What a cracking day. I knew the sun would be sliding behind the Belfast hills at about ten past eight. I knew this because last night we were out in the field without a camera, without so much as a phone even, and the light was simply delicious. So this eveing just in the door late I grabbed a camera and the puddle-hund and legged it for the field just in time to catch the last spring rays. As a photographer I've spent my working life chasing the light - chasing it around the world even, and the phrase 'the magic hour' is a slight misnomer; it's a magic ten minutes or so. And you race and shoot, and after are spent but thrilled with the chase. Just snaps so, but thought to share. This is Cully, full title Cuchulain or The Hound of Ulster. He loved it.
Somewhere along the line we became acquainted with BARÚ - tasty chocolate treats from a small Belgian company. "Hand-made in small batches...all natural, no flavouring or any other funny business." -Actually now I think of it, we had picked up a box of caramel hippos in the esteemed food emporium (eatery & drinkery) Fallon & Byrne in Dublin. It's a bit fancy so it's Fallow & Ball to me n him. Anyway those hippos were sublime, it was the fleur de sel that sealed the deal; hand-harvested in Brittany, the top bloom is collected from sea-salt pans and apparently has 'more mineral complexity than mere table salt' (wiki). Fortuitously those briny hippos were on post-xmas special or we may have walked on by them at the original €12 a pop; the packing was cute but belied the complexity of the mineralogy contained therein. They are deee-licious.
So we scurried about for an online deal and promptly a taster gift box turned up. The quality of packaging required documenting. That shoe box will certainly find a new role once the contents (eked out nightly with ceremony and parsimony) The fleur de sel simply must be sampled.
Pantone have chosen two colours this year to represent their 'Colours of the Year' initiative. It's the first time they have picked a blend and they are Rose Quartz and Serenity. (Pantones 13-1520 & 15-3919 respectively). Whilst Pantone talk about mindfulness and gender blurring, I immediately think of the Caribbean and Barbados in particular. Bajan sunsets are early and bruised and pink beaches blush. These photographs from my archives go back as far as 1995. I can feel the salt in my hair and sand between my toes with the promise of a flying fish sandwich and four square.
Fresh cobwebs coddle a pile of silk rags, shelves heave with sheafs of creamy stacks. Cold-pressed cotton blocks wait for the inky pots that glint and quiver in the drawers labeled in neat sure caps. Nibs rattle in pill boxes and a wave of swan quills sigh on a shelf. A shaft of dip pens sit in a clutch by the window and I'm delighted by the cornucopia of oil bars, crayons and Caran d’Ache. I gasp and coo. I run a brass zip down a leather pencil case and find a stubby eraser nestled with wire reading glasses. They are bound by a thin thread of glass beads, wound around to stow. Then an ancienty dark brass sharper in a tiny leather pouch that still snaps shut.
I have the extraordinary privilege of documenting the studio of an accomplished artist and calligrapher. Soon we will box up a lifetime of beautiful art books and horde the materials off to a new home. I did not have the privilege of knowing this artist, but I feel a growing stolen connection to her as I journey through the rainbows of worn waxy stubs, brush pots, ink stains, scraps of punctured paper and even a sag of plaster of paris. In the intimacy of creaking open a sketch pad, unsnapping a watercolour tray or unwinding a paintbrush roll I meet a fervent literary mind, busy hands and a rich creative life.
I own two prints that I'm extremely fond of. They sit on my mantlepiece and I never tire of them. One is a 1950 horse and rider silkscreen print by Marino Marini - one of my favourite sculptors. It was given to me by Frank Tomes, teacher/technician when I was studying at Wimbledon College of Art in the 90's. I've never forgotten the kindness of the gift. Frank was a patient man in the face of the endless clamours of art students for assistance with plaster and welding rods. Many years later I learned that Frank was a professional sousaphonist and instrument maker (associated with amongst others Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band which was an off-shoot of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band). Following his death in 2011 his wife Susan donated a collection of 36 historical instruments to the University of Edinburgh. Now The Frank Tomes Collection.
