Alan Sillitoe A Childhood Hero

‘The Loneliness Of the Long Distance Runner’ by Alan Sillitoe hit accord with me. At school rowing had been my big thing, dumb I know, and his underachieving protagonist getting back at the world through running hit the spot with me. I even got my friend and rowing partner Tim to run around some fields so I could make a photographic homage!


Alan Sillitoe ©Nigel Barklie

So I was pleased when Alan Sillitoe agreed for me to visit him at his Notting Hill home for some photos. He had a tiny study where he worked and smoked with a framed map of Nottinghamshire the setting for his best known works. Alan was really generous and sent me a letter saying “You’ve got me absolutely right”.

Technical Notes – Lighting

This picture was taken in April 2004.  The second floor room was small, in particular there was next to no room in front of Alan’s narrow desk. The only option was for him to be at his desk but thankfully there was a good sized window to his left which provided usable light. Alan wore a black leather waist-coat and wrote on white paper. He was a small man with intense observing eyes, ready to pounce on and store away any passing detail or characteristic.

I needed to put in flash light to get a usable exposure value. I like to work between f5.6 and f11 for portraits, this was made at f5.6 to blur the back wall and prevent it winning the fight for eye attention. I use shutter speeds near to 125th. Happily there was some white objects behind Alan so I was off to a good start in making him standout from the background. What I did was to use the available window light as fill but I had to add a main light with enough power to lift the black leather waist-coat. I used Fuji slide film as it is sharp and has good colours, 400 ASA to make to most of the light without looking too pushed.

To punch the light onto his body and shape his face I used a studio flash head aimed in low from his right side but softened off through a large diffuser panel. This light was placed in tight to keep it all a bit intense on his face and away from the background which was in danger of becoming over-bright and conflicting with Alan himself. I kept the flash quite level to his eye-line about half a stop brighter than the window light, this angle kept the flash off the writing paper and on the black leather waist-coat to give it a bit of kick-back. The close light also gave sharp catchlights in both eyes in sympathy with his author’s preditory nature.

At this time I was just getting back into using film after being knocked out by the new digital cameras. Alan Sillitoe’s writing is an icon of  the 1950’s and so I wanted to use my twin lens roll film camera, with a standard 80 mm lens and it’s square format it is the look of that era. But I did not want the portrait to be too straight as Sillitoe’s writing questions societies values, so I gave the camera a bit of a twisty angle putting him as the upright commentator in a capsizing world.


This entry was posted in All About the Pictures.

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