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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. I’ve 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, I’ve always been interested in people’s faces. I’ve 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 I’m 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. (I’ve 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 I’m 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 Gregory’s 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 I’m convinced I can see the enthusiasm and anticipation in his eye in the resulting photo.


Tim Hunkin 4th April 1999






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