At the start of the Millennium, one of the people I was assisting did me an enormous favour, one that I’m not sure at the time they realised would have quite the effect it did, and that I still benefit from to this day.
At the time, as a freelancer, I was assisting several different photographers from a wide variety of backgrounds. There were fashion photographers who shot on 10×8” Polaroids, still life photographers, celebrity photographers who turned up with almost no kit but enough hangover to share, and there was Graham, who wasn’t really a photographer.
Graham Fink (look him up, he’s quite a big cheese) was a very talented and successful advertising creative director, and had a string of commercials and music videos under his belt, as well as a host of awards to his name. Like lots of directors, he could take pictures too, but perhaps didn’t understand every little technical thing about lighting, or set building. Here’s where I come in as an assistant, and I was very happy to fill in the blanks and do the technical stuff for him, whilst learning more about the business.
After we’d done a few jobs together, I asked him for a huge favour. Would he mind casting his eye over my portfolio and letting me know his thoughts? He agreed, and I duly trooped into the offices of a swanky ad agency in Soho, and laid all my mounted prints out on a table in a meeting room.
Now, this was the days of film, and I was obviously still assisting, so had very, very little money to play with. I could cadge a few favours here and there in terms of borrowing equipment or studios, but there was no disguising the fact that I was just starting out and had limited resources. Graham walked round the table, and after looking at everything he asked me:
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
To which I replied:
“I’d like your opinion”
“Really. Are you sure?”
“OK, but you won’t like it.”
He then proceeded to pick holes in almost everything I’d shot. Some of his critique could be excused by the fact that I had very little money to produce large, well-presented prints, and obviously had no budget for big production values or retouching. However, one critique was incredibly insightful, and it’s the one that’s lasted me through to this day.
Many of the shots I presented were portraits, lit quite flat, and cropped to about 3/4 length – about knee length or half way up the thigh. Most of the poses were also very straight on, and the locations were either a plain studio, or an environment that was very neutral. He picked up one of these and said:
“This is television. You should be doing film.”
I’ll admit I had to ask him what on earth he meant, and here’s the gold:
“TV is banal and everyday, Film is exciting, emotional and dramatic. As a photographer you should be aiming for the latter not the former.”
It’s very easy to see what he means – just go and turn your TV on. Flick between channels, and watch how the visual approach changes from something like a soap opera or reality show to a feature film or drama. TV will be flat, banal, and made to look as everyday as possible, with shots that often show the whole room in focus from front to back, and lighting that’s flattering but ultimately flat. Film will employ close-ups, and wide empty shots, will be lit to create mood, will employ movement within shots, and may have jarring cuts or edits in it. Film exists to excite the emotions and transport you away from the everyday, and TV aims to distract you from the everyday by showing you a slightly enhanced version of what you’re already doing.
Film as “Drama”
Bearing in mind that he gave me this advice in 2000, before the days of TV dramas being shot on a feature film budget, and in a feature film style. I think we can safely lump things like The Wire and Game of Thrones into the “Film” box! Since increasing numbers of feature films aren’t shot on film either, perhaps a better label would be “Drama” rather than film, but I’m sure you know where I’m coming from.
I realise I’m making big, sweeping generalisations here, but I think his central point is very valid. As photographers our aim should be to excite, intrigue and add drama to things, rather than simply try and mimic daily life. I appreciate this approach may not ring true for everyone, and I’m all too aware that artists like Andreas Gursky and Martin Parr have made a very good career, and created amazing work by celebrating the banal. Certainly as someone who works in the arena of commercial creativity, where my talents are called upon by clients to make their products or services look exciting and appealing, it’s very rare for me to tasked with making something look or feel more banal and everyday, and I fall back on this advice very frequently.