Monday, 15 November 2010

Our photographers, part 2: Ben Gilbert

Ben Gilbert is a colleague of mine at the Wellcome Library, and when I approached him to ask if he would photograph the Geek Calendar, I'm not sure he realised what he was letting himself in for. Ben normally photographs inanimate objects such as 16th-century anatomical "fugitive" sheets, so I was a little worried he wouldn't be able to cope with the demands of our geek divas.

In the end, the geeks were as good as gold. And so was Ben, even though we made him drive all the way across London on the hottest day of the year for one shoot, and operate in the pitch black dark for another. Here, he recounts his Geek Calendar experience, and tells us more about his work at the Wellcome Library.

Strike the pose

Are you a geek?

Definitely. Being a photographer in the digital age brings with it a playground packed full of highly technical cameras and computers, as well as a multitude of other gadgets. These tools are so intrinsically linked to successful photography that a healthy geeky side is pretty much essential to my job.

If that wasn't enough to convince you, I'm one of those strange people who will happily sit in bed reading an instruction manual from cover-to-cover.

What's the geekiest thing you've ever done?

It's probably sitting on the pavement with my folding bicycle outside an O2 shop in the pouring rain for three hours, in an effort to become the first person in East Grinstead to own an iPhone 3G. My discomfort was rewarded when I emerged from the shop, clutching my brand new iPhone, to the cheers of the waiting queue. Sorry, was the question geekiest or saddest?

What was the most enjoyable calendar shoot?

I think this would have to be Sydney's shoot. It was in her flat, just south of the River Thames. It was a really hot day, the traffic getting there was terrible and Sydney's studio, although packed full of interesting things, was a very tight space in which to photograph. Syndey was understandably nervous, as she’s not used to being in front of the camera. But as soon as we got her to wear her trademark top hat, she immediately relaxed and we captured the shot you can see in the calendar.

Babbage's hat!

What was the most challenging?

Perhaps the most challenging was Lewis Dartnell in the Planetarium at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. We only had an hour from walking in to walking out and it was pitch black inside – the videographer Barry had to use iPhones to light his filming! For the photos, each shot was a 16 second exposure, during which time I had to throw a cuddly alien into frame and catch it with the flash lights just at the pinnacle of its trajectory.


Do you have a favourite month?

I'm fond of all of them. However, my favourite is Imran. We got the final shot right at the end when I decided to do a quick set of photos on the roof terrace outside his small office. There was a lovely, evening light with a beautiful sky, and Imran was a natural model, sporting a 'rosette' lollypop in his lapel. It was the first shoot we had done and I guess it showed us that geeks can look cool, and that, visually, the calendar could be really interesting.


How did you get into photography?

When I was growing up, my Dad had a Pentax SLR that intrigued me, and at about age twelve I got my own. We built a darkroom in the attic and that was that - I never really considered doing anything else.

What's your day job?

I work as a photographer in the Digital Imaging department of the Wellcome Library. I photograph items from the Library for readers, academics, book publishers and the editorial press. The material I photograph is varied, from ancient manuscripts to oil paintings, prints to drawings.

What’s the best thing about your job?

As a photographer, I’m allowed into places you could never normally go and to see and handle objects that would normally be kept safe behind bandit-proof glass. One of the most interesting things I’ve ever photographed was the marine chronometer H4, which I shot while working at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

F7024-008, H4 Harrison Marine Timekeeper - Internal Movement © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonImage © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

H4 is the chronometer with which John Harrison won the British Parliament's competition to accurately measure longitude 250 years ago. It laid the foundations for accurate navigation at sea from then onwards. The chronometer is rarely taken off display and it was a real privilege to spend time photographing it. To hold in my hands an object that so profoundly changed the course of history was truly mind blowing.

Who’s your favourite geek?

My favourite geek is Stephen Fry, but Greg has already snapped him up! So, my second favourite geek is Richie Adler, the main character from the TV series Whiz Kids.