How brave are you? Would you recommend that someone attend an anger management course? What if that someone was holding an axe? That’s what a former boss suggested to my latest subject Clay – before he left and set up his own business – as a tree surgeon, hence the axe. His leaving was more to do with paperwork and the safety ‘elf than anger management though.
Despite how that sounds Clay is a remarkably mild mannered man and a bell ringer at the local church in his spare time. He also lives in this beautiful old listed cottage in the heart of Surrey.
Why would grown ups get up at 4am, strap some bells to their shins, and head to a hill in Surrey to wave hankies and bash sticks? Probably because they were members of the Ewell St Mary’s Morris Men and were participating in their annual dance event to “Greet The Sun” on May Day morning. It was a mixture of intrigue, and a rash promise to a magazine editor, that made me get up even earlier and head to Box Hill to capture some portraits of the Morris Men as the sun came up at 5:34!
It was pitch black when I arrived to set up my gear, but I had packed a head torch and had done a reccé of the hillside a couple of days before to work out the best spot for the portraits. Initially I was alone but then I heard what I thought were goats, only to realise that it was the bell clad Morris Men making their way down from the car park!
It was very misty on the day and we were on the shadow side of the hill so the sunlight wasn’t around for long but there were some interesting skies and I was able to get these portraits.
It’s amazing what you find on little islands. I met Max A Hatter on Johnson’s Island in West London; he makes hats in a very small studio, at the top of a spiral staircase (I seem to be sending a lot of time in small rooms at the top of spiral staircases!) Max was introduced to me by Tim at Clement Knives, who I photographed on a nearby island making chef’s knives.
Max’s hats are really quite unique; based on a bowler style but with influences from Sapeurs and Yardies, and with a Turbanesque – a detachable padding or turban, which is used for position and comfort.
As well as being a hat maker of distinction Max is also a member of The Rad Orchestra, a band for whom he plays the Ngoni, a West African string instrument, but not one for convention Max has had his Ngoni made by fellow Island resident Peter Longfellow, and Pete’s speciality is making musical instruments out of metal. You can see the Ngoni on the sofa in the portrait of Max, and there is more on Pete to come.
Campanologists that’s who! The sound of church bells ringing out is a part and parcel of town and village life in England, but how many people have seen inside a bell ringing chamber? My latest project involved creating portraits of bell ringers in their ringing chambers, which seemed like a good idea until I saw the steps I’d need to climb to gain access (and yes that’s my foot on the top step – and no I don’t have big feet!):
Once I had climbed the steps though I found that each space was very different, but they were unified by always being small, which presented some photographic challenges! The spaces were unique and quite fascinating, which is something I tried to capture in my environmental portraits.
Peals, methods, bobs and Sallys were all words that I thought meant something else until I started meeting bell ringers, but it turns out that they are all part of ringing life. Bell ringing has always been a significant part of Remembrance Day, dating back to when Armistice was declared on November 11th 1918, when they rang freely for the first time since the start of the first World War. With 2018 being the 100th year since the end of World War 1 there is a campaign called Ringing Remembers that is attempting to recruit 1400 new bell ringers this year to commemorate the 1400 bell ringers who lost their lives in WW1.
It is common for the bells to be rung half muffled on the morning of November 11th, which means putting one of these on one side of the clapper:
It produces a more muted sound and is considered to be more fitting for the sombre mood of Remembrance Day.
To take these photos of the bells I had to go right up the tower to where the bells are housed, and if I’m going to go that far then I might as well go on the roof to see views like this:
St Peter’s Church in Chertsey, where I live, has a dumb bell for beginners to practice on, and when I visited them I was allowed to have a go on it. It’s called a dumb bell because it makes no sound, and the residents of Chertsey don’t know how lucky they were when I had a go! I think bell ringing is best left to the professionals like these:
Or more accurately a knife’s edge on a river’s edge. Meet Tim who hand makes knives from reclaimed steel in his workshop on Lots Ait on the river Thames in Brentford. Tim’s a trained chef, and like all chefs he has a fascination with knives, but he’s taken it a step further and decided to make them himself.
