For the cover of Printed Pages Winter 2015 we wanted something super-seasonal to mark the end of the year and conjure up some festive wonderment on the newsstands. Of course we didn’t want it just to be any old festive tat, it had to be a little ambiguous, a touch surreal, but also familiar too. So we called in the help of still-life photographer extraordinaire John Short to help realise our ambitions.
John’s got serious chops when it comes to shooting impeccable images in the studio, regularly working with some of the best and brightest set designers around. For this image it was just him and his assistant, an unusual set of materials hundreds of different shots.
It took a whole lot of hours in the studio to get the final image just right, so we asked John to explain what he was up to on that cold day in November…
What made you decide on the footprints?
As the brief was “Winter”, I tried to come up with an idea that was instantly recognisable as a winter scene, yet hinted towards the surreal. What sums up winter better than snow? And how better to convey snow without creating a twee snow-scape? A footprint. Hence the basic idea was born. The rest unfolded on the shoot day.
The prints were created with some pretty unusual materials, can you explain this in more detail?
The first task was to make snow. So, we bought quite a few white powdered substances and went to work. It was a process of elimination really, some things left a pretty good imprint, but collapsed too much at the sides, others were too coarse and didn’t really work at all and the one that worked the best was icing sugar. Sifted icing sugar, to more precise.
These kinds of shoots take ages and lots of tiny manipulations, can you explain what you’re looking for in a good still life shot?
They do indeed take ages. For this shot, once we’d settled on the icing sugar, we went about working out how to contain the sugar in the shape of a footprint so that when we applied the pressure of the boot, it didn’t collapse. Then when that was worked out, we had lots of goes to determine the right pressure. From then it was just a process of finding the right print. And that’s where feeling comes into play. You just develop a sense for what you think works at the time. Then you make sure the composition and the lighting are working with the subject to make the most graphic image possible.
How do you approach a commission like this in terms of preparation and planning?
One of the elements I like most about still-life, is the freedom to just try things out. I tend not to plan too much beforehand. I’ll organise the basic elements, like the icing sugar, the boot and the background, have a rough idea of what I’ll do, but the rest comes during the shoot. For instance, I initially thought that a perfect reversed footprint was what I’d do, but it soon became clear that all the interest lay in the areas of the prints that had collapsed, or were teetering on the point of collapse. So, we then worked on getting them to look as fragile as possible whilst still holding their form.
Tell us an anecdote about your favourite snowy walk….
It has to be a few years back when London had quite a big downfall. I was wandering through Hampstead Heath enjoying the perfect quietness that comes from a fresh snowfall. Then reached Parliament Hill to find hundreds of people going hell for leather on anything they could find. The winner for me was the guy dressed in a tiger suit snowboarding on a Foxton’s sign. You couldn’t get more surreal!