Adam Hourigan’s failed attempt at following a plan resulted in an award-winning and treasured image, as Kaye Davis discovers
As a photographer, training and experience tell you that it’s always important to be well prepared for the eventualities of a photo shoot. Having a vision, and planning and preparing every single part, is often what it is about — that vision materializes only at the moment of pressing the shutter. But, sometimes, despite all the visualization, planning, and preparation, it’s the spontaneous that can result in the image — when there is need to react to a moment seen, and the spark of an idea evolves from that.
For this issue, I talked with Australian award-winning photographer Adam Hourigan about an image that gave him much success at the Australian Professional Photography Awards last year. It is an image that remained in my mind for its beautiful, timeless quality and the wonderful narrative it presents to the viewer.
The tale started with an assignment for a local newspaper and Hourigan tasked with portraying the story of a theatre getting a new piano. Part of this narrative also relates to a very well-known and respected businessman and benefactor, Spiro Notaras. Notaras had a passion for the theatre and, with a cousin, had created a cultural legacy for the community by restoring the theatre in question — the Saraton — which had originally been built by his father and his father’s brother.
Building on the story came easily: as Hourigan was the last person to play the old piano, he really wanted to be the first person to play the new one. He talked that idea over with Notaras on arrival and had his opportunity to play it. The photo shoot evolved from there, when, spontaneously, Notaras himself — who is not a piano player — sat down and started tinkering on the keys. It was this moment that sparked the idea of the photograph accompanying this article. But, first, Hourigan needed the photo for the newspaper, so he shot “the owner and manager of the theatre next to the piano, bog standard … but it records the moment,” he says.
Happy that he had captured the image for the paper, Hourigan wanted to explore his idea further, with thoughts of bringing in three to four large studio lights, battery packs to light up the theatre, and speed lights for the stage, to create a more theatrical image.
A couple of weeks later, he was scheduled to do another shoot in the theatre, so he took the opportunity to contact Notaras to see if he was available: the answer was no. Thinking no more about it, he headed to the theatre, as scheduled, for the other job, only to find Notaras waiting for him there. “Let’s go!” he said. This was when all the plans of mice and men went flying out the window, as Hourigan had none of the gear he had envisioned using for his idea, but the experience and knowledge he had gained from being a press and wedding photographer kicked in, and he started thinking on his feet. Getting the original job he had come for out of the way, he focused on the shoot with Notaras.
Relying only on the small lighting kit that he had brought with him, he added a “light to wash across the front as a subtle fill”, reducing the level of contrast in the scene. He was ready to start shooting, when, suddenly, Notaras grabbed a broom and started sweeping the stage “because it is a mess”. For Hourigan, this was the last piece of the puzzle; the whole image finally came together in his head. He asked Notaras if he had a mop and bucket to put on the stage. “You’re making me look like a janitor,” Notaras responded.
However, Hourigan’s story was there, the vision had evolved into the fine-art portrait he had wanted: “His dress, and the mop and bucket, add that little hint in the photo as to what he might be. Is he the cleaner? Is it late at night? That one element gives the whole photo its storyline to any viewer now — and that is whatever they want it to be.”
The shoot itself lasted a total of six frames. Shooting on f/4 at 1/30s at ISO 1600 (for the techies) was a challenge with no tripod and a bit too much ambient light. Transforming the image into black and white, adding a little vignette “to emphasize the shape of the spotlight”, and darkening the corners of the stage required just 10–15 minutes in postproduction!
The final image has earned Hourigan two Gold with Distinction awards, and has become an iconic shot for him. It has also become a very special image in another way, as Notaras, aged 83, sadly passed away in January of this year.
The image was derived via Hourigan’s need to respond spontaneously to the situation, which meant he was able to capture a moving narrative that has now become a treasured and fitting memorial to the man who saved the community theatre: Notaras taking the stage for his final bow, in a theatre that he loved and that meant so much to him.
You can see more of Hourigan’s work at ajh.net.au.