Monday, January 17, 2011

"Don't be contrived."... interview with STEPHEN MCLEOD BLYTHE.

Stephen is talented 22 years old photographer from Glasgow, Scotland.

1Q) Can you please tell us the story behind this portrait? How you took it and why you choose to shoot this person?
You've picked a strange picture to feature.. It's not one of my best, and was taken in circumstances that are pretty out of the norm for the way I usually do things. 

The shots from this series were done as a favour for a friend of a friend. It's always a bad idea to do such a thing, but I was in a spell where I was looking for people to volunteer to have my lens pointed on them, so it didn't make sense to turn it down. The premise was simply to get photos of different makeup/fashion styles for their folio or something similar.

As a result, the picture's very much more 'posed' than I'd usually do things, and there's a lot more makeup. The whole thing was much more constructed and mechanically executed than my normal portraiture style, which is very much an informal and chaotic process. If you really want an idea of the type of picture that is typical of what I do, you'd do well to look at this one of the beautiful Kirsty.
2Q) What photography gear you used here and why? What is usually in your photo bag?
The picture featured was shot on an old Mamiya C330 TLR cam with some expired Kodak Portra 400VC. I got it from a photographer years ago who was purely a digital shooter, and who said that I'd get more use out of it than him. There was a pile of really great photos that came from it, but  it doesn't get a whole lot of use anymore as my eyesight is pretty terrible, and my Hasselblad has since got a diopter fitted in it which makes it much easier to focus than the Mamiya.

My usual kit depends on what I'm shooting.. I tend to over-equip wherever I go though, and people slag me off for having more cameras in my bag when I go on holiday than clothes. 

If I'm specifically shooting pictures of someone, I always turn to the Hasselblad 500CM, usually with the standard 80mm f2.8 lens. The film varies, but in daylight is Kodak Portra of some description; indoors or in lower light it used to be Neopan 400 (pushed to 1600), but since the bastards discontinued it I've been using Tri-X instead. Not entirely sure whether I like it as much or not, but it's early doors yet.

The Waist Level Finder of the 'Blad is awesome. It lets you focus without holding the camera up to your eye, which means that you can chat away to people and have them much more at ease for when you shoot. The 12 frames you get on a 120 roll seems insane to those that come from the digital camp, but each shot means a whole lot more that way, and actually 12 seems more than enough for most 'portrait shoots' that I do. 

There's no point in having 50 mediocre shots; I'd rather have 2 or 3 amazing ones.. and there's something really special about those that come from shooting with medium format film. It does a much better job of capturing something of the texture and depth of people than digital does. Whether it's the process, the camera itself, or the end result, there's something that just gives the whole thing a lot more soul than firing off some much more technically 'perfect' shots on the Canon 5D.

Saying that though, the most recent addition to my lineup has been a Lumix DMC-GF1 with a 25mm f0.95 lens attached to it. Even though it's digital, I've fallen in love with it. It's so small that people don't feel intimidated when you point it at them, unlike something a bit bigger or more 'serious', and you can easily chuck it in your bag for those times you're going to the pub or Uni or anywhere else that you don't plan on, or can't be bothered shooting with something that might be considered more pro. Plus, of course, that I can use superfast lenses with it.

3Q) What do you love most about shooting portraits?
4Q) Do you consider yourself mostly as a “portrait” photographer?
I'll answer 3 and 4 together, because it makes more sense that way.
I don't like the word 'portrait' to be honest.. It always strikes me as a very particular type of picture, like those fairly soulless shots where the person sits at an angle but turns their head to face the camera straight on. I know that the definition isn't limited to that style, but it's the connotations that immediately appear when I hear it.

I don't really consider myself any one kind of photographer. I never really set out to be one in the first place; I just documented my life and the people and places that were involved in it.. which led to getting paid to do it somehow or other. People that aspire to 'be photographers', or who look down their nose at others or treat it as a big competition seem to me to be missing something pretty crucial of what it takes to really have photography as part of you, rather than some external thing.

I love people. I think they're fascinating and complex; wonderfully intricate. The craving to take  'portraits' comes from something which is very deeply part of me. My relation to other people is so intricately entwined with my identity and concept of who I am that when I take a beautiful picture of someone, it's as if I'm expressing a bit of me through the picture of them. I'm expressing that part of me that has such an insatiable and unexplainable connection to others through the portrait, and because of that it's incredibly fulfilling.

It's also why photos without people in them really bore me senseless. 
5Q) Do you work with available light or do you use additional lightning often?
Available light almost all the time, but I've got a couple of studio strobes from back when I was first playing about with light that I wheel out every so often for shots indoors to make sure whoever's the victim (err subject) is nicely lit. I don't ever take them anywhere though, so if I use them it's usually in the confines of my own flat. 

Aside from being a pain to lug about, they're also not ideal as they have a tendency to make people feel a bit more ill-at-ease and 'under the spotlight' (so to speak). That doesn't really bode well for capturing someone who is just being themselves. As soon as you point a camera at someone they change; anything that can be done to reduce that is invaluable.
6Q) What/Who are your photography muses and influences?
I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to knowing names etc of other photographers. Because it's more about being an extension of my life than anything else, I've ended up just doing my own thing. 'Gorbot' on Flickr has some great film black and white stuff that probably influenced my more candid shots a lot though. 
7Q) Any tip for taking better portraits?
Don't be contrived. You don't need to have some big concept or idea to get a great picture of somebody. Just let them be, and try grab that on film whatever way you can.
flickr photostream

Thank you, Stephen!

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