31 March 2009

Featured 'tog Tuesday - Michael Humpherson

I feel a bit like a pretender, writing on a blog inhabited by professionals, written by professionals and exhibiting professional work. Me? I am an amateur with a dream – a dream to one day achieve a standard where I feel comfortable to say I could be a professional photographer. It is a long journey, one that started 5 years ago in earnest.

3 years of it was chasing technical perfection in the hope that it would produce the confidence to attain professional mindset – it didn’t. My results were pin-sharp, my exposures spot on, but something was missing for me and from my results – the artistic.

I found the artistic in 2007 at Le Mans, France, around 3 am in the morning whilst watching those violent Le Mans racers churning away the hours. 3 am is witching hour at Le Mans - the sun has well gone, and morning sun is far enough away to not merit a mention. The crowds have dissipated either having slinked back to their tents or collapsed on the banking for a drunken snooze. But I was still up, tracking and panning and shooting, but not very successfully. I sat down on the dew soaked grass and thought long and hard about what I was doing wrong. The technique was there, but the emotiveness wasn’t. But then in the darkest hour, both photographically and physically, I had an epiphany…I understood motorsport (huge passion of mine for years), I understood what the cars were doing and I understood what an evocative subject they were. So why wasn’t I searching for the photo that told the excitement, the passion as I saw it…why wasn’t I conveying that understanding through my images? So the next time I put the camera to my face I did just that, searched for the story, the understanding, and I found it…right there at 3 am, deep in the French countryside.

The journey continues – I want to anchor that passion into the other types of photography I enjoy, people, landscapes, architecture, and wildlife. The journey continues on 1st June in earnest, where I take a 6 month sabbatical from my day job and go off travelling around the world with my wife, photographing, experiencing and taking our time…something every photographer should do in my humble opinion.

BLAB: What colour would your Ferrari be?
Back when I was a teenager one of my friend’s dad bought a brand new gleaming Ferrari 328…painted bright canary yellow…with a few years to go before I got behind the wheel legally, this was possibly the most amazing thing to happen in my car related world. Imagine it, I had sat in Volvos, Rovers and Fords, the generic metal of the family saloon in the 80s and now here in the flesh was a car that had adorned my wall for years. I was a gangly teenager standing around this yellow Italian beauty, hyperventilating with excitement. My first ride in a true thoroughbred…a yellow Ferrari thoroughbred was launching me into boy racer heaven…the roar of the V8 sending shivers down my spine, the leather passenger seats enveloped me as the yellow beast accelerated from zero to sixty in under 4 seconds…this yellow Ferrari was a childhood dream come true.

So what colour would I have my Ferrari? Yellow?

Are you kidding me….get real, you can only ever have a red Ferrari…yellow, for goodness sake, what was he thinking!!!

BLAB: What would your dream photo opportunity be?
In my dreams I have a golden pass hanging around my neck one that reads FIA Official Formula One Photographer…one that allows me to travel with world following the Grand Prix circus…one that grants me trackside access and allows me to immerse myself in the pinnacle of motorsport…that would be the dream assignment.

Come on, you aren’t exactly surprised are you???? I mean, motorsport, travelling and photography all rolled into one job!! “To dream the impossible dream” (line from the Honda F1 advert if anyone remembers).

BLAB: Which photographer's work do you most admire and why?
I tend to see all photographers as admirable, professionals and amateurs alike. But if I was to choose a few that have been a huge influence, it would have to be Darren Heath and Ansel Adams.

Darren Heath, in my opinion, is one of the best formula one photographers of all time. His ability to capture movement of an already fast subject matter and create such form and texture is second to none. When I started to pay attention to my photography and practice, I wanted to mimic the style of Darren. So I slowed my shutter speed right down, constantly shooting below the accepted rule of shutter speed equal to focal length. At the circuit, it is not unusually to see me firing away with a shutter speed of 1/60th, and below. Yep, I get a lot of misses, a lot of blurries and a lot of just pain bad. But when it works, I can see evidence of Darren’s influence. I don’t suppose Darren misses as many as I do, but I can aspire and admire, can’t I??? If you get a chance, check out Darren’s site (www.darrenheath.com) to see the sublime ability to pan at extremely slow speeds and capture a scene which evokes such emotion...

The second photographer is a bit of a cliché. Ask in the street for the name of an iconic photographer and you will invariably hear Ansel Adams’ name mentioned. But to think of Ansel as a master of black and white landscapes is missing the point for me. What attracted me to his work was not just his understanding of light and complex shapes, but his immersion into the art. He spent most of his adult life living in Yosemite- every day he took shots recognising that it takes time to find the perfect moment. That is a commitment that many of us could learn form, certainly me. I seem to want to capture the perfect shot in 10 minutes, the touristy thing if you like. In my heart of hearts, I know it takes so much longer. So I aspire to be as patient as Ansel and maybe just maybe I will find those moments in the frame that come close to perfection. This inspiration and approach is one I aim to mimic over the next 6 months when I go travelling around the world.

BLAB: Which of your images means the most to you and why?
 This is it, the shot that marks the epiphany, the one that I took at a god forsaken hour of the night in Le Mans. Not technically that hard to capture, slow shutter speed and lots of panning action. The brake disc glows red, the headlight bursts out of the front of the car, illuminating the track for the weary driver, the rear quarter hinting at a pursuing competitor …he is 12 hours into the race…the night nearly done…he still has another 12 hours before the race finishes…he is ticking off the laps…braking at the same point every lap…holding the chasing competitor at bay. That is exactly what gives Le Mans such significance - machine and man working in perfect harmony

The second shot is one that continues my artistic approach – a lot of people may argue that I missed the back of the car, but for me, this again reinforces the new approach I was taking – I wasn’t afraid to create the image I wanted, to capture the moment as closely as I could in frame. The gee forces that an F1 car experiences even at this slow chicane are huge – around 3g in this corner alone – so to show the car intruding from the edge of the frame, I feel, captures the violence and angular nature of the sport.

Leaning out from the front seats of the main grandstand at Le Mans, I can just about see the cars – I push myself further asking my friend to hold onto my legs – The rail is cutting into my side, but I want this shot – the car skids to a halt in it’s pit box, but the crew are nowhere to be seen – this poor driver has been racing for nearly 17 hours and all he wants is fuel and tyres – he tilts his head to the right – I just love that you can visualise the appeal for help in his eyes even though you can’t see them – classic!! Oh and the blue tones are working for me as well.

It is not all about cars, sometimes I can turn my eye to a plane shot or 2…I can do Landscapes and people, but I am not ready to consider that work of a suitable level to represent my ability and aspirations. So one evening at Heathrow, the sun having set, the sky exploded into the most magical colours I have ever seen in the UK – cue the camera moment, cue the police giving a few more seconds to capture the shot, cue the delight when I saw the results – Boeing’s massive metal on finals for Heathrow…perfect.

BLAB: Michael, thanks for taking the time to be our featured photographer this week. I'm sure the BLAB readers will agree with me, that if this is the quality of the work you regularly produce, especially the racing shots, then you're further down that photographic path than you realise. We wish you well for your 6 months of travelling (not without a little envy I might add!) and hope that you find some of those 'perfect moments' to capture. Once you're back we'd love to see what you got up to and how it all panned out. 

To see more of Michael's images, take a look at his website: www.pumaknight.co.uk


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