Jason Wildes Free Portrait Studio

Exhibitions & Publications

The Turner Contemporary - Seaside: Photographed Exhibition

In 2019 100 images from the early part of the project were chosen for the Seaside: Photographed exhibition at The Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate. 

See images here

This major exhibition examined the relationship between photographers, photography and the British seaside from the 1850s to the present. ​​​​​​​

It was Turner Contemporary’s first ever photography exhibition. As well as featuring the work of eminent photographers including Jane Bown, Henri Cartier Bresson, Vanley Burke, Anna Fox, Susan Hiller, Paul Nash, Martin Parr, and Ingrid Pollard, the curators have included rich and often unknown work from across photography’s history, including Raymond Lawson’s remarkable chronicle of family life in Whitstable.​​​​​​​

Curated by Val Williams and Karen Shepherdson, 'Seaside: Photographed' is a touring exhibition organised by Turner Contemporary. The exhibition took place at Turner Contemporary in summer 2019, and will tour to three other UK venues in 2020, each with their own unique connection to the seaside; John Hansard Gallery, Grundy Art Gallery, and Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange. With support from Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund. ​​​​​​

The Turner Contemporary - Seaside: Photographed book

The accompanying book 'Seaside: Photographed' was published by Thames & Hudson in 2019 and featured a project image on the back cover and another 10 inside. Woho!


Under a bridge in Camden Town

Inspired by the work of a number of photographers (Itinerants and Daniel Meadows and Martin Chambi especially), my initial idea was to spend a few years traveling around the English coastline with a camera and collapsible white background making portraits of the people I met. It was as much to do with getting out and about around England as it was to do with photography. To try out my idea and test the equipment needed I set up my mobile studio under a railway bridge in Camden Town and then asked passers by to stop and have their portrait made in return for a free print.

The south coast of England

With a good idea of how my setup could work I spent two weeks in July 2009 visiting Whitstable, Bexhill On Sea, Hastings, Margate and Brighton. I set up my 9ft x 6ft collapsible background along the promenades of these south coast towns against bus shelters, under bridges and anywhere I wouldn’t be an obstacle. Initially things were ok but the unreliable English weather scuppered many of my shoots and I often had to chase and wrestle the 6ft x 9ft collapsible background in high winds and pissing rain.

Professor Val Williams' Hastings Gallery

The end of my two week journey found me in Hastings feeling a little dispirited and trying to work out if the project had legs when Val Williams invited me to set up my free mobile portrait studio in her gallery during the 2009 Hastings Old Town Carnival week. Moving the project indoors meant the addition of lights, stands, a laptop and assistants etc, which went against my original idea but the offer was too good so for three days in August during the carnival festivities I set up a makeshift photography studio in Vals gallery.​​​​​​​

After leaving college in 2002 I became a door-to-door portrait photographer for a short time photographing up to 50 children a day which gave me a great foundation in photographing people quickly and professionally but, with 189 people taking part in three extremely busy events, those first Hastings sessions were still a steep learning curve. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned but it was great fun and Val’s invite had inadvertently led to the development of my idea and a few months later in the Castlehaven Community Centre in Camden the first of the 50 subsequent Jason Wilde’s Free Portrait Studio indoor events began.

Footnote: Fast forward 10 years to 2019 and 100 images from the Hastings gallery shoots and the south coast shoots were included in the Seaside: Photographed exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. See images here

Another Footnote: Working as a door-to-door portrait photographer I made the project "I'll Kill All Your Fish" which can be seen here.


What is Jason Wilde’s Free Portrait Studio

Jason Wilde’s Free Portrait Studio was a mobile photo studio that ran from 2009 until 2017, making documentary portraits of visitors to a variety of venues in and around the London Borough of Camden. In return for taking part in the project, each participant was able to receive a free A4 black and white print.​​​​​​​

How did the idea for JWFPS came about

My plan was to spend a few summer weeks over a number of years traveling around the coast of England making portraits of people in front of a white background. In 2009 I left London for my first two week trip but after chasing and wrestling my 9ft x 6ft collapsible backdrop in windy rain along the promenades of various south-coast towns I decided that an outdoor project was too chancy. Around the same time Professor Val Williams invited me to set up a series of portrait studios in her gallery during the 2009 Hastings Old Town Carnival Week. Accepting Val’s invitation to move the project indoors, I held 3 portrait studio sessions over a week in August and made 183 portraits. The success of those first studio sessions influenced the creation of the indoor Camden focused version of Jason Wilde’s Free Portrait Studio.​​​​​​​

