The Value of Handmade

The use value of a hand-made handbag is not much different to that of a machine made bag. They can be equally as capable of carrying belongings. A watch crafted by hand will not tell time more accurately than one made with machine, and a handmade paper is not much better for note taking than one mass produced by a busy mill. Things tend not to be handmade for functional benefit, yet they are often collected and desired precisely because of the way in which they are created.

I love supporting someone’s passion, and when an individual buys something of mine, it’s an affirmation of the years dedicated to acquiring the expertise required to make it. It’s an encouragement and motivation. There is a connection between maker and patron, which is totally lacking in goods purchased from huge corporations.

Polishing Black Walnut Picture Frame

Natural beeswax nourishes the picture frame and deepens its colour. Polishing by hand adds a gentle sheen.

Objects which are handmade are typically laboured over by people with a passion for excellence. As a result, they tend to last longer both materially and stylistically. Pieces are created to endure, whilst cheap goods that need frequent replacement take their tole on the environment.

When something is handmade, the maker can constantly create and refine an original. It is not an object which has been prototyped and then sent into mass production, but a nimble and evolving journey from one piece to the next. Each iteration offers the maker the opportunity to refine.

When gifting something to my partner or a close friend, my preference is to give something I have made myself, or something which has been made with attention and personality by another. For me it’s the equivalent of sending a handwritten note, over one that has been fired off via email. I recently made a short film for Silvia Campbell, a lady who makes bespoke shoes for women. Quite often it is their husbands or partners who buy gift certificates to have the shoes made. It’s a personal product and service, and it shows additional care and thoughtfulness has been given to the gift.

This article was originally posted on Family Bhive

Interest and Flattery in Portrait Commissions

Portrait of a child in Balham

The aim with a portrait commission is usually to make images which flatter the subject. Lighting plays a massive part in this. For example, shadows are sometimes placed on the side of a wider face to make it appear slimmer. Men are often lit more dramatically than women, to suggest strength and to chisel rather than soften the face. Children are given more delicate treatment still, as brighter less contrasty lighting is used to connote broader ideals of childhood. Depending on culture these usually include softness, innocence, happiness and sensitivity.

This portrait of George, made during a family portrait commission in Balham, does not reflect these ideals. There is something quite unsettling about his expression. The mottled shadows on his face are a ‘mistake’ and not flattering in a classical sense. I can understand why a parent might not want a portrait like this on the wall. It’s not easy to look at. It is interesting, and I think quite beautiful, but not calming. It doesn’t show the idyl of family life. In some sense it reminds me of contemporary photographic portraiture often presented in galleries, where a curator is expected to challenge, and a captive audience ready to contemplate and question meaning. The context is different to work viewed daily in the family home, and so are viewer expectations.

On bright days I usually backlight my subject. By making sure the sun is placed behind them, the light which illuminates their face is not direct, but reflected from the environment that surrounds us. This indirect lighting avoids harsh shadows on the face. In this case George and his sister had been chasing one another through dense clusters of trees. The low level shrubbery dappled the sunlight beautifully, acting as a Gobo or ‘go-between’ subject and light source. By shifting George’s position very slightly, the catchlights in his eyes sparkled, whilst the most distracting hard edged shadows broke on his body and less prominent parts of the face.

An Interview with Mike Crawford

The art of traditional darkroom printing is mysterious and fascinating. I talk to Mike Crawford – author, educator, and recognised within the photographic industry as a true master printmaker.

Mike, tell us how you first got started in the darkroom
Initially at school by joining the photography club. Later, I studied photography at college and learnt the importance of good printing and presentation. When I left and came to London looking for work, the first job I got was in the darkroom in a photographer’s studio in Covent Garden, and twenty five years later I’m still in the darkroom!

You have worked with some interesting clients. Is there a particular commission that stands out for one reason or another?
I’ve worked for Brian Griffin, one of the UK’s most respected photographers, for over ten years which has been a privilege, an education as well as a lot of fun. Five years ago I printed a major retrospective taken from over thirty years work for the Reykjavik Museum of Art in Iceland. Last month we finished a big show of his for the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival this summer in the South of France. As I spend most of my time in my lab in North London, the odd trip overseas for an exhibition opening makes it all worthwhile.