Beside the Marini sits a print by Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn that I purchased for myself. In the middle-ground stands a police officer watching over a solider with a bomb-disposal robot in the background. In the foreground and deliciously out of focus in a scritchy jumper a young boy with a Belfast shaved head beaks through an alley at them. I simply love this print. Growing up in West Belfast in the 70's this just says childhood to me. It is perversely comforting in the familiar. Immediately I'm in polyester shorts in Willowvale in those hot summers, asking the crouched soldiers for chewing gum. 'Can I hold your gun mister?' In the early days they would let you. Moreover though, I appreciate it as a photographer. I like that it is hard to tell if the officer is looking at you or the solider. It is perfectly framed with immense depth - frame within a frame, rule of thirds, it's got it all going on. Since the eighties it looks like Frankie Quinn was usually in the background when it was all going on; or in the middle of it when it was kicking off. His early work was invariably gritty and photojournalistic. If you had the balls and a good eye it wasn't hard to get a decent action shot most Belfast nights but you needed to get your anorak on and get out there; with a steady hand an a quick eye. Latterly I find his work contemplative and full of enquiry - such as his studies of the peace walls or the Orange marches. Kicking with the same foot as Quinn myself I have been similarly fascinated by the parades and attended with my camera - a tourist in my own town, voyeur even, fascinated by a culture so familiar and alien at the same time.
Quinn has a formidable body of work behind him, in terms of social documentary increasingly invaluable. I purchased a large print of the murmurations over Queens Bridge for my brother, again a brilliant shot. Frankie Quinn makes his world and his work look effortless, his social framing is intuitive and immersive. I have a special connection to his pictures because of their provenance, but I have an admiration for them as extraordinary works of photojournalism and exquisite social documentary. Quinn runs the Red Barn Gallery on Rosemary Street and has exhibited all over the world. He has also documented conflict in Palestine/Israel, Turkey/Kurdistan and Bosnia.
I opened the FT Weekend Magazine the other day and gasped. The image inside the fly was delicious and meaty. It's by the New York street photographer Saul Leiter who pioneered a new colour style in the 40's and 50's. Leiter died in 2013 at the age of 89. There's a lovely feature-length documentary about him directed by Thomas Leach called In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter (2012). I'd like to get over to London to see a show of his work opening on 22nd January in The Photographers' Gallery.
Just after he died Time Magazine published a brief conversation with Leiter. It was prefaced thus;
I really enjoy Leiter's eye, distinguished by torn blocks of bleeding colour and exquisite attention to the ordinary. Leiter documents his city like an enthralled foreigner. Although associated with the abstract painters of that time (and later The New York School) his career made a fortuitous cross-over into the commercial world; he worked for many of the big fashion rags like Vogue and Harpers. I can imagine that his great clots of colour were thrilling monthly.
At the close of the Times interview he says;
The shapely Kikkoman carafe is synonymous with the Japanese soy brand. Arguably this gentle dispenser is as recognisable as a Coke bottle. Over 300 million of the saucy table-top bottles have been sold worldwide since it was designed in 1961 by Kenji Ekuan. At the time of his death in February 2015 aged 85, Ekuan was the highly respected chairman of GK Design Group in Japan. He helped form the group in Japan in 1957 when still in his twenties and is respected for much of his work in industrial design including versions of the Yamaha VMAS motorcycle and contributions to the bullet train network.
Form follows function, however the perfect solution is not always immediately apparent to a designer and takes much persistence in the pursuit of true elegance. The primary challenges were to create a drip-less spout with a controlled flow, and the iconic 150ml bottle was the result of over 100 prototypes spanning three years. The final red-cap answer is based on the principles of an inverted teapot spout. The elegant curves of Ekuan’s lovely glass flask enjoy the same domestic marriage of beauty and functionality as the ubiquitous glass milk bottle; however the Kikkoman shape persists unchanged and continues to be welcome on tables in both homes and restaurants. The bottle is designed to be washed and reused - and for this I enjoy the thick printed yellow Kikkoman type and the dense plastic imperial red cap with satisfying screw action.
"Design is a source of life enhancement”
His design principles were founded in a desire for a democratisation of objects that should be accessible to everyone. "I believe that it is the essential purpose of industrial design to serve the people, be they rich or poor.” (Red Dot interview following his design award in 2007) He was greatly influenced by the impact the Hiroshima devastation and lost his father and a sister as a result of the US bombings. Ekuan once wrote that he “heard the voices of street cars, bicycles and other objects mangled and abandoned, saying they had wished to have been utilized more” (Japan Times)
“The Japanese concept of attention to others differs slightly from the Western approach. Japanese designers are normally anxious to accommodate all the wishes users may possibly have.” The humility and simplicity in this message should be taken on board by all designers who want to create successful objects for living. Ekuan eschewed futurism for it’s own sake and the Kikkoman bottle was in fact an exercise in traditionalism and mirrors a minimalist Japanese aesthetic. Through the use of modern industrial materials (glass and plastic) the gentle Kikkoman bottle transports traditional Japanese designs values around the world. The Ekuan aesthetic drew on traditional Japanese aesthetics coupled with western influence; keeping one eye on formal Japanese principles yet embracing materialism.
