Tim Booth: A myriad of extraordinary hands

PUBLISHED: 15:33 11 April 2016 | UPDATED: 15:33 11 April 2016


An image of his grandmother’s hands started photographer Tim Booth on an unusual portraiture project that, over the years, would capture a myriad of extraordinary hands

Molly Booth - GrandmotherMolly Booth - Grandmother

Molly Booth - Grandmother

This is the first hands shot I took. I was sitting with my grandmother in her garden, and as always was struck by their arthritic pithiness. The way they rested on her walking stick showing her wedding ring, so smooth against the rough skin, told a large part of her story.

Tom Drury - Horseback ArcherTom Drury - Horseback Archer

Tom Drury - Horseback Archer

I met Tom in a field above Beaminster one gloriously sunny evening. It was a challenge to find a way of incorporating his bow, his hands and a way of showing that he was on horseback all in one impactful shot. So I used the mane as a blurred foreground, positioned him so that there was a dark hedge behind and bright sun on his arm and bow. It was a tricky image to do, but fun to work on. Fortunately Tom is a very accommodating man, and his horse is very well trained!

John Makepeace - Furniture MakerJohn Makepeace - Furniture Maker

John Makepeace - Furniture Maker

John is a legendary furniture maker based in Beaminster, and his work is beautifully structured, organic and layered. I wanted to emulate that as much as possible in this image. I was fortunate that his hands when interleaved made a near perfect circle.

Amanda Brake - WitchAmanda Brake - Witch

Amanda Brake - Witch

I was very lucky with this shot. I had brought along a wooden bowl and a charcoal incense burner on the off chance I could use it. It was a cold, still and sunny morning, so when I lit the burner the sun caught the smoke (having bounced it off a large reflector dangling precariously from a washing line), and thanks to the lack of any wind the smoke didn’t just blow straight away. Whilst we have many inaccurate pre-conceptions about witches, they are basically carers and healers, so I wanted to include a nod to folklore with the smoke and her amulet in the background, and infer the brewing up of a potion for the curative element of a witch’s work.

Lord Carrington - DiplomatLord Carrington - Diplomat

Lord Carrington - Diplomat

The moment I had a yes from Lord Carrington I knew what I wanted to do, for what is a diplomat if not a master chess player. I took along my chess set and we sat in his garden and fiddled about with the board a little. The fact that he is moving the Queen amongst pawns was my little joke, but no-one’s ever noticed it.

Nick Mason - DrummerNick Mason - Drummer

Nick Mason - Drummer

I met up with Nick at his studio in London on a very grey day. We sat out on his fire escape and I got him to poke his hands through a black velvet backdrop I have used endlessly in this project. He has used the same style of drumsticks his entire career, and it seemed fitting to use this monogrammed set. There’s a symmetry to drumming and sticks are the natural extensions to the hands, so it seemed apposite to have them growing out of his hands.

Betty Bull - MilkmaidBetty Bull - Milkmaid

Betty Bull - Milkmaid

Betty lives in a charming little cottage in Nettlecombe and we sat in her kitchen surrounded by cow-themed memorabilia, mostly presents from friends and family. Her hands are wonderfully gnarled, but I wanted to add a little of her sprightliness and sense of humour to the picture, so we chose a delightfully kitsch cow milk jug for her to cradle in the sun streaming in through her window.

Theo Langton - TinkerTheo Langton - Tinker

Theo Langton - Tinker and Mask Maker

Theo has enormous and beautifully tattooed hands and there are numerous things I could have done with them. However his work is so extraordinary and refined I really wanted to show off the organic shape of one of his masks and the contrast between his delicate work and his strong hands.

Tim Booth - Photographer and authorTim Booth - Photographer and author

My Hands

I fought against shooting my own hands for years as I thought it was a bit “look at me”, but caved in the end when I realised it would just be a strange omission, especially as books often include a byline portrait. In this shot I’m outside the kitchen holding my father’s old Rollie that he’d used for much of his young life. I used a self-timer - it was a bit of trial and error but it worked in the end.

