[It has taken a major industry event and a true tsunami of pictures to get me back to penning one of my photo analyses again. Those of you who are new here, have probably no idea what is about to hit you: I used to write these picture analyses on a regular basis. In fact, there was a time in ca. late 2012 when I wrote one such *ooof* every week.
Yes, I had a lot of pictures to catch up with. They were my niche in the fandom, because I love photography and I have something to say about photographs. Back in 2012, I was still working professionally as a photographer. That line of work has unfortunately fizzled out for me. But my love for photography never has and never will be.]
Much to my surprise I have just noticed that I wrote an “almost *ooof*” just three months ago. Fancy that!!! Well, buckle up, ladies, Today we’re delving back into some proper photo waffle.
There. You wanted waffle, you’re getting waffle. In all honesty, my favourite pictures from TIFF were the head-and-shoulders shots of RA by Gareth Cattermole. In fact it is THIS ONE. And maybe, maybe I’ll write another *ooof* about it – there is something to be said about it. But as soon as I saw Cattermole’s other images, I knew I *had* to write an *ooof* about one of them. You’ll see why, later.
TORONTO, ONTARIO – SEPTEMBER 08: Actor Richard Armitage from the film ‘My Zoe’ poses for a portrait during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at Intercontinental Hotel on September 08, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Contour by Getty Images)
What do we see?
A gorgeous man. The set up is two fake walls that have been placed at a 90° angle to create a corner. The whole set up is visible in the shot, warts and all, so to speak – a mottled background that gives the appearance of barely plastered walls. We can even see the width of the fake walls and the lack of a ceiling – making it clear that this is a photo prop/backdrop. Most importantly, of course, we see the subject: Richard Armitage, dressed in a grey/blue checked suit, light blue shirt and white tennis shoes is leaning in the corner. He has folded his arms in front of his torso and crossed his legs over in an ankle lock, apparently leaning very casually against the wall. Gazing at the camera with a slight smile on his face, his head is leaning slightly forwards. There is very little shadow visible, with the light coming from above front.
There are a number of other shots in the same series, all with the same set up, just Richard in a variation of the same pose against the same backdrop. This, you might argue, is the poorest of the lot. And yet I very deliberately chose this one as my favourite. Being contrary to the fan consensus? In fact, I have seen some questions raised in fan reactions to this series of images. Why on earth would a photographer use a dirty grey backdrop? And then produce shots that even show the artificiality of the walls? The obvious answer would be – place a subject in front of a non-descript, possibly even ugly background, and you emphasise his gorgeousness even more. But that’s not what it is, at all!
The reason this series of shots excites me, is that they are a homage to one of the greatest photographers of all time. Irving Penn. Penn’s career spanned over 70 years, and he was one of the few photographers who were ground-breaking in various genres. Whether it is his extraordinary fashion photography, his very artistic still lives, or his documentary work in New Guinea, he created some of the most iconic photographic images to date. In fact, I am sure that you will all have seen some of his photographs; they are classic works of art at this point. Not least because he also photographed some of the most famous people of his time. And – have you guessed it? – he did so in a very characteristic way.
These are Irving Penn’s corner shots. In his own words:
“Sometime in 1948 I began photographing portraits in a small corner space made of two studio flats pushed together, the floor covered with a piece of old carpeting. A very rich series of pictures resulted. This confinement, surprisingly, seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against. For me the picture possibilities were interesting; limiting the subjects’ movement seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding on to them.”
It becomes clear now that Cattermole was replicating Penn’s photo corner. The dirty, dingy corner is more than just a backdrop. It is a confined space in which the photographer gives free rein to the subject. They take up position in between the walls and arrange themselves whichever way they feel comfortable.
And that is where it gets interesting for us, as fans. Just scroll back up and look at that photo of Richard Armitage again. And also hop over to Getty Images to see the whole series. (Link HERE.) I find it fascinating – if not downright telling – that in all full-length images Richard has chosen to squeeze right back into the corner. And not only that, he either keeps his arms folded across his body, and his legs crossed, or both his hands in the pockets of his trousers. There is an element of both defensiveness as well as vulnerability in this pose. And I think that particularly the picture I have chosen for this *ooof* exemplifies that vulnerability. It comes across in the forward leaning head, slightly cocked, with a careful smile. There is a “question mark”, a sort of request for positive reaction, in that kind of facial expression with a gaze that comes from under the brows, looking slightly upwards. It looks quite disarming on a man who – frankly – does not have to beg “positive reaction” from any of his admirers.