With an almost complete shift from film to digital photography, why are people still coming to you for traditional prints?
As the majority of commercial photographic work now tends to be shot, processed and submitted to the client digitally, most of my darkroom work is for exhibitions, print sales or for portrait and social photographers. These photographers and their clients appreciate that traditional black and white prints have their own visual and tactile qualities as well as a proven history of archival permanence. The darkroom also gives the photographer (or their printer), the freedom to interpret a negative by the choice of paper, developer and toners as well as the individual control in contrast and density possible though printing by hand.

Mike-Crawford-1

Fernseturm, Berlin.
One of the advantages of working in the darkroom is the ability to use a variety of different techniques such as lith printing which is often used to add atmosphere and texture to a photograph. This process uses a high contrast developer which changes the tonality of the print. In this example the shadows have increased in contrast while the midtones and highlights are compressed with a warm red/brown hue.

How do you view the relationship between photographer and printer?
Very important. Some photographers will have a clear idea of how their work should be printed while others will look for input from the printer to suggest different interpretations. Personally I feel the finished print should reflect the personality of the photographer and not the printer, or in other words, the printer is there to bring out the best in the photographer’s work and not show how clever he or she is.

When you first receive a negative, as far as interpreting the image goes, is there anything in particular you are looking for?
Only that it is well exposed and processed! Technically I would assess the image from the quality of the negative but visually and aesthetically I always need to see a positive photograph, either from a contact sheet, test print, scan or jpeg.

You have several personal projects on the go. Do you think this is important for a photographer?
I do try to work on my own photography when I have the time and tend to work in two ways. If it is a small project, shooting quickly, editing and then printing, or if it is a larger series of images, building it up over a period of time, which could be months or often far longer. Working in the darkroom is a good way of learning patience.

Where do you see the film/digital debate going in the future, and do you feel there is the interest and training needed to sustain traditional photography?
There is a very big interest worldwide in learning traditional photographic skills instead of digital. Often the reason cited for this is that many people now spend their working lives in front of a computer and shooting on film and printing in the darkroom is an excellent and creative respite from this. However, I expect the debate between the two mediums will sadly continue. Digital has revolutionised photography not only in the methods of shooting, printing and reproduction but also in the possibilities of on-line presentation and communication. While it will now always be the dominant method of photography, I do feel that the importance and appreciation of traditional film based photography and printing will continue to grow. Additionally, the vast majority of digital images, whether captured on a camera or mobile phones are often only ever seen on screen, if at all. With traditional photography, the whole purpose is to end with a fine print.

Mike-Crawford-2

Embankment, London.
From an ongoing project photographing Westminster at night. Shot on fast 35mm black and white film, particularly for the texture given by it’s grain and the halation (or glow) which occurs with bright highlights. Although they are contemporary photographs, the use of this film adds a nostalgic or even ‘retro’ look to the work.

To see more, please visit www.lighthousedarkrom.com or Mike’s personal website. The photographs that illustrate this post are copyright Mike Crawford.

The Need for New

Another old print, but still a firm favourite of mine. This sepia toned black and white photograph was made from the balcony of the Tate Modern in London, overlooking a temporary stage where dozens of couples were dancing the salsa. It was Summer, around six years ago.

As a professional photographer I have several cameras. The one I use most often is not working as well as I would like it. The autofocus is fast enough but pretty inaccurate, which for someone who is a children’s photographer most of the time, is more than a little frustrating. The sharp roll-off of highlight details requires careful management when shooting in the sun, and whilst I’m busy complaining, I now long for greater dynamic range and resolution than its sensor offers. Sitting here at the start of the new year, and considering the purchase of newer equipment that will cost many thousands of pounds, it’s somewhat ironic to think that many of my most successful images have been made with the most basic of film cameras, some of which are several years older than I.

