I’m very pleased to introduce Phill Allen, a Bournemouth based wedding photographer who I think is one of the few photographers who can truly justify the use of the term ‘photojournalism’ to describe his work. Very few people who claim to have a PJ style are much more than ‘people who take snapshots at weddings’, but Phill’s style and storytelling ability, both through words and pictures, has kept me intrigued and a regular visitor to his blog.
It has taken us a number of weeks to put together this interview, partly because the wedding season has kicked off and both he and I have been rather busy, but also because choosing a set of images to give you a taste of Phill’s work in a single post has been much more difficult than I ever envisaged – and I thought it would be tricky from the day I approached him about it! To truly get a feel for a ‘Mister Phill’ wedding, you need to view some of the articles on his blog – Dorset Wedding Photographer – to see how the story of a wedding day unfolds and also how the witty narrative adds to the impact of the storytelling through images.
Hi Phill, please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in a beauty salon
My father was a dresser of hair
My mother was a girl you could call on
When you called she was always there
Having said all that I’m not Leonard Cohen though. Nor was I born in a beauty salon. Neither was my father a dresser of hair. My mother, certainly, was not a girl you could call on. It says something about projection of persona though. Perhaps. I wear size nine shoes.
You’re also a college lecturer, what do you lecture and how did you come to do wedding photography?
I teach cinematography to undergraduate and post-graduate computer animation and visual effects students. Cinematography is a broad area in and of itself so more specifically, I deal with the nature of filmic representations of chronology on a structural level, the fundamentals of… hang on a second; did I just say “the nature of filmic representations of chronology on a structural level”? Two decades and counting in academia and the sub-cultural dialect has got to me! I deal with the role of cuts in moving image production, how the presentation of individual shots and sequences of shots relate to our everyday visual and psychological experience and how in recognising those relationships we can structure our own films to engage a viewer emotionally as well as logically. I look at structural conventions and practices from basic composition through to the process of editing image sequences, and how to subvert those conventions. The intention is that the students can bring to bear anything I teach, in a practical manner in their production work. At the same time I encourage them to always think about the whys and not just the hows. Is my intention in this respect relevant to what I do as a photographer? Very much so, I think. I’m often asked “How?” I’m always thinking “Why?”
I don’t think I managed to simplify what I was hoping to articulate to anywhere near the degree I’d wished but it’s a fascinating area despite my mode of expression and it’s ALL about photography really. I’d encourage anyone interested in looking for some cross-influence to read whatever they can find by Sergei Eisenstein, Herbert Zettl and Walter Murch (plus a large list of others, but moving along…)
I came to do wedding photography screaming and kicking. Actually I didn’t scream. I didn’t kick either come to think of it but I was highly resistant to the notion. A friend of a friend, another member of the rather large University population I belong to actually, had seen my documentary photography work and asked if I’d shoot his wedding. I refused on the grounds that I had no interest in photographing processions of groups of people smiling to camera; that is what wedding photography is all about right? He told me that he didn’t want any group photographs at all, just documentary. This sounded intriguing but I still refused; if anything went wrong I’d not be able to return the following week to try again. He told me it was me, or table top disposable cameras for the guests. I had no choice in the matter. It turned out to be an absolute blast, especially making a beach landing from a boat between ceremony and reception and I thought to myself, if this is what wedding photography is all about I could quite enjoy doing this, but of course that’s not what wedding photography is about, is it?
Then a colleague of his saw the results and asked me if I’d shoot her wedding, I declined, a similar brief interchange took place and once again I was obliged to do so. From that point I was hooked, deeply. It wasn’t just the action though, it was the subtle moments that got to me, seeing a look between two people during a ceremony when editing the images the following day and crying when I saw that look.
My legs always ache that badly after a wedding day.
How does your lecturing help or influence your photography? Are they complimentary to each other? Any thoughts about possibly incorporating video in to your wedding workflow in the future?