Ekuan was a much lauded designer who thought deeply about the role of a designer and the responsibility he has to the objects he creates and the people he creates them for.
A bottle of Kikkoman resides in the Red Dot Design Museum in Essen and the MoMA collection in New York however can be seen on tables all over the world. A small collection of vintage Japanese sake bottles shown below for interest.
We spent some time in Nürnberg at Christmas for the Christkindlesmarkt. Not to mention considerable essen und trinken. My father is a long time student of the charms and notaries of the old town. He brought my attention to that master of the northern renaissance and Nürnberg’s most famous son, Albrecht Dürer.
Dürer protected his works from forgers by pursuing a landmark decision through the courts in Venice, which saw his monogram recognised as a trademark. Intellectual Property rights now cover all creative output including inventions and discoveries; essentially unique thoughts and ideas. One method of protecting those rights is through the use of a trademark. The concept of ideas as property evolved over centuries; consolidated in the actual term ‘intellectual property' around the 19th century.
Big trademarks such as those of Microsoft, McDonalds et al, represent a considerable percentage of the value of a company albeit intangible. They intrinsically stand for expectation and delivery. When we order a McDonalds we expect a product that delivers within clearly defined brand parameters. Companies perceive infringement of trademark as dilution of brand, which is why they protect them so aggressively. Google own what is estimated to be the most valuable trademark. Google fretted over the word falling into the vernacular as synonymous with ‘search’ -in the way 'to Hoover' became synonymous with vacuum cleaning- thereby actually compromising the brand. Controversially Entrepreneur Media Inc (EMI) own the trademark for the word Entrepreneur and will file against companies small or large attempting to use it. The Munich brewery Löwenbräu (lions brew) have existed since 1383 and claimed use of the lion motif since then, making it the oldest continuously used trademark motif in the world.
Meanwhile in Nürnberg, whilst Dürer was not able to prevent forgers (notably the Venetian artist Marcantonio Raimondi ) making fine copies ‘After Dürer’, he was able to protect his trademark by preventing reproduction of same.
This Guardian article features well known artists reminiscing about their degree shows. I was inspired to hoke out the lamentably few photos that exist of my own degree show at Wimbledon School of Art.
I came from a traditional convent grammar school art background. We were rigorously exercised in analytical studies; sliced fruit and decaying fish heads relentlessly copied from life. The creative freedom of art college was alarming and I found it difficult to take things off-road. I'd been taught to draw, not to express myself. It seemed indulgent and I suspected fraud all around me. After my foundation year I moved to Wimbledon to study sculpture. They had gantries and arc welding. In my third year they bought me a cement mixer. I wanted to make 'proper art'. I wanted to give people pleasure or make them think about the object. I bucked against the system; wanted people to talk about what I made, not why I had made it. Artists statements were left blank in protest. 'If you can't get what I'm trying to say from the object without me telling you, then I have failed'. I had a strong position on the point of fine art, if only that I failed to see the point.
In third year I settled into a maritime theme; curiously as I ended up going to sea for twelve years as a photographer. I was immensely satisfied with ships and hulking great metal things and swaths of concrete. I titled works like 'Harbour' and 'Slip'. I was aiming for simple visual play and perception. As you approached a piece such as the one below it suddenly broke up. As you walked around it, it took on a completely differently aspect.
The main piece was a double work called 'Fringe Element' and 'Crew Cut'. The solders were at eye level and looked like grocers grass at a distance. In the absence of the internet I scoured the toy shops of London for the plastic men.
I have yet to get over my 2.1. I wanted that Hirst (First) very badly. That lack of hyperbole let me down although the objects were well received. I had earned an award from the Royal British Society of Sculptors for £1000 in my third year. It was quite a bit of money in those days. A piece 'Wave' was selected for the New Contemporaries 1994 exhibition. However by the time I received the letter the work was already in the skip. It was a crushing disappointment. That year amongst others, Fiona Banner showed a wall-sized handwritten transcript of 'The Hunt For Red October', it was a wonderful piece of whimsy. Banner was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2002. I often wonder how my life might have turned out if I had showed at that exhibition and received a little encouragement.
