I was looking through some photography books over the weekend and found my copy of “Still Life” by Terry Hope, which is a great resource and knowledge base for anyone interested in developing style in creative black and white photography. Terry had approached me when he was writing the book as I was shooting commercial still life photography at the time and he wanted to feature some of my photographs. He visited me at my studio in Clerkenwell to interview me on the stories behind various photographs I had taken for commissions, personally or on my travels. The book features 24 other photographers and is a fabulous, timeless book. I have transcribed the accompany text for one of my featured images and I hope you enjoy it. Still Life is still available on Amazon if you are interested in owning a copy. My other three featured photos and accompanying text will appear in future posts.
Simple pictures can so often work the best, and when I saw the shape that this particular tulip, one of the bunch that was sitting in the vase in my studio had naturally taken up, I knew it would make a wonderful still life study. My problem was that I was rushing to a meeting and yet I knew the tulip would not be the same when I got back. The tulip won!
I decided that I wanted to play around with focus in this picture and narrow it right down, and the studio camera that I was using gave me the opportunity to do this through the movements that are incorporated. Basically a studio camera is just a light tight box with a lens on the front and film container at the back, and by moving the front or even the back of the camera from the vertical it is possible to introduce different focus effects.
Here I swung and tilted the front panel of the camera so that the plane of focus was along the diagonal axis and this allowed only the tulip itself to be sharp – although if you look carefully you will see that there is also an area of sharpness on the edge of the table underneath the flower. I used a focus magnifier to examine the ground glass screen on the back of the camera in close-up so I knew exactly where my focus was going to fall and then took five sheets of film, each one utilising slightly a different composition. This was the best study and proved to me that I was right to miss the meeting.
Lighting here was also kept simple. I placed the flower and vase on a sheet of glass so that a reflection was thrown there, then set up a white background and lit it by bouncing just one flash head from this. It meant that all the light in the scene is reflected and it gave me just the subtle feel I was after.
Printing and processing
I decided that I would produce the picture as a bleach print. The start of the process involved me lightly pre-flashing 10 sheets of printing paper in the darkroom, all of them at slightly different exposures. This was to expose the paper slightly so that it would acquire a subtle base fog, and lower the contrast. I needed to work with several sheets of paper because it is difficult to know exactly what result you will achieve until you’ve undertaken the final process, and I wanted to give myself a variety of densities to work with. Once I made each of my prints I fixed and washed them and then put them into a bath of Farmers Reducer (a mixture of potassium ferrocyanide and sodium thiosulphate) that will lighten the print, and pulled each one when they reached the point I wanted. Only when they were washed again and finally dried did the colour stabilise and I was able to choose the print I felt that worked the best.
Tulip by Stephen Mark Widdows
Sinar 5×4 Studio Camera 150mm Lens Kodak T-Max 100 film.
Exposure 1/125 sec F5.6