We are quite willing to love him in any way, shape or form, anyway.
I don’t think that there is a conscious decision on presenting himself with a disarming smile that evokes sympathy in his audience. It’s one fleeting moment in a photo session that probably did not take much longer than 5 minutes (for this set-up). Time is scarce at such events, and photography is certainly not the most important port of call for the stars on the circuit. So everything has been prepared for maximum- super-quick serving of the stars that pass through. The lights have been tested and need no further adjustment, the camera is charged, ready and focussed, and all it needs is the photographer to aim and shoot. It might sound like an assembly line approach, and maybe it is. But the swiftness of the process also means that there is no room for over-thinking, neither for the photographer, nor the sitter. So, it could be argued that the poses you see adopted there, come from a spontaneous, unpremeditated point. That makes this project very interesting indeed. In any case, I appreciate this photographic statement by Gareth Cattermole. He is replicating something that one of the photographic greats did. It is a tribute, but it also takes courage because Penn did it so well, and he had the sitters to draw attention. Initially I wished that Cattermole had taken the project a bit further, pushed his sitters for more variation, but in the confines of a festival schedule, this is probably the best anyone can do. At least he put a slightly different spin on it by changing the corner degree and the lighting.
But back to the shoot itself. I imagine photographer Cattermole welcomed his subject on the set, briefly explained the set-up and asked Richard to just stand in the corner, make himself comfortable and possibly shift around a bit to offer a few different poses. But it is a telling pose for me, especially considering that Richard certainly dressed to be seen at the event. Maybe not so much in this fairly conservative blue/grey ensemble.
Kudos to the bright-white tennis shoes, though. They lift the whole look! But the all-purple-check suit from the previous day on TIFF had been a definite eyecatcher. It takes a bit of chuzpah, boldness and fashion-confidence to carry that off. And yet, there is hardly any picture from TIFF of Richard *alone* where he *doesn’t* either have his hand(s) in his pocket(s), arms folded over torso, or legs crossed over. Caveat: Yes, I *have* seen two or three images where hands are just at his sides, but the point is that they are few and far between. Body language? The ankle lock and the crossed armes are fairly common signifiers of defensiveness and shyness, maybe here an uneasiness about being photographed. Yet, interestingly, I am always amazed how good, almost casual it makes Richard look – both the crossed limbs, as well as the classic hands-in-pockets pose (which in popular psychology is a sign of someone feeling unhappy with their appearance).
It may be because it is ultimately relatable. So many of us don’t suffer photography gladly. Being observed in such an intense fashion, with lights trained at us to brighten even the smallest shadow in order to expose *all* of our body and our face – it does take a good portion of self-confidence to endure that. And so it makes perfect sense that there is vulnerability as well as a silent communication in this shot of Richard. It’s still attractive as hell. *He* is attractive as hell. But I am not surprised at the pose. Somewhat cornered.
PS: I am wondering here whether Richard knew that he was taking part in an Irving Penn tribute 😉, or whether he was familiar with Penn’s work at all. He could have been: Incidentally there was a huge retrospective on Penn’s work on in C/O Berlin as Richard was filming My Zoe in Berlin last year. Here is a short film in English of the exhibition as it was curated for The Met in New York a year prior:
I actually saw the exhibition in Berlin last year, together with my daughter T___. We both loved it, especially the photo corner that had been specifically erected for exhibition visitors to experiment with. As a rare glimpse in my life, I am including here one of *our* creations from that set-up. Hands in pockets, eh? They must be inherent in that corner of walls…
Lastly, just before I was going to press ‘publish’ on this post, it occurred to me to quickly have a look at Gareth Cattermole’s website. He has a really interesting video vignette on there where he talks about getting a shot at a festival like TIFF. I recommend you have a look – it gives you extra insight in how the images with RA may have been taken, and also some insight into the photographer. His choice of personal photograph that he describes in the vignette, is very touching indeed.
Also, a look at Cattermole’s Instagram has just confirmed for me what I droned on about above. Have a look yourself.