Face-Packs, a photographic portrait project

Bringing Ideas to Life - Photo Project

Gathering the Props

Gathering the Props

I don't remember now when this idea first entered my mind, but I do know that I bought three face packs whilst in Japan in March 2016!

It's noted on the first page of my diary this year, and multiple reminders throughout to get this project started. I finally set the wheels in motion on 20th September and sent a mail-out, asking for participants. In my mind I wanted twelve people to make a worthy collection. To my good fortune, I got a pretty solid response from nine people with a possibility of another four. Obviously, one needs to massage these opportunities, but it was a good start. I always intended to photograph myself, so I had a spare in the bag!

So, where do ideas come from?

I asked myself that question as I was writing this post, and headed over to Ted Talks where I found this little gem from Steven Johnson, popular science author and media theorist.

He talks about how a lot of inventors and entrepreneurs emphasise having a Eureka! moment, when in reality this 'final act of realisation' (my words) is in fact the final piece of a meandering puzzle. "An idea is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It's a new configuration that has never formed before".

He discusses how Darwin relays the story of how he came up with the concept of natural selection in his autobiography, as if it came to him in an instant. Subsequently, Howard Gruber went through Darwin's copious notebooks with a fine tooth-comb, and presented the case that, if Darwin had pieced together all of those notes, he already had the full theory of natural selection wrapped up within them, months and months before that pivotal moment.

I am not comparing myself to Darwin, but the point is, it can take a long-time to formulate an idea, and with my work being a creative, rather than scientific pursuit there is plenty of room for adaptation and fluidity evolving from the first intention.

Mixing the palette "Chance favours the connected mind" Steven Johnson

Mixing the palette

"Chance favours the connected mind" Steven Johnson

For my own project I now had less than three weeks to piece things together! I would be visualising the people and thinking a little about what I know about them as individuals. I had decided to make a link between the Face Packs and the backgrounds. 

In the initial email I had asked people if they regularly used face-packs or if they had a favourite type. Some of them did, so I tried to incorporate this into my planning too.

The only male participant told me how, as children, him and his siblings used to take the natural clay from their local beach in Portugal and spread it on like war-paint to play warriors. 

The only male participant told me how, as children, him and his siblings used to take the natural clay from their local beach in Portugal and spread it on like war-paint to play warriors. 

Even if the photographs have no deep meaning, as an artist you want to create work that is visually pleasing. A lot of what I had running through my mind will not be obvious to the viewer, but I think if all the elements come together as a satisfying whole in the mind of the observer, then a picture is a success.

My first purchases were some of the face-packs. I had imagined walking into a drugstore and being able to choose from an ample display of single-use Face Packs, but those days seem to have gone! I was probably over-complicating things to keep this element of realism that I mentioned, but if there was a link between background, face-pack, and sometimes the people themselves I had to source what I felt were the correct face-packs for the job! 

In hindsight, maybe I could have ordered stuff online, but my brain works in the old-fashioned way. If you want something, go and get it, physically. I enjoy walking, I do not enjoy shopping on the internet, so legwork became the route to my acquisitions. Nothing new there!

For the face packs I visited lots of stores including John Lewis, Boots, Superdrug (who offered the most choice), even Topshop, not to forget Japan!

For the face packs I visited lots of stores including John Lewis, Boots, Superdrug (who offered the most choice), even Topshop, not to forget Japan!

I had envisaged all of the backgrounds being made of cloth of one sort or the other, but when I started looking into fabrics I could see it was going to be difficult to source the patterns I imagined.  I searched online and visited Berwick Street in Soho which is historically famous for it's fabric stores. One shop owner told me that you can get pretty much anything printed onto fabric digitally nowadays, so there wasn't much in store in terms of what I wanted.  I decided to concentrate mainly on sourcing wrapping paper for the backgrounds instead.

I somehow wanted to maintain an element of realism in the shots, and so I headed to the West End in search of backgrounds and props. Getting my head around what was essentially a dozen separate ideas was a little mind-boggling at times, so I ended up with some surplus items including a lilac poncho, some awful pineapple-paper, and I almost bought some wrap' sporting Pandas in party hats!

Piecing it together - my little notebook, linking ideas with shopping lists. Invaluable!

Piecing it together - my little notebook, linking ideas with shopping lists.

Invaluable!

I stumbled upon an amazing shop called So High, also on Berwick Street. In there I spotted some plastic fruit which inspired me. These fruits caused a delay on shoot-day as it proved hard to find a way of suspending them in a good position. Luckily, one of the sitters brought a friend, so I enlisted her help in holding the fruit strategically in place. This is where a little luck comes in, to help with proceedings!  Other items I found in So High were a middle-eastern style turban, a bindhi, lace fingerless gloves, and a choker. Quite an Aladdin's cave.

It is fair to say, that once you put an idea out there and start to talk to others about it, things will come your way. Following the mail-out, a friend responded to say, that despite not wanting to participate she had a few props that maybe useful, so I paid her a visit and borrowed, amongst other things, the towelling turban which is an ingenious item that was sent as a gift from her cousin in Australia!

