Matt Hancock. Secretary for ...

Photographs can take on different meanings and relevance with the passage of time. They can also be left with little purpose at all.

Little over a month ago I was commissioned to photograph Matt Hancock, who was, until around a couple of weeks ago Secretary for Culture, Digital, Media and Sport. The images were to accompany a cover piece of a publication promoting the Technology sector in the North East. An ongoing project I'm working on with Dynamo who champion the North East Tech cluster.

Matt Hancock was the keynote speaker at the Dynamo conference and I was due to photograph him directly after the speech. I was told by his people I had strictly 5 minutes to get what I needed. This in mind I set up some studio lighting directly outside the doors I knew he was due to exit from and blocked off the corridor with some office type partitions I found nearby in the building, effectively creating blockade to keep any curious delegates out and pen him in before he left! (sounds dreadful I know but needs must) This sort of shoot can be very stressful as there's little room for error and no chance of doing it again. That said it's absolutley the kind of pressure which I live for and one of my favourite aspects of the job.

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He arrived slightly later than anticipated to the conference, a bit flustered and slightly bemused that the taxi driver had not known exactly where to bring him and his entourage to. He was nevertheless mic'd up and sent in to deliver his prepared words.

I waited until I heard a round of applause signalling the end and readied myself for action. 

As he exited and was mic'd down (if thats a thing) I introduced myself, told him what the photos were for and tried to make a bit of small talk before starting the pictures whilst being very aware of the time constraints placed on the session. We started with some straightforward three quarter length shots with the lighting I'd set up but just as I was getting into it someone evaded my blockade and began a conversation with him. It was pretty infuriating as I was in the middle of the shoot but I guess he's a minister and people want to chat to him and he can hardly be anything other than cordial. Either way my time was stolen away somewhat but thankfully the conversation halted before I had to assert myself and risk looking petulant.

As we continued he remarked to an aide that this shoot was 'good practice for next week' and after asking it transpired - with him looking quite pleased with himself, as you would - that David Bailey would be photographing him. 'Nice.' I said 'Will David Bailey get more than 5 minutes?' as a last ditch attempt to regain his attention, in fact my comment made him and the entourage laugh loudly (of course he'd get longer) and I added in a 'what's so funny?' - passive aggressive? - certainly, but said with a spoonful of self deprecation to take the edge off.

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I managed to get off a few more frames and push slightly beyond the 5 minute mark in to a different set up. I somewhat hurriedly used one of the partitions I had used to construct my politician trap come ministerial holding area as a kind of makeshift frame/backdrop behind him, in these his guard dropped a bit and I got something a bit more thoughtful perhaps insightful. I liked the way the partition seemed symbolic of the nature of the shoot, a barrier between subject and photographer - politician and public but also the chair provided the gift of his trousers riding up when seated to reveal his party political sock selection. I wrapped it just before the tap on the shoulder from his advisor, I said my thank yous and asked him to send my regards to Mr Bailey. LOLZ. 

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All in all I was fairly happy with what I got and felt it would make a good cover for the publication. 

Then a couple of weeks on after a flurry of resignations and a cabinet reshuffle later I read the BBC News app notification that Matt Hancock is promoted to Heath Secretary. Effectively making the entire shoot unusable in the publication given that it was intended as an interview with the Secretary for Digital in a magazine about Tech in the North East. The Health Secretary talking about the region being a digital hotspot doesn't work particularly. 

It does however give me an opportunity to share the pictures in a blog post and rattle on about how the shoot went down (If he'd been the Health Secretary then I probably would have only got 2 minutes instead of a laid back 5!) and it is interesting to me how photography and in particular portraits shift and morph in meaning and context as careers and lives do. Each turn or change in direction provides an altered perception or opinion ultimatley making the narrative more interesting. It also goes to show that this can take place over days, months or years.

They do say a week is a long time in politics but I'm fairly satisfied that now, even if only for a little while, I have the Secretary for Health in my portfolio. And so does David Bailey. 

*all ministerial positions correct at time of publishing.

 

 

 

Sir John Hall

I've had a few of chances to photograph Sir John Hall but never been happy with the results until my recent cover shoot for North East Times magazine.

