The photographs in this assignment are selected from a current project which has been a while in the starting. I had the idea of portraying visitors and holidaymakers in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in a recognisable context – the beach hut. Lyme has a whole row of these and they are popular with families during their days at the shoreline.
I was thinking about using a hut as a kind of impromptu ‘studio’ but I was a little wary of the reaction I might get from the town council, so like a proper law abiding citizen I wrote to ask for their approval. Several weeks went by without a response so I called to ask about progress, only to discover that my request was to be put before the Tourism and Leisure Committee at the next meeting. Undeterred I arranged to attend the meeting in case there were any questions – indeed there were. I was called upon to give a full explanation of my intentions, reasons, possible uses, health and safety implications along with evidence of appropriate insurances. I had expected it to be a shoo-in; I was wrong. In fact a couple of councillors voted against what had become a ‘motion’ although the proposal was approved by the majority. So that was all right then…. But hold on, not so fast…
This resolution had to go to ‘full committee’ for final approval. This turned out to be a formality and the project was given the go-ahead. To be fair, most people were enthusiastic and encouraging while the dissenters were, I think, just a bit perplexed.
I had hoped to use a variety of huts in the void hours or occasional days left by people who handed their keys in early. This idea proved unworkable because the business which held the hut ‘concession’, who handled the issue and return of keys, maintained that there was never any void time. From Easter to Guy Fawkes, no hirer ever returned their keys as much as an hour before time. Apparently.
By this stage in the year it was too late to make a weekly booking in my own name – as I mentioned, they are popular – so I set the project aside over the off-season.
Come March 2018 I resolved to go under-cover. I hired a hut without admitting my purpose and duly set about preparing it as a pop-up studio. Then it rained. A lot, because of course it was a bank holiday at the English seaside. Despite this I managed to squeeze in a few hours when the rain let up to get a few pictures towards the series.
The concept involved placing people in a space which was identifiable with the location. I had originally envisaged some accompanying text with each photograph, disclosing what the subject would normally be doing at that same time but on a work day, the point being that both pilots and pensioners lose the trappings of position when on holiday. As I thought about it more carefully I began to go off this idea; it felt trite and contrived so I neglected to question people on the matter of their usual occupation, concentrating on the portrayal aspect.
My initial impulse to ‘dress’ the setting faded as well, to the extent of removing any seating for most sitters. People’s reactions to a beach front ‘pop-up’ studio were interesting. I had expected people to engage with me as a result of the door hanging posters which announced the enterprise but the reaction from passers-by was consistent disinterest. People saw the signs, possibly commented, but walked straight on past without breaking step. In fact they studiously avoided even glancing inside. I put this disinclination to engage down to innate suspicion of being fleeced.
I had been warned off ‘soliciting’ by the council – they were concerned about obstruction and crowds – but in the end this was the only way I could get people to engage. I approached them in the fashion I had employed doing previous street work – direct and slightly obsequious, but well short of creepy. I think. I was fortunate to have Glamorous Assistant present to give some authenticity to the proceedings and reassure passing parents that nothing untoward was in progress. Nobody said “NO”; not a one. Some were confused but ultimately compliant. Most were enthusiastic and good humoured.
As time went on I managed to feel my way into an approach which I think suited the project. As I mentioned earlier, I stripped the interior right down and had people standing, except where space or conflicting heights called for a stool. Later I even left that out, just letting the subjects appear as they actually were, without posing or direction. All I asked was that they tried not to look directly at the camera, because I was developing a one-way gaze feel.
As for the techie stuff, it was mainly about balancing the strong exterior sunlight with the darker interior. The back of the hut was five stops darker than the front doors. I put a gold reflector in the roof, held up with drawing pins. To each side, a speedlight pointing up to the reflector, but flagged to prevent spill direct to the subjects. Later I took the flags away partly, because I liked the hot light. If I return to this I will use translucent flags, probably in the form of ‘trace frames’, big enough to prevent the edges throwing shadows. It’s a bit tricky because the space is so small and the subjects end up being rather close to the lights. The background is a decorators dust sheet, very heavy twill and a kind of khaki brown which matches the wood of the hut.
All done at 200 ASA, 1/320th (the Olympus max synch speed) and between f11 and f13. The flashes were both at 1/4 power. Handheld because who knows what chaos might result, pedestrian wise, from the indiscriminate use of a tripod.
As has become my custom, I gave each subject a card with my email address, also inscribed with a heartfelt thank-you and the time and date of their picture (so I know who they are). They frequently contact me for a JPG, which I am delighted to supply.
My views on this idea are mixed so I would self-assess it as follows:
- I wouldn’t ask permission again, I’d just go ahead, do it and talk my way through it if challenged.
- I have realised that my initial (crippling) fears about approaching people are 98% unfounded. That other 2%, you know who you are…
- It works as a portrait series – the representations are quirky and engaging. Documentary it ain’t.
- There is a LOT to learn about photographing people and much of it has little to do with equipment and technique. Not that that’s a reason to ignore those aspects, they are important, but they shouldn’t get in the way.
- I didn’t want to portray people in a way which held them to ridicule however faint. But I wanted to allow something essential to appear, conveying some intrigue and internal tension within the frame. Just one of the pictures gets some way towards this.