Universal language

Oliver Bennett focuses on the niche end of the photographic arena, and zooms in on three approaches, each with a unique selling point

It is an unquantifiable fact – but almost certainly true – that we see more photographic material than ever before. Photographic imagery is all around us in various forms, and it is an intrinsic, necessary accompaniment to all media, whether created with a camera or a computer.

Take the Internet. Before it was able to carry images it was not considered very exciting, and only when it was able to include scanned photographs did it truly become worthy of public intrigue. Then it became something much more than merely a telephone with a keyboard attached, like France’s Minitel of the Eighties.

As Helmut Gernsheim said in Creative Photography in 1962 (as quoted in Susan Sontag’s On Photography), “Photography is the only ‘language’ understood in all parts of the world.” Gernsheim meant this in a humanitarian sense, we now understand it in a consumer sense. Photography crosses boundaries and sales territories, like no other form of visual communication. In the beginning was the word; in the end will be the picture.

With the current and unprecedented media expansion, photography continues to grow accordingly. And as befits such a huge area of industry, photography and “image-making” – to use a clumsy, but bridge-building phrase – have seen masses of intriguing niche markets arise that are often unsung and sometimes technologically unique. They may also break away from photographic conventions and might – like our three case studies – involve photographing situations and events that we would not normally be able to see. Our case studies show a close-up of a flying plane; a 360 degree peer around a car interior. And digitally-created imagery which can simulate photography and create things that do not yet exist, like a building that is not yet built in an endeavour that begins to fulfil the promise of virtual reality.

MARTIN MEYRICK

Meyrick’s speciality is 360 degree photography. He started as a news photographer in the north of England, then moved to London and worked in a specialist photography shop. He then saw the potential of 360 degree photography as a tool for multimedia design houses, such as AKQA, and for the past 18 months has been taking 360 degree images of cars on a Swiss-made Seitz camera that was developed with the Web in mind. ‘It’s a kind of an update of those cameras that were used for school photographs,’ he says; albeit one that has a hi-tech twist. It uses traditional film in various formats.

This kind of work has had a higher profile lately due to the work of Turner Prize contender Sam Taylor-Wood, whose panoramas of her friends in lofts featured at the Tate Gallery late last year. It is also redolent of the great panoramic landscape photographs beloved of the late Victorian era. It is an interesting, narrative form of imagery, like a still version of a left-to-right camera-pan. Looking at a 360-degree image is quite possibly the closest you get to having eyes in the back of your head.

But the main commercial application for this work is now on the Internet, and Meyrick has been undertaking commissions for car manufacturers such as BMW and Rover, doing in-car photography so that one can ‘click’ through the interior of the car. ‘People are realising that you can put more than flat images on the Net,’ he says, ‘and clients are always looking for ways to make their websites more unusual.’

There are plenty of other marketing applications. He has photographed the cockpit of Concorde for British Airways and a panorama of Albert Square for the BBC’s EastEnders website. Other markets could come along: for instance, estate agents could potentially use 360 degree photographs for Internet marketing of properties. And, showing the benefit that can come from having a speciality, Meyrick rents out his camera and expertise to orthodox photographers on one-off jobs.

In the case of the car interior shots, the camera sits between the front seats on a revolving turntable and the picture is taken using a timer. As for the speeds, exposures et al, Meyrick says that ‘the standard variables of traditional photography apply’. The camera sits on a tripod and two blocks, as the camera is quite heavy. Otherwise it is quite portable, and he has taken plenty of his own panoramas, setting up at the Legalise Cannabis demo in Trafalgar Square, Glastonbury Festival, Brighton beach, the London Underground and Canary Wharf. Meyrick now hopes to build up a travel library.

JOHN DIBBS

John Dibbs is an aeroplane photographer, who has completed wide and varied commissions for clients including British Airways, Boeing and Channel 4, as well as several armed forces. He is not, he insists, an ‘aerial photographer’, with its suggestion of air to ground photography, but ‘air to air’, which means that he takes his cameras (both still and moving) up into the sky and takes shots of one aeroplane from another aeroplane.

Dibbs has loved aeroplanes since he was a little boy: ‘I used to be a graphic designer, and I was particularly keen on the graphics of World War II planes: the stars, bars and nose art.’ As a result of his enthusiasm he got to know pilots, then went on location flying Red Arrows where he saw the excitement and business potential of taking aeroplane photographs. Now he shoots aeroplanes full-time for his photo agency, The Plane Picture Company, and takes commissions.

‘When the England football squad went to the World Cup they had a special plane,’ which he shot. ‘We select our aeroplane, one that will achieve the results, and we have a team of pilots that we know and trust,’ he adds.

As taking photographs of aircraft is an exacting task, Dibbs spends a lot of time in reconnaissance with the client. ‘We generate a brief, which takes into account the type of aeroplane being photographed and the kind of background they want,’ he says. It would not do to take photographs of, say, an internal Dutch commercial carrier soaring over snowy mountains. At this stage, they also establish the photographic medium – Dibbs shoots most of his work on a Pentax 645 and a Canon 35mm camera, using a mix of 35mm and medium format film.

Once all that is established they take off and join up in the sky, talking to air traffic control so that they can make sure they are well away from flight paths. Then, using radio contact, they fly close together so that Dibbs can get his shot. ‘I do a lot of handheld work,’ he says. On smaller planes he can open the window, while on larger planes he might use a periscope system.

Dibbs will use a zoom, but it is important for the photographic quality that he gets as close to the other aircraft as possible, which might be 90m away for a Jumbo jet, or literally as close as 45cm for a Red Arrow. Dibbs adds that there are ‘huge safety margins’. In his pictures, the pilots always seem to be looking at him. ‘They’re actually looking at our aircraft,’ he says. ‘It is a safety measure.’

Under these circumstances Dibbs never takes Polaroids. ‘I only take a picture when it looks right,’ he says, and as an ex-graphic designer he is acutely aware of composition. No additional light sources are used, as ‘the best quality light is up there’. He probably uses five rolls of film on each shoot. There are a few rules. The planes are always shot empty and are often a delivery flight of a new plane, as they will be in pristine condition.

HARPER MACKAY

This is not strictly speaking ‘photography’. But digital simulations or computer reconstructions are a fast-growing source of ‘photographic’ imagery. Or to be more precise, of images that pretend to be photographs, but that were actually created digitally. This area is strong at the business end of architecture, where advance publicity and marketing makes it necessary to create imagery of the building before it actually exists.

These simulations are now so good, using lifelike textures and colours, that they are often mistaken for the real thing. A typical example being Harper MacKay’s simulations of Heron Quay, an office development in London Docklands which the practice has designed. It is due for completion in about five years’ time. ‘People often say “that looks real” and are amazed to find out that it isn’t,’ says practice director David Harper.

It is expensive to make simulated images, but less so than it used to be. ‘The computing power has been around for a while, but is now becoming more commercially viable,’ says Harper, who cites three main applications for simulations.These are Photoshop- type still images, animations, and walk-through virtual reality, the level of sophistication being contingent on the budget. Some of the manipulation comes straight off the computer-aided design packages, other work is done out-of-house by bureaus such as JMJ or Hayes Davidson, and it is a group effort that takes a lot of labour.

‘It takes the place of the traditional model,’ says Harper. ‘These are expensive, and the building has to be worth several million pounds for it to be worth doing.’ If the cost of a computer simulation is 25 000-30 000, then Harper estimates the cost of an equivalent model to be more like 15 000.

But there are mobility advantages to the simulation, which can be sent to clients down an ISDN line. And it has other uses apart from publicity and marketing, such as being used to gain planning permission.

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