Plans change

Adam Houri­gan’s failed at­tempt at fol­low­ing a plan re­sulted in an award-win­ning and trea­sured im­age, as Kaye Davis dis­cov­ers

The Photographer's Mail - - Column - Kaye Davis

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.

Adam Houri­gan

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