One could argue that freelance photographer Joss Barratt has done as much to inform movie goers about Ken Loach’s past 20 years of work as the noted British filmmaker himself. Barratt’s photography is seen far and wide, perhaps by millions, across newspapers, magazines, on movie house walls and windows, and across the Internet, by far more people than ever get around to seeing Loach’s provocative and arts-house films.
Above, Oonagh Dempsey (Simone Kirby) expresses her anger and frustration in a scene from "Jimmy's Hall". All photos by Joss Barratt. Learn more about Sixteen Films "Jimmy's Hall," and where it is now playing.
We decided to learn more about the man whose stills so artfully present glimpses of Sixteen Films projects, most notably, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “Jimmy’s Hall,” the latter in select theaters across the United States. Joss and I IM’d via Skype to discuss his work for Sixteen Films, headed by Loach, screenwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien. And while you are here, take a look at an exclusive package of Barratt photos from the set of "Jimmy's Hall," never before published -- exclusive to TheWildGeese.Irish.
Gerry Regan: Joss, tell us a bit about your background — how’d you get into shooting movies and TV shows? And what other kinds of photography might you pursue?
Joss Barratt: (pictured, center) I studied photography at art school 1989-91 and was hell bent on becoming the next Don McCullin or Larry Burrows (both combat photojournalists) until I realised I wasn't brave enough so started shooting documentary projects instead, moved to Hong Kong as London was closed to new arrivals due to the recession, and very quickly found my feet shooting news features and weekend mag stories for Hong Kong and London magazines around Southeast Asia.
Whilst in Hong Kong I was asked to cover a TV show, so I just rolled up with two quiet Leicas and took pics of what seemed interesting -- hardly covered the main actors, didn't get paid by the PR desk but made good friends with the director of the show, who insisted I look him up in London. A few years later, I did look him up and shot a few of his subsequent projects and then got the drift of what a stills photographer on a set does!
I then thought I'd chance my arm with filmmakers whose work I really liked, most notably Ken (Loach)! I called his office and by sheer fluke he was there. I showed him a few black and whites of a stories I'd done in Vietnam and Kurdistan -- he loved that I wasn't from films and we became work partners and then good friends!
I grew up on a farm 30 miles from London with summers in Cornwall and Ireland -- with family in Wexford.
Ger: What specific area of Britain did you call home? Not London, then, but a suburb?
Joss Barratt: I now live in Dorset -- 100 miles southwest of London, I raise two kids on my own who are Elmo (15) boy and Connie (10) girl.
Ger: Where specifically did you grow up?
Joss Barratt: On the Kent / Surrey border, near a town called Edenbridge.
Ger: If i’m not being impudent … how old are you? And where in Wexford is your family from? Are they from the Barratt side?
Joss Barratt: I'm 47 and my mother’s family are called Power from Tintern Abbey.
Ger: Ah, delighted to know that. The Barratts — Welsh, Scottish or Anglo-Norman? Or perhaps Cornish?
Joss Barratt: If only the Barratt's were that exotic -- way back they were from Cornwall but long time London dwellers.
Ger: So how long have you and Ken worked together? And the work is specifically recording stills from Sixteen Films’ productions?
Joss Barratt: I first worked with Ken (Loach, pictured, foreground, center) on a project called “Carla's Song” -- I believe it was shot in 1994 or ‘95. I have worked on all Ken's feature film projects, documentaries and other bits of mischief for his football club "Bath City" and magazine articles he's written. My association goes wider with Sixteen Films as I also work with Rebecca O'Brien on other non-Ken projects.
Ger: You missed “Hidden Agenda” then? That was before you began working with Ken?
Joss Barratt: Yep -- missed that one, before my time.
Ger: I believe that was what brought Ken to the Irish community’s attention, “Hidden Agenda.”
Joss Barratt: “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” and “Jimmy's Hall” were my Irish mischief.
Ger: Joss, stating what might be obvious — and also intriguing — Joss. A nickname for Joseph? Is it derived from Cornish, since we mentioned that before? Where did it derive?
Joss Barratt: Ahh - shortening of Jocelyn -- never used it, never known it but I believe it's a very popular name with high-class French women.
Ger: LOL, yes, so this is part of the decidedly Anglo-Norman, and baffling, practice of using names that work for men or women, like Evelyn?
Joss Barratt: Bingo! However all my life I have had to parry people who insist on calling me Josh (né Joshua).
Ger: As a brand, Joss is clearly more memorable. Well done! So is Joss is a ‘nom de guerre (de fotografie)’ or were you given the name Jocelyn by your folks?
