Making People Float (and Other Concerns of a Concept Photographer)
As he tells it, British photographer Nick Layton first experimented with concept photography in a semi-dilapidated apartment above a friend’s tattoo shop. Now, he’s producing a guide to creating the otherworldly effects that he’s since taught himself. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Nick about his varied career, how concept photography mirrors filmmaking, and how to pursue personal projects when you have a budget of zero.
Emily von Hoffmann: Concept photography is still something that I think people regard as mysterious or wacky — how did you get started in concept photography? What got you hooked?
Nick Layton: I started experimenting with double exposures, mixing images of different length exposures (one with standard strobe and the other using a bicycle light in shot and spread over 30 seconds). Attempting to keep as close to the same aperture from one shot to another, I was using ND. I enjoyed creating these images, and at any point I might return to that, but it was the sort of technically challenging image that you might associate with creating a poster for a Disco, rather than finding something of meaning in the context of the subject and their relationship with the environment.
So I didn’t start off thinking, “I must create a body of work that defines me as a photographer,”… or did I? I love fine art photography and wondered if I could fuse the two mediums of concept and fine art together. I was working with a model in a semi-dilapidated apartment above a friend’s tattoo shop, and said to her that I had this idea about making her float and would she like to give it a try. And Andreia Cardoso, a lady from Portugal who, like all the ladies I have shot over the years, was lovely, said yes. I put two studio lights on the far wall and with not too much finesse, semi-pointed them back at Andreia, and that was it. I don’t think it’s a great image, but it has a certain promise about it. Then, one day, I was putting my work into frames and it just struck me, looking from one image to another, yes, there is something of a familiar thread here, of quirkiness, and of me I guess.
EvH: You’ve used the metaphor of a film director to explain the role of the concept photographer — can you elaborate on this likeness for our readers?
NL: As a 21 year old kid we- me and all my Doctor Who fan friends- made a movie, Scarecrow City (renamed later I think), and the writer asked us if we could do some special stunts and you know, maybe even roll the hired Landrover for a part of the film and we just laughed and said, “Are you kidding!” Of course, we did manage to accidentally roll the Landrover while there was no camera rolling and no one looking. My point is that I know all about zero budget films! There is just absolutely zero budget for these images. They are not requested, or funded, and so are free of any corporate message, but I am trying to create an image that slightly punches above its weight in terms of scale and concept.
The image itself: The frame on my images is sometimes quite cinematic, a sort of 16/9 ratio or 1.85:1 which is quite unusual for photography. I started with floating people, but after a while you say to yourself, “What am I doing? I should say something useful.” By creating an image with a twist or an unusual concept element, you already have an audience. Next, make people think. It can be about a person who has some challenge, or about how people have communication-phobia, or excessive red tape and doing things in triplicate in government, or about the dangers of dieting — It can be whatever you want it to be. For me I’m still developing, and I am a very political animal. But getting back to the original statement, I have to fund the images, and more of these will come when I can find the right balance of location, model and attire etc. and then pay for it from the work I do as a normal photographer. That single moment, that flick of hair, rise of the wrist, half turned cheek, those are the moments we, as photographers live and die for. All serious photographers are the architects of their creations, which means we are all directors, and love that creative process. And I bet there are a fair few frustrated movie directors out there as well!
EvH: How fully do you visualize these images ahead of time? Do they appear fully-formed in your mind, or do you usually brainstorm and sketch several iterations, for instance?
NL: The only sketches are ones I draw out in my mind. That inherent ability is something you’ve either got or not. I hope I know when going into a location whether it will work or not. I might think through different angles or how to light it, and which lens will work best, but the look is in my mind. Other times, it goes back to the budget question. Some buildings require permissions and money. I’ll have a grand vision for an image sometimes and realize I can’t make it work, and so adapt the idea. The plan for the image with Alice was a grand modern white-walled building called West Quay in Southampton. As time was against us, and I really couldn’t stomach an audience during the shoot, we decided to go with a slightly run down graffiti covered wall on a private footpath. It was perfect for the image. While I would have liked a sterile white wall for those hands to pop out, that grungy lichen-covered wall was more suited the subject matter.
EvH: What is one of the coolest things that you’ve learned how to do since you began practicing concept photography? Like, what is one thing you can recall that totally blew your mind when you successfully created it?
NL: There are two things really. The first is a simple and straightforward mechanical photographic process that, actually once you think about it, you feel stupid for not employing earlier. Obviously it’s no secret that the process of suspending people requires a post-production strategy, which I talk about in the book. As photographers we know that light gets softer the closer you get to a subject, so then why not put lights in the actual frame? As long as you plan your image and remember to cover your back, i.e, pack a tripod, and take as many other alternative frames (with bracketing) without the light or lights in frame. The other idea is that complex shoots like ‘The Ad Men’ can be shot over more than one day if you can’t have all your elements available on the same day.