Everything I look at and have looked at, everything I absorb, my breakfast included all goes into the mix, into the creative soup that’s being stirred inside my head. It’s the same for everyone. The fact that I’ve researched and taught a specific subject in depth over many years has certainly flavoured that mix considerably. I often look at the results from a wedding and wonder if I’d not just as well be filming it instead, I typically come away with so many images from certain aspects of the day that encapsulate a range of nuances none of which are essential to representing the overall meaning of a particular scene but each will speak to me in a different way, sufficiently different for me to want to hold on to that image; a groom looks at his bride, his eyes glance down at her mouth, they rise to meet her gaze, she breaks out into a smile. That first image conveys the broad story point but those subsequent three images in tandem generate a cumulatively more powerful representation of the moment. I then realise film wouldn’t be quite the same, though can be equally as potent, just in a different manner; those split second individual moments can be pondered more deeply in individual still images, they pass at the speed they pass at in film. Aside from that, for the kind of non-directed iterative story-telling I’m beholden to I imagine that filming a wedding to capture all of that would be incredibly stressful; with stills photography you can probe a scene and if necessary make multiple attempts at capturing its essence and you just need one still image to work in order to succeed in that, with film you need contiguous visual continuity, to some degree at least (even in a relatively de-constructivist piece).
Your style seems to me to be very much a photo-journalistic record of the day interspersed with both a visual and descriptive narrative. Do you make an effort to avoid directing the day and simply capture it as it unfolds?
I’m not dogmatic about taking a photo-journalistic approach, however or by whomever the definition of that approach has been laid out. Ultimately it’s down to who I am, what I am, whatever that may be. I like watching, listening, absorbing; I’m not a great initiator of conversations but I can be a strong participant. I dare say I’m an introspective person though I’m at ease dealing with surrounding external situations. All of this strongly underscores the way I photograph things, far more than technical consideration or perceived aesthetic choices. It all points clearly to a non-directorial role being best for me and a detailed observational position is where I’m best coming from. I’ll utilise any device I can to avoid directing any aspect of the day, though I’m not at all shy of doing so if necessary, and do indeed predominantly just document things as they unfold at their own natural pace. There are a million moments throughout any one wedding day that say something, speak emphatically of the nature of that day, so there’s rarely any need to stage a scenario in order to tell the story. I suppose dogma creeps in to the field when notions such as this are established though then a belief set is built up around them, that this is the only truthful way of doing things. I find such dogmas disingenuous. If I were an extrovert and worked best directing people then that’s the type of photographer I should be and I’d attract a different client set which I’d equally love working with because we’d be attuned in our needs and desires.
The narrative obviously helps set the scene on a blog entry. Would you ever consider adding a commentary in to a wedding album?
I’d never thought of that! Clients hire me to create and deliver images ultimately, so I imagine it’s the pictures they want and personally I like to just look at, to absorb individually and in their juxtaposition, images in an album. It’s a related but ultimately a different medium, an album compared to a page containing a feature, a report so to speak. Having said that, clients often tell me at initial consultation stage or beyond that they really enjoy the way I write about weddings I’ve photographed and sometimes it’s inferred that this was a contributory factor in their decision to commission me, but I suspect that’s the personality aspect of the hiring process and not the product aspect. If I were ever asked though, I’d gladly combine the two in an album. It’s said that a picture paints a thousand words but a thousand well crafted words can paint a picture that would be exceptionally difficult to render through any overtly visual medium I could think of. A thousand words might be overkill though. A Haiku can drive home a message effectively too.
I’d like to pick up on a quote from Ryan Brenizer – “Sometimes you can only tell a great photo from a terrible photo by the context of other photos the photographer has taken. Maddening to photojournalists, but pretty much the driving force of fine art.” You don’t have a gallery as such on your website, is this the reason why?
I don’t see how that needs necessarily be maddening to photojournalists, though I assume it refers to the paradigm of single image usage within a page of other news, that as a manifestation of the photojournalist’s art. I’m familiar with the paradigm as in my younger days I took photographs for newspapers (I wrote also, thus could only ever freelance as union rules on the demarcation of roles would have obliged me to make a choice between one or the other in order to get a staff job, and I couldn’t make that choice). I was never overly concerned by how my work was viewed by others though. Actually that’s untrue; I loved it if my work was appreciated but I didn’t feel a need to be recognised as being a creator of great work. I’m digressing from the point Ryan’s making though, I think. Or maybe I’m fleshing it out.
