Sunday, 25 September 2011

Assignment Five: Gurning

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Egremont Crab Fair last month and gained permission to photograph the World Gurning Championships. As mentioned in this post, I wanted to use this series of images for assignment five, a photo-essay.  Egremont Crab Fair is one of the World's oldest fairs, dating back to 1267. The fair is still characterised by its 800 year old traditions and heritage, with ancient events such as the Parade of the Crab Apple Cart, Climbing the Greasy Pole, Pig's Bladder Football and the famous World Gurning Championship. This exceptional fair attracts visitors from all over the world. 

'Gurning' is the art of contorting your facial expression. Framed by a horse's collar, contestants are judged on their relative transformation before and after pulling a face. The late champion Peter Jackman described it; 

Say you're oogly in the first place, and ya pull a gurn, an you don't look much different, well, just because you're oogly doesn't mean to say that ya win it. Because gurnin' means the Art of Pullin' Faces, not oogliness.

My intention was to make a collection of black and white portraits of each contestant, gurning and also, not gurning. I could then record the transformations taking place. This turned out to be impossible in all but the three placed males which I photographed backstage after the event.

I wanted to focus on the 'texture' of the gurn; contorted facial features, ungainly expressions and protruding lines which I felt wasn’t coming through in images I’d seen.  To address this, I decided a mono, low-key aesthetic would ‘bring-out’ this aspect of their faces and provide a framework for a consistent format. I found the work of Jane Bown and John Angerson's 'Last Man Smoking' an exemplar for the aesthetic I wished to adopt. However, I was aware that to be too prescriptive I was in danger of not allowing the event to show its' own magic. In addition, low-light conditions and the unpredictable nature of the event would demand my flexibility. I had been warned to 'expect the unexpected' and justifiably so, it was one of the most extraordinary evenings I have ever attended!  

The images are neither manipulated nor orchestrated. In this sense they could be considered as newsworthy as any other. Arguably less objective was how I executed it.  I had considered the aesthetic and technical aspects well in advance. I knew how I wanted the images to look but did not know if this was practicable. I experimented with settings at home and ultimately used manual settings; direct flash to ‘counteract’ the stage lighting, light the face and recede the background; and underexposed it a touch to avoid glare.  I used the same settings for all the gurning portraits.  I have chosen to present a typological series, with thumbnails of each gurner to enhance the humourous and peculiarity of the event. The purpose of this assignment I have produced a mock-up which follows at the bottom of this post.

Tommy Mattinson (below) won for the 13th time. Anne Woods, sadly retired after winning 28 times. The new champ is Claire Moffat.  I'm happy with how the images turned out.

The 2011 World Gurning Champion
Women's Champion: Claire Moffat
Previous winner Anne Woods

Publication Mock-up


  1. I can't believe how normal they look - what a great contrast between the portraits! Well done for capturing what must have been a challenging situation. The solid black background really emphasises the faces. Good work

  2. Thanks Selina. Their transformations were quite incredible and funny - and the criteria they're judged on is just that...not just how ugly they are!!

  3. You've certainly followed your brief to yourself in such clear detail. Black and white is just right to show all the expressions. Amazing too how pleasant ordinariness and even good looks can become grotesque through facial muscles and expressions. I can see now why I was always being told off as a child for making faces. You know "If the wind blows your face will stay like that" etc!


  4. Its funny I was never a 'black and white' fan until this course and I kept finding subjects that seemed to work better without colour - it is somehow less distracting and 'poignant'. And as for gurning...well, my kids are very keen to have a go next year!!!