On the same shoot I had the camera bang up against the wall, and wanted to create that cinematic width, and did that with a stitched image of 5 frames from a 35mm lens. The benefit of this is that even in a tight spot, you don’t have to resort to using a 14mm or equivalent wide angle lens which has that awful ‘wide face’ stretch effect at the edge of the frame. Over the years, I’ve become a bit more adept at balancing strobe and natural light.
EvH: You’ve also worked as a studio portrait photographer. Can you discuss a little about any differences between the studio setting and where you work now? Have you been able to discover anything about your own creative process or preferences by comparing those different environments and genres?
NL: The studio thing was one of those gigs that you look back on fondly, but there’s a frightening repetition that can creep into your work. Some days it was a treadmill and you were just grinding out the images. The main difference now is that the people I work with want to create art, whereas most (not all though) of those people felt an obligation to create a record for their relatives. One lesson I learned was that when shooting you are a foil for everything going on around you. So if you are having a problem with any technical aspect of your shoot, which mostly meant the lighting for me, that apprehension sort of transferred to your subject, and naturally their ability to pose with confidence.
Once I sorted my lighting issues out, suddenly the confidence would come flooding back. I’ve watched other photographers make similar mistakes to me, including one lovely chap who subconsciously gave a running technical description of what he was trying to achieve. His images were great by the way! But no one paid the slightest notice of him muttering ‘f-stops’ under his breath. Most don’t care. Other days, I was laughing with my subjects so hard, I couldn’t keep the camera still. Really, they just rely on you to do ‘your best by them’. I learned how photographers need to keep in their locker a good solid understanding of what makes people tick. We were throwing sparkles in the air and I was using polarizing filters with the lights practically on top of subjects. On another day, I remember working with one lady and she suddenly burst into tears.
So I sat her down and we talked. Her and sis had decided to come out for the day and to book a photoshoot to brighten up her day, as the lady’s husband had recently died. Unfortunately, her husband was a big fan of photography, so everything I said just ended up setting her off. We abandoned the shoot and just sat drinking tea, and just to sit and be with that person during a hard time was more important than any photography. I also had a lovely unexpected moment. Months earlier, I was stood at the Cenotaph in Southampton and found some kids mucking around. I had my camera and asked their grandparents if it would be alright to photograph a spontaneous carefree moment providing I sent them the images. You probably wouldn’t do that now, but I sent the photos, and got some thanks back and didn’t think any more of it. But their Mum somehow found me. She came into the studio and came up to me and in front of everyone shook my hand and thanked me for the beautiful images. The photography was important, but so too were skills in psychology, being an “agony aunt” and managing people. On a photographic level, I would often bring in my own backdrops and strobes to add to the four walls and sofa I was shooting in.
EvH: Can you please describe one or two of your favorite images from the project, and what you love about them?
NL: I think from an aesthetic point of view, “The Memory of Water” is one of my all-time favorites. I just love Shani’s look in that image, and it marked the beginning of that phase where I realized I wanted to do something smarter than just making people float. Using water and high speed sync (which you can easily achieve without a high speed strobe) were the extra ingredients. And the editing of that image was hours of painstaking work. Its also fondly remembered for a different reason and that is the shoot itself. I had the camera pushed back against the wall and couldn’t see the image. I was using the tilt and shift 24mm Canon lens. Incredible lens. Shani and I sat down after 20 minutes of water throwing and I looked her squarely in the face and told her we needed to do it all over again.
Without any hesitation, she said, “Come on, let’s get on with it.” She was a star! The other is ‘The Ad Men’ or to give its full title, ‘The Objectification of Women and the Triumph of Commercialism.’ It was a great setting, our glass-walled office in Wokingham, and I had the backing of a brilliant boss, Jim Martin, who has encouraged my photographic exploits. It was another image where I had started planning in my mind the shoot and realised the camera was never going to work placed where I wanted it. But moving it allowed me to get in close to my subject and the pressure she feels from the ad men. That political vision of a world where we are selling out to the highest bidder is displayed on each of those monitors. I can’t understate how important this image is to me, and when I have time, my aim is to create more in this vein. I am always bashing my head up against the wall with people who want to bomb Syria or those in the British Sun newspaper page on Facebook. It’s a bear pit in there. If I can point out one injustice and change one person’s mind with my images, then that will count more than a thousand arguments.
EvH: Who are some of your visual inspirations? Or, who are some artists or creatives in any medium whom you’re particularly enjoying right now?
NL: I don’t think my list of photographers conforms totally with my objectives as a photographer. My visual inspirations are my friends on Flickr. John Hallmen creates incredible macros and they are seriously mind-boggling. Joe Adams, a street photographer in the States has a canny knack for revealing a person’s soul in a fleeting moment. Saul Landell in Mexico makes the most of a wonderful vista and shoots some wonderfully surreal images. Rosie Hardy’s work is superb and she makes great use of colour and light with delicious fashion shots. Outside of Flickr, I am a big fan of Don Mccullin, Cecil Beaton, Terence Donovan and David Bailey. Between them Donovan and Bailey carved up the best and funkiest society shots of the sixties and I grew up loving and admiring their work.
You can purchase Nick’s eBook here.