Exercise 1.2: Background as Context

sean in the three judges, glasgow – may ’17

“Make a portrait of someone you know, paying very close attention to what is happening in the background of the shot. Be very particular about how you pose the subject and what you choose to include in the photograph. Ideally, the background should tell the viewer something about the subject being photographed.”
IaP Coursebook, p.26

I have mentioned Sean in my learning log twice before: he was one of the people who helped me generate my self-portrait in part three of  Context and Narrative and he made a cameo appearance as a ‘colleague’ in my discussion of Robert Adams’ Why People Photograph during The Art of Photography.

We both come from Orkney; our sons are in the same class at school; we shared a flat for a while. I have played in bands with him, played in the same Glasgow chess club. He is a rather good photographer and writes proper computer code for a living. 

While I live in London now, I still return to Glasgow about once a month to see my son; when I do, I normally go out for a drink with Sean, almost invariably in the same pub, The Three Judges.

The Three Judges is most definitely a pub (not ‘a bar’ and certainly not ‘a club’) at the bottom of Byres Road. It has regularly won awards from camra for the quality of its beer, This picture was taken there, about a month ago.


Unlike August Sander (discussed here) I was not using a camera which is capable of adjustments and I was shooting in colour. Both of these factors further influence the relationship between Sean – the subject – and the context-supplying background.

I would not be able to manipulate the relationship between the focal plane and the subject by using tilts (changing the relationship between the lens and film either to throw an area of the picture into or out of focus). So, using a small camera – my Fujifilm x100-s, which has a 35mm-equivalent, fixed lens – I would need to use a wide aperture (easy, in an indoor space, as night is falling outside) and make sure that there was some space between Sean and the bar if I was to avoid the space falling too much into being a flat, two-dimensional space.

This division of the picture space into foreground and background was helped by the large, west-facing window behind me. Unlike the rest of the bar – which was lit by yellowish artificial light – Sean’s face was mainly picking up the blue light coming from outside. This was aided by Sean coincidentally turning up in a blue shirt which further locates him on the blue end of the colour scale here. I later reduced this colour contrast (out of the camera, Sean was very blue indeed and the bar a sickly greenish-yellow) in Lightroom, so that it supports the depth of the picture rather than acting as a distraction. The aim of all of this was to create a “natural” looking picture that did not draw attention to its construction: primarily, it needs to be ‘about’ Sean, sitting there, rather than me, taking the picture.

Compositionally, Sean’s head is surrounded by numerous horizontal and diagonal lines. They divide the frame up into a series of geometric shapes recognisable as a bar, while also concentrating the viewer’s attention on Sean. There are other figures, soft in  the background.It might be better if they were not there at all, but as it is, they are far enough back to be part of the background – props adding authenticity to the location, even – rather than subject matter here. It would have been good to be able to crop out the grey arm and curve of another drinker’s back at the bottom right of the picture though – it is both awkwardly placed somewhere between the blue and the orange light zones and also light enough to catch your eye – but a further crop would have rendered the background less distinct, less readable as a bar; in the end I let it – or rather him – stay.


Without the actual title (Sean in The Three Judges, Glasgow – May ’17) most people are not going to recognise the bar even as being in Glasgow; the picture has been cropped to remove as many of the other customers as was possible, without losing the location entirely; this has meant that Sean’s pint glass is not in view; he could be drinking orange juice, gin and tonic or a tequila sunrise rather than a beer.

On its own, this portrait takes the complex person that is Sean and reduces him (and the thirty odd years we’ve known each other) to a person sitting opposite me in a bar, Sean would feature in my latter-day Face of Our Time as ‘Web Developer,2017‘, but then the background would confuse, rather than clarify; because here Sean is represented as ‘The Artist’s Friend’.

The relationship between the two of us is one of equality – we are both sitting and Sean’s eyeline is level with that of the camera, and therefore my own. He is physically close to me (over a very narrow table, in fact) with his head occupying as much vertical space as the entire upper body of the man on a barstool behind him to the right. He is making direct eye-contact with me and the spectator, who is therefore included in an extension of this sense of the equality between us, but his face is slightly angled away. This is a compromise between the two of us: he wanted to be looking off into the middle distance like a 1930s author’s portrait on the sleeve of a book; I wanted a direct confrontation with the camera.

Sean may be trying not to smile…




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