Forgive me if I am delving into antiquity. But I thought it might be nice to maintain a link to my readership if I scheduled a few *ooof*s for the time that I am travelling on the other side of the planet. And so I trawled my “to be *ooof*ed” folder, marked a few pictures that I always wanted to analyse, and set about pre-writing a few posts for you to enjoy during my absence. Now, much of the fun of the *ooof* series is probably in the ensuing discussion in the comments. As a caveat I have to warn you guys that I may not be able to reply to your comments in the same way as usual. For all I know now (three weeks prior to departure), I might be in the deepest wilds of NZ, hiking on some volcano or circumnavigating hydrothermal puddles and therefore off-comms. I’ll try and keep up with comments whenever I can, but I would also like to encourage you to use the comment section to discuss the images among yourselves. I am sure you manage wonderfully without me :-)
So, for the first scheduled *ooof* I went back to 2014 and chose an image by a photographer previously ignored by me. Dan Burn-Forti made a number of pictures of Richard Armitage in the run-up to/pre-view of The Crucible in June 2014 which eventually illustrated an article by Chris Harvey in the Telegraph. The image in the Telegraph is a cropped version of today’s *ooof*.
So, here’s the groundwork: The original Dan Burn-Forti image is a seated almost-half-length in portrait orientation. In it we see Mr A, dressed in a plain black t-shirt, in front of a white-washed brick wall that is scattered with colourful strips of sellotape. The picture is taken dead-pan, and Armitage is holding his head slightly forward, his arms out of frame (probably resting on his thighs). Interestingly, the picture is not illuminated from the camera but it looks as if the photographer used an off-camera flash that was situated to the sitter’s left (our right), slightly above head height. Thus, he creates a little bit of shadow on Armitage’s right side. There may be a reflector involved, though because some light is being thrown back on the shadowed side of his face so that we get to make out his features.
What I quite liked about the image at first discovering it was the inventive use of background in the image. Now, Burn-Forti to me looks like a photographic all-rounder. But if you happen to look at his editorial portfolio one thing stands out to me: He really has a knack of using a location and making a great, fun set out of it. He executes the neutral studio set-up really well, but his most striking images are the ones where he has used the location he has been given to set the sitter in scene. He places Ed Sheeran in front of a boring, nondescript wall and leaves the manky carpet in the frame, as well as skirting boards and electrical sockets, putting the musical poet into a context; he subverts the boring 18-percent-grey background in a studio into a playground by letting the sitter lean at impossible angles; or he places another sitter in front of an unusual window so as to create sun burst lines from his head. That is creative use of the location, making images that draw attention with minimal intervention by the photographer. All he needs is his camera, a flash, and his eyes – and the outcome is always drawing the viewers’ attention. Likewise in his image of RA – he does not need a studio to set him up; all he uses is a white wall that is already there, and a few colourful strips of tape. (Note to self – keep a few post-it strips in camera bag for future portrait assignments on location.)
That is how photographers work when they are out-of-studio and required to shoot a portrait. Ideally, the photographer will have scouted the location prior to the shoot and discerned a few possible backgrounds. This is what we use for impromptu backgrounds: any painted wall without decorations on it, brick walls, windows with curtains that can be drawn to create a backdrop, openings/windows/doors that create a frame, geometric patterns that a sitter can be placed in front to create gaze lines, symmetry. We avoid any background that is distracting: walls with irregularly placed pictures, mirrors that show unwanted reflections, strong and colourful patterns. If the latter appear in a location, we have to work with them (see for instance the Guidicini images taken in The Old Vic bar), and hope that the sitter displays some antics that will distract from the busy background… And we shoot with a large aperture in order to blur the distracting background. Next time you want to shoot an impromptu family portrait to send to Auntie Marjorie, try this yourself. It may make the difference between a nondescript picture of a few people huddled in front of your busy sitting room mantlepiece and an acceptable family portrait…
While I really like the background here as such, I am not too sure whether the colourful paper strips, reminiscent of confetti, are particularly well-suited to putting Mr A into context. No, I am not a believer in his very own theory that he is a dark-looking man and therefore only menacing props suit him. Personally, I do not want to see him with a murderous weapon to illustrate his character. But in a way these colourful bits of confetti might be more suited to his CBeebies presenter days than his present excursion into serious drama. However, it does interpret him as a lighter personality than may be assumed from his handsome-but-dark looks. Maybe a wider smile might also have helped?
