These are the notes I wrote to
accompany my portrait photo (see
cameras) of Richard Gregory for the National Portrait Gallery. I've included them on
my website because I'm interested in portraiture and this sums up most of my ideas and
predjudices about the subject.
I am pleased with the photo and think it stands for itself, but as it was taken by an
unusual process, I thought it was worth describing, particularly as the print lacks the
technical perfection usually taken for granted today.
A few years ago, while doing some research for a TV series on photography, I was amazed
to discover how simple colour processing had become. Ive always found it rather
frustrating having to wait for films to be processed, and then only seeing the results as
tiny prints. The idea of being able to take photos and see the results on a large scale
immediately, seemed very attractive, so I developed a camera to do this, using Ilfochrome
paper as the film. (This forms a positive image, with no need for a negative).
The camera has a simple spectacle lens (from a pair of Readispex) and a mirror to
reflect the image onto the 16 by 20inch paper, which lies in a tray on the bottom. The
exposures are long, 2-30 sec, and the simple lens, similar to the lenses used on cameras
of the 1850s, creates a sort of glowing effect, with highlights in focus from
some parts of the lens, but out of focus from others (similar to the softening effect of
modern portrait lenses). After exposure, developer is poured into the camera. 2-4 minutes
later, the camera is tipped up to empty the developer, and the bleach is poured in. Once
touched by the bleach, the image is no longer sensitive to light, so the camera can be
opened up, and the image can be watched magically transforming from a negative to a
positive, with the colours gradually emerging. After another 2-4 minutes the bleach is
tipped out and fixer is poured in. The tray is finally removed from the camera and the
print is washed.
For the last year or so I have been taking photos of my friends with the camera and
have become addicted to the process as a form of portraiture. As a cartoonist, Ive
always been interested in peoples faces. Ive tried drawing them and taking
photos, but I had rarely been satisfied with the results and had tended to find the
process embarrassing. Now, me and my absurdly elaborate camera have become the focus of
attention, and by the time Im finally ready to take the photo, the sitter is usually
in the role of willing assistant, rather than being shot. Another great
advantage is that having the image immediately I can then, in collaboration with the
sitter, puzzle out how to improve things for a second attempt.
The slow exposures, (15secs for the photo of Richard), give faces a soft focus and
fixed expression which I was at first disappointed with, but have come to really like. I
had previously thought the coldness and formality of Victorian photo portraits was due to
the long exposures, but I now think its simply because that was how people felt they ought
to look when posing for a photo. Today, people are used to pulling any face for a camera,
and I have long exposures of my friends with a great variety of expressions. The advantage
of a long exposure is that it totally avoids the transient expressions that modern
instant photography often captures but do not resemble the person at all.
(Ive never seen an ordinary photo of my partner that looks much like her, I think
because she has a very mobile face, which is always snapped while in transit.)
Most of the photos I have taken with my camera reveal characteristic
expressions, that are immediately familiar.
I generally have the sitter fairly small in the frame, surrounded by their stuff
because this is how my memory works. I find it hard to picture even very close
friends faces in great detail in my mind, even though Im a cartoonist. But
though I can only picture their faces very approximately, I see them in context with
precise details of their clothes, possessions and personal spaces. In Richard
Gregorys case, the room, in an elegant early victorian terrace in Clifton, Bristol,
is very important to him. He has written over 10 books on the computer at his desk. The
room is also his lounge and dining room, where he frequently entertains. It is surrounded
by his collection of optical and electrical scientific instruments and overstuffed
bookshelves, which to me, say at least as much about his curiosity and zest for life as
the lines on his face.
I felt my eccentric camera would be a particularly apt way to create a portrait of
Richard. He has been a hero of mine since reading The Eye and the Brain at
University and it is the mix of science and art that fascinates us both. I knew he would
enjoy participating in the process and Im convinced I can see the enthusiasm and
anticipation in his eye in the resulting photo.
Tim Hunkin 4th April 1999