Portraiture and Lord Snowdon

Sophie, Richard and Alan learn about the digital camera, photo ?Gill George

I led a nice little portrait workshop at the Burton Art Gallery at the weekend. The workshop was put on to coincide with the In Camera…Snowdon exhibition which continues there until Christmas Eve. It was an education for me to use Snowdon’s photographs of the British art scene from the 1960’s until the ’90’s as inspiration for the day.

I knew little of his work and had been put off by his reputation until it was thrust on me.What a fascinating exhibition. At first it is a set of well made portraits of people from the art world, some of who I’d heard of, some who I felt I knew well, and many who I had no idea about what-so-ever. I found it very refreshing that many of subjects were not ‘famous’ artists; some of them had bit parts like John Bratby photographed, with coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other, hunched over his son sleeping in his cot; some of them were coming to the end of a long artistic career with little recognition like David Jones in his one roomed bedsit near the end of his life and then there were art dealers like Helen Lessore photographed starkly on a lumpy bed in her gallery. Every picture told a story and if you get to see the show it is worth reading through the catalogue to find out why people were photographed in the way that they were.

I was intrigued by a picture of Roger Hilton, a name I associated with bright colourful semi-abstract St Ives paintings from the 1960’s and ’70’s. The portrait shows him drinking from a whiskey bottle and this fills the frame. Surely I thought, he can’t simply be remembered for this? Reading the catalogue he probably is, by those that knew him. In the same year as the portrait 1963 he was awarded the John Moores Prize and his acceptance speech was “Give me the cheque, you look like a decaying oyster…” and at the dinner afterwards an elderly alderman, already ill, was so shocked by Hilton’s drunken rudeness that he collapsed and died at the table.

Dion Mantell ?Alan Mead

The workshop started by optimising the digital cameras for portraiture followed by some time spent looking at Snowdon’s photographs. We then used the essence of his approach to make portraits, in pairs, somewhere inside the gallery. Snowdon’s approach is often simple, rarely using flash or studio lighting and most of his portraits were made with a wide angle lens rather than the typical portrait lens which is longer than standard.

My biggest worry was that one or more of my eight students would refuse to be photographed but every one was very giving and they all made a good job of the assignment.

After lunch on camera flash was put into the mix. I demonstrated how flash could be turned down and used as fill-in to either lighten shadows or brighten the subject on an overcast day. This new knowledge was also put to the test with a different partner. By the finish at 4pm every student had produced something of merit.