35mm film

Brainchild

I spent last weekend at Brainchild Festival, a DIY festival of art, music and performance in the arcadian grounds of the Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum in Sussex. It’s a volunteer-led festival with few attendees outside of the 20-26-year-old-creative-persuasion demographic beside the woman who owns the land. And her small fat dog who hates men and barks at them if they get too close. I took up the option of putting in 10 hours of work across the festival to halve my ticket price, doing everything from deep-frying in the kitchen to litter-picking to bar-tending to guarding the showers. It was a lovely three days, even if I came across even more art students dressed from their own childhood 90s wardrobe than I might in an afternoon on Dalston High Street.

One of the best parts of the festival were the myriad art installations to interact with (and mainly sit on). A giant cereal box that opened on the second day to spew giant foam Lucky Charms; a maze of hula hoops and coloured yarn that over the course of the festival become more and more complex and difficult to navigate when drunk; a rainbow-painted wooden living room complete with wooden pond, pot plants and window out onto the rainbow sunsets. Our favourite was the giant colouring wall by illustrator Betty Woodhouse, complete with pots of felt-tips and excited gaggles of 20-somethings. Performances ranged from the usual bands and DJs to stand-up comedy and short film screenings to group yoga classes and interpretive dance. Too much of the music featured wailing ghostly female vocals for my taste, but there were some real stand-out acts; drum and saxophonist duo Binker & Moses stole Sunday evening, and Jess Murrain’s spoken word mixed in with double-bass accompanied vocals was a highlight of Saturday. (She was followed by a puppet show called “Miss Clitoris and the Bejazzles”.)

Mid-festival we ventured round the corner to the Bentley Motor Museum itself. It’s a strange combination of a warehouse full of chronologically exhibited cars (and some scary mannequins challenging stereotypical gender roles), displays of questionable of history, a dolls-house workshop, and a gift shop selling seemingly completely non-related items. Mainly soap. MORE exciting is the Bentley miniature railway, which everyone from completely spaced-out students in harem pants to off-duty security guards hopped onto at some point over the weekend. It’s run by retired men in train conductors’ hats, and a small dog in an official uniform. Your ticket is stamped at both of two “station” stops, in a journey that lasts approximately 15 minutes. Puffs of smoke from the tiny steam engine remained visible above the trees for the whole weekend, reminding everyone where the real fun was happening.

Although there were plenty of fab acts and DJs and workshops happening across the weekend, the best part for me was being able to spend time with good friends and interesting new ones in a beautiful setting. The weather held and I took a fantastic book to sit and read on a cushion under the light-up jellyfish, or on a sofa under the giant central tree, or in The Steez Cafe in front of some strange piece of performance art. The sunsets were glorious and the loos weren’t even too horrible by the end, and I’d recommend it as £35 very well spent.

South West Stillness

IMG_9721.jpg

I took this photo while fiddling with some settings in my bedroom this morning, but it seems a fairly accurate summary of life right now. Since moving out of London for a bit (SHOCK, GASP etc), life has slowed a great deal – despite the addition of a full-time job. In some ways this change of place and pace has been difficult; it’s hard not having a constant array of companions at your beck and call, and sometimes there just isn’t an obvious activity to occupy a Tuesday evening in Bath. But the benefit of this narrowing of life is that I think it may have given me a lot more space to think and to be. I’ve read six books in a month, listened to a lot of podcasts and shot a lot of 35mm. I’ve cycled for half an hour every day and explored two new cities, all the while feeling like I’ve had the time and the headspace and the freedom to do so. Even in the longest gaps between freelancing gigs, I had not felt that way since leaving university.

Again, perhaps this has nothing to do with escaping the Big Smoke and this is just what summer is like. Long evenings with beers and books and film-worthy golden hour light; I find I have always forgotten the pleasures of each season by the time they roll around again. But either way, my current state of affairs has really helped me out with my 2016 resolutions – next step is to find a West Country string quartet.

A Good Portrait

F1010011

Ever since finishing my finals and committing to the unpaid internship game for the conceivable future, I have been considering my options for making any form of money before the age of 23. It has led to finally biting the digital bullet and deciding to invest in a big old fancy DSLR, and one of the most lucrative uses of a big old fancy DSLR is making people pay you to photograph them. People bloody love pictures of themselves. During my my last few months pre-finals I decided to give some portraits a shot; a Facebook status appeal for subjects elicited so many responses that I managed only about a quarter of respondents. At this time in our lives where we’re all so painfully aware of change and transition (and job applications), the appeal and value of a good picture of self can’t be over-estimated, and it got me thinking: what exactly makes a good portrait? Or perhaps more importantly, who?

For me, posed portrait photography is somewhat new territory. I like to take candid pictures, and most of my favourite personal portraits are in no way posed – something a lot of photographers from Diane Arbus to Brassai would denounce as a terrible way to document others. (I prefer Susan Sontag’s view that “there is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do… their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera”.) It’s something I often get flack over from my friends – “can you please WARN ME NEXT TIME” – but I take photographs in order to record my life and create physical moments that I want to remember, and most often those are not the ones where you’ve all lined up in your most flattering positions and smiled for long enough that you look dead inside. It’s gotta be natural, man, it’s gotta encapsulate the moment, evoke an emotion, tell a story, blah blah blah – but I will insist that it’s the candid photos that you look back on with fuzzy sentimentality, not the bared grins into the iPhone selfie camera. When I look at my favourite portraits that I have taken over the years, they are almost without fail of people who mean the most to me; my very best friends, romantic interests, my family. It’s easy to argue that that’s mainly because they’re the people I spend the most time with and therefore photograph the most, and perhaps that’s true, but there’s also a question of intimacy and trusting someone to record you at your most relaxed and most natural. What I appreciate most about photographing my closest friends is that they have come (been forced) to accept that the camera is just there as a part of the conversation, and it doesn’t need to be posed for.

Last year my mum and I went to the David Bailey exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, where his iconic celebrity portraits of everyone from Diana to Johnny Depp were displayed in the context of his wider body of work. It was a decent exhibition, but at the end my mum commented that having now seen all Bailey’s other photographic efforts she wasn’t so sure that he was actually such a fantastic photographer after all; his portraits are indeed fantastic, but even more so in their contrast to the distinctly average nature of everything else. A good portrait is not as entirely dependent on equipment and technique as the kind of relationship a photographer can foster with their subject, whether they’ve known them for a day or a decade. The very best pop culture photographers – Bailey, Leibovitz, Testino – often achieve the results they do from being fun, interesting people that their subjects can relate to, that people want to spend time with, and who can make those they photograph as comfortable and enthusiastic about the presence of a camera as if it wasn’t there at all.

My highest mark in my degree was an elective essay on the impact of photography on 19th century painting (pick what you’re interested in, right?), and I particularly focussed on its impact on the style and process of portraiture. Instead of staying in and actually reading for the essay I went to a party a few nights before my deadline – all in the name of research – and interrogated a friend halfway through an oil painting degree at the Florence Academy of Art; what extent are they encouraged to use photographs as an aid when producing oil portraits? He told me that they avoided it as much as possible; that a successful painting process was painfully dependent on your sitter being present in the flesh; that it was the visual interaction between artist and subject that entirely defined the finished product. And I thought that a very succinct summary of a good portrait – in any medium.

43080014