Conversely I work with and have worked with fine artists and many have made me aware of the importance of rationing the display of work and only showing what is best and what best defines one as an artist. Selectivity plays a strong role in how fine artists interact, through their art, with the world. I don’t follow suit though; I show snapshots to the world, I’m not too precious about finish. Actually it’s still deliberate projection though.
I became aware of the role of pictures, that of photojournalism, at the tail end of the picture story era before, in the UK (following suit from elsewhere) the great British newspapers had succumbed to the demands of advertisers and shied away from hard news stories. I was used to bodies of visual work on a story being presented; this was the photojournalistic form I was most engaged by. I’ve always loved story-telling and whilst a single image might be capable of summing up the essence of a story, it can rarely tell the whole story in a fully faceted form.
The question was more straightforward than my answer thus far, wasn’t it? I think it’s eminently sensible from a marketing point of view and perfectly ethical to present a gallery, a portfolio of one’s best work. I used to have one on my Website, in slideshow form, but I never managed to keep on top of updating it; the bulk of my Web site related efforts were devoted to producing extensive blog features on each wedding I documented. This in turn was driven by a love for story-telling; actually I believed it was redundant additional effort in terms of marketing but I did it none the less because I was compelled by doing so. Then I started getting prospective clients telling me they were attracted to my in-depth style of story-telling so what do you know? Like minded clients! One also commented that he liked how, in publishing an extensive image set for each wedding, I wasn’t just showing my very best work but I was also showing the less well crafted images which still however contributed to the story. He told me that he found this to be very honest in comparison to highly selective marketing of images; he knew exactly what he was going to get rather than hoping everything would turn out to the same level of quality as displayed in a portfolio. It was after that conversation that I removed the link to my slideshow gallery and now I rely solely on the principle that if my last published wedding doesn’t fully convince you that I can deliver what you’re looking for, then I’m not the right photographer for you.
I’ve no idea if all of that actually answers the question. It’s an interesting question. It certainly led to me thinking a lot!
So are there specific shots you like to capture? I notice lots of shoe shots!
Ha! The shoe safari (with a tip of the phrase-coining hat to Laura at Lawson Photography). Yes. The shoes. I’m a people person, photographically speaking. Instinctively I’d just photograph people all day but I became aware quickly enough that the details introduced to a wedding day are significant to the couple and are deserving of clear and evocative record. For me at least, to really do justice to the subject of a photograph I have to feel a real connect with that subject. I only own two pairs of functioning shoes. I’m not a great shoe person, by definition. When it dawned on me just how important the shoes were to many brides I certainly made a point of composing a clear visual record of what they were but a record just wasn’t compelling enough to make me connect with the things; I couldn’t truly feel a connection with a pair of shoes, just a pair of shoes, any pair of shoes (back then, at least!) So I engaged the precocious aspect of my persona and decided to make it fun for me, playful, idiosyncratic. I started combining the shoe shots with architecture and landscape, other aspects of photography that do play an important role in expressing the wider story of a wedding day but again, areas I was not naturally inclined towards, my focus being so dominantly on people. If it’s fun for me, I connect with it.
What I really like to capture though is human emotion, human spirit, stories and micro-stories of human individuality and interaction. This is why wedding days present such fertile ground for what I most love doing. Abundantly fertile at that; it’s inescapable, whichever direction you look in.
Aside from the nuances of the ceremony, the aspect of a wedding day I derive the greatest satisfaction from photographing, it’s the micro-stories I get most pleasure from when I manage to piece together a coherent and cohesive image set to relate these extended moments. As an example of what I mean by this, at Kate & Mark’s wedding I spotted a page boy demanding the attention of the groom’s father. The groom’s father clutched at his chest and feigned an effusive, expressive look of shock riddled with mirth and pleasure. I captured this moment and had a picture in place that was representative of a type of image I particularly like presenting to the world and I know attracts many clients to my style of work. Rather than proceed to looking out for a fresh image making opportunity though I continued to observe the unfolding scene. The page boy pointed up at the father’s buttonhole. Ah, so that is what he was after some attention for. A new image relates the next point in this micro-story. An ensuing set of images relates the progression and conclusion of this micro-story as the groom’s father assists the page boy with attaching his buttonhole. It’s a significant story in its own right that talks of wedding days and inter-generational bonds and all manner of things.
