Why was I drawn to become a portrait photographer? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve asked myself this question.
In part I chose this career because deep down I know that I’ve a strong voyeuristic streak. I like the lives of others, I want to get on the inside, to be nosey, to stand within someone else’s skin and feel their life. And this has been the profession that allows me a way into those spaces and experiences that may prove difficult to achieve in other ways.
Some time ago I decided to embark on a very long personal project to document the UK motorcycle community as it was at that time. So I spent three long years photographing as many bikers as I could manage to persuade into my studio to pose with their machines. I had a connection to this world because I, too, had ridden for many years until my driving was curtailed by the onset of epilepsy in my twenties.
I chose to work all of these as a studio series with a standard lighting set-up and background throughout. I was particularly inspired by the work of August Sander’s series of photographs, ‘People of the 20th Century’.
My starting point was a background and lighting plan. I commissioned a large, painted, mottled canvas which dropped the full height of the studio and then ran out onto the floor and had sufficient slack to allow me to add folds & still fill the picture frame when working on a wide angle lens. It is 7 x 4 meters.
The lighting consisted of an Elinchrom A2 head with 60cm softbox high above the camera and running from an Elinchrom 202 pack. A large ‘V’ reflector made from two 8ft x 4ft flats on the left out of which runs an Elinchrom 50 head and finally a large 8ft x 4ft polyboard reflector beneath and in front of the camera. I needed something that was simple, easy to repeat, quick to assemble and would work successfully for both individuals and small groups.
The shots were made using either a Hasselblad 500C/M usually with a 50mm lens but sometimes an 80mm. With this camera I shot Ilford FP4 Plus black and white negative. My other approach was to occasionally use a Horseman monorail camera and a 150mm lens to make black and white Polaroid negatives from either Type 55 or Type 665 film. In actual fact I used this method as much as the medium format approach.
The great advantage of the Polaroid pos/neg material was that I was able to solarise the negative. I did this by cutting the standard processing time in half, peeling the film, re-expossing the resulting under-processed negative using a speedlight on low power, then leaving the negative in a dark box to continue developing. After another 2 minutes I’d clear it using a bath of sodium sulphite to find an image with properly exposed highlights but re-exposed and thus negative shadow areas.
Finding people was the fun part. Understanding that all magazines are always on the lookout for free material I began by shooting a small number of friends and with these initial shots put together a press-pack for the bike & scootering press. All the magazines published my images and contact details and the phone didn’t stop ringing. This was done when the internet was in it’s infancy so social media was still just a dream.
The beauty of it was that the people just kept coming and the project developed a life of it’s own. The stories of peoples lives, events, journeys, near death experiences, love, loss, sorrow, sadness and joy were a pleasure to listen to and mirrored many of my own experiences. I lost count of the number of cups of tea that were consumed during this process but I do know that film and processing cost me close to £10,000 (€15,000 at the time) and that was without print costs.
In retrospect I have no regrets. I never succeeded in publishing it as a book yet I learnt an invaluable amount about my own creative process and the images that found there way into my portfolios generated interest from clients and thus additional commissioned work.
After almost 500 individuals had posed I called it a day.
All images © Julian Hawkins
Hasselblad 500C/M, 50mm or 80mm, Ilford FP4 Plus @ 125 ISO, 1/125sec, f11 1/2
Horseman 450LE monorail, 150mm, Polaroid T55 @ 50 ISO or Polaroid T665 @ 75 ISO, 1/125 sec, f11 1/2 (flash power increased to compensate for slower speed)
Ref: Adams A, (1963), Polaroid Land Photography Manual, Morgan & Morgan (out of print)