'Tis the season..to mess about with buttons and bows. At my grandfather's house I'd be given a Petticoat Tail tin of buttons to play with. This kept me endlessly amused. The tin belongs to me now and I often revert for inspiration for cards and wrapping. It seems to be a magic tin as it coughs up an unending supply of fat milky pennies. Buttons are humbling, they mind of chunky itchy aran knits in mustard or turquoise. Howling Donegal beaches. I'm tying tassels for my christmas presents. Sometimes they'll be hung on a tree after. Last year it was chilli peppers bound with twine. Now star anise daubed with glitter glue when I should be doing something else. Those are my Granda's scissors too. They could do with a sharpen sure. Merry Christmas.
Spotted this wonderful spread in the FTs 'How To Spend It' supplement the other day. Fabulous fashion photography breaking all the rules. The models are stiff and clunky with inelegant knees and fat heels brutishly plonked down. It shouldn't work, but it does. Aspirational high-end cool. The pictures have absolute narrative; stills from something thrilling going on. The styling is delicious, the gilding rich, almost hyper-twenties; F Scott meets Vegas. Reverting to the Gucci website I see the campaign is called Cruise. Lifestyle photography gone steamer punk.
I love the crooked angles, trailing wires and funky awkwardness. I love the story and thrust. These are beautiful, cinematic images that give me more pleasure than fine art. The website images are quieter but as thrilling for their staging. Exquisite colour-pallet vignettes. The drama of the advertorial campaign grabs us. The expanded portfolio luxuriates on the accessories and clothes.
Preppy fifties Victoriana with a dash of Edward Scissorhands.
I often get emails from photography students or graduates seeking work experience with my studio, paid or otherwise. Rarely, if ever are these approaches accompanied by a link to a blog or website showcasing their work. I find this extraordinary, in fact I find it rather annoying. 'You're telling me you are a visual communicator - then communicate visually for goodness sake!' I'm not sure who is at fault here, do they inherently lack imagination - or are they failed by their visual eduction? Do these courses not strive to bridge the gap between education and the professional arena?
Blogs & Portfolios
I created my first professional website in 2007. It was commissioned through a web design agency and cost close to £2000. I was frustrated by the lack of content management and creative control however and through casual networking (a local coffee meet-up) I discovered Squarespace. Blogger and Wordpress were also around and starting to seriously enter the website game. Suddenly I realised I could take full control and create my own online presence. I could link my URL to pretty much whatever content I wished. I could take the reins and be agile and responsive; new businesses always evolve organically in the first few years. As they continue to grow, their brand identity and online presence needs to grow with them. My website has been through a dozen iterations in the last eight years.
There are any number of free blogging platforms and hosted, templated web packages around these days. Squarespace starts at $8 USD a month and the templates are contemporary, intuitive and offer a wealth of back-end resources right out of the box. Certainly, they require a bit of investment - in terms of time. But once you have taught yourself the simple drag and drop mechanisms, and you have some strong content critically, it is very easy to pull together a sharp and professional online presence. It's not for everyone of course, and that's where people like me step in and offer simple web solutions and take away the hassle. However I would expect it to be within the skill-base of a creative industries graduate to master. Big creative agencies, be it design, photography or moving image, are looking for creative people who stand out. An email approach should have an eye-catching portfolio offering one click away.
Occasionally a job requires that I use an assistant - sometimes grunt-work, sometimes a bit more creative. When approached I would keep a contact on file if I thought we could work together. I always reply politely to the email hopefuls looking to pick up a bit of work and experience, however I always have cause to observe that a link to a website, blog or portfolio would tell me more about them, what they are interested in and what they can offer than pages of CV. And please (I speak from experience) no typos, text-speak, LOLs, emoticons or as recently received, an x in the sign off!
Product images with an all-white background are often referred to as 'high key'. The process in post-production of cleaning up the background and extracting the object is known as 'clipping out'. High key images have become the default visual language of online stores.
I'm not enthusiastic - whilst promoting consistency and encouraging a product to really pop on the page, it does strip an object of any context. In selling, context is king, lifestyle ambiance is brand identity. An e-commerce store presented high key will benefit from lifestyle or contextual banners, such as Habitat does here. The products are clipped out but the pages are given depth and and interest with on-brand lifestyle shot. The colours are consistent to a narrow mood board, the pages are clean and classy.
