Taking it personally…Personal project:part 2

Last summer I wrote about personal projects and how important I find them as a photographer to keep motivated, inspired and creative. So I thought it might be interesting to share how my latest project is going- a kind of behind the scenes look at how I approached it, the successes and the pitfalls. It’s still very much a work in progress though and like my ‘Discarded’ project, it never really finishes as I will keep adding to it.

Getting started

Getting started on a new project is always the hardest part, especially if like this one it involves lots of planning and organization.

Fortunately I have lots of photographer friends who kindly offer advice, help and assistance. My friend Kaye Ford, a fellow Manfrotto Ambassador, very kindly put me in touch with one of her contacts and in no time at all that was the lighting part of the equation sorted out- Interfit Photo UK lent me two of their battery and mains operated 500 watt S1 lights for a long term test. Just as well as my own mains operated monobloc flashes had started playing up and I didn’t have the cash to splash on replacements.

Next on the list- a suitable backdrop. Lastolite came to the rescue here with one of their Ezycare washable knitted backgrounds- A ‘Washington’ in grey.
More on that later.

Setting up the Interfit S1 lights with gels for a photo of Oli Nichol. PHOTO by John Robertson.

A new photographer friend who lives in the same town as me, Robert A Smith, helped with the first portrait shoot that kicked the project off and was also a huge help with the video we made. He shot most of the behind the scenes videos and stills even though his normal subject is landscapes. My wife, Suzy, turned out to be a bit of a star at the make up and my friend Paul Blue did a superb job on editing my video review of the lights used in this project.

A test shot of Robert A Smith. Photo by John Robertson.

The idea

I’ve always been a big fan of the work of American photographer Irving Penn.
It probably stems from the time a picture editor at The Guardian told me that one of my front page photos for their newspaper was “very Irving Penn”.
I took that as a huge compliment at the time, but years later and with the wisdom granted by getting older and more worldly-wise, I can see that he was probably being a tad sarcastic!
Not everybody likes the very stark contrast in some of Irving Penn’s portraits.

Photographers are always looking at the world around them and I am certainly no exception to that. Dropping my wife off at her place of work sometimes, I’d notice the people I met as I walked back to our car. I almost literally bumped into them on the street. The barefoot runner, the punk rocker of a certain age, and perhaps most bizarrely- the man standing in the river stunning fish with electrical apparatus strapped to his back!

Fish Stunner Andy Beal photographed at The Angel Hotel in Market Harborough by John Robertson.

Irving Penn photographed a series on workmen both here in the UK and over in the USA. Not environmental portraits but removed from that context and against a formal type background. As I frequently shoot environmental portraits editorially, I thought it would be a great idea to do the same for the small town of Market Harborough near where we live. In many ways it is the quintessential little English town- still with many traditional shops and also some unusual ones and some interesting local characters.

Traditional butcher Eddie Partyka photographed at The Angel Hotel in Market Harborough by John Robertson.

The venue

Now unlike many of my previous personal projects, this one required a venue.
Irving Penn famously used a pop up studio for many of his photos of workmen.

His portable outdoor natural light studio was a specially made tent of around 10 x 18 feet and an 11 foot high ceiling.
This wasn’t really an option for me in the rainy UK in a busy street in November!  The answer, it seemed to me was to use a hotel near the workplaces and homes of the people I would be photographing.

Reality bites

This is  where real life intervenes. The first hotel I approached were very friendly and offered a choice of suitable rooms-but at a price. I quickly worked out that this would amount to several hundred pounds over the course of the project.
So I tried another one and a different approach because in this life you rarely get something for nothing. So I offered some free photography in return and bingo- The Angel Hotel in Market Harborough agreed to let me use their biggest conference room which proved to be absolutely ideal.

Apparently Irving Penn paid his sitters, something I found out after I started my project!
Again, not really an option for me as a hard up photographer who sadly doesn’t work for Vogue magazine like he did.
I offered the sitters free photos from each shoot and they all seem pleased at that. Unfortunately when it came to the day of the first shoot, two of the people I was supposed to photograph decided they wanted paying for their 10 minutes with me. I offered to pay but then they wanted to dictate what time they would be available and it went downhill fast from there, so I never did get
to photograph the two accordian players unfortunatey.
At times arranging time slots became like herding cats!

1940’s vintage lady Amy Winston-Hart. Photo by John Robertson.

One of the people I’d noticed and wanted to include in the project,(the ageing punk rocker), had sadly passed away before I had the privelege of photographing him! Several others never answered phone messages or emails and I began to wonder if all the hassle was worth it simply to do a personal project.

The turnaround

Suddenly things improved. Several of the people I’d scheduled to photograph were really enthusiastic about my project. They suggested friends and aquantances who might be interested. The project snowballed and that made up for the people who gave up on me !
Some of the intended portrait subjects came up with their mates and friends of friends. It’s how I found ‘Steve the pirate’, a Johnny Depp lookalike who is well known in Market Harborough for his appearances for charity.

Johnny Depp lookalike Steve Rippin. Photo by John Robertson.

The Lastolite background proved it’s worth on this project. Easy to transport and wrinkles that very quickly dropped out of the fabric when it was stretched over the Manfrotto Background support using the attached clips.

This is a quality product and stood up easily to having a wet butcher’s bicycle wheeled across it, fish slime dripped onto it and mud from the thigh length waders of the fish stunner deposited liberally onto it!

Fishmonger Jenny Hobbs at Market Harborough. Photo by John Robertson.

The same goes for Interfit’s S1 lights which I reviewed on You Tube and which proved to be superb in battery mode with no nasty trailing mains cables.
High speed flash synch and TTL mode on them, plus a very easy to use on camera remote made these units invaluable and I am planning to replace my ancient monoblocs with a brace of these.

For the portraits I kept the lighting simple. An Interfit S1 fitted with a large 1 metre softbox I had bought specially with a Bowens mount as the S1’s use a different fitting to my Elinchroms. The flash was mostly used on manual and at full power through the double-layered softbox. My Lastolite reflectors were not needed on this shoot as to the opposite side of the keylight was a white panelled screen that did the job of reflecting back the light just fine. No background light was needed as I purposely wanted the grey background to be quite dark in the final images and in any case the ambient light was matched up with the flash and came in from skylights above and around the people being photographed. I’ve always liked to keep the lighting simple and unobtrusive on my photos- as near to daylight as I can get it, especially as this was in keeping with Irving Penn’s portraits, lit simply with daylight and reflectors. I wanted my images to be less contrasty on the portraits faces though-just a personal preference.


As a result of my personal project, some of the portrait subjects have offered me work photographing their companies. Several of them are now friends.
What goes around comes around and this project has so far been well worth the few hundred pounds I invested into it with travel costs, light modifiers to fit the Bowens-fit S1 Interfits, and my time when I could have been shooting paid jobs amongst other costs.
At times I wondered why I was bothering but overall it has been a learning experience, a great way to meet new people and to learn new things.
It’s a snapshot of a town at a particular time in it’s history, pre-Brexit and perhaps at a chaotic political moment. As a photographer it is always a privelege to be able to document these things.

Rosemarie Jarvis, owner of Hanworth shop, and her partner,Theatrical and Stage Effects Director Oli Nichol. PHOTO by John Robertson.


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John Robertson is a Manfrotto Ambassador and freelance photographer with the UK National and International press. He also works for commercial clients and produces both editorial and commercial videos.

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