The term micro-story might more eloquently and indeed precisely be replaced with vignette, but it tends to confuse photographers who think I’m talking about darkening the edges of images to draw attention more to the centre. The two uses of the term are actually strongly inter-related though, when you think about it.
You can see the full set of images Phill refers to here – Kate & Mark’s wedding.
What sort of clients do you feel your style attracts?
I certainly attract clients that like stories, or at least they like the notion of their wedding day being remembered as a fully rounded story rather than just a set of key images of important highlights. They tend to appreciate a bit of quirkiness, in some cases a great deal of quirkiness. They’re not shy of honesty and being blunt where it’s beneficial and not destructive. Many of my clients work in classifiably creative fields or have strong creative outlets outside of the workplace. Many others work in areas that involve a great deal of interaction with people. I’ve had quite a few clients from IT backgrounds; I’ve always identified a frequent correlation between artists and technologists in a common interest in abstraction. I’m a little wary of defining my client base too precisely though as I am aware it can alienate, to however small a degree, people that buy in fully to what I do and want what I create but don’t perceive themselves as fitting into my usual range of client types. They’re all capable thinkers though, and manifest thoughtfulness in the way they conduct themselves.
Are there any other photographers who you follow that have either shaped your work in the past or influence your style now?
Weegee gave me permission to use direct on-camera flash in a brazen manner during the evening party. Not in person of course. He was long gone before I was around. I love the work of Martin Parr, the frankness of it all as well as the aesthetic, though I generally tend to be a little gentler with my visual treatment of clients and their guests. Just a little though, at times. There are no end of photographers really, both contemporary and past, within the wedding field and without whose work certainly influences what I do – everything goes in to the pot and gets stirred around. I’d certainly know roughly where to begin with a list but the problem is I might not know where to end.
Outside of photography, where else you draw inspiration from?
Literature. In all honesty I’d say literature inspires my approach to photography far more than any directly visual medium, the photography of others included. I’ve occasionally, I think, horrified my students by saying books are more effective at delivering visual stories than films are, and this is in lectures on cinematography. If you look for example at the writing of Thomas Hardy, the way he describes scenes as though he’s a film storyboard artist (and he was writing before the advent of the cinematic form). He relates visual nuances precisely, succinctly, cleanly. He builds up a series of shots, in effect, that combined produce a fully formed immersive view of a scenario, a view with tangible volume. I also find it particularly interesting how Sergei Eisenstein, as a film maker, was so strongly informed by the structure of literature, both long form narrative and poetry. As I’ve suggested elsewhere a single image can deliver the essence of a story but I do rather like dealing in individual sentences then combining those to deliver more volume to a story point.
What part does social networking play in your business – Twitter, Facebook and other mediums? Have you ever been able to directly attribute a wedding client directly from one of those sources?
I use Twitter predominantly as a social outlet, to shoot the breeze with fellow wedding photographers that I feel an affinity with. In what can often-times, somewhat ironically, be a rather socially isolated field it’s nice to just have a bit of banter with others that know the place you find yourself in. I do of course link to my latest blog posts via Twitter and get a bit of traffic to my Web site that way, but I tend to find myself doing so most of all because it’s there, as an avenue, so why not? I have however picked up three wedding clients thus far, directly through my use of Twitter. I think it’s one of the cases where just by being you, you’ll find people that like you, like your work and would like to commission you. Facebook seems to be proving remarkably effective for marketing purposes. I have a business page that I don’t really use to full effect, in terms of direct interaction and dialogue with subscribers to the page, rather just using it to link to my most recent blog posts (there’s room for improvement in how I use the page, certainly). However, there are plenty of people that have found their way to my work via virtual word of mouth on Facebook and recently adding a Facebook commenting facility to my blog has led to substantial spikes to visits around each new wedding feature and visible reaction from friends and families of clients. It’s a really nice thing to see, in the first instance, then putting my business hat on I realise it’s no bad thing for future referrals either.
