Paul Tonkinson, Shot in Westminster 8 April 2008
Paul was heading up to Edinburgh for the fringe and needed a concept for a show about being comfortable with middle. I suggested
the seven stages of man. Paul said five would be plenty. I think it works very well.
Taking the Time
When an interviewer finishes questioning their interviewee they still have days of transcription and editing ahead of them when they get home. By contrast, when the photographer finishes the shoot and packs up they can focus on the next. It is therefore possible for photographers to earn relatively large sums of money if they can line up several jobs in a day, although they may not have time to take anything of value from the experience. Piers has a view on what constitutes the right length of time to spend doing a job.
“Depending on the logistics, some photographers, particularly the ones who work for agencies, can probably get four or five jobs in a day,” say Piers. “In London I am talking about now. It’s hard work and of course that’s dependent on the amount of time spent on that particular job, the distance incurred – that kind of thing.
“I’m particularly conscientious; sometimes I’ll overstay my welcome to get what I need. I know now more or less when I’ve got the picture. It’s a combination of experience and instinct. It’s knowing that people aren’t particularly volatile and that things aren’t going to fundamentally change from one minute to the next.
“I think what’s really interesting about photography is time and space. Time is a big factor and all sorts of things happen within a particular time frame. You get to know how long something is going to take before the moment elapses and things change. It’s a bit like judging the direction of the wind, in a funny kind of way. If someone is being particularly extrovert then you take more pictures, because their facial expression will change more often whereas if you do a corporate job, you find that business people tend to maintain a very similar expression. They are also shyer of the camera and don’t particularly enjoy the experience so you want to make it as painless for them as possible.
“You will spend more time taking pictures of someone famous because they enjoy the experience and they are capable of more moods and expressions. I’ve found that especially true of comedians. I’ve photographed lots of comedians for their Edinburgh fringe shows, where I’ll do a studio shoot with them or go on location somewhere, and they are capable of a myriad of expressions, moods and aspects of behaviour. You can spend hours with them, run off hundreds of frames and they’ll all be different.”
Piers has been a photographer long enough to have formed some definite opinions on what personal qualities a photographer needs to have in order to make a success of their career. He identifies several as being on a par with one another.
“I would say patience is really important. Never become flustered, always be calm and show you are in control and that you know what you are doing. Also, being liked is very important. If people don’t like you they won’t trust you and if they don’t trust you they won’t want to work with you. It also has to be remembered that the chances are that your paths will cross again at some point, and so if you want an extra mile from them – something a little bit different and a bit more exclusive – you need them to like you.”
“You have to remember it is a very artificial situation, much like hosting the news or presenting a chat show, so you are putting on the smarm. I’ve often sat in on interviews where the interviewee is being really charming, then as soon as the tape stops running they revert to type, so it can work both ways. It’s harder to do the more spontaneous things because people tend to pose, unless you stay long into the evening when they start getting drunk.
“But I carry on the chat even if I have stopped taking pictures. That’s what I meant when I talked about wanting to leave a job having learnt something about the person I’ve photographed. That’s really important otherwise it is all a little bit meaningless. There is a tendency for people to hide behind the camera when they are working. It’s complicated because an extrovert is less likely to be a photographer, because photography requires someone who is meticulous, steadfast, and isn’t displaying their own personality to get what they want. But actually, what you need from a good photographer, I think, is someone who is extrovert and flamboyant but can also do the technical things. If you get a mixture of the two then you’ve got a winner.
“In conclusion to that, if you look at some fashion photographers, particularly the really famous ones, they are good fun to be around, because they are constantly chatting and putting people at their ease. Of course, they have an advantage because they are working with models who know what to do.
“Working quickly is essential, it really is. It is better all round for everybody, but particularly for your subject. You need to work quickly because they will grow tired and weary and possibly troublesome over time. Then you lose the spontaneity and that is everything in photography, because they need to be relaxed.
“It’s a good learning curve to step in front of the camera sometimes and understand the predicament in which you are putting your subject. Quite often I forget because I am behind the lens rather than in front of it. It is unnerving when a lens is trained on you and there is a mixture of emotions that go on. Self consciousness is one thing, obviously, where the person is thinking, ‘What do I look like, am I presenting the best side of myself, will I look handsome, will I look pretty? Should I be thoughtful, should I smile or not? So the subject feels a whole range of emotions, whereas for the photographer it is often largely mechanical, and that’s why they’ve got to have good interpersonal skills. I think that’s really important, and I do meet a lot of photographers who just don’t. They are nice photographers, but they are nervous themselves, half the time.” TF
Part 3 of our interview with Piers can be found here: Part 3
To return to Part 1, click here: Part 1