Portrait of a Winemaker

Craft is often celebrated more than it is truly understood. That’s not to belittle those celebrations, particularly when it comes to Wynns 60th Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Release. No, rather it is to recognise the difficulty in conveying the importance of the patience, care and quiet passion that underpins the maker’s method.


Simon Harsent’s solution was to inhabit the process; to become what he wanted others to see. In this case, that meant building a camera out of a wine barrel. Of course.


Wine flows through the portraits here, from the camera to the background’s deep hue, to the sitters themselves for whom it is their lifeblood. Meanwhile, for the landscapes, black and white was chosen to give a strong sense of place, earthy tones rooting us in the soil and capturing the terroir, another crucial factor in the craft.

Here, Simon expands on the collaboration…

How were you approached to do this project? What was the most important motivation for you to take it on?


SH: I was originally approached to shoot two ads for Wynns for JWT Melbourne. During the conversation, one of the things the creative team kept stressing was ‘craft’; the craft of wine making and the comparisons that could be made to photography. One of the things that struck me straight away was that the agency wanted a strong collaborator who would take the idea and push it. It’s challenges like this I love the most.

What inspired you to build your own camera? Had you built something like this before?


SH: After discussing several different approaches on the initial call, one of the things that came up was the idea of slowing the process down – trying to emulate the way in which wine is made. Shooting film means you have to consider the subject and take time crafting the lighting, so I started thinking about large format photography and it was at this point I came up with the idea of building the camera from a wine barrel. I’ve had a lot of experience with large format cameras, but I’ve never built one before. I loved the idea that we would be making portraits of the wine makers using the wood from a barrel they had made wine in.

How does this camera actually work? And what qualities did this camera have that were different from the other cameras you typically shoot with?


SH: The camera is basically like a camera obscura, but with a lens and a back plate that holds a film holder containing film. Each film holder has two sheets of 5x4 inch film one on either side. The lens has the shutter speeds and apertures built into it, but it’s a fully manual operating camera. You compose the image on a ground glass screen on the back of the camera then close the lens, insert the film then set the shutter speed and aperture, remove the dark slide and expose the film.  


Most experienced photographers would be familiar with the 5x4 system, and the camera operates just the same. The only difference is that this one is made from the wood of a wine barrel.

How did those differences affect the way you were shooting, and how do these differ from how you usually shoot and direct subjects?


SH: Well, as I mentioned, using the 5x4 means you have to work a lot slower. The time it takes to view the subject, load the back, set the lens and then take the picture is considerable. This means once you have your subjects posed the way you want them, you have to ask them to hold that pose and not move at all.


One result of this is a very different experience for the sitter. They will often react in a very different way than if you were clicking away with a digital camera. It slows everything down and fills it with purpose. I find it helps people relax.


I’m not the sort of photographer to run around my subjects shooting every which way. I’m normally quite considered in my approach, so, for me, not much changed apart from the fact I had to load my own film between shots – not many assistants know how to load 5x4 film.

What did you think would be the biggest challenge?


SH: I thought the biggest challenge would be being able to make a camera that was free of light leaks. Basically the interior of the camera when the lens is closed has to be totally blacked out and free of any light leaks. Because we were using wood from a barrel, there was always a risk of the wood expanding or shrinking.


However, a potentially bigger challenge was me being hospitalised with gallstones during the shoot. Either way, I felt the need to produce something – it’s just that one of those things was significantly more painful than the other!


What steps do you like to take in your planning?


SH: Carpenter Chris Lain was the hero who actually constructed the camera. We looked at a few existing cameras to decide on how we were going to construct ours. Once we had decided on it, we met a couple of times to discuss certain issues that were arising – mostly due to how the wood was responding. We hit a few snags, as you would expect from a project like this. One of them was making the moving parts that hold the front and back plates. The metal from the barrel rings was far too malleable, so we decided to recycle. Due to time restraints, we weren’t able to forge these parts, so we decided to use pieces from an old 5x4 camera. Everything else is made entirely from the barrel  


What is your definition of ‘craft’?


Craft to me is caring. It’s taking time to do something in a way you know is right. It’s not always about finishing the first thing you do, it’s about revisiting something so you know you have explored all the boundaries.

How was the process of working with Wynns rather than realising the project on your own?


SH: The thing with a commission is that you always have to take on board what it’s for. There are always people with an opinion, and those opinions matter. Personally, I thrive in this environment. It’s great to have people push you and help you exceed your expectations. I’ve worked with Kieran Antill, the ECD on this project, on a bunch of things over the years. Apart from being an amazing ad creative, Kieran is an artist in his own right. He’s a painter, so he gets the creative process from an artist’s point of view. As far as the images went, the intention was always to have them framed and hung rather than use them in ads, so I had free reign to how I approached the final images. We shot two ads with the camera – one of restaurateur Guillaume Brahimi, and another of a cellar. As part of the project, I also directed a series of round table conversations with Guillaume and senior wine maker Sue Hodder. 

What kind of lights did you choose – and where did you want them placed?  


SH: For the portraits it was all Profoto flash. When shooting large format you need quite powerful lights, the minimum aperture is f/5.6 and generally for portraiture you would want to be shooting at f/64, so it was lit with Profoto flash. I used a soft box to create a side light and then used a ring flash in front of the camera lens to fill and deliberately cast a slight shadow on the background.


The shadow was an aesthetic choice that I’ve used a lot in the past. I love how it interacts the sitter with the background.


For the landscape images I used natural light and chose to shoot in black and white. I like the contrast between the dominant red of the background in the portrait image coupled with the black and white of the landscapes.

What is the takeaway from these portraits? What choices did you make to enhance their meaning?


SH: The portraits are very much traditional sittings. One of the things I wanted to do was present each person as a bold, almost renaissance, figure. I decided to shoot them against a wine coloured background as a play on Cabernet being their background in life. To contrast this, the landscapes were shot using black and white film to add a sense of mystery and a timeless feel about the images and to root them in the soil of the place.