What I do like however, is the impromptu-ness of the whole set-up from the ingeniously used background to the unstyled man. It is clear that there was no stylist on-scene to fuss around Armitage, to comb the beard into place and to smooth out the folds on his t-shirt. He has just sat down on that chair, arranged himself to be photographed, and Burn-Forti releases the shutter. The sleeve of his shirt is inadvertently rolled up on his left arm, and the shirt does not sit quite symmetrically on his shoulders, but that does not really detract from the image. Yeah, let’s face it, we don’t really care all that much what he is wearing or how he is wearing it. We only care *who* is inhabiting those clothes…
The lack of deliberate styling may even allow us to interpret the picture thus: We may assume that RA simply gets on with the request for a shoot and pops himself down where the photographer suggests. He may not be fussed about his appearance, not checking for himself whether his attire is spotlessly sitting on his frame. And he possibly may not even care about his image at all, whether it is all smooth and pretty or unflattering. Or maybe this was all part of the master plan for surreptitiously showing us a bit more of the left biceps, and throwing in a miniscule glimpse of the chestitage in the process. Or maybe none of the above. But if you think your fans don’t notice the details, Mr A, you don’t know us at all.
BTW – this is what the picture initially reminded me off:
“This way please, Mr A___, we have prepared the stage for you already, everyone’s waiting.”
Oh, how he hated to impose by being disorganised. The day had been impossible. Overtired from a recent long-haul flight, he had overslept after what was supposed to be a short rest on the couch – or he had turned off his alarm clock without properly waking up. The “light snooze”, had only been ended by some stray sunlight reaching through the livingroom window, which had tickled the tip of his nose. And as he slowly came to, a nagging feeling had established itself in his consciousness. I have something on this evening… But I can’t remember for the life of me what it is…
He had gotten up, anyway, glancing through his flat for his iPhone, which doubled as his organizer and contained all the reminders of his engagements. Unsuccessfully. A quick wash of the armpits had swept away the last dust of the journey, but not the cobwebs from his brain. Maybe if I call my publicist, she should know what I am up to today, he had thought, but unfortunately R___ had not been available when he tried her by landline. All R’s assistant had been able to say was that he had a speaking engagement. “I think some sort of reading and signing event?” Luckily R___ had sent a car to pick him up, the assistant had informed him. And he had just had enough time to throw on his black leather jacket over his comfy, knee-padded denim trousers and black tee, before he had to jump into the limo to drive him to today’s place of work.
Unfortunately he had not been able to get any clue of what was awaiting him from the building either – the driver had set him down in the underground car-park of the place, and his hostess had taken him from there. As he hurried through a dark corridor in a nondescript place, following a short, cheerful woman to his “stage”, he wondered whether he should own up to his confusion. Maybe not. I’d hate to offend her with my ignorance.
“Now, here we are. Just sit down on that chair, and start reading. They can’t wait. And we don’t want it to get too late, do we?” She pointed him towards a chair on a small and empty stage. There was excited chatter and buzz from the other side of the drawn, black curtain. “Oh, and here is the book”, she pushed a large tome in his hands. “It ties in so nicely with your last project, don’t you think?” He just had time to hurriedly take off his black leather jacket and throw it in a bundle behind him against the wall,and from the corner of his eyes he just about noticed the colourful pieces of paper stuck to the white-washed wall, a bit puerile for a stage set-up… Where the hell am I?
The curtain opened as the chatter in the auditorium died down among loud “sheeshs” and “hush”es. He opened the book. The Lost Acorns. It had many pictures. And it rang a bell. In a split second he forced himself to regain his composure. He leaned forward, his eyes opening in amused recognition. His gaze fell on an auditorium filled with wide-eyed toddlers. And excited mothers.