Photo Insight with Harry Borden: Mary Nightingale
Portrait photographer Harry Borden tells the story behind his shoot with the popular television newscaster
In July 2010, I was commissioned by Red magazine to photograph four high-profile women at work and at play. They were historian Bettany Hughes, chef Gizzi Erskine, media personality Sally Bercow, and news and current affairs presenter Mary Nightingale. It was a rewarding job to get, and as I would get to spend the whole day with each of them, it was much better than just turning up and having to quickly shoot a portrait.
Mary Nightingale had, at that time, been working as an ITN newscaster for 10 years and had presented other programmes including Wish You Were Here…?. My brief was to get a range of shots including ‘a relaxing at home shot, doing some gardening’and later her taking part in an ITN editorial meeting.
I arrived at Mary’s home in West London in the morning. I could immediately see she was a very genuine and kind person, as well as being very photogenic. For some reason I was in a bit of a rush that day and hadn’t had any breakfast, but she was fine with me tucking into a bowl of cereal in her kitchen. Then other people involved in the shoot started arriving, including the hair and make-up people, and Red’s picture editor.
The magazine’s plans for the shoot had sounded straightforward, but as is often the case, things didn’t run as smoothly as anticipated.
In the studio
I started by photographing Mary in her garden, and although she was willing to pose, it was clear she wasn’t someone who spends hours gardening. Also, the garden itself, which was behind her terraced house, was quite small and all the light was coming from above. That made it tricky to make a nice portrait, even with my assistant holding a reflector below. I ended up doing lots of shots of her looking up towards the light, to get a more flattering perspective.
The second part of the shoot took place at the ITN building in London’s Gray’s Inn Road. We started in the television studio, which had a green- screen background and all the associated behind-the-scenes electronic equipment and cables. I liked the idea of showing the messy reality of a TV studio that seems so polished when we see it on TV, but also creating some sense of order out of that visual chaos.
Then, when we started shooting with Mary in front of a television camera and a monitor behind, it gave me an idea for a shot that would include all those elements. There are certain other photographers’ pictures that are lodged in my memory bank and which, sometimes, subconsciously reference in my own work.
A picture I love was one taken by Brian Griffin of George Cooper, then the managing director of Thames Television. He’s standing on a TV studio balcony with his back to the camera, but he’s also being filmed by a TV camera and his face is shown in profile on a screen in the foreground. I like the frame-within-a-frame idea – being able to see someone simultaneously from two different angles in the same picture.
When I saw the monitor I decided to incorporate that idea into my portrait of Mary. Once she was in position against the green screen, I asked the cameraman to zoom in on her eyes, which made it a strange Orwellian kind of picture. I tried various combinations of studio equipment in the frame, but I liked the main image, above, the most.
The faint ‘X’ directly above her head marks the place where she had to stand to read the news. I intentionally left it in because those things show how locked down things are in a television studio.
I shot everything on the day using my Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 50mm lens. I took some pictures in the studio with flash, while for others I asked a technician to put the studio lights on Mary – a hard light directly on her, and a hair light.
For the final part of the shoot I was supposed to take pictures during an ITN editorial meeting, but I wasn’t allowed in. So instead, I photographed Mary at her desk in the newsroom, looking at screens or reading newspapers. It’s tough to get a strong picture in an office, and in this case the light was poor and there was no room to set up any flash. However, it was just starting to dawn on me that I could get away with using high ISOs with the new digital SLRs, so I shot them with the available light and the 50mm lens wide open. I moved around and photographed her from different angles, and was pleasantly surprised by the results.
By the time I was taking these final pictures it was past 3pm and Mary was due to present the news at 6pm. It’s stressful gearing up for a news programme, so that’s where the shoot ended. Throughout the day Mary was very patient, and from the terrific little portfolio of people Red asked me to photograph, the ‘green-screen image’ was the most memorable shot.
Harry Borden is one of the UK’s finest portrait photographers and his work has been widely published. He has won prizes at the World Press Photo awards (1997 and 1999) and in 2014 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society. The National Portrait Gallery collection holds over 100 of his images.