It is not commonly known that I had a reasonably extensive background in wedding photography prior to moving through to the commercial and advertising genres. With hindsight I was probably not the greatest exponent of the craft at that time. But I do look back with a little fondness at the skills that I learnt during those development years.
The late 1960s, in yet to come of age sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia, was not a hotbed of creative energy. Powerful flash units semi-permanently fixed to medium format cameras and driven by the equivalent of a motor cycle battery draped over one’s shoulder were the norm. It was a time of cameras manufactured by Rollei and Mamiya and Yashica, and flash guns by Metz and Braun. We had moved past flash bulbs, although I did for a while work for a photographer who supplied me with a 2×3 Century Graphic – the roll film version of the Speed Graphic. I was then able to get my New York press photographer fantasies out of my system. (Wow, you must be very old… – ED)
No it wasn’t the equipment that was paramount in my early training but the people skills I observed and learnt from clients and other photographers. Remember I was the classic back-yarder. No formal training, no tertiary education; just a man with a Nikon F and the desire to earn some extra money.
The Nikon was the first mistake! No photographer employer was interested in 35mm. It was far too small a film size, ignoring the convenience of a smaller camera. After investing in the Nikon all I had money for was a second-hand Yashica 635 twin lens camera using the 6x6cm 120 format film.
But the real training came in having to interact with clients who had not booked my services. It was a time when following a reading of the Saturday morning wedding column in the daily newspaper, I made a list of weddings and times and locations and passed them out to a small group of ‘Spec’ (speculative) photographers who would set off with rolls of film (but not many) and business cards (lots). Our job was to garner photographs of the wedding guests, and one or two of the bridal party. Our sales came from family groups dressed in their Sunday best, hair combed and faces cleaned attending a formal gathering, possibly for the first time in a while. As well as taking photographs, our job was to sprinkle the wedding guests with business cards encouraging them to visit the Studio in the following week.
My job was to create photographs that sold.
This most basic of all marketing business premises was hammered into me. Family groups lined up in an aesthetic, but well lit, group were only successful if all faces were towards camera and had NO blinks. Finding a grandmother with a cute grandchild was like striking gold. These moments had to be exploited (in the nicest most professional photographic way) and turned into ‘must have’ photographs. Remember I only got 10% commission on SOLD photographs.
This later translated into a formulae that was useful when covering more hectic and fast moving events like the foyer of the theatre holding a Saturday afternoon ballet matinee or in the crowded foyer outside the university graduations. The Grandmother Formula was a pure gold mine at ballet performances. Smooth talking little old ladies became my stock in trade. A sharp, but polite and respectful, repartee was developed.
I was working with one or two older photographers who became my mentors – and such was their silver-tongued monologue delivered in the space of 3 metres and 10 seconds.
Lighting was always easy – blast at f11 with flash. But posing had to be controlled and arranged and done in moments.
Working the graduating crowds as the completion of the awards ceremony was a short timed photographic feeding frenzy that required similar, but slightly different skills. The robed and mortar-boarded graduate had to feature prominently, but the cluster of family needed to be respected and appropriately arranged. Groups of graduate friends could not be ignored, but family groups must come first. This was all in a time well before such institutions stepped in and arranged a single entity to do this documentation and usually well away from the hurly burly of the public entrance.
The skills gained were many and varied. Recognising a saleable shot from 20 metres was a requirement. Using the right language to greet, slow down, stop and interact with a prospective subject was critical.
Posing, rearranging, grouping, checking for bra straps, fly-away hair etc – all of this done on the run and with great respect, was as critical as getting the correct exposure.
Any wonder I regard this 5-6 year period of my life with fondness and a gratitude to those unnamed fellow photographers who shared a few of their secrets. What they didn’t tell me I learnt from the School of Hard Knocks and Dreadful Mistakes, I’m sure you’re familiar with it?
That period, that school, those learnings would be enduring components later to combine with an understanding of aesthetics gained through post-graduate study. Together they prepared me for new and exciting opportunities within the photographic profession.
NB: all these photographs will be part of the Ian Poole Archive shortly to be accessible at the John Oxley Library within the State Library of Queensland.