“Mister Phill” – how did that come about rather than say Phill Allen Photography? How do people tend to find your website?
It’s a particularly silly name for a wedding photography business isn’t it? A good number of years back there was a cohort of students many of who used to refer to me as Mister Phill. They used to refer to each other as Mister This and Mister That. It only dawned on me last year, when I photographed his wedding, that it had all started off with Ben (no prizes for guessing how his association with the meme came about), one of those students who became a good friend and I remained in touch with over the years. We were all in the same place, doing our thing just as Web usage was starting to emerge to any noticeable degree in the UK. I set up a Mister Phill related URL which I used to use to publish teaching related notes and when I shot my first couple of weddings I published them on my personal Web site with the notion in mind that I’d work on coming up with a more meaningful business name then shift everything across to a new Web site with a proper business name and an associated Web address. Mister Phill was purely part of the URL and the page titles themselves referred to me as being Bournemouth Wedding Photographer Phillip Allen (subsequently switched to Dorset Wedding Photographer Phillip Allen in order to capture a wider demographic of interest; though interestingly throughout that period and to this point in time I’ve always received far more enquiries from outside of my geographically defined location than from within).
I thought of various business names, none of which seemed particularly honest to who I am. As I dithered I started to notice that the Mister Phill label was taking on a life of its own in other people’s minds. The evening before the first wedding of my first fully booked season I was wondering around a bar as guests came together from far and near (almost exclusively from far, come to think of it) in readiness for the next day’s celebrations and I overheard a few people saying, in hushed tones, “That’s Mister Phill.” “I think that’s Mister Phill.” People had obviously seen the pre-wedding shoot. It amused me, flattered me and made me feel rather silly all in equal measure. Other photographers started referring to me as Mister Phill. Prospective clients occasionally greeted me as Mister Phill. One client in particular, who I in turn became a client of – Dan Young, the designer of my logo – had strong views on the matter and encouraged me to stick with the name. He’d first seen an image of mine when visiting venues to find somewhere to get married at but didn’t start looking for a photographer until a few months later. He remembered being drawn to the image but solely recalled my business name as it was so preposterous, for such things. Had it been So and So Wedding Photography, he told me, he’d never have remembered the title. A quick Web search brought him to where he needed to be.
So it is what it is, it’s become whatever it’s become and I’m perfectly at ease with it (now). If anyone finds it off-puttingly silly then I’m likely not a good fit for what they’re looking for anyway.
As to how people tend to find my Web site, I only know for certain of that one case where business name led to directed Web search and thus to my site but Mister Phill and derivatives thereof tend to feature most highly in my reading of Google Analytics results and I often imagine people saying, “Look up Mister Phill online.”
9 of the top 10 keyword searches that led people to my Web site over the past year include references to Mister Phill. I’m aware that from a Web traffic and marketing standpoint it’s considered more healthy to have traffic derived through trade associated keywords than for a specific business name but I do certainly get plenty of traffic from venue related searches and of course wedding photographer related searches linked to my region. I’m not seeing any harm though from the brand, as it might be, being a key lynchpin for people finding their way to my site.
What other marketing efforts have been effective for you? Are you heavily referral driven?
It’s predominantly about the Web site for me and a degree of word of mouth when it comes to marketing. A significant majority of my weddings thus far have come from fresh leads via the Web. Thus far I’ve only photographed two weddings where the bride and groom were guests at previous weddings, though I do have a few more lined up. I would rather like to do a lot more in this manner though. I do find every wedding enjoyable, truly, but there’s something extra special again about photographing a wedding where many of the guests have already seen me at work before and seen the results of that work. It lends an air of greater inclusion to the process; really rather enjoyable. I’d like to have some time to try out a range of other marketing options, to see what works and in the interests of diversity – I secured an especially interesting wedding booking having left some watermarked images with a venue, for example – but finding that time can prove tricky and the success of the Web site alone in generating leads doesn’t add any urgency to the desire to try other avenues. In the medium to long term I think I’ll need to look more at outsourcing things like image processing and devoting part of the released time to a broader range of marketing efforts.
