Bombay Sapphire run a competition called the Imagination Series, which is a fantastic concept. It’s the world’s most imaginative cocktail competition and the final was held in Morocco, after there had been regional competitions around the world. So last year Bombay Sapphire took 10 of the world’s most popular bartenders to Morocco where they had a competition to see how they would be influenced by the Local sounds and spices, and come up with the world’s most imaginative gin-based cocktail.
The reason my agent first thought of me was that my line of work in sports photography was very heavily portrait-lead and he wanted me to do a GQ-style shoot with these bartenders in Morocco last year, to photograph them competing in this competition.
This year the concept expanded to there being two competitions. They still did the world’s most imaginative bartender competition, but there was also an Imagination Series film competition. They got the script writer Jeffrey S. Fletcher, who wrote Precious, to come up with the script, but they also included Adrian Brody, who won an Oscar for his role in The Pianist, on board as a spokesperson and flag bearer of the Imagination Series. This time the agent came to me with a number briefs on the table. They wanted me to go to New York to photograph Adrian Brody (and at the time I thought they said Agent Brody and I got very excited as I had just been watching Homeland, but of course it’s equally exciting to photograph an Academy Award winning actor) and they also told me that part of the brief was to photograph five signature cocktails that had been created by mixologists to accompany the five winning short films. If you get a chance, look them up on Vimeo. They chucked a lot of money at it so it’s proper production value and the films are amazing.
So not only did I have to photograph an Oscar-winning screen writer and an Oscar winner in New York on a very tight budget, I also had to photograph the five winning cocktails as still life images, which was definitely outside my comfort zone. We used the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, the best cinema in this country. The seats are sumptuous, red leather armchairs and they’ve got sofas at the front and back and waitresses serving throughout the film. They employed a cocktail stylist to prepare the drinks to the highest possible standard, one of which was a skull with smoke coming out of it! I don’t do a great deal of still life so it was a big challenge to capture these drinks in their essence. The drinks industry have very specific standards as to the way the drinks look, with ice cubes, condensation and slices of fruit, so I had to learn those very quickly, and at the same time make the drink look spectacular.
I’ve previously employed other photographers to do still life as part of my bigger shoots, for example if the client needed a shot of a boot before photographing the sports person wearing it. I’m very interested in learning all aspects of photography in order to be as versatile as possible, so I’ve always kept an eye on what they do, their techniques. Flagging light is not a massive part of my remit these days in terms of the big portraits, and certainly not flagging to the extent that a still life photographer would do, so it was quite technical and I forced myself to slow down a lot more. But I had the time that day to take it easy and learn as I went.
I was surprised at how hard it was. It was easy to get a reasonable picture, but it was really hard to get a great picture and to translate what I saw in my head. Shooting glass and having to shape lights on a much smaller scale was hugely challenging. One thing my still life photographers had advised me to do was turn my light down; my light is generally very hard so they told me I needed to soften everything down and take my time.
I snooted a lot more than I thought I’d have to do. I had brought grid sets that I thought were narrow enough but turned out to be nowhere near narrow enough for the subject matter. Thankfully I’d taken enough black paper to create very direct and soft themes of light.
I’ve learned that I actually enjoy doing still life more than I ever thought I would have done. It was never really my favourite thing in college so it was nice to take everything that I’ve learned over the last 15-20 years and translate it back into a different form of photography.
Immediately after the shoot I was given a brief from a sports company to photograph some of their products. It wasn’t as a result of doing the Bombay Sapphire shoot but it meant that I had the confidence to take on the brief — I’m very good at saying no if I think something is completely outside of my remit or I don’t think I can justify asking for my fee in return for the quality of photograph I would hand over, whereas this time when they came to me I could say ‘yes, that’s not a problem’. I had some fantastic ideas and I’d won the commission but sadly, when they needed me to do it I wasn’t available, so I’ll have to keep waiting until the next opportunity arises for me do so something like this again.