Joss Barratt: Christened Jocelyn but forever known as Joss.
Ger: So, Joss, clearly your line of work is very competitive — how do you come to excel at capturing these memorable, perhaps even searing scenes that are so essential to the marketing process?
Do you have both a great sense of anticipation, as well as technical mastery of the camera and lighting? And how do you get such intimacy with the camera? Does that come from the actors intensity or your own ability to be inobtrusive or both? How do you capture such intimacy, I mean to say?
Joss Barratt: I have always tried to approach film sets like I would a story, for me good pictures always come from sensitivity, patience, timing and not being intimidated. I would like to think you can give a good actor the same degree of respect you would if you were shooting a humanitarian story -- give them their dignity and there's a chance they with know what you're doing and not trying to make a few quid out of a celebrity!
Sets are hard places to photograph as everyone is busy making a film, not a photograph. I like to find a way to the inner circle, though, get the confidence of the cast, director and camera team and then you get private, intimate moments.
Ger: Let’s look at an example. This pic — the poster shot of ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ — it’s become a touchstone for the film and its legions of fans — tell us how you shot that. Was it a ‘live’ shot, shot with the cameras rolling? Or was it set up?
Joss Barratt: Both ! It is actually two shots, shot in sequential frames hiding in a ditch with Cillian and Padraic waiting for the famous scene where the farmhouse is set alight, they weren't being filmed but I was keen to see their reactions when they realised what was happening.
Ger: You mention trust — I think it’s evident that you move in and out of shots with full confidence of the cast and crew. But clarify then, and this seems a key question to understanding your artistry, your muse, if you will. Are your most memorable, your most honest shots, taken when the cameras are rolling, when the actors are fully ‘in character’? That would seem to be the case.
But as you just stated, that’s not always the case. And there clearly are many shots meant to capture the cast and crew at work as distinct from ‘on camera’ — documentary shots, if I might distinguish them that way.
Joss Barratt: I think you have to have a bit of trust to get anything more than the surface, as stills man on a film is a pretty second-class citizen usually, but I try and find a way to connect to the cast and crew and then be discreet without being too invisible. When I ask for a scene to be held or re-run then they usually know I'm serious and not time-wasting. The really juicy pics are when the actors have just finished a shot and let down their guard, very private and revealing.
Ger: This shot — how’d you grab this?
Joss Barratt: That was during a take on a medium long lens and slow shutter speed, they were so engaged with each other and I wanted soften the background and to create some movement.
Ger: How far were you standing from Oonagh and Jimmy then?
Joss Barratt: About 20 feet
Ger: What do you guys call ‘the other camera’ — the one that shoots the movie? Help me get the terminology straight.
Joss Barratt: The main camera, "other camera" is the film/movie/video camera, I have to dance around it and not get in the way.
Ger: In this shot, then, where were you in relation to the movie camera? Alongside it. Clearly you have to be out of the way of the shot. Is that one of the hardest things to learn to do?
Joss Barratt: The dance was shot on three film cameras so I was along side one of them, making sure the other two didn't catch me ! It is a basic principle to never get caught out on the wrong side!
Ger: (Chuckling) Yes, I sense that might be very important! There’s a lot of tracks and wires — you have to watch your step constantly, as well as be on the lookout for THE moment you want too. Lots to keep track of, no? When the red light goes on, I imagine your adrenaline flows too!
Joss Barratt: I go very light, Gerry, no heavy gear, no assistants -- underplay and over-charge!
Ger: Just the camera? No bulky equipment bag?
Joss Barratt: Two small lightweight cameras on set with a box of other bits hidden away if I need them.
Ger: What cameras do you use?
Joss Barratt: Well, Gerry, it is always best to try and find the people you want to work with - for all of us!
I use Canon 5d Mk3 SLRs and Lumix GX7 compacts with Leica lenses, very small and quiet.
Ger: Interesting. Thanks for that info. Tell us how you got this shot (at the top of this post). A lot going on there -- do you have a motor drive usually, rolling, for high-adrenalin shots like that? Hearing that Ken often has an improvisational style, anticipating a moment like this could be, mmm, challenging to say the least. Or so it would seem.
Joss Barratt: I do shoot pics in a sequence, but Ken's film camera always has a good view of the action so I nestle in with them, and in this situation had to shoot on a long lens. I knew what was going to happen and was just hoping for a good reaction or bit of tension.
Joss Barratt: That's a cracker that pic ! He was really mucked up....