On my first shopping trip I secured at most, five backgrounds, so I was feeling a little anxious. I had found a beautiful hand-made paper that conjured up images of rock formations in my head, and spotted a wonderful paper of delicate ferns in Liberty. I kept that one in mind as they charge silly-money for wrapping paper, but alas I headed back the following week to buy some. Rooting around at home I found a pair of vintage-floral bunny ears left over from a shoot I did some years back - amazing what you accumulate! This led to an idea, and what I considered a stroke of genius! My first thought was to source a material/paper with carrots on, but just a couple of days before the shoot I thought of fake grass, and remembered that a friend of mine had bought some before from a local floor company, so I nipped out of home and secured myself an off-cut of artificial turf! When people wonder what I do all day!!

I had some relative success by 4th October (nine days prior to the shoot) with regard to sourcing backgrounds, but now I think about it, it's a good job I booked a few days holiday the week of the shoot.

During that week I took an afternoon out to Leigh-on-sea. The project was never far from my mind, and so it was in Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe that can be found in many a costal town, I found exactly the kind of lolly I wanted for one of the shots!

My final port of call was Lush on Oxford street. They deal in fresh, handmade cosmetics, so I headed down there a couple of days before shooting commenced. As I walked into the Lush experience, overwhelmed by a swirling sea of scents, I made my way to the fresh face-pack zone: a smorgasbord of textured creams, piled into enamel bowls and laid on a bed of ice like a fish-mongers display. I asked a young assistant for some help, and he soon enlisted the help of a colleague. They were both very excited as I explained the project and I consulted my notebook, trying to piece together the people, the backgrounds and the facepacks. 

Their range of Face Packs was exceptional, and I found four face-packs that would work based on colours and ingredients. Unfortunately, I was having trouble justifying the price-tag (£7.50 a pot) as my bill-spend was escalating fast! The girl suggested, 'so you'd like x,y and z, and in this case w too!' She said "I'm going to give you this one, come with me to the till". I could hardly believe my luck - being given a freebie in a huge store on Oxford Street. Thank-you Lush lady!

Fresh Face Packs in the fridge!

Fresh Face Packs in the fridge!

I had allocated two full days to photograph this portrait project, and formulated a timetable into which I needed to fit the cast. I also had a little spillage time on the Friday afternoon, which I used to set-up the shoot and photograph myself as a test!

One person had dropped out in the run-up to the shoot, and I wanted to push every possibility, so I chased up a very busy friend of mine and got a confirmation for her availability that Friday. Our correspondence went a bit like this: 

ME: "Sorry to hassle you, but how do you feel about being a vintage bunny? (surely not the first time you've been asked? I have some floral bunny ears that could be fun!"

HER: "I know you haven't seen me in a very long time, but I think you know me well enough to know that this would basically be my ideal persona: a vintage bunny. Bunny me up please."

And there you have it, the right people, with the right attitude. Makes life easier, and a lot more pleasurable!

This particular image has not been selected for the final set, but I love it! I got very excited whilst prop-hunting, when I found these fluffy hair-ties which immediately made me think of Rabbit's tails! I bought them, thinking we would find a way to make them work. Take it as you will!

This particular image has not been selected for the final set, but I love it!

I got very excited whilst prop-hunting, when I found these fluffy hair-ties which immediately made me think of Rabbit's tails! I bought them, thinking we would find a way to make them work. Take it as you will!

Another outtake, and image I like a lot! In the context of the set, my straw poll declared this too sinister. I think it can stand alone!

Another outtake, and image I like a lot!

In the context of the set, my straw poll declared this too sinister. I think it can stand alone!

I enlisted the help of my Son to help set up the shoot and be responsible for focussing and shutter-pressing on the picture of me. The hour I'd asked of him turned into two or three, so I inflated his pocket-money and everyone was happy!

Setting Up

Setting Up

With two shots under my belt on Friday, I awoke Saturday morning and prepared for the day ahead. I sprayed the first background onto hardboard and saw I had a message on my phone "Aaah slept in! Can you call me..." This was not the start I'd hoped for! 

When it comes to the shoot itself there is always room for adjustments and unexpected occurrences, but it has to work out one way or another! Even photographers who plan their shots like a military operation have to allow for some shift in proceedings.

I love the way a shoot unfolds, even if at the time it feels quite pressurised. I have to say that this sequence of shots did prove quite a feat in terms of timing and logistics. In hindsight I would have given myself two-hour time slots per person, instead of an hour fifteen, as each time, I had to communicate the idea, apply masks, change backgrounds, and sometimes adjust the lighting as I soon discovered that different backgrounds absorbed different amounts of light, so the artificial lawn started off as a black-hole!

With more time (and or an assistant) I may have spotted my biggest failing in this series - my beautiful honey-bees that I was so pleased to have discovered as a wax-cloth in John Lewis were barely discernible as Bees. I am still feeling the sting!

It was only after the big weekend that I took a breath out and realised I had pulled it off - photographing thirteen people and creating a new body of work. 

This is what I do - take an idea, spin it around, make some plans, execute the idea and reach a conclusion. You never know quite how it will go, but the ride can be exhilarating.

If you've read this post, I would love to see your comments below, thanks!

You can see the complete set of final images over here

Huge thanks goes to all the participants, who unanimously stated they enjoyed the experience!

Huge thanks goes to all the participants, who unanimously stated they enjoyed the experience!