The-Need-for-New

This photograph was made with a camera constructed almost entirely from cheap plastic. Possessing a wobbly lens, a film back taped shut to prevent light spill, and a single shutter speed of roughly 1/60th of a second, it cost less than the lunch I had eaten moments before this capture. Peering through the tiny viewfinder I made a rough guess as to where the frame edges would be, set the focus to a distance depicted on the lens by a mountain, and tripped the shutter. Hopeful of a good result, but without any real expectation, I forgot about the film until a batch were ready to be developed in the darkroom.
This one jumped out from the contact sheets so went straight into my enlarger. It was exposed onto Forte Fortezo paper for 56 seconds, with just the stage area dodged so as to make it lighter. For a further 35 seconds I burned in the sky, and used a piece of card with a hole in it to selectively shine light and so darken the tent in the lower-right corner. The print was developed in Ilford Warmtone developer, bleached slightly and then toned in a weak thiocarbamide solution. It was finished in a 1+9 Selenium bath for one minute, washed and air dried.

I’m well used to the the unpredictability and shortcomings of this camera. They force creativity and with so little technical control, place the emphasis firmly on ‘seeing’ instead of operating. For a family portrait commission this lack of control would be impractical, and the very unpredictability that encourages experimentation in my personal work, would be a fear and total distraction on a paid portrait shoot. Context is everything – both for me, and other professionals who wield basic gear in their spare time.

In reality the camera I want to upgrade has served me well, and been used by others to make many of the most memorable and recognisable images seen publicly, since its release in 2008. But the bar is always being raised, and with each evolution in technology, a want for the latest features becomes a strong desire, which eventually the mind rationalises as a ‘need’.
Anyway, The Pro Centre emailed a few days ago with some attractive discounts on the Hasselblad ‘H’ range. I’ve long desired one of these beauties. A little longer on their website in the New Year, plus a few more commissions, and who knows – I might just find I need one.

What is the Best Camera?

Roe Deer, Abruzzo

“The best camera is the one you have to hand” – Unknown

I made this photograph in April 2011 in the Majella National Park, Italy. My parents have a small house in a quiet village out here, and I try to visit at least once each year. I’m not much of a long distance walker, but not because I don’t enjoy it, or am not able for it. It’s simply the weight of heavy camera equipment which I can’t stand being without in such a beautiful region, makes lengthy hikes quite impractical. Also a compulsion to spend sometimes several hours photographing in one location, means planned routes are frequently cut short.

On this occasion the walk ended on arrival, about 50 metres from where we had parked the car. I noticed a cluster of trees and was taken by the morning light that skimmed across them. My old Rolleiflex loaded up with film, it did not take long to burn through a roll. Because I keep the camera on a tripod when photographing the landscape, I will often leave it in one spot as I walk around nearby to look for interesting angles – as was the case here. I move very slowly and quietly, looking at the quality of light, patterns and shapes in front of me. I’ve heard other photographers describe the process as meditative, which is probably as accurate a description that I can think of. In any case the sound of rustling behind was startling. Tasty on the table but intimidating up close, I turned nervously hoping not to be confronted by Cinghiale (Wild Boar). Instead I saw some far more photogenic Roe Deer approaching. To move toward my proper camera would have been too noisy, with all of the branches underfoot. Instead I reached into my pocket for my iPhone and managed to take three photographs before I was spotted, and the deer were gone.

Like nearly all of my images this was processed in black and white, but instead of the hours normally spent editing, I had this finished within a few minutes using the application Snapseed. It’s like a pared-down Photoshop, but offering much more flexibility than the likes of Instagram provide.

A Deeper Meaning

Portrait of a Girl
Known as semiotics, signs are visual clues that communicate a meaning beyond the thing they show. The lone tree in a field that is suggestive of isolation, or the faded snapshot of candles on a birthday cake being blown out, to evoke feelings of happiness and perhaps nostalgia.

Some signs are universally recognised, some are culturally specific, whilst others are intensely personal and attached to specific memories. For strangers who have seen this portrait during exhibition, it has captivated and encouraged conversations. For myself, aware of a tragedy for the family that followed its creation, the meaning and relevance has become altogether different.

