I picked up a copy (the last one actually), published by the excellent Cafe Royal Books (1) from Foyles on Charing Cross Road last week. Deakin is well known for his street photography and portraits from the 1950’s and 1960’s London art scene, in particular those of Francis Bacon who, it’s thought, commissioned Deakin to take source material for his paintings. The short introduction suggests that the portraits featured, all double exposures, were most likely done at Bacon’s request since ‘the multiple viewpoint resulting from Deakin’s double exposure is virtually impossible to achieve with a Rollieflex camera’ (2).
Deakin is also well known for being part of the Soho art scene himself (he was an aspiring painter and held this in higher regard than photography), and was regarded as unlikeable, unkind, and knowns as an alcoholic (3). His use of a the Rolleiflex camera, which is held at waist level, and Deakin’s short height (so he was typically looking up at his subject) resulted in an awkward relationship with his subjects, so Deakin’s portraits are often unflattering and disturbing.
I went to the Photographers Gallery to see the exhibition ‘John Deakin and the lure of Soho’ (4), which featured Deakin’s portraits of artists (Francis bacon, Lucian Freud, Eduardo Paolozzi), as well as his fashion photography (Deakin also worked for Vogue – but was sacked for porning his camera equipment). A lot of the vintage prints were in poor shape and I think had been rescued after Deakin’s death. The Vogue prints were in much better condition as they had been kept in the their archive. I really liked Deakin’s portraits and his take on the bohemian, seedy, scene of the time, which is way different to the plastic Soho of the present, rapidly being bought up by developers, or edged out by the Crossrail expansion.
Some notes from the ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Eggleston is known as a pioneer in the development of colour art photography because of his images of everyday urban American life, his use of the dye transfer process (in his search for the ‘ultimate quality colour print’ – at the time the process was used for high-end commercial work), and due to his solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1976. This show is widely considered to be a key moment in the recognition of colour photography as a contemporary art form.
The exhibition groups together around a hundred of Eggleston’s portraits, many untitled and never exhibited before, from his early black and white work to better known colour photographs.
For many of the portraits, including diners, shoppers, people waiting for a bus, the subjects are unaware. For others, including the Nightclub Portraits (1973) subjects seem to be, or clearly were, aware of the camera and were presumably asked to pose.
The Nightclub Portraits were taken in bars and clubs around Memphis using a large format (5×7) camera and a portable lighting set up. I had come across a smaller selection of these portraits before in the Everything was Moving exhibition a couple of years ago at the Barbican.
A portrait is also featured of Eggleston’s friend, ‘an eccentric dentist’ T.C. Boring. Boring stands naked in a blood red bedroom with graffiti covered walls (‘God’, ‘Mona’, ‘Walker’), bed unmade, cigarette left on the sideboard (close to burning it) and remote control and lamp at the edge of the [tight] frame. The exhibition guide notes suggest this was the same bedroom as the location for Eggleston’s most famous ‘Red Ceiling’ photograph taken in 1973.
The introductory notes to the exhibition refer to Eggleston embracing the snapshot style – but notes that the photographs are not straightforward documentary or sentimental, and as a result the viewer is asked ‘to find something more valuable and elusive in the images’. Much of the commentary on the exhibition also rates to Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ style and ambiguous images (see 1 and 2 in Sources section for reviews).
The exhibition runs until 23 October 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery (see 3 below).
This exercise involves setting up a portrait session, and taking a sequence of portraits where the subject is looking directly into the camera, or away from it, and using judgement to determine which produces the better image. As with most of these exercises, I asked a member of the family to pose for me – I’m not sure someone that I didn’t know would have the patience. I used a simple set-up, with the camera on a tripod, and a cable release (so easier to talk to the subject and no need to constantly be looking through the viewfinder) and used the same focal length throughout. This set up also meant that I could ensure that roughly the same amount of space was occupied by the subject in each frame. I took these outside with a softbox to brighten the shadows (behind the camera to the right of the subject at about 45 degrees) and a reflector to the left of the subject to even up the lighting on the face. Again using an identical set-up throughout meant that the lighting would be consistent across all of the images. As I knew the subject it was easy to give a bit of direction where needed to make sure I produced a reasonably varied set of photographs in terms of where the gaze was and position of the head.
I did this exercise in conjunction with the next in the course material, which asks for a review of a portrait sequence. The number of asterisks against each image below indicates my rating. As requested in the course notes, I have rated each image as either not good (*), acceptable (**), good (***) and identified what I think is the single best shot (****). I should be upfront and state here that most of the poorer quality images (which were either not sharp enough or there was really obvious flaws such as the subject’s eyes being closed) didn’t make it past my editor. I also had to be selective in what I have posted since some of the differences in expression or pose were very marginal. The course notes suggest that at least 20 images are taken. I had a set of over 70 (I stopped at this as I thought I had exhausted the possible variations but, on reflection, I could have taken more face on with the head straight – and perhaps altered the positioning of the subject in the frame).
The checklist in the course notes is a useful guide for assessing portraits – I mainly concentrated on composition, angle of the head, and facial expression. I’d managed to control for some of the other criteria mentioned through my set-up (e.g. using a plain background so no distractions were behind the subject, making sure nothing else was in the frame so the whole series is simple, and the lighting balance was good due to the use of external light and a reflector as well as ambient light, and the lighting is consistent across the sequence). I took some notes throughout, and started off with some fairly standard portraits with the subject looking into the camera and then a number where the gaze was away to varying degrees (1 through to 7 below). The portraits where the subject is more side on to the camera (8 through to 14) are probably a less typical pose for a portrait. I thought these would be the better shots when I took them and took a fair number with subtle variations to gesture and pose but, after reviewing them, I don’t have enough of the subject’s head in the shot and they look a little awkward (for a further edit I would be inclined to crop so the white space to the right is not so prominent). However, I think these work better than the similar sequence where the other side of the subject’s side of the face is closest to the camera (19-22), perhaps because this position didn’t feel as natural to the subject, and there wasn’t actually much space on this side for her to look into. After reviewing the whole set I would say the better shot is probably where the subject is face on (16). It’s a fairly formal pose but the subject is at ease, with the head to a slight angle.