreciation of the technical and creative skills of the photographer. I do not think that my judgment of any image should be influenced by how it was obtained or came to the attention of the public (paparazzi crap excluded). Whether an image is “good” – interesting, funny, exciting, aesthetically pleasing, well-composed, well-edited or technically brilliant – should be determined by the content of the picture not the context of its origins. That is not to say you can’t be disenchanted with the marketing ploy that surrounds Dunn’s photo releases, but here comes the second point: Photography for Dunn *is* a commercial enterprise. She takes these images for a living. *Of course* she wants to get more out of them than the simple pleasure of having produced a beautiful shot, or the praise and satisfaction that comes along with that. Thirdly, I just don’t get what the fuss is about – we *are* still getting to see her images of RA for free. Even if we are urged to like and to favourite – it doesn’t cost us anything to do so, we can see the image. And we can easily unlike and unfavourite with the click of a button. I guess I am slightly defending her position – but the main message is: Don’t let her marketing antics put you off enjoying her photographic work. Long live that creative friendship! We benefit.
BTW, this is my imagined coat scenario:
Shopping. Never his favourite occupation. But his curiosity had been piqued. His Hobbit buddy had talked about a shop that catered for the needs and demands of the celebrity shopper. “Your star is rising, Rich, and you probably need to prepare yourself for the changing needs of your new life in the eye of the public.” Well, he had assumed that that was why he had signed up with his personal stylist. But his colleague had emphatically suggested he drop into the shop when he was in London for the Hobbit premiere and mumbled something about “discreet”, “innovative” and “napkins”. A bizarre combination, but simultaneously intriguing.
“This menswear shop better have some classy threads”, he thought to himself as he ambled to the shop. “Need new red carpet outfit after sofa prints, gandalf-greys and black tie. Maybe some moleskin velvet?” 23, Clouseau Road – this had to be the shop. He looked at the unassuming exterior of the shop. The windows’ opaque glass did not provide any clue that this was a shop at all. Only the large shop sign reading “Q” indicated that he had reached his destination.
He stepped into a small room that was almost completely stuffed with shelves containing boxes of all sizes. A few garments were displayed on racks, an odd assortment of objects sat on the small floor space. The gleaming steal and glaring marble luxury of the shops he was used to frequenting to fulfill his brand-name clothing needs, were ominously missing. In fact the shop looked decidedly unglamourous if not down-right shifty. He hesitated, his hand still on the door knob. An elderly man, as unassuming as his shop, looked up from behind the counter. “Good afternoon, Mr Armitage, Sir, how can I help you?”
Richard closed the door with a thud and directed his curious gaze at the man. “Eh, how…?” The shop keeper smiled. “It is my business to be informed about potential customers, Sir. Your recent success on stage and off has made you a prime target for what we are offering in our shop. Have you any particular needs I may cater for?” “No, thanks”, Richard hurriedly answered, “Eh, just looking.” “Very well.”
Richard looked around. A board with numerous fake moustaches attracted his interest. He carefully brushed over a particularly impressive handle-bar moustache with his hand. On the shelf behind the board he spotted dark sunglasses in all shapes and colours. There were boxes with pictures of mobile phones, pens and watches printed on. Was that a periscope peeping around the corner of a shelf? Why on earth had B___ sent him here? “Excuse me, is this a joke shop?”, he eventually plucked up the courage to ask the shop keeper.
The man’s expectant mien dropped. “Oh no, Sir, this is deadly serious.” “Well”, Richard fumbled for words “I was sent here by my colleague B___ C___ who said you catered for people who are in the public eye…” “Well, Sir, we do. Mr C___ is a valued customer of ours and bought our Napkin Invisibility Solution earlier this year. You may have seen him with it…” Richard shook his head. “Ah, pity. Ingeniously used.” He paused and then explained with proud emphasis, “We provide the latest in celebrity gear, Mr Armitage”.
Richard raised his eyebrows inquiringly at the shop manager. “Sun glasses with built-in rear-view mirror to check you are not being followed by fans, elegant permanent ink pens for never-ending autograph sessions – they even work upside down”, he pointed at a shelf, “wet suits with inflatable ducks for discreet exit in the water, mouth-held air supply for those eventualities where you may hide in a stuffy cupboard to avoid paparazzi, down to simple but British quality-made baseball caps with extra long points for hiding under… we have it all.” Richard’s eyes had grown bigger and bigger. He felt like a child in a toy shop. “I need it all!!!”
“Well, I have just the right equipment for a fashionable man like you.” The shopkeeper pulled a dark woollen coat from one of the racks. “If you would slip into that, Sir… Suits you very well, if I may say so, Sir.” He yanked on the sleeves of the coat to make it fit. “Yeah, but what does it do?” “Allow me,” the shopkeeper turned up the collar of the coat. “Stealth mode collar. You can hide behind it.” “And that is all?”, Richard huffed. “Well, the collar has a built-in communication device that will connect you with your driver, agent or loved one of choice for discreet contact. Or extraction from sketchy situations. No wires, totally invisible. Infinite battery life. Operated by body heat. 100% Shetland wool. Can be dry-cleaned.” The shop keeper patted the collar back down.
“Well, bugger me senseless. Lucas North, I am back!”, Richard exclaimed. “I’ll take it!” “Very good”, the man replied. “Shall I wrap that for you, Sir?” “No thanks, I’ll wear it straight away.” He paid, and turned around on his heels. Hunching into the coat he turned the collar up again and headed for the door. His coat tails flying behind him he whispered into his coat, “Testing, testing. Harry, I need your help. I’m a celebrity, get me out of here…”