Fashion has settled on a slightly different look. I think the reasons for this are two-fold; white is very harsh and is synonymous with product selling, plus collections change constantly. Model shoots are costly and clipping out is time-consuming. The solution is muted tones and lighting that offer a softer surround. The models are shot on a white background that is slightly under-lit. This frames the model on a white website and slight shadows look more natural.
FAI offers high key product shoots. There are plenty of samples here. I use a white backdrop or a large light tent with professional studio lighting. The key is in setting the lights so that the background and object are both lit independently then exposing for both correctly. It does take a bit of practice and experience to get it right. I don't charge extra for clipping out per image, this is part of the shoot fee. It's up to me to light and expose correctly to minimise the clipping out work.
Advertising and identity
The advertising industry has endured an 'identity crisis' in the last frantic five years or so; so moots a comprehensive article in last week's FT Weekend Magazine. ('How the mad men lost the plot' by Francesco Ciccolella FT / Life and Arts Nov 7/8 2015) Big brands and the big agencies that look after them scrambled to exploit new digital marketing strategies; spewing pithy content through the slew of content delivery systems and devices. 'Target and engage' was the modus operandi. For a time they eschewed hoary old vanguards such as live television for the connectivity and nowness of the internet. However they discovered that 'now' disappears into the ether just as fast as we scroll and discard our social feeds. It turns out that television and the passive but persistent brand messaging that it delivers, is still the most expedient way to get a brand into our brains and keep it there; poised to prompt when we next make an associated purchase.
The emperor's new digital clothes
Transpires we don't engage with big brands as enthusiastically as they would like us to. Ads inspire '3 in 10,000 click-throughs' from engaged twitter fans. '87% of UK television viewers are still watching live content', and robots can account for an desultory 50% of online ad impressions that are reported as human engagement. In 2010 Pepsi passed over on the lucrative ad slot in the Superbowl and ploughed the budget into a social media campaign instead. Designed to engage users and generate ideas that would help society, (Pepsi Refresh Project) they promised to fund the ones that got the most votes. The net result was that whilst the campaign achieved what it was supposed to in terms of millions of social media thumbs up, ultimately they sold less Pepsi. In the course of the year the Pepsi brand family haemorrhaged about 5% of its market share.
There were many fascinating points in the article and it is worth a read, however what interested me most was what might topically be termed the 'John Lewis effect' or as Francesco Ciccolella sums up "An online banner ad, however smartly targeted, is unlikely to make anyone grin, gasp or weep". In summary, brands need to engage our emotions and senses, in a way that jostling for our attention amid the daily tsunami of disposable digital content that flows through our screens simply cannot.
The coca-cola ad with the anthemic "I'd like to teach the world to sing" was first aired in 1971 - heralding a golden age for emotive and highly successful advertising. The song didn't tell us anything about the drink, what it tasted like or why we should buy it - it simply aligned itself with a feel-good factor that eventually became an intrinsic part of the brand identity. It carries through to today with the 'share with a friend' message. The John Lewis television ads don't tell us anything about why we should shop at the store, they simply make us feel good about Christmas in a cosy aspirational middle-class way; reinforcing brand identity.
Emotive or 'lifestyle' photography
As a photographer who helps people sell their products and services I find this all very encouraging. Our brains interrogate and process images much faster than words. The images below (see more from the shoot here) were for a client who organises chocolate-making parties. The brand brief was 'fun, hen parties, a bit of sparkle and champagne, celebration, oozing chocolate, friends, togetherness.' No amount of clever copy could have conveyed all that as fast as a picture. The client gathered together a bunch of acquaintances, promised them a great afternoon and the dress-code was glam. We descended on an old mill house come quirky wedding venue and dressed the place with candles and a bit of whackery. We let the party unfold organically and just shot throughout, right in the thick of the fun. We could have shot trays of sumptuous chocolates; the brand is called Choco-Delicious after all. But they aren't selling chocolates, they're selling an experience. They're selling a good feeling, and the images tell that story more effectively than words could.
Use images as often as possible in your social media - it helps you stand out from the crowd. Think about the story you are trying to tell, think about how you can tell it in pictures.
Saying farewell to the previous Fine Art Imaging website. This new design is built on the exceptional Squarespace 7 platform. It was an enjoyable and intuitive build. Excited to see how it performs.