a new year and an old photo

In 1999 my photography class was given the opportunity to do a two week workshop with Dawoud Bey at the National Portrait Gallery. At the time I had no idea who he was, or what we were going to be doing, but it was fun. Bey works a lot with 20x24 Polaroid cameras and seeing it in action was pretty mind blowing to me. The camera is massive, and not only does it come with wheels, it also comes with its own minder, carefully guarding it from  over-enthusiastic students with grubby hands. We spent a few days inside the gallery, posing for portraits, and doing our own with the less impressive, though still enormous, large format cameras the gallery had provided,  and generally had a great time (give or take the occasional fire caused by photographic paper under the drier).

One thing I learnt whilst doing portraits is how hard it is to have your own  taken. We would spend hours posing for each other, keeping still, focused, and generally getting stiff and bored, as fellow students changed lights, angles, apertures and film seemingly at the speed of a snail. We were always impatient to be behind the camera not in front, so I should have been pretty relieved when the director of the course gave us permission to go out onto the street and photograph someone interesting. But I wasn’t. I was terrified.

I managed to get as far as Orange Street - a little road that runs directly behind the gallery - and pretty much froze. My camera partner humoured me and we stayed as the more enterprising, adventurous students went a little further afield to spots with more passers by. It was a warm day, and though the road is narrow, it seemed to be bathed in constant, bright light. I watched the shadows lengthen and shorten as the light twisted down the road and as my friend blithely approached strangers and convinced them to pose for her. We'd set up the camera, I would take light readings and she would put the negative into the plate, take the photo, and, when it was all done, the subject would walk away to become just a passer by again.

For some reason the idea of stopping a stranger and asking them if I could take a photo was terrifying. If they asked why I was doing it I would be stuck for an answer. An assignment didn’t seem a good reason for someone to waste his or her time as I fumbled with the camera back, asked them to pose and did all the necessary things to make sure that the negative was at least exposed correctly. It would be one thing working with a sympathetic ham-fisted fellow student watching, but entirely another with a stranger getting impatient.

Though the camera was impressive and I had back up, I felt totally under-experienced and over-exposed to be going public with my skills.

After an hour or two I really began to feel the pressure of time. We only had a limited number of negatives with us and it had quickly become my turn to take control of the camera.

I needed to find someone interesting and not intimidating. Preferably someone with a bucket load of patience, time and sympathy for me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to find that magical person in the centre of town on a weekday afternoon... until she appeared. She came around the corner, a vertical collection of lines, and picked herself past the camera, the accompanying detritus and strode on. My anxiety increased as I realized I was about to lose a potential photograph, and I ran down the street after her. I can’t remember what I said exactly, and I can’t recall her name, but I do remember her saying she had never had her photo taken before and that it was an honour.

Mostly what I remember about her is what is in the picture. I have no idea if she knows that her photo hung in the National Portrait Gallery for a while, or that she was my first portrait of someone unknown. And she definitely doesn’t know that this is one of my favourite photographs I have taken and that she gave me the confidence to do so.