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Joe Cocks Studios

Ian Dickinson is a professional photographer with some fascinating insights on Malcolm Davies, photographer at Joe Cocks Studio in the 1980s, and the techniques which lie behind our photographic collections.

Ian Dickinson

Ask anyone who knows Shakespeare to mention the most memorable moments from his plays and they will often mention the bear in The Winter’s Tale. It has become the main stay or pinnacle point of the play, and yet it appears in the text only as a stage direction:

[Exit, pursued by a bear. Enter an old shepherd.]

And that’s it – the only mention the bear gets. Yet it has become a major element of the play, a bit like ‘to be or not to be’, or ‘what light through yonder window breaks…’ and ‘Alas, poor Yorick …’. It is strange how little things become larger than their part in a play or story. From brief mentions often grow iconic moments.

PT Joe Cocks Bear
The Winter’s Tale, 1986: The bear which attacks Antigonus, Act 3 Scene 3. Photograph by Joe Cocks Studio.

The images by Joe Cocks Studio (Malcolm Davies as the photographer), taken in the mid 1980s, show a break from tradition, both in the way the play was performed and staged using modern costume and effects while retaining the traditional language of Shakespeare’s England. Davies followed suit paralleling theatre tradition with photographic technique. He also broke from the then modern use of colour film by returning to monochrome film, which was in some ways a stroke of genius, as the entire cast were dressed in white, with a dark, almost bland scenery seemingly designed to highlight the dominance of the white clothing.

PT Joe Cocks Jeremy Irons
The Winter's Tale, 1986: Jeremy Irons as Leontes. Photograph by Joe Cocks Studio.

I suspect a little ‘tinkering’ in the developing processes here as there is a slight but definite glow effect and I also see the second image of a rather young and quite dashingly handsome Jeremy Irons is a little blurred. If you look closely only parts of the image are blurred, the actor's mid-section is still sharp. As there is ample light to use a fast shutter speed in order to freeze any movement here, this appears to be evidence of ‘camera-shake’, one of the cardinal rules of photography – if you want a sharp image reduce any possibility of camera movement, the first step of which is to put the camera on ‘legs’, the profession’s term for a tripod, further measures include a good quality, programmable flash gun or portable lighting. Of course master photographers like Malcolm would have had all the lighting he needed from the massive overhead stage lighting rigs. This then may be a deliberate effect to draw attention or to reflect the mood of the play.

PT Joe Cocks The Winter's Tale
The Winter’s Tale, 1986: Leontes watches Hermione and Polixenes with suspicion, Act 1 Scene 2. Photograph by Joe Cocks Studio.

Too much light can of course be as much an issue as not enough. The image of Irons shows a little of what can happen if you have too much light. Looking at several points including his shoe front, or the kneeling actors’ sleeves, we can see signs of ‘burn-out’: places where the light has been too strong for the camera’s settings or film used. It results in patches of a bright image becoming overly white or so bright that it ‘burns’ out any detail, something many modern digital cameras are actually incapable of doing because of their internal control systems.

Although it is possible to nit-pick Malcolm's work for its moments of ‘shake’ and ‘burn’ it is very characterful being bright and lively, and it bucks the trend of traditionalism in its use of monochrome film when the rest of the world was still worshipping the many technological advances in colour film.

To see more photographs from our collections, take a look at our Picture of the Month blogs.