When making family portraits, and especially photographs of children, I am trying to show universal signs such as innocence, reflection, discovery and vulnerability, but also unique characteristics known only to the family. Be it a telling half smile, the way a young boy covers his face when nervous, or a little girl waiting by the window for Dad to return from work.

Image: Commissioned portrait of Layla, aged 4

Originally published on Family Bhive

The Evocative Portrait

Commissioned portrait of a child
Photography is a reductive medium. That is to say, we start with a canvas of infinite possibilities, and extract from that canvas an arrangement of visually pleasing forms and (in the case of portraiture) expressions, at one single moment in time. Although a photograph might be captured within a fraction of a second, it is the years an artist dedicates to the study of light, composition and timing, which will give them the best chance of creating a ‘transcendent’ image.

For me, a portrait becomes remarkable when this vision on the part of the artist, coincides with the revealing of an interesting characteristic shown by the subject. It’s not a direct representation or likeness, like that offered by a passport photograph, but the suggestion of a quality not immediately superficial.

The evocative portrait for me connotes more than it denotes. It suggests more than it shows. This could be described simply as depth, and is why in all likelihood the typical smiling family portrait is to me less interesting. It’s too easy to look over, consume and accept without thought or exploration. It shows a happy family, but quite often suggests little more.

Originally posted on FamilyBhive (29/4/2013)

The portrait of this child was made in Islington some two years ago. It was resoundingly the family favourite, with grandparents, as well as mum and dad, ending up with a framed print.

What to Wear

Family Portrait

The best portraits are a reflection of character and personality, revealed in part by the clothes you choose to wear or dress your children in. As a result, I prefer not to give definitive instruction on attire for portrait commissions, but will offer some general advice.

Clothing Style
Simpler, solid clothing tends to photograph better than busy designs, which can often dominate and distract from the face. The same can be said for prominent logos and emblems, which are better avoided.
Formal clothing, if worn, tends to work more easily indoors. ‘Smart everyday’ is a more popular choice, because the portraits are supposed to be a reflection of normal life. More relaxed clothing will result in a more relaxed feeling to the photographs. In any case the clothing should suit the environment in which we create your portraits.
It is always advisable to wear trousers instead of shorts, and for women, skirts (if worn) should cover the knees when seated. Men should wear a longer sleeve shirt in preference to a T-shirt. Jeans are perfectly acceptable.
Shoes, whether smart or casual, should always be worn in preference to trainers. For young children this is not so important, but less busy designs and darker footwear is definitely preferable.
As a general rule, shirts and tops should be lighter than trousers, jeans and footwear. This helps draw attention inward and up. For outerwear this advice becomes less practical, but the basic idea remains the same. If there is significant contrast within your wardrobe, lighter tones tend to look better higher up.
There is a common belief that wearing off-white or cream will cause paler skin to look washed out. This is not the case.

Grooming
Clothing should be ironed and clean. If foundation is worn, please apply lightly and blend in thoroughly over the entire face and neck, down to the neckline of your clothing. Mascara and makeup around the eyes, if worn, should be applied particularly carefully, as your eyes will be very prominent within the photographs. Please get in touch if you would like for me to arrange a professional makeup artist for your sitting.

Coordinating
It is advisable to have everyone in a group photograph wearing clothes of similar tone, so each person is as prominent as the next. The exception to this ‘rule’ is in the case of babies and small children who might be carried. They should wear clothing of similar or lighter tone than the rest of the group, again on the basis that the eye will be drawn to them. Please note: this advice is not a suggestion to wear ‘matching’ outfits. The idea is simply to achieve tonal balance and similar formality between subjects, because we will be photographing in black and white.

Glasses
If you normally wear glasses, you may want them on for the portraits. Avoiding glare and distortions caused by the glass is very difficult when photographing. If possible, have your optician show you the best way to remove and replace your lenses, or request they lend you a glassless frame, similar to your own.

Your choice of clothing will make all the difference between achieving the finest, or the merely good portrait. I am here for any help and assistance, prior to or during the commission. More often than not, we’ll have the chance to switch between outfits on the day if you would like to explore different options. My family portrait portfolio might give you some ideas on what to wear.