On Sunday I went to All Saints Church in Haggerston, East London with my friend Douglas Fry to attend the 74th Annual Grimaldi Service. Joseph Grimaldi 1778-1837 is credited with founding the modern idea of the clown in England and his life is commemorated annually under the auspices of Clowns International. We arrived early and attended the normal morning service in order to get a feel for the site where the gathering was to take place. This also gave us an opportunity to meet the officiating priest the Revd Laura Fawcett and arrange a location in which to set up the lighting for the portraits we wanted to capture as part of our shoot.
I was confident that Douglas and the other photographers present would capture the rich colours that would present at the gathering so, by way of contrast, I was using a Leica digital monochrome camera and a Leica analogue camera loaded with Kodak black and white TriX film. This was something of an experiment on my part. The monochrome was consistent with my recent practice: you may remember that at last year's exhibition in St John's College I showed twenty black and white landscape photographs.However returning to an analogue film camera was a relatively recent development. What was the "experiment"?
Well, in my photographic life my image making reflexes were formed in monochrome and I have an intuition that this means something for my continuing sensitivity. To put it another way I am wondering if my way of looking and therefore how I see has been shaped irreparably by my early experiences handling a analogue camera loaded with black and white film. It occurred to me that this might not matter too much when there was no shortage of time to think and compose, but that it might matter more when there was only a split second to respond to an unfolding scene.
For example the picture above was captured just as our portrait shoot had finished; the father turned and sent his right hand out towards his son. The movement was not fulfilled as an embrace: his arm steadied behind his son both protecting and presenting him, while he gazed directly down into his son's upturned face. The boy responded with his own full, open gaze. In that moment my heart lurched and I pressed the shutter release.
Would my expressive sympathy have been the same had I been shooting in colour? Maybe it would, but would I have seen and captured the picture opportunity with the same facility? I'm not convinced that I would. I like to think that in this instance my own fatherly heart made a direct connection to my hand and eye: a perceptual connection that had been forged in black and white.
The resulting image is also enhanced by happy accidents. First the sense of dipping beneath the in role costume to see the father and son beneath is reinforced by the way that my angle of view exposes the edge of the background cloth. The cloth stands for the artifice of the portrait photographer and is a kind of parallel to the clown costumes. By exposing the cloth as an artifice the photograph helps us see beyond the artifice of the clowns uniform.Secondly, my recent experiences of adopting a low perspective (see my St John's landscapes) had led me to more or less automatically drop down in preparation for my shots and as a result I am at the level of the junior clown, looking up at the father, which reinforces the power of their mutual gaze.
Catching people slightly off guard can be a way of revealing something about a subject, but on other occasions it is completely unnecessary, because people give themselves with great frankness. My experiences of the clowns on Sunday was that in the main they were not hiding in their costumes and make up. On the contrary their dressing up was in some way fulfilling themselves, enabling them to be fully who they were; also reminding us that we too should not be shy about showing our full selves.
I'd like to thank all the clowns, Clowns International and All Saints, Haggerstone for their daring message about being fully in the world.
For more clown pictures go to the Albums page on this site and select the Clowns International album.
Rob Farrands, PhD, ABIPP