Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Day 126: channelling Mapplethorpe at Kew

It's the second day of the Heather Angel macro flower workshop at Kew Gardens and after a wet and windy night we're back in our classroom. The lovely old wooden sash windows are struggling against the ferocious gusts, we're going to be challenged today keeping everything pin sharp. We learn about focus stacking and how it can really elevate your macro photography. If I can procure one of the focus slider tripod thingies for a bargain price, I'd be tempted to give it a go.

Before taking our own photographs we start off looking at more inspirational images, and there was an old favourite of mine. I've always been a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography since first becoming aware of his work over twenty years ago. I'd come across a giant black & white print of a calla lily promoting one of Robert Mapplethorpe's shows, I think in a gallery or museum shop. I had the purple text cut off and then professionally framed and hung above my bed. After that I stumbled across a small calendar on another museum visit and again framed a couple of smaller black & white flower images of his. And in my ignorance, I thought that this entirely represented Mapplethorpe's photography.

In November 1996 I learnt that the Hayward Gallery was doing an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's work and secured myself a ticket for an evening show after work, as I was handily contracting at IBM on the Southbank. I remember feeling awfully prissy in a less than sombre work suit queuing outside whereas my fellow art lovers seemed all aggressive in bondage trousers and studded leather. "Not the crowd I'd expect to like black & white photographs of lilies" I thought. And they probably thought of me, "she doesn't look like a big fan of explicit hard-core gay porn". Well, I realised quickly that it was indeed eye opening, and I'd been ignorant of this particular oeuvre until now! Subsequently I discovered that I was at a terribly controversial art exhibition with rare viewings of pieces that had been banned elsewhere. And not so many flowers I hasten to add! I could still admire his style, the clean, uncluttered monochromatic graphic images. It was definitely an education! Back then you couldn't just Google an artist and be enlightened. Firstly it was a couple of years before the birth of Google, and secondly I certainly didn't have access to a computer on the world wide web. Our computers at work had been used for word processing, spreadsheets and databases, and had access to internal email only. When I went for an interview shortly after I'd had to decamp to a library to use their single computer to have a hope of doing the necessary research for my required presentation.

I'd seen an article in the Observer magazine about the Antony Gormley Field for the British Isles (thank goodness for Google now) a while back. And courtesy of a poster discovered the show happened to be at the Hayward Gallery at the same time as Mapplethorpe, so I went off in search. In fact the sea of terracotta Gorms staring blankly up at me arranged in a way that you couldn't see the extremities of the room, was profound. Maybe the simplicity, the strange dumb trust was some sort of antidote to the mind-blowing images I'd seen next door. I remember crouching down next to them and feeling very tranquil.


Fast forward to present day. As well as Mapplethorpe we examined other flower artists to inspire us, Heather showed us some images from Flora Photographica, and as it was one of the reading list books I'd already stocked up on, I was delighted. She explained her paraphernalia for studio flower photography. We had pop up light cubes, a variety of backdrops, diffusers, clamps, bellows, reflectors and a jar full of flower specimens, Heather picked before we arrived. There was a mass erecting of tripods and I was very keen to get my hands on the white bells and wanted to try them against various backdrops. I was trying to channel Mapplethorpe but couldn't quite get the background to be as black as I liked. Heather showed me that I should opt for manual and a tiny aperture, rather than my customary 1.7 and get everything in focus plus blackening the backdrop. That was exactly the look I was trying to achieve. I then recreated the idea with the pink spray of flowers. it was also interesting to see the effect of a wide-open lens had on the white backdrops. My preference is for the black, but the paler has merit too.


After the studio, everyone was itching to get out in Kew again. I was keen to revisit some of the previous day's images and see if I could improve on sharpness. And as I'd had the foresight to bring my new rose covered high-heeled wellingtons, it seemed wrong not to break them out. I headed for the peonies and was shocked to see that overnight they'd been so battered by the winds, they were almost flat and the delicate papery petals were crushed and absent. These sad snaggle-toothed flowers were so depressing and a few others I'd intended a second go at were far from pristine too. I returned to the alpine house and was intrigued the effect of a smaller aperture on some of the blooms. The first purple one is taken on the initial visit and the second throwing more into focus a day later. I'm not sure as to my preference in this case.

I had planned joining the others in the waterlily house but was warned that my camera would most likely fog up and so thought I'd stay away being mindful of time (I'm not sure how long my little Leica would take to recoverm but knowing how easily it gets drowned I wouldn't risk it). Instead I thought I'd explore ferns, as they hadn't been so ravaged and see if I could end up with a single tulip specimen.


For those who didn't have to rush off we presented some of our images. I preferred the ones that had been taken on the workshop as it's always fascinating seeing other interpretation of similar photographic opportunities. I was the only one who'd been able to present any of the studio shots from today as I post-processed one over lunch (though I was thankful it needed very little)

Before I left I couldn't resist purchasing a couple more of Heather's books. I'm so hoping I get the opportunity to explore another one of her workshops. If I can fathom the Kew workshop booking system (extremely frustrating) I intend to keep an eye out for more. At least I have a Robert Canis wildflower workshop signed up for in July, and he gets to do the travelling this time!


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