Here is the latest in the (self) portrait series (still haven’t fully resolved that!) – Blackpool Stan – and this post records the way that the image has developed to its ‘final’ form. All of the portraits have gone through varying degrees of planning & preparation and, thinking ahead to assessment, it is probably useful and sensible to record that development process in at least some cases.
The origins of this image go all the way back to October 24th 1955 – or the weekend before that, to be precise. As recorded in his Newsbook (see below), little Stanley, aged 5, was taken on a day trip to Blackpool, riding in a Rolls Royce. Not quite so grand is it may sound, I should stress; we didn’t have a car at all! A neighbour and relative ran a wedding car business and had a vintage Roller in which we occasionally got taken out on trips. This is the picture I drew and slightly messy note that I wrote about it the following Monday.
As recorded some time back – here – the old Newsbook supplied part of the initial inspiration for this series of portraits, and this particular entry always seemed to have potential for a response. I imagined a version of me who had been drawn to the bright lights and fun of Blackpool (I grew up 12 miles up the coast); who had left school at 16 and gone to work in the amusement arcades, become a bit of a ‘Stan the Man’, and eventually built up his own ‘empire’ of leisure venues (!). The original thought was that I would photograph him with his own Rolls Royce; thus completing the link with the Newsbook.
Back in July, I did some online research as to just what a ‘Blackpool entrepreneur’ might look like. I knew about the Oystons, estate agents, owners of Blackpool Football Club, and with a slightly ‘dodgy’ record; and my research turned up photos of them, but it also unearthed some other interesting characters. Here, without going into full details, are some of the images I found.
A jovial, slightly roguish, slightly ‘dodgy’ bunch – all showmen, one suspects, and, in the case of the last one, awarded an MBE for services to charity. That (together with the difficulties of procuring an actual Rolls Royce for the photo-shoot) led me to slightly revise the back-story on Blackpool Stan. He had always craved his ‘Roller’ but, when he could afford one, decided to give the money to charity instead. I could then use a token model vehicle in the image. I sourced a die-cast model of a Rolls Royce via e-Bay – more difficult and more expensive than when little Stanley used to collect Corgi toys, I might say – and some other props such as a ‘loud’ pair of reflective sunglasses with orange frames (the colour is significant, as those with football knowledge will realise – see tie in photo above, for example), a pair of ‘pretend-pierced’ earrings from Claire’s Accessories (one of which would be worn, significantly, in the left ear), and a colourful woven wristband from Top Shop (hinting at a touch of the ‘hippy’). (At Claire’s, I also purchased a blonde (temporary) hair colour, but changed my mind about using it.)
The ‘look’ seemed to work but, before going to Blackpool to do the shot, I wanted to have a good idea of how I would frame and set up the composition, as well as researching potential locations via Google Street View. The broad idea was to have the model car in the foreground and, if possible, Blackpool Tower in the background, but I decided to trial a ‘set-up’ at home first – in the ‘studio’. Some experimentation with camera angles etc led to this image.
I needed to get all the ‘props’ in the frame, leaving space for the Tower, and to be able to operate the shutter release discretely. The car is on a piece of card, on the end of a carrying case for my studio lights, which was useful because I could take the case ‘on location’, and I am kneeling behind it. The ‘thumbs-up’ seemed in character and gave me an excuse to bring the wristbands into shot. Any camera reflection in the sunglasses is hidden in the dark shadows.The Street View research for a location wasn’t too successful. I knew that there would be somewhere on the Promenade that would work but didn’t want to spend ages trundling my ‘kit’ up and down to find it. I did, though, manage to find some images taken from the North Pier, which had the Tower in the background at what looked as though it would be the right angle. I was, though, a little concerned about the direction of the sun, should it shine (for once!) in Blackpool when I was there.
It did! And I was right! When I arrived mid-morning, it was directly behind the Tower for a shot in the direction I needed. I had a Plan B in mind, which involved a cup of coffee to kill some time and experimentation with a shot from the other direction, with the Tower reflected in the lens of the glasses instead. A lot of trial and error with head and camera angles produced this version.
In bright sunlight, the possibilities for reviewing what I’d got via the camera screen were limited. I probably exposed around 20 images to get the set-up right and another 10 or so to cover different options. By then the sun had moved around a little and the possibility of shooting my original composition had returned. (I might add that the whole process was accompanied by a soundtrack of Sixties music over the North Pier’s PA system, as though they knew it was the music of Blackpool Stan’s youth, and subjected to occasional interruptions by inquisitive tourists.)
Switching the set-up around, I then exposed another 20-30 images to get the framing right, to eliminate reflection of the sun onto the lens, and to minimise the reflection of the camera in the lens of the glasses (though that was always going to happen, to a degree). The whole process on the pier took around one and a half hours and I had about sixty images from which to make final selections.
Back home, a review in Lightroom soon edited the numbers down to a handful where the expression, composition, hair (it was inevitably breezy), reflections etc were acceptable – and I did, at one stage, fear that I might need a return visit to get it right. The final image, presented at the beginning of this post, has also had a fair bit of work in Photoshop. There have been separate ‘Curves’ adjustments to various parts of the image to get the balance of the exposures, contrast etc to a more acceptable level; and the ‘Clone’ tool has been used to completely remove the reflections of the camera in each of the lenses of the sunglasses. One ‘happy accident’ is the juxtaposition of the curve of my thumb with its own reflection and then the curve of my hair as it blew in the breeze. The potential ‘symbolism’ of the Tower and the raised thumb, with the earring I was aware of before the shoot.
So – a lot of work and planning to produce what is intended to look like a fairly casual shot taken by a local photographer for use in the local newspaper! Could it ‘work’ as a representation of a ‘real’ Blackpool entrepreneur, alongside the examples I had researched? I think probably ’yes’, it could. Does it demonstrate the power of the photographic image to create an illusion of identity and/or the illusory nature of what we think of as ‘identity’? Could it ‘seduce’ the casual viewer to believe in ‘Blackpool Stan’? Is it a hyper-real simulation? Am I, also, just a collection of signifiers, like this image of ‘Blackpool Stan’?