Photographer Interviews

Delivering on Challenging Assignments: Jooney Woodward’s Odd Author Portrait for Telegraph Magazine

September 5, 2018

By Conor Risch

Jooney Woodward draws inspiration for her portraiture from Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and says her work is “quite static and composed compared to more reportage-y photographers.” She has shot environmental portraits for clients including Dwell, Esquire, The FADER, The Guardian, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Vogue and Travel + Leisure. She won the 2011 Taylor Wessing portrait prize for “Harriet and Gentleman Jack,” an image of a young girl at an agricultural show holding her prize-winning guinea pig. At that point, some clients started to think: “Oh, Jooney and animals,” says Woodward with a laugh.

When an editor calls her about a shoot that involves an animal, usually it’s “somebody with their pet,” Woodward says. Last December, Telegraph Magazine called Woodward with a more challenging proposition: A shoot with a live turkey.

The images were to accompany an excerpt from a new book by writer Nina Stibbe, in which Stibbe talks about her refusal to cook a Christmas turkey for her family because as a child, she witnessed the stress it caused her mother. “I’ve seen the damage turkeys can do and the tyrannical hold they have over otherwise robust, rational people and I’ve ‘been affected,’” Stibbe wrote.

© Jooney Woodward

Woodward won the 2011 Taylor Wessing portrait prize for “Harriet and Gentleman Jack,” an image of a young girl at an agricultural show with her prize-winning guinea pig. © Jooney Woodward

The concept was to shoot Stibbe in a face-off with a turkey at a dining table in a quaint country home. Rather than stage it with a taxidermy animal, Woodward recalls, “They said, Let’s just give it a go [with a live animal] and see what happens…. It was fun, it was a challenge.”

The shoot took place in Stibbe’s sister’s home. Woodward wanted the turkey in profile, but she wanted to see both of Stibbe’s eyes. She had to account for the shot running across a spread, which required enough distance between the two for the magazine’s gutter. There was also a lot going on in the background, so Woodward had to position both Stibbe and the turkey, Mable, so that nothing in the background appeared to be “sticking out of the turkey’s head.” Woodward sketched the shot to help visualize where everything, and everyone, needed to be.

Another major concern was the lighting. Woodward prefers to use natural light, but it was winter and the room was dark. They “couldn’t use any directional flash because it would scare the turkey and it would go berserk,” she explains, and even continuous lights were upsetting the bird. Woodward came up with a simple solution of directing a soft burst from a flash gun at the ceiling “to brighten up the whole room.”

In the final image, Stibbe is sitting at the table in the left-hand side of the frame. Mable is standing on the table in the right side of the frame, staring intently at Stibbe. Woodward’s assistant was standing out of the frame to the left of Stibbe, using a squeaky toy to get the bird’s attention. “I do have quite a collection of squeaky toys in my photography box which is always handy when shooting animals,” Woodward says.

The shoot took about an hour, with additional shots that included Stibbe’s mother and sister. They had to give the turkey breaks to “walk around on the floor,” Woodward says. “You’d do a few shots and then you’d see the turkey would start turning around.”

While keeping an eye on the turkey, Woodward also had to pay attention to her actual subject, Stibbe, “looking at Nina’s expressions and making sure she’s doing the right thing.” During any portrait shoot, Woodward says, she’ll always talk with her subjects before they do any pictures because “in that moment when I’m chatting to them,” they’ll relax and be themselves a bit more. “If you go straight in and ask somebody to take their picture, they will stand in sort of a posed way.” She’ll observe their mannerisms and how they carry themselves as they talk, and then she’ll ask them to recreate things she saw during the conversation. She also looks closely at their hands, which signal whether a subject is relaxed or tense. “I think hands are quite a key thing,” Woodward relates.

Though Stibbe has a slightly suspicious expression as she faces down Mable, she does look at ease, one hand beneath her chin. The image caption read, “Nina Stibbe has given turkey the bird—forever.”

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