It’s been a great pleasure to take photos again of East Midlands A cappella group YesterYear who you can see from this Tuesday September 22nd competing in The Naked Choir on BBC 2 with Gareth Malone. The group was looking at doing some fresh publicity shots owing to a change in line-up as well as the fact that they’re going to become world famous in Derby through being on the tele. The story of this latest main promotional photo (see below but not yet!) takes us back to 2011, when I was first engaged to do the guys’ publicity photos.
I had this particular idea of turning the formal group shot on its head and doing a subversive take on it. Thus, instead of posing with cheesy smiles, I got the guys to affect boredom, inattention, silliness… anything that showed they were opposed to the whole idea of a formal portrait!
The result was an image that gained me the runners-up prize in the Society of Professional Imagemakers Group Portrait Photographer of the Year.
Four years on and I’m sitting in the Exeter Arms discussing with Martin and Kev how we can top that image. I had an idea in my head but when Kev started talking, I knew he had an even better one. When in New York, he visited the Rockefeller Centre and beheld the famous photo of construction workers sitting on a girder having lunch. What makes the image gob-smacking is that their legs are dangling 840 feet in the air and none of them is wearing a safety harness. The photo was taken in 1932 – in the midst of the Great Depression – when apparently men were willing to take any job regardless of safety issues.
‘Can we reproduce that photo?’ asked Kev. ‘Let’s do it’, added Martin. ‘Er… ok’ was my enthusiastic response, realising I had just been set my greatest ever challenge as a photographer. Then, as I started to think it through, I became very excited. We were going to create a local version of that iconic image… with YesterYear wearing similar work clothes but appearing to be perched hundreds of feet above the teeming metropolis that is, er… Derby.
First of all, how to get the girder shot… I called my old neighbour Roger Carter of Carter Construction who kindly put me on to John Robinson of MJ Robinson Steelworks in Derby. John couldn’t have been more helpful. On the day of the shoot – with BBC East Midlands Today in attendance – we turned up to find they had a girder which looked just like the original. It was moved into place and held in position a couple of feet above the ground by a fork lift truck at either end so the guys could sit down, ready to be raised… no, not 840 feet in the air. It was about 8.4 ft. I climbed up into a work platform which was raised to about 10 feet and just to the right of the guys so I could get the correct angle of view.
To be honest, I didn’t think the photo was going to work, for the simple reason that instead of shooting 11 ‘construction workers,’ I had got 13 so they weren’t going to be quite so big in the frame as in that original image. However, because East Midlands Today were filming and we had gone to so much trouble already, it had to work. I was certainly pleased with the effort the guys put in to their work clothes, mimicking the overalls, vests and caps of the 1932 workers quite well. However, because of the two extra guys and the fact that they weren’t lookalikes, we decided not to copy the image too closely, just to generally reproduce a similar look and atmosphere.
Then came the second task: my background. I had to get as high as I possibly could in Derby whilst ensuring I had the city beneath me and there was only one possible vantage point: the top of Derby Cathedral tower. I wasn’t looking forward to it one bit. My fear of heights began when I climbed to the top of the Notre Dame on my honeymoon. Francine noticed that I suddenly took on the agonised look of one of the adjacent gargoyles. I told her I wasn’t feeling well and had this horribly irresistible urge to end my torment by throwing myself off. ‘What, after being married to me for only two days?’, she frostily enquired before realising that what had pole-axed me with fear was that only a very low wall separated me from the air high above Notre Dame Square. Funnily enough, I was alright at the top of the Empire State but that’s because you can’t possibly hurl yourself over the glass barrier unless you’re Dick Fosbury.
I was assured by Rachel in the Derby Cathedral office that I would feel ‘secure and stable’ and Alex, the Development Officer who kindly agreed to go up with me, was a calming presence as I climbed the 189 steps. Sure enough, it was better than I could have hoped for. No knee-high Notre Dame wall here. Not only was it waist-high but also there were two iron bars inbetween the stone crenellations. I felt even better when I beheld Derby city beneath me. Ok, it wasn’t exactly Manhattan but it still felt like a proper city skyline. I made sure I included the sky as in the original photo, snapped off lots of shots at different angles, and then prepared myself for the Photoshopping…
The bringing together of the guys on the girder and the Derby skyline nearly took all day but it was worth it.
Although I was using Topaz Re-Mask, there was a lot of similarity of tones between the guys and the background so I didn’t get a clean separation anywhere. So, I had to spend ages erasing bits of background from around the guys.
When I came to place the guys against the Derby skyline, my heart sank a little. I began to fear again that this wouldn’t work.
However, not only was it in colour but, if you look again at the original 1932 image, you’ll see that the workers are separated from the background by a mist. It’s a curious kind of mist as it comes to a halt just underneath the workers’ dangling boots and, at first, it made me suspect that these guys were, like mine, photographed separately, and stuck on a separate photo of the Manhattan skyline, with a darkroom whiz then joining them together, and using a lot of dodging to lighten the background – and around their boots – to give the impression even more of being 840 ft in the air. However, I have since seen photos of these workers walking along girders as if they were normal pathways. So, it is for real, though that mistiness is still curious.
I then felt a whole lot better when I converted both photos to black & white. I chose Topaz Classic – with Grain. Grain was essential to help reproduce the feeling that I had used black & white film. I felt better still when I finished working on the city skyline image. At first, I tried the ‘Fog’ effect in Nik Colour FX but it didn’t work. I needed to do some manual work myself. So, I created a separate layer, drew a selection around the background and up to the area just beneath the guys’ boots; and then filled the whole of that area with 50% Grey. Then, I created a layer mask and, using the brush tool, started to bring the background back. I then got the dodge tool out and lightened the selected area.
I then turned my attention to the guys. Looking at the original photo, I noticed that the workers were quite dark overall. The girder needed to be darker, too. So, it was out with the Burn tool, and having selectively darkened the area, I then applied even more grain to both the guys and the background. I was done. I was elated. I couldn’t believe that it could work so well. Ok, because you and I know it’s a fake, you might not be able to see beyond that – and I still look at it momentarily and think ‘is it convincing?’ but then I look at the original photo and even though it’s one shot, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are unconvinced by THAT picture.
Also, don’t forget that I had 13 guys to photograph and I could only get 212 feet above the ground, not 840.
So, that’s the photo to go on the front of YesterYear’s publicity postcard. I now have to work on the other side of the postcard. More Photoshopping as I give the impression the group are appearing on television in a 1950s sitting room… it’s a play on the name Yesteryear. Of course, they are on television for real this coming week – as one of the competing A cappella groups in Gareth Malone’s new show The Naked Choir. These guys are aiming high, and I’ve helped them do that in one particular sense!