Why Camden

The addition of lights, laptop and assistant into my setup made the project too expensive to tour in the way that I had originally planned so I decided to stay close to my home in the London Borough of Camden.​​​​​​​

What is the process of JWFPS? How do you approach people

JWFPS consisted of two parts, the photo studio and the ‘reception’ area, which was a table displaying assorted project information and images made at previous events. The photo studio was set up in full view of the public while posters were used to advertise that days event. Finally, along with handing out flyers, my assistant and myself would discuss the project with anyone that expressed an interest, respectfully trying to persuade people to participate.​​​​​​​

How many people took part in the events

Some project facts: a total of 2224 portraits were made at 53 events which averages out at 43.6 participants per event. The least number of participants at one event was six, the most was 103. The least amount of images made of an individual was one, the most was 67. The shortest event time was four hours, the longest was eight hours. An average of 15 portraits were made of each person which means 30,000+ were made overall.

Did you use film or digital

I used a medium format Leaf camera coupled with a Leaf Aptus digital back. Film would have been far too expensive for this project.​​​​​​​

How did you fund the project

The project was self funded, which is why it was spread out over eight years and mostly stayed in Camden.​​​​​​​

What was your intention behind the plain white background

I wanted to remove many of the elements that can influence the way a portrait is read and create a visual framework that allowed the portraits to be viewed equally. With that in mind a backdrop was used to mask distracting venue backgrounds while the same lighting and translucent umbrella combination was used at each event to ensure uniform and even lighting across the whole project. In addition, the idea was to make portraits that encouraged speculation rather than fix meanings, so to avoid any link to a specific emotion (smile/happy - frown/sad et), or the ambiguous associations of a sitter looking out of the frame (thoughtful, pensive etc), all participants were asked to adopt a neutral face and gaze directly into the lens.​​​​​​​

There’s a very calm and composed feel to the portraits - was this deliberate

Yes, the portrait making process was a very quiet one. Before any photographs were made each person was given the same brief explanation about how portraits work and why I did not want a smiley faces portrait project and they were also given the option of smiling for their free print. Once the participant stepped in front of the camera they were asked to adopt a neutral face and direct their gaze into the lens and that was it. Many participants asked “What do I do” and my reply would always be “up to you” and then I’d wait for them to compose themselves.​​​​​​​

Did people like their portraits

It’s important to say that apart from the Kentish Town Health Centre, which required a slow and sensitive approach because of sick and vulnerable visitors, the free portrait studio events had a very lively and cheerful atmosphere and many people were happy to take part in the project simply to become part of the portrait archive. As for people liking their portraits, the professional looking set up of the mobile photo studio played a significant role in participant satisfaction as it raised expectations of what kind of images were going to be made. Unfortunately for them lots of participants were disappointed with their portraits.​​​​​​​

Does that bother you

No. I find that gap between expectation and reality very amusing. It would be lovely if everyone liked their portrait but that's not what the work is about. I deliberately did not advertise the events locally as I did not want people turning up in their Sunday best with expectations of how they should look. The element of surprise was important. ​​​​​​​

The repeated images in both the Overviews and Venues sections have different backgrounds. Why is this?

I do not like the fact that the images made at different venues have a slightly different colour/tone/density background. Having the same background in all the images makes for a more visually and emotionally unified project. Unfortunately making the background the same color during shooting was difficult because the venues were different sizes and colours which affected the way the white background was rendered in the final image. 

To make those backgrounds the same colour while shooting would have meant two more lights in addition to the two that I planned to use to light the subject. It was clear from the very start of the indoor project that many venues would not be big enough to accommodate a four light set up so I decided to only use two lights for the subject and render the background a uniform grey in postproduction.

So the Overviews then are not only my favourite images of each person that took part but they also show how the final images will look once all the postproduction work has been carried out - which means ‘cutting out’ the subject in Photoshop and placing it on a background. An image of each person that took part will be added to the Overviews but it will take time as the ‘cutting out’ is a very labour intensive process.

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