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HAVISHAM

ESSAY BY HELEN CRYER




The photographic studio is a purpose-built stage, which from its very inception has been a place of theatricality. From dressing up in clothes the subject can’t afford, to striking flamboyant poses, the studio is a blatant and unapologetic distortion of reality. In the pursuit to realise the highly defined needs of commercial and editorial production the studio is a temple to image engineering: the manipulation of reality.

There is an invisible curtain, an intangible layer excluded from the shot, that affects what we see but which sits outside the frame. First is the background, often black or white, which is supported by wall mounts or stands. It acts as the painter’s canvas or the writer’s blank page, a pool to collect the multitude of possibilities that the visual imagination conjures up.

Light heads are gripped onto stands and booms that are wired and connected to generators. Barndoors, gobos, snoots, softboxes and umbrellas all serve to modify and control the lighting to achieve the desired effect.

The setup always takes longer than the shoot itself, whatever the subject or object may be. It is quite literally over in a flash.

For the subject, sitting in front of the camera’s lens and row upon row of lights can be intimidating as well as disorienting. In the case of the female model, there is normally little or no control on her part over the post-production image, no input into the choice or engineering of the eventual product.

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The way she is displayed – the tone of her skin, the glint in her eyes, the shine on her hair and nails – all of this is decided for her. The identity of the female form is altered, shifting away from the established reality into an accepted degree of unreality: most obvious is the airbrushing tool, which evaporates all the characteristics of the skin. The feminine form can no longer recognise itself.

In her own words, Sophie Harris-Taylor describes her series Havisham as “capturing the strength, frailty and subtlety of the female form.” Her portraits reference the unforgettable character of Miss Havisham who, never wanting to move beyond her own heartbreak, becomes wrapped in her own misery. Using a studio environment and only natural lighting that emulates the style of Renaissance painters, Harris-Taylor’s subjects are pitted against a black background, often holding distant expressions. Gazes are turned away from the camera lens, and therefore disconnected from the viewer; they are distant, forlorn characters.

In one image, the sitter lies naked, her head slightly tilted. Her face is red and shiny; there has been no effort to apply makeup, or edit the photograph post-production to make it conform to the standard we have come to expect of studio work. The model lies untouched by technology: simply recorded, not altered or amended.

These decisions help to illuminate the models’ natural beauty. Despite the cold expressions this is a celebration, not only of the reality of the female form but its importance in our lives. Harris-Taylor’s photographs don’t just capture a regaining of the organic nature of the feminine form, they become a testament to the permanence of it. They are a truer, more real portrayal of the landscape of the female body.

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