Informing Contexts week 8 Activity: An interview with the portrait photographer Harry Borden

This week we’d been asked t”o source and post to this forum an interview with a practitioner who interests you and informs your practice in some way.”

I wanted to base my analysis on a particular contemporary practitioner who’s work informs my current environmental portrait practice, Harry Borden, said to be one of the UK’s finest portrait photographers who has won a number of awards. The National Portrait Gallery have placed about 100 of his portraits in their permanent collection. As I’d had some contact with Harry for an exercise in the previous module I decided the most effective approach was to ask him if he was willing to be interviewed, which he very kindly was. He has very kindly let me post a copy of a recording that I made of our call, slightly trimmed, see below. I’ve restricted this evaluative summary to the visual approach aspects of his current practice.

_____________________-

On taking on a new assignment Harry generally has a fairly clear idea beforehand of the subject’s background. He tries to record the relationship he had with them on the day. He tries to avoid pre-conceptions as he finds spontaneous reactions provide the best images; “more authentic”. He’s much more open to chance; “letting things happen”, that he was in the past. As my own preference is the spontaneous, ‘natural’, look. I found these comments very reassuring. Much to improve on relationship-wise though.

Harry particularly admires the work of Diane Arbus, “she didn’t know what she was looking for but knew when she’d found it”. Harry feels this encapsulates his own approach, particularly now he is more experienced and confident. He can feel more relaxed going into a new assignment, he “doesn’t overthink it”, “trust that the magic will happen”, and it usually does. As an example Harry quoted his image of Bill Nighy, where he made an excellent set of images featuring Bill Nighy wearing both Harry and Bill’s sets of glasses. Above all Harry feels creativity on the day is key, and this comes from being relaxed, and having the conviction to persuade a subject like Bill Nighy to do it.

Harry Borden; ‘Bill Nighy’ February, 2014

Harry Borden; ‘Bill Nighy’ February, 2014

At the shoot, if possible, he will try several different scenarios and environments, different lighting, different clothes, different backdrop, hoping to capture “a genuine moment”. He trusts his own instincts and one value of using digital is knowing immediately what he has captured. His long-standing practice is to use just two prime lenses; a 35 and 50mm equivalent, unless the assignment demands something different. He feels that with a wider lens it is a lot easier to assess the best composition for the frame, and is much closer to what the eye sees in real life. He rarely makes a significant crop to his image post-processing.

On keeping to just two choices of focal length I’m far from convinced, though I guess by basing the shot close to what the eye sees it does enable you to assess the composition pretty accurately before looking through the camera’s viewfinder. Especially valuable if capturing a ‘moment’. Unless the area is tight you can always move forwards or back too. I know from recently meeting him that the renowned David Hurn, the Magnum photographer, uses, and has used, almost the same lens combination as Harry (50mm and 28mm equivalent). Albeit on a half-frame Fuji rather that their new medium format that Harry has started using. For my current environmental portrait shoots, where I’m trying to get a more dramatic shot I’m often using a wide 20mm prime lens, I may however not be making as much use of the 50mm ‘as-the-eye-sees-it” field of view as much as I could, and there are certain issues in shooting really wide that trouble me.

Harry made the interesting remark that consistency in producing good images is the mark of a professional photographer. It’s certainly a way of differentiating from the many who produce wonderful images on not so many occasions. His expression that “there is a compulsion to take pictures a certain way” I found insightful. He felt it a very Instinctive attribute, to know when an image as a certain “graphic tension” to it. My suspicion that this instinctiveness comes with practice/experience, coupled with an understanding of what gives visual impact.

He doesn’t feel his approach today with his medium format digital camera, is that different to when he was using a 6×6 120 film Hasselblad. He does feel digital is an enabling technology, particularly in in providing fast auto-focus and a much greater ability to work in low-light. Allowing him to capture a lot more shots hand-held than in the past. Harry identified that one virtue of using film is that there are natural pauses when changing film, allowing you to chat to the subject. He’s aware of this so nowadays during a shoot he just breaks off periodically to have that same conversation. He also felt with digital there’s a risk of constantly taking pictures, getting mentally exhausted in the process.

I’ve started taking some shots for my project with a 90’s era tripod-mounted Hasselblad and I can see exactly what he means. I also have to add that for the much less experienced the slowing down forced by using an older medium format film camera also aids getting the optimal composition first time. Just as the Falmouth workshop portfolio reviewers who recommended it, and my tutors, said it would.  I quite agree about the conversational element too.

He finished this topic by pointing out that he sometimes uses his i-phone’s camera; “It’s all just a means to an end”. Which I wholeheartedly agree with.

The full interview can be heard here .

 

REFERENCES

Andelli Art website, unknown author “Harry Borden biography” Andelli Art website, accessed  31-3-18; http://www.andelliart.com/harry-borden/

Borden, H.,Website; http://harryborden.co.uk/, Instagram feed; #harryborden

Clark, D (13th March, 2017) “Photo Insight with Harry Borden: Bill Nighy” Amateur Photographer Digital Edition, Time Inc., London. See  http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/photo_insight/photo-insight-harry-borden-bill-nighy-101062).