Ger: In this scene, which was emotionally charged, after the shootout with the Auxies? Do you find yourself getting emotionally involved in these kinds of scenes? And how do you stay focused then? When you say “cracker that pic” — meaning you liked the shot a lot, I gather.
Joss Barratt: Those scenes are really exciting and also nerve-wracking, they are shot on three or four cameras and I have to make a judgment where I can get the best storytelling pic from. Ken can tell his story in an edited sequence and he's the master of this -- as a photographer I have to try and tell it in one image.
I liked that shot a lot as yer man was so upset following the shootout, lots of his team were dead and he was very very agitated -- and it was all make-believe !
Ger: Yes, I found it a stunning event, one of the reasons why the film was so emotionally searing for me and many others — with this we quickly understood, as did the survivors, the harsh reality of this war.
Are you able to turn off the ‘viewer’ and focus on the work, then, when filming an emotionally wrenching scene? Turn off the ‘viewer’ mode, if you will?
Joss Barratt: It is a privilege to be moved by the work, I don't turn it off at all -- if I can convey some of the emotion and power then it does gray the area between fiction and reality, that's interesting.
Ger: Are you the production photographer for these various film and TV projects? Is that the title for the work you typically do on these films?
Joss Barratt: Yep -- Production Stills Photographer is the usual title or "Unit" Stills Photographer.
Ger: Are you doing that work for “Downton Abbey” then? It would seem so.
Joss Barratt: I did Downton Abbey Series 3.
Pictured, Mrs. Patmore (Leslie Nicol), the cook, with Daisy Robinson (Sophie McShera), the kitchen maid, in a scene from Season 3 of ITV's hit series "Downton Abbey"
Ger: Not the upcoming season? Which appears to be the final season, alas?
Joss Barratt: Not the finale - can't give any scoops away sadly!
Ger: Were there any discernible differences in your working approach on “Downton Abbey” and Ken’s Irish films? Seems like a lot more interiors in Downton Abbey, for one.
Joss Barratt: Not in my working approach but very much so in the access and how accommodating “Downton Abbey” was, I have an "access all areas" [pass] with Ken and, on glossy projects, they just let you shoot what they want you to shoot.
Also on a film with Ken I will be there every day from the start, getting to know everyone, on a TV job I will be there one day a week when something significant happens, hard to win people over when you only turn up on big days!
Ger: Interesting insight. Seems you’re more of a collaborator in a Loach production than a typical TV shoot.
Joss Barratt: You've got it ! He has a a good few of us around him that have been with him for years, a loyal team really.
Ger: Do Ken and Rebecca, particularly Rebecca, who’s more the marketer for Sixteen Films, ever request specific shots for marketing purposes? Or is it just trust that you will generate the requisite ‘big’ shots the company needs for the posters and media kits?
Joss Barratt: Rebecca and I get together with a script and a schedule and can quickly pick out when the key moments may occur however just by being there a lot you can get great candid moments, very real and tender insights to the cast and crew can come from the boring days.
I also like shooting landscapes and portraits of the actors looking into the camera -- poster designers often use these and can cut out the background. The “Jimmy's Hall” poster was made from five separate pictures made to look like one!
Ger: Wrapping up now: What is the favorite shot of yours from “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”? and from “Jimmy’s Hall,” the ones you may have framed on your study wall? And why are you so pleased with those two?
Joss Barratt: I have a wide format black-and-white landscape of Jimmy's ma's cottage near the hall in my study, nestled into the landscape with the looming mountain behind and ominous clouds, very reminiscent of American landscape photographs from the 1930s. (Picture at bottom of post.)
Ger: Your your favorite pic from TWTSB? With that, I’m away to produce this article. What’s the scene here, and what about it satisfies you the most? Is this the kid who gets executed? Later in the scene?
Joss Barratt: Yep, he gets shot up in the hills. I really like this one, his eyes are so intense and he is just about to find out his fate, I love the rhythm of the picture and how SteadyBoy is smoking a fag, the far mountain outline and the colours -- so strong yet so damn sad. … He is just shot for giving information to the Tans under duress.
Ger: Joss, great fun. Thanks for helping us promote “Jimmy’s Hall.” And, no pressure, but if you have an abiding interest in the Irish experience worldwide, we’d welcome you becoming one of our nearly 4,000 members. http://thewildgeese.irish/?xgi=1qkGlEuAfZverJ
Joss Barratt: I'm off and away, Gerry -- send me a link to whatever's yer mischief.. All the best!