This weekend, my partner and I drove to Bristol, to the Martin Parr Foundation, to have our portrait shot. Photographer Martin Parr, a member of Magnum Photos, is well known for his quirky style of photography, of illustrating the UK, in particular, at leisure. Parr set up this foundation in 2017, with a goal of presenting his work, and the work of other British and Irish photographers.
(Portrait of Martin Parr by me.)
As a fund-raising event, he held a portrait studio session over two days this weekend. This was a wonderful occasion to have a portrait shot by one of the great living photographers, at an affordable price, and to help support the foundation.
As an amateur – or “enthusiast” as they say in the trade – photographer, I shoot a lot of different types of photos: landscapes, macro photography, and black and white, but I don’t shoot portraits. Shooting portraits is an art that goes beyond merely the photographic. A portrait photographer has to be able to elicit the appropriate expressions in his or her subjects, and this is a skill that I don’t have. So beyond merely having our photo taken, u wanted to see how a great photographer takes portraits.
When we arrived, there were a dozen people in the exhibition space of the foundation, mostly sitting around haphazardly arranged tables with iMacs and lots of mess spread out across them. We were the next to last of the day’s subjects, and people whose photos had already been taken were reviewing their photos with Parr’s assistants to choose what they wanted to print.
We filled in some forms, had some tea and biscuits, then were quickly taken in front of the blue background that was used for the weekend’s photos. My partner and I had spent a bit of time worrying about what to wear, whether or not to bring “props”; it was said in the info from the foundation that we could bring any props or pets, and, while we might want to have our photos taken with our cats, they wouldn’t put up with it. But we just wore clothes that we were comfortable in.
Then Parr positioned us and started the process. He first asked us a bit about ourselves – how long we knew each other, how we had met – as a way of gleaning some information about us, and perhaps breaking the ice. Neither of us were especially nervous about the shoot, though I don’t really like having my picture taken, but Parr’s infectious personality, and his booming voice, put us at ease.
He had us hold hands, then asked us for a serious expression. Then he had us say a few funny words: gherkin, at first (I don’t know why he picked that one), then I said cheese, he suggested pancakes, and so on. This got us to open our mouths and perhaps smile a bit.
He had us change positions several times, me behind my partner, us facing each other, and in each position he quickly shot a half dozen photos. In about ten minutes, it was over, and we were ushered to one of the tables where a young woman opened up our folder of pictures in Lightroom. We went through them and flagged the ones we liked to make a shortlist, then went through them again to shorten the list.
It’s not hard to rule out some of the photos; there are some where one person’s eyes are closed, or the mouth is in a funny position, because that what happens when shooting photos as the subjects are moving. This is why he shot so many photos, to have as many different expressions as possible, and hopefully to catch a few that are honest. If anything, having that many photos to choose from can make the process harder.
We had whittled the list down to six photos, two of which we liked more than the others, and we asked Parr to come and give his opinion; after all, I wanted to know what he, the photographer, though best represented us. He picked the two we had chosen, and we ordered prints which we’ll get in a few weeks: one which was a more “classical” portrait, us holding hands and facing the camera, and another where my partner’s mouth was wide open in laughter, as I looked from the side with a smile on my face.
It was a fascinating process, seeing how someone like this works. I didn’t care about what type of camera or software he was using, but was interested in how he got people to be comfortable in front of the camera. His personality and his humor certainly helped, and he seemed to be enjoying the whole event, even though he had already shot 50 people that day, and had another 50 or so coming the next day. He kindly allowed me to shoot his portrait, which is near the top of this article. (I shot two photos, and, in one, he had a very bad expression, as I caught him in mid-word, but this one was perfect.)
I’m delighted to have a real “art” photo of my partner and myself, and I’m happy to have contributed to the Martin Parr Foundation. If it were closer, I would take out a membership, but an hour and a half is a bit far to go just for a talk or other event. I’m sure we’ll return there in the future, however, whenever we’re in the area.
(If you browse the #martinparr hashtag on Instagram, you’ll see photos that some of the other people present have shared from these two days of portrait shoots.)