As a child, it was the slide shows of my grandfather’s faded Kodachrome images of his travels around the world that fired up my initial passion for photography. My father then gave me his camera when I was about eight and I was hooked. Before long I was on the road to becoming a professional photographer, a vocation I have enjoyed for the last three decades.

A portrait of my 95-year-old grandmother’s hands, taken one May afternoon in her garden, sowed the seed for this whole project – A Show of Hands. Gnarled and twisted with age, they were a visually striking and poignant reminder of a long and full life. These were hands that had lived through two world wars. They had played the piano, learnt to paint at the Slade art school, chopped wood for the fire, cared for the sick, played tennis for the county and made the best ginger beer I had ever tasted. That image, taken in 1996, was my first ‘hands as a portrait’ and it inspired me to seek out many more hands over the next two decades.

This was pre-email so I wrote a lot of letters and then waited for a response. On the whole, once I’d had a chance to explain why I wanted to shoot someone’s hands, most people were on board, but no doubt some thought I was a tad unhinged.

I took that first portrait on my old Nikon F2 with a lovely 55mm Macro lens on Tri-X, my favourite pithy and grainy black and white film. I decided that for all my future hand portraits I should set certain parameters to work within: I would shoot in black and white, in natural light and in half an hour wherever my subject found most convenient. This would sometimes become a challenging brief!

I have always preferred black and white as a portrait medium. It enables you to focus on all the detail and form, and not be distracted by skin colour, marks, blemishes and veins.

My decision to focus on hands was also a deliberate choice. In a pair of hands you can see a whole life, a story if you will, that doesn’t require you to make a judgment about the person, which faces inevitably do.

The first 50 hand portraits featured in an exhibition in London. Then I got busy with other photographic work and the project went on hold until 2006, when I decided that there were many more hands I still wanted to shoot.

My subjects have included the famous such as: musician Sir Cliff Richard, artist Tony Hart, author Michael Morpurgo, film director Terry Gilliam, rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, golfer Peter Alliss, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and astronaut Helen Sharman. Alongside these household names are hands from professions as diverse as fisherman, shepherd, falconer, baker, stonemason, gravedigger, embalmer, dustman, coalminer, fireman, clockmaker, hand surgeon and witch.

When I returned to the project technology had moved on and having email and access to good quality digital photography made the whole process a lot quicker to organise. When I started the project back in the mid nineties I was using film, shooting pushed Tri-X, which allowed me to shoot in relatively low light. By 2006 I had moved to digital but I was careful to ensure that the style remained the same.

For each subject I have a fairly clear idea of how I am going to approach the image prior to the shoot day. If the idea featured props then I go with it. Occasionally I take props with me, like with the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes where I had bought a compass and map of Antarctica. Other times they’d be something that was about when I was there, such as milkmaid Betty Bull’s milk jug.

When it came to picking my subjects it was a mixture of a wish list and who I could get. First, I would think of a profession I wanted to feature, and who would best represented it, or who I knew I could get access to. With the more famous people it was a question of perseverance and tenacity. Finding out how to contact them pre the internet was a struggle, though some were friends of friends, or more usually friends of friends of friends. There is of course a long list of people I didn’t or couldn’t get – so there is some unfinished business!

My decision to put all the hand portraits into a book came about after I had sent a raft of letters to various publishers and had no joy. After talking to a number of other photographers, the general consensus was to self-publish. I am really pleased that I took this route. I am very proud of having a book that captures a portrait project inspired by my grandmother, Molly.

On the horizon is a second exhibition featuring images from the whole collection - which to date is around 115 pairs of hands. One exhibition will be at Spitalfields in London and another here in Dorset, partly because it is home (my photographic studio is in Beaminster), but mostly because there’s a good swathe of subjects in the collection from around the county.

My fascination with photographing hands continues. They are our unspoken language, our tools that lifted us from the savannah, our physical connection with both the world around us and each other. Hands are hardy and yet delicate. We use them to manipulate our environment in myriad ways. They really are truly amazing.

About the book

A Show of Hands by Tim Booth, with foreword by Jonny Wilkinson is published by XII Books at £39.95. It is available from timbooth.com and at all good book shops.

To see more about A Show of Hands project visit ashowofhands.co.uk to see more of Tim Booth’s photographic work go to dorsetlight.com.


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