What could be more fun than making your own high temperature oven out of an old gas cylinder, heating bits of steel up to over 1000 degrees C inside it, and then bashing the steel repeatedly with a big hammer until you have a knife? Okay there’s a lot more to it than that, including the amount of time spent making it razor sharp. Tim also hand makes the handles which he traditionally made from wood but has started making recycled plastic handles from plastic found in the Thames. All this in a 12′ x 12′ workshop in an old boatyard – to create these pictures we had to take the window out!
Check out Tim’s videos of him slicing an onion with one of his knives on his Instagram page. Remarkably Tim still has all his fingers!
Guess what I did over the summer? Yep I shot 175 Portraits in two days – mad but true. It was Chertsey Agricultural Association’s 175th Annual Show so they asked me to shoot 175 portraits of people at this years show, one for each year. Obviously wandering around a field asking a load of strangers if I could photograph them was right up my street (or field may be a better word)!
To emphasise the history of the show we gave the show images an aged treatment and you can see all the characters here (okay there are some of kids cuddling dogs but come on I had to shoot a portrait every 4 minutes!)
Some of them were too good to not to take a second look at in colour, so I’ve selected some of my personal favourites and uploaded them here – just click them to see the gallery images..
With it being an agricultural show, when I had completed my 175th portrait I obviously had to enjoy a pint of cider…
You would be forgiven if graffiti wasn’t the first thing that comes to mind though, but, as I discovered during a recent reccé, there are some fabulous street art focused projects taking place in Oxford, most notably the Oxford Canal Mural Project initiated by local residents and the Oxford Canal and River Trust, which includes the fabulous Kingfisher mural below created by artist Richard Wilson.
Inspired by all this artwork I decided to use it as the basis for a recent portrait photo shoot in Oxford including some of the canal side murals and down the Cowley Road in Oxford City. It wasn’t without it’s challenges though as we got “boat-o-bombed” on the canal (see below)!
Whilst I think the initiative and the art in particular is fantastic, I’m not sure Morse would have agreed…
Or to be more precise beer made in the Thames – well, on an island in the Thames; Platt’s Eyot, a former boat builders yard that also made torpedo boats during the second world war.
Oddly is an independent brewery that operates out of one of the old boat yard buildings. Dilapidated and cold when he first moved in but home to this new and growing brewery.
Brian, the head brewer, moved in last year to set up a permanent home for Oddly on this fabulous island, access to which is via a small suspension bridge just large enough to take a narrow van, which led to Brian’s first challenge; how to get the barrels from the delivery point on the shore to his brewery. A job that took 10 minutes previously now took two and a half days!
As an independent brewer “Dry January” isn’t one of his favourite months, however the independents have responded with Tryanuary, a nationwide campaign to support independent brewers by encouraging people try different beers.
It was a great shoot and I’ve always been a fan of the odd beer, but now I am definitely a fan of the Oddly beer…
I photographed Jeremy Smith, Editor-At-Large for OX Magazine last year. He wrote this about the experience in OX Magazine (which you can see here ). All words from this point on are his own.
You may recognise these photographs of five men and five women; they are, in no particular order, Albert Einstein, Raquel Welch, James Dean, Betty Grable, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Farrah-Fawcett, Audrey Hepburn and Salvador Dali.
You may not be familiar with the cause of their fame or achievement but you will, undoubtedly, be familiar with these portraits.
Because these are pictures that define so much more (a whole universe more in fact) than the two- dimensional profiles they present.
I, thank god am neither famous nor, sadly, an outstanding talent, but I do share something in common with these icons of science, art, cinema and music; I have a photograph.
A photograph that embodies a micro second of existence yet also a whole human lifetime of success, failure, ignorance, enlightenment and resurrection.
It was taken in August of 2016 and has, quite simply, changed my life…
There is great speculation yet its precise inspiration remains obscure.
Not that it especially matters: “A picture is worth a thousand words” simply endures as one of life’s great truisms. But until August 2016 it held little personal relevance.
It was a Monday morning, and save for the fact the sky was blue and a slight chill lingered in the air, it was ordinary.