Amidst all this though, wedding blogs are especially good for marketing. I’ve had a number of weddings featured on Rock My Wedding, Rock n Roll Bride, Love My Dress, Belle Amour, English Wedding and elsewhere. Thus far with Rock My Wedding, I’ve seen a 1:1 correlation between weddings featured and new bookings from the blog’s readership and the client type has proven to be a perfect match to my vision in each case. I have also had a few wedding featured in printed wedding magazines but have no idea if this provided me with any marketing benefit; I certainly didn’t make capital of it – a missed trick perchance – but I do like how it makes the couples feel.
Where do you travel for weddings? Any favourite venues or somewhere you would really like to shoot a wedding?
Mars might be pushing things a little as I’d have to forego so many bookings just to get there and back but I’ll shoot weddings anywhere and everywhere really. Thus far it’s been up and down the country (in England) with two-thirds of my bookings coming from outside of Dorset. I’ll be off to Spain later in the year and Italy in 2012. I’m more focused on the type of people I want to work for rather than the type of venue or location I’d like to work at and don’t really mind if it’s a cave or a cathedral. Having said that though, a cave does sound especially intriguing.
For the gear heads, what does your wedding day kit typically consist of?
I shoot using two Canon 5D MkII bodies with a prime lens attached to each. My selection of lenses depends on the nature of what’s going on during any one phase of the day and the environment things are taking place in. I have access to 24, 35, 45 Tilt-Shift, 50, 85, 100 (macro) and 135mm L series lenses. I’ll keep a few in a shoulder bag just in case I do feel a need to change things around during whatever stage of the day I find myself in and everything else in a roller case. I have a couple of lightweight light stands that I usually set up for the first dance, using Pocket Wizards to trigger two 580 EXII flash units and keeping one 430 EXII on one of my cameras. I’ll be adding a further 430 EXII to my line up soon then using the two 430s to mount on the light stands (the 580s are overkill, by a significant margin, for what I use this set up for). I also sometimes use a ST-E2 speedlite transmitter, not to trigger flashes but for its focus assist function in particularly low light. Recently I purchased a Fujifilm X100. It’s a remarkable camera and I have great hopes of it being a bit of a game changer for certain aspects of weddings but I’ll be testing it out as a second shooter before deploying it fully on any commissions of my own.
You list one of your exploits as “full contact vegetable growing”, any other hobbies which you find time for or is marrow wrestling an all consuming hobby?
Ha! I really need to update this on my Web sites in the interests of complete honesty. My sole regret in becoming engaged in wedding photography is that my garden has reverted to a jungle like state in the meantime. I really do miss getting to grips with the land, so to speak, not to mention the incredible taste of fresh grown produce. If I manage to re-arrange my broader efforts and do a certain amount of outsourcing, I might employ myself for an hour a day as a gardener so I can get back in touch with the soil again. It would be healthy all ’round if I could find time for other pastimes too!
With the benefit of hindsight (although time travel may be an issue), is there any advice you would offer to yourself if you were starting out again as a new photographer?
I wouldn’t listen to myself, so I’d save my breath. Actually, everything thus far has evolved at a rapid but manageable pace and I’m perfectly happy with the way it’s all gone. I’d rather advise myself now, to slow down occasionally, find some breathing space and spend some time pondering over where I want to take it all next. I’m not sure how well I’d listen to myself even now though. I’m only really laying the foundations at this stage and if I allow myself to view things in an analogous mode it’s important to get the foundations right. In reality though it’s not a building, it’s a more organic thing than that and there’s always room for manoeuvre and change. I don’t even know if that’s true though to be honest. It’s all just analogies.
One piece of concrete advice I would give to my past self though: when you’re setting off for your first London wedding, after you’ve checked nine times that you’ve got all your camera equipment in the back of the car, go back upstairs and get your suit; it’ll save you a few hundred pounds the following morning.
I’m not sure I’d be listening though. I’d likely be too caught up in wondering if I definitely have all my camera equipment in the back of the car.
Thanks Phill, this was a very insightful interview and I thoroughly enjoyed rummaging around on your website and the challenge of choosing a relatively small number of images to try to represent what appeals to me about your work!!