The Brief: Select a subject for a series of portraits, varying the background. The one consistent image must be the subject, who may be a family member, a colleague or a willing participant who is known or previously unknown to you.
I spent time thinking about the portraiture of the aware subject and summarised my thoughts in Project 2 – The aware. The important issues here were that the person was aware of what I was doing (unlike in most street photography), and that I needed to have (or build up) a relationship with the subject. However, unlike Germain, I did not have years to do the project.
I decided to use a subject who I have known for several years, Martin. Martin used to be a teacher, but his real interest is gardening and about 15 years ago he decided to retire from teaching, buy a cottage in the country and build a guest house in the grounds, surrounding both his cottage and the guest house with a partially wild garden and a small lake. His idea is to make it a peaceful retreat for the exhausted in mind and body, and there is only minimal connection with the world.
Martin agreed to be a subject and then allowed me to follow him around for several days while he was doing his general work in the garden, building a new shed and managing the needs of the guest area. This was made easier as I do know him reasonably well, and after a while he stopped trying to ‘pose’ for me and just got on with things. The main difficulty was trying to discourage him from talking to me constantly. We discussed whether the images should be of him looking at me (a returned gaze) or of him concentrating on his work. He was more comfortable with the idea of pictures where he was not looking at me directly and this took away his tendency to put on a ‘say cheese’ smile.
I also took a selection of images of his wife, Sharon, as I initially wondered about using her as the main subject together with images of the surroundings and details of the garden. In a larger piece of work, it would be interesting to set these three sections together to tell more of the story of their lives.
When I looked at the images of Martin I divided them up into 3 sections:
- Portrait format images where he was doing the work
- Landscape format images where he was doing the work
- Images where he was just relaxing, sitting or standing
After some thought I decided that the images of him working told his story better than the ones of him standing still. The portrait images seemed to work better than the landscape ones as they showed more of the background. I then divided the images further into two groups, a group that showed him full body (or nearly) and a second group of close-up images. I initially preferred the close-up images but on thinking decided that the ones that showed more of the background told more about what I was wanting to show although there were some images in both groups that told more about the person.
I then looked at both sets in colour and in black and white, although I actually like the black and white images because this story is about Martin in his world – where colour is very important to him, the colour images seemed more appropriate and helped identify that it is a garden and a small cottage.
I sent some of the pictures to Martin and Sharon and was delighted with the response ‘They are such lovely images of our life here – I love the collection of Martin because he looks happy and comfortable’. The fact he was comfortable was very important as a response as, although he agreed to the photographs being taken, he was initially very worried about the outcome.