I was about to be photographed and sporting a wardrobe I had spent more than a week clinically appraising. Not that it was a fashion shoot or anything so alluring. Just a shoot of me attempting to own, rather agreeably, my recent disability.
In my head of course I envisaged it as infinitely more profound: a statement if you will of everything I had fought to overcome since falling so gracelessly 18 months earlier.
You see, the slip, the trip, the tumble of 40 feet which had left my frame so scrambled had left me wheelchair bound (and that, trust me, was an unimaginable bonus; it had looked for many months as if I might remain bed-ridden).
But I didn’t, I’d persevered and I was proud of what I’d achieved. But ‘proud’ perhaps in a way that was slightly atypical.
I hadn’t wanted to use sport to redefine my rehabilitation as so many spinal injury patients do; I wanted to use attitude. And I don’t mean defiantly or grittily. What I wanted to do was nail my colours to the mast… sartorially.
And no, even I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.
Spinning in my head since the early weeks of my trauma, and doubtless morphine induced, I nevertheless sensed that my journey to recovery was to be as aesthetic as physical. Yet I couldn’t then nor 16 months later crystallise what that meant. It was just an intuitiveness without form or substance.
However, on this particular morning I had been more doubtful than excited. I had explained to photographer Douglas Kurn the ‘statement’ I was after (and yes, I now cringe at how pretentious I must have sounded). He in turn had simply acknowledged my grand ambition by readying the location (Oxford’s Bodleian library) and appraising my physical prowess.
Clearly, I could stand but for seconds rather than minutes. And to complicate matters even further, I wanted to cross my legs.
I think we both knew from a clinical perspective it was unwise but I was adamant it would pictorially translate as ‘rakish’ and felt buoyed by my outlandishly arrogant percipience.
And so it was after several false starts, spasms and near falls that Douglas’s camera came alive.
Naturally, my perpendicular fragility allowed for a window of maybe only a few seconds, but within such a constrained time frame, Douglas invented, initiated and improvised blurrily.
I’m guessing this shot took only 10 minutes from start to finish and although quietly confident about the result I expected, I was depressed too by the sudden, all to apparent naivety of my design. After all, how could I hope that such an everyday morning could be transformed into something so visceral and life reaffirming?
And indeed, that is how sceptical I remained. Not cynical or pessimistic but frustrated and impotent by the sheer folly of what seemed such an illusory goal.
Heck, if I couldn’t put into words the sense of what I so desperately wanted to project, how could I expect Douglas to capture it?
Jeremy Smith, outside the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Not that I had long to wait…
I remember every breath of that early revelation and like many revelations and life-changing moments today, it came via email. And what I saw made me cry. Openly and unapologetically. It was me alright, but as I’d dreamt me, stylish, savvy and oh-so-chipperly defiant. And today, almost 10 months on it still makes me cry.
Appropriately, there are no words that can capture my joy.
Pictures? Yes. Plenty of them, which explosively chart the recapturing of dreams, hopes, and faith (in me). But none that will ever match this one, defining millisecond out of 475,000 (approx.) grasped, lived, and wasted hours.
Douglas Kurn’s photograph quite simply embodies the best of me.
It’s truer and more honest than any epitaph (one doesn’t even need to look closely to see the vanity, the arrogance, the childlike dream to better myself), and for that I will always be eternally grateful…
I learnt recently that if you have run your own restaurant you’ve earned the right to be called “chef” by your peers – it’s a matter of respect; even if it is a bit confusing in a kitchen full of “chefs”!
Why was I surrounded by culinary creators? It was a commission for Compass Group who were completely revamping their corporate website, and they needed new portraits of their executive chefs.
For a few days my nostrils were filled with the aroma of spicy, tangy and sweet food, and my stomach rumbled and growled, as we travelled to various kitchens in and around London, setting up lights and trying to stay out the way of the very busy kitchen staff. I’m guessing the lack of Gordon Ramsey-esque profanities hurled in our direction meant that we managed it, or maybe they were just too busy to care!
Oh, and I also learnt that doing the cooking at home doesn’t earn you the right to be called chef….