AGED SPIR­ITS AND OLD SOULS

SI­MON HARSENT SHARES WITH ADRIAN HATWELL A PROJECT FOR WOOD­STOCK BLACK THAT FEA­TURED A GROUP OF NOT-YOUR-USUAL POSTER BOYS

The Photographer's Mail - - Assignment -

The cast of the lat­est ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign for In­de­pen­dent Liquor New Zealand did not in­clude the faces that one gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ates with the slick ve­neer of al­co­hol mar­ket­ing. To pro­mote the new Wood­stock Black pre­mium ready-to-drink (RTD) bev­er­age, with its four-year aged bour­bon, the stark posters sug­gest there is “no in­gre­di­ent like time”. And, to prove it, ad­ver­tis­ing agency Why bin\TBWA re­cruited lo­cal males who, ac­cord­ing to cre­ative direc­tor Christy Pea­cock, are “real blokes” from the heart­land of south and west Auck­land.

“Their skin is etched with wrin­kles, clothes are worn, and their eyes tell the story of a life well earned,” he said.

To cap­ture the au­then­tic mas­culin­ity of these street-cast lo­cals — among them a mo­tor­cy­cle racer, a sil­ver­smith, and a mu­si­cian — the agency re­cruited renowned com­mer­cial and fine-art pho­tog­ra­pher Si­mon Harsent. Split­ting his time be­tween Aus­tralia and the US, Harsent has cul­ti­vated a rep­u­ta­tion for (among many spe­cial­i­ties) cap­tur­ing ar­rest­ing male por­trai­ture that is brac­ingly min­i­mal, while evok­ing a deep sense of char­ac­ter. A clear fit for the cam­paign’s aims, the pho­tog­ra­pher was ex­cited from the first time he saw the brief.

“How it was pre­sented to me was show­cas­ing por­traits of won­der­ful char­ac­ters, some on lo­ca­tion, some in the stu­dio,” Harsent said. “My first gut re­ac­tion was to sug­gest we shoot them all in the stu­dio against a white back­ground to sim­plify the images; I felt all it re­ally needed was fan­tas­tic por­trait stud­ies.

“As much as I like shoot­ing por­traits on lo­ca­tion, I felt these just needed to be sim­ple, no dis­trac­tions, just a fo­cus on the peo­ple.”

It is an ap­proach the pho­tog­ra­pher has had plenty of op­por­tu­nity to re­fine: his most re­cent per­sonal project is an in­ci­sive study of mas­cu­line iden­tity, en­ti­tled GBH: Great Bri­tain’s Hooli­gans. A series of in­ti­mate and in­tense por­traits, both monochrome and colour, ex­am­ines the hu­man face of the fas­ci­nat­ing foot­ball sub­cul­ture, in­fused with pride, bravado, and re­spect. The project, re­cently ex­hib­ited in Syd­ney, fol­lows the pho­tog­ra­pher’s pre­vi­ous sur­vey of British foot­ball’s var­i­ous phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments in a series called The Beau­ti­ful Game. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see how these au­then­tic­ity-driven solo shows have fed into the bold aes­thetic of Harsent’s Wood­stock Black cam­paign — some of his ear­lier work was even in­cluded in the mood board the agency put to­gether for the cam­paign brief.

While there is clear artis­tic sim­i­lar­ity be­tween these works, the con­text in which the images were pro­duced was very dif­fer­ent. While fine-art work can be de­vel­oped care­fully over long pe­ri­ods of time, com­mer­cial work of­ten re­quires speed and ef­fi­ciency in pro­duc­ing qual­ity images to a dead­line. In the case of the Wood­stock Black shoot, Harsent cre­ated all the por­traits in a sin­gle day, fly­ing over from Syd­ney to shoot in cen­tral Auck­land’s Thiev­ery Stu­dio. Key to suc­ceed­ing within these lim­i­ta­tions is the

de­vel­op­ment of good, trust­ing re­la­tion­ships with clients, the pho­tog­ra­pher ex­plained.

“With a job like this, ev­ery­body is so ex­cited about it that the col­lab­o­ra­tive process just hap­pens nat­u­rally. Also, the time span for get­ting it done was so quick [that] it was more about ev­ery­body re­act­ing in­tu­itively, as we didn’t have too much time to pro­cras­ti­nate; I like it when that hap­pens. I find some­times you can have too much time on a job, and things get con­fused be­cause you have time to ques­tion and over­think ev­ery­thing,” he said.

Most of the sub­jects for the series had no ex­pe­ri­ence in front of the cam­era, which suited the pho­tog­ra­pher’s ob­jec­tives nicely. Work­ing to a quick tempo for the shoots, Harsent was fo­cused on cre­at­ing a spon­tane­ity to the pro­duc­tion. While he will some­times spend a good deal of time talk­ing with a por­trait sub­ject be­fore shoot­ing, for these images, he wanted to main­tain an air of dis­tance and mys­tery. In this case, knowl­edge of his sub­jects would have only got in the way. Sim­i­larly, he kept his di­rec­tions very min­i­mal.

“I never sug­gest poses; I might just sug­gest a change of weight dis­tri­bu­tion or that some­one move off their mark then back onto it, just to break it up if the sub­ject be­comes too static. I’m not the sort of pho­tog­ra­pher who has sit­ters jump up and down; my por­traits are quite con­sid­ered, and I like the awk­ward­ness that can come from very lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion.”

The slightly de­tached at­mos­phere was fur­ther en­hanced through a light­ing set-up favour­ing crisp sim­plic­ity, pre­sent­ing the charis­matic fea­tures and adorn­ments of the cast in an even, straight­for­ward man­ner. Harsent set up a Bron­color par­a­bolic re­flec­tor in front, with two lights at ei­ther side bounced into V-flats to cre­ate the un­adorned white back­ground. The re­sult is a series that looks equally strik­ing pre­sented in colour or black-and-white.

“For me, some­times sim­ple is the best ap­proach,” the pho­tog­ra­pher ex­plained. “It al­lows me to con­cen­trate on the sub­ject rather than all the tech­ni­cal as­pects. We mapped out two po­si­tions for the main light, one just to the left of cam­era and the other more of a side light, and we would move the light be­tween the two po­si­tions de­pend­ing on how I felt once the sub­ject was in front of cam­era.”

Harsent’s Wood­stock Black cam­paign is a fine ex­am­ple of the sym­bio­sis be­tween per­sonal and com­mer­cial work that so many pho­tog­ra­phers strive for. It’s not al­ways an easy bal­ance, but in seek­ing out work that is in line with his own per­sonal vi­sion, the pho­tog­ra­pher is able to dance be­tween shoot­ing styles in a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial fash­ion. In ad­di­tion to the ad­ver­tis­ing work pay­ing for artis­tic projects, the chal­lenge of work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tively helps the pho­tog­ra­pher bring fresh per­spec­tives to his per­sonal shoots.

“I think where it falls down is when pho­tog­ra­phers take on work that re­ally isn’t true to their style, just for the sake of the money. That’s never go­ing to work, and it’s al­ways go­ing to be a bat­tle — some­times pho­tog­ra­phers should just say no to a com­mis­sion if they don’t think they are right for it,” he said.

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