Sir John for me is a personality who is perhaps unique in the north east (or even unique to the north east) who has not only shaped the physical landscape through his businesses but also the cultural landscape with his passion for the region and his involvement with NUFC & charities. He's always been high on the list in my quest to document the North East's defining characters so trying to get a picture which will stand the test of time has become a game of cat and mouse between us (well, on my part only. Sir John's interest in my portfolio of portraits is minimal at best I'd suspect.).

That said he has always been accommodating and I've gotten two or three what I would call 'grabbed' portraits against white walls at events/press calls etc. All acceptable, passable pictures but nothing special. My next chance came around a year ago with a shoot with him at Wynyard gardens, unlike times before I had him to myself for 10 minutes, helped by a chance to have conversation with him and Sarah his granddaughter vouching for my professional abilities we had a successful shoot where I was pretty satisfied with the results. Sir John liked the pictures too and asked for copies. My favourite from that session is shown below.

 

After that session I couldn't get the idea of a silhouette cameo style picture of Sir John out of my head, I had the idea for it before the Gardens shoot with a landscape of Wynyard in the background but the light/time constraints didn't allow for it. So I was delighted when we decided to feature Sir John on the cover of North East Times and he agreed to another session for the June 2018 issue. 

Often before a shoot, especially when I have a clear idea of what I'd like to get or I feel it's a big opportunity for a defining picture I'll get quite anxious and play the scenario over in my mind. I knew that Sir John was very accommodating in the past but also that he had the potential to simply not be in the mood to be photographed, or wanting to just do a quick couple of frames before wrapping it up. I felt it would hinge on me getting along with him in conversation like the session before.

Thankfully we pretty much picked up where we'd left off last time.

In reality it couldn't have gone better on the day, Sir John arrived in good spirits and looking really healthy too also better on his feet than I had remembered a year earlier. I had ample time to set up as Ali (North East Times editor) conducted the interview. I decided to set up a blue paper backdrop, partly because I remembered his blue eyes and partly a nod to his conservative political leaning and business success during that 80's/90's tenure which has been well documented. This was essentially my 'safety shot' using flash to create my cameo image by just clipping the light past Sir John (this would transpire to be the cover image used in the end). Everything else would be shot using available light from the massive windows in Wynyard Hall and wherever else he was prepared to have a picture taken, I had a couple of scenarios planned. We also took along a rose as reference to his love for gardening and the flowers. Ali picked them up from a florist the day before and we opted for white roses (I was worried red would look too romantic!). The idea was to have him holding one. 

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As the shoot progressed and we talked about photography, his accomplishments, his family and estate. It became obvious his mind had turned much more towards his own legacy and how he would be remembered by future generations. He mentioned how important to him it was to get copies of all the pictures for a document he had been creating about the family history and that of of Wynyard, I explained that a great portrait of him was important to me as I try to document the times we live in and people of the North East who are shaping the region. We hit upon a common cause.

It's always great when your subject suggests an idea for an image, especially when its something you'd have asked them for anyway! They've bought into the process of making the images. The holy grail of portrait photography!

Sir John's idea was to take us in his car to the other side of the lake to look back at Wynyard Hall from there. The view is not accessible to the public and it's his favourite spot. He knows every acre of the estate. After asking about the view I learnt that he'd never been photographed there before. The shot seemed obvious to me, his face not visible but rather looking across Wynyard. A man taking stock of his kingdom. The miners son who bought the colliery owners house. "The boy done good" I decided to exclaim, I think my joke tickled him and he looked proud of his accomplishments.

The session made me think a little about the dynamic of a portrait. In essence it's a collaboration, in this instance we both came to the shoot with a similar goal, to capture a picture which describes Sir John at this point in his life. I really admire him for collating his life, in pictures, cuttings, and videos for future generations to make sense of the time in which he lives and how he got to that point, I also like his awareness that the present is a fleeting moment which without being documented is knowledge lost. 

I've just received a message as I finish writing this saying he really enjoyed the article and pictures and for me to call him next week to speak about getting him the images. Our respective scrapbooks continue!

Read the article by Alison Cowie for North East Times here

Watch Andrew Lowe's video of the shoot here

Welcome

Hi there and thanks for checking out my site, work and blog. I intend to use this space to post blog entries about my shoots past and present. I'll also be posting observations on photography, PR and marketing imagery from a photographers point of view and using the blog as a diary for images taken outside of my everyday work.