Sunday, September 12, 2010

discussion with Brian Griffin (National Portrait Gallery september 10'th 2010)

   Brian Griffin is a leading UK portrait photographer and so I did not miss the chance to attend a discussion with him held at the National Portrait Gallery; it lasted over an hour and was largely about his work with the 2012 portrait photography project that is concerned with photographing people connected with the 2012 Olympic Games.

   Some of Brian Griffin's photographs were on view near to the lecture hall and one immediately became aware of a distinctive style and approach. As Brian Griffin explained, he uses a medium format digital camera, poses his subjects in chosen locations, and composes carefully so that most of his images are printed full frame. Light is often provided by a soft box overhead.

   Most of these photographs are of small groups although some, such as that of Tessa Jowell ( a former minister who was directly involved in the project) can be seen in a strident position with her hands placed on a chair. Brian Griffin later explained what happened in the making of this photograph since he had asked the minister to adopt a more supine pose, with her sitting on the floor and leaning against the chair. She however, did not want to be seen as if she had been "brought to her knees" and subsequently assumed a more authoritative posture, apparently very conscious of the kind of image she likes to project. Someone asked about the halo effect in this image; it turned out to be the result of a poor digital file, the original does not show it!

Tessa Jowell as photographed by Brian Griffin
This photo was made during a slide presentation and has been rendered in black and white
to emphasise formal elements of the image and to remove the distracting colour caste.

   A short introduction to him and his work posted on the gallery wall, pointed out that his work is considered ground breaking. He is known for his photographs of the building of Broadgate in the City of London during the 1980's and the building of High Speed 1, the UK's first high-speed railway. He draws from the Old Masters of art and has an interest in nineteenth century symbolism, classical sculptures and B-movies, all of which contribute to his images. He rarely preconceives images, preferring to observe and respond to sitters. His work as a film maker helps when making group photographs of the kind seen in the 2012 Olympics exhibition.

   Hearing Brian Griffin talking about his work, provided an interesting insight into the workings of a portrait photographer. Yet before he began, we were shown a film made for TV of him introducing his work with accompanying music; he spoke loudly and yet not too loud to stop me falling asleep, largely the result of a dawn start and a day spent wandering around London although I did not find it easy to relate to what he was saying since he seemed to be talking up his work, surely unnecessarily.

   Brian Griffin pointed out he chooses the locations for his work in this project; it is important to find a place that reflects the role of his subjects although this background does not play that prominent a part in his work. Sometimes, because of weather perhaps, the background needs changing and he is obliged to improvise. 

   He talked about trying to rediscover the joy of photographing, that initial experience when one begins to make photographs. He finds himself continually working towards creating a satisfying image and considers that out of all the images he might make in a single year, there may be only a couple with which he feels satisfied.

Brian Griffin with a personal favourite among his Olympics 2012 portfolio

   The photograph seen above is one such image. In it, there are various "lines" such as those to the side of the two faces while there is a curving line formed by the direction of the arms that further adds to the symmetry.

   One feature of the images that struck me is that none of the people seem to be communicating with each other; this is however, a result of the way they have been posed and does not reflect the actual relationships of the people who one feels would need to be communicating with each other if they are to work effectively. An example of photography distorting the real rather than communicating it! Brian Griffin manipulates his subjects physically like a pupeteer.

   Captions play an important part in this body of work. They relate to the part that the people pictured in the 2012 Olympics project are playing.

Brian Griffin with some of his team

   Brian Griffin works with a team of people which include assistants on location and in the "darkroom". All make suggestions yet it is Brian who decides on the vision reflected in the image. It helps to have others who can consider different elements of the picture such as the face, light and aperture; these days, even a 1/10'th of a stop can make a difference to the final image.

   Answering questions, Brian talked about the amount of freedom he has working on this project. He does in fact have the freedom to do what he wants, the way he sees it. There has only been one person objecting to the way they are portrayed and that was someone famous hence image conscious.

   He considers that what he was doing is not just a public relations project but requires the eye of an artist. I might have asked him about a remark that he made many years ago about not being an artist. The simple answer to that conundrum might be that he is not an artist because he is a photographer yet some of course would want to challenge such an assertion.

text and photos copyright 2010 Amano Samarpan


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