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What Portrait Photography Can Teach Us About Characterisation…

I enjoy spending time in galleries and, whether it is a collection of paintings, sculptures or photography, I can while away a few hours looking at art. Photography stimulates ideas and sparks my creativity perhaps more than any other art form. I used to spend a lot of time at the Portrait Gallery in London and Vienna has an equally impressive collection of galleries. I was thankful to find that the World Press Photo Awards made a stop here each year, so I haven’t missed out!

I particularly like the work of David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. This week I discovered a portrait photographer who was new to me: Michel Comte. Based in Zurich, Comte is a trained art restorer whose first photography contract was with Karl Lagerfeld. He has worked for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Armani, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, to name a few, and has photographed Miles Davis, Jeremy Irons, Mike Tyson and Michael Schumacher, with whom he became good friends.

He is one of the few professional photographers I know to have photographed both for international advertising companies and for documentaries covering war zones. Comte has increasingly moved towards a more reportage and documentary style of photography, and has travelled to unstable areas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan and Cambodia. If you are interested in his work, the video below shares some of his thoughts on what makes a good photograph.

So, what does this have to do with writing, I hear you thinking? Comte got me thinking about the idea of how much of a person’s soul and character can be captured in a split second, and how so much of what you – the viewer – see forms an impression of who they are as a person. Very quickly you form a judgement from the eyes, the body language, the clothing, the expression and the feel of the picture. This is what Comte says, ‘the person projects.’

As a writer we have the exciting and difficult job of ‘capturing’ each character almost as a snapshot, and portraying who they are through their movements, body language and expressions. Writers have the advantage of using dialogue, actions and the responses of other characters, but the essence of character description comes down to much of what is captured in a moment with a lens. Comte talks about Catherine Deneuve, and the way that a normally confident woman shows a moment of unusual vulnerability in the his photographs. These are the moments which, as a writer, need to be drawn out and put down on the page.

Have a look at the video, if you haven’t already, and think about what strikes you from each image. Think about how you would describe the person and why. Ask yourself what it is about one person that stands out and makes them unique or memorable. It might be a look of vulnerability or mystery, it could be the stance or the eye contact. Sometimes what people wear or how they stand and move, dictates your response to them as a person.

What do you think about character description? How has art or other media inspired your work?

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Writers and Their Creative Spaces

Some of you may have noticed the blog header change. It is a photograph I took of  W. H. Auden’s desk and typewriter at his summer house in Kirchstetten, Austria, not so far from where I live. The previous header was an image of his bookshelves which are upstairs in his study. I visited Auden’s summer house last Autumn, just as Take Me to the Castle was about to be released and just as I began to creep into the world of social media as a writer. If you searched for F. C. Malby prior to September 2012, you would not have found a thing.

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W. H. Auden’s study in the upper rooms of his summer house – Kirchstetten, Austria.

I have been interested in writing spaces for a while for several reasons:

They form the inspiration for the work of each writer, whether the space is a small desk in the corner of a room, a pocket of a cafe, a library, or a large wood desk in a grander room. Writers are natural sponges of their immediate surroundings – the views, the conversations, small objects or buildings. All of these things help to form the ideas which swirl around in our minds.

They are a slice of history. Visiting this beautiful house in a remote village, where Auden penned gems such as Stop all the Clocks, I felt a sense of anticipation as I scanned his bookshelves, coffee pots, vodka bottles, memorabilia, even his slippers left by the chair. It was almost as though he could have walked into the room at any moment. Everything he read and used has been left as it was and turned into a small museum. I sat in the chair by the desk and looked out of the window wondering what he might have thought as he looked out towards the woods.

The books say much about the author. Auden had a small selection of his own books in amongst shelves of writers such as Wodehouse, Shakespeare, Twain, Waugh, Keats and Golding, as well as a collection of atlases and books on psychology and philosophy. I looked at the books closely because I believe that what each writer reads will influence his or her writing and style to a great extent.

I have been to the Isle of Jura on the West coast of Scotland but have yet to visit the rented house where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty Four.  He apparently worked without electricity or running water on a remote end of the isle.

If you are interested in finding out more about writers and their creative spaces, I have a board on Pinterest of well known writers, with many in their work environment.

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Agatha Christie’s study

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Sebastian Faulks’ garden work space

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 Jane Austin’s tiny walnut table

Agatha Christie surrounded herself with art. I also find art galleries a source of inspiration for some of my writing.

Beatrix Potter surrounded herself with animals as she wrote and illustrated her famous Peter Rabbit books.

E. B. White worked in a boathouse. Imagine the waves lapping against the boathouse walls as he wrote and a view into a horizon where the ocean meets the sky.

Sylvia Plath took her typewriter in the great outdoors, sitting on a stone wall with her typewriter balanced on her lap.

Louise de Bernieres writes in a shed in the garden over looking a vegetable patch with a view of pheasants, listening to music.

Sebastian Faulks uses a small room fifteen minutes from his house. He has a small cameo of Tolstoy that he bought in his house in Moscow and a bronze relief of Dickens. For each book he invokes a sort of patron saint. For A Week in December it was George Orwell.

Jane Austin worked on a fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod, which must be the smallest table ever used by a writer. She established herself as a writer whilst working here after a long period of silence. Her early novels had been written upstairs in her father’s Hampshire rectory.