Leonard Cohen, 1994, Oslo.
When I came to London in the 90s I was a reportage photographer in every sense of the word. I worked on stories, did news assignments, shot a lot of street photography on my own time and always had a personal project to work on. I worked with Leicas and beat up Nikons. The idea of doing portraits never really entered my head as a professional photographer. Of all my photography heroes, only W. Eugene Smith and Cartier-Bresson did portraits and there style of portraiture meant hanging around the subject all day long and in Smith’s case, days and weeks. I did love certain portrait photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Arnold Newman but in retrospect i thought of them as great photographers and not portraitists.
So when I showed my portfolio around the picture desks of London, in quick succession I was given assignments to do portraits of the British swimmer Mark Foster by the Observer, the Athlete Linford Christie by the BBC World Service Magazine, and Leonard Cohen by the Independent Magazine. Desperate for work and sure of my abilities I said yes to the commissions. Little did I know then that it would be such a large part of my work as a photographer.
I write this because I just finished doing the B&W Portrait gallery for my website. (shameless self promotion). It makes me think a lot of how i approach portraits and how it has evolved over the years. It has also changed the way I shoot my reportage. I first did portraits using available light on my 35mm cameras but soon I felt that i needed to compete with what more established portrait photographers were doing and soon I started experimenting with medium format 6cmx6cm cameras and started using lights. I grew to love the square format and soon started using that for my reportage work. After a few years I enjoyed walking the streets more with my big clunky medium format cameras and instead of being quick and intuitive, I became slow and methodical. Portraits became part of my stories and projects.
The advent of digital has led me back to 35mm. the first reason is because i can’t afford the huge prices for digital medium format cameras. Otherwise i probably would have bought one without much thought to a 35mm camera. But I did buy a Canon 5D and I was amazed by the quality. But I did struggle to learn to compose a portrait in 35mm again. It was not only the shape of the image but the shallow depth of field of medium format that i missed. The quirks and differences of my various Mamiyas and Rolleiflexes were in huge contrast to the what seemed at first to me was the generic look of digital images.
I also think about how many B&W portraits I used to do and if I do them now, its because I want to for my own personal desire. The last time I was commissioned to do a B&W portrait on film was Seamus Heany a couple of years ago.
Seamus Heaney, 2009, at his home in Dublin
I photographed Heany using my Mamiya C330 with a normal 80mm lens. I used a velvet black background I always carry in my bag and one soft box. Heany got a great kick out of being photographed with a 40 year old camera. I ended up spending a whole morning with him and most of it just talking. I will remember that shoot forever because of the experience of getting to know a Nobel Laureate but also because it was my last film assignment.
But it was not my last B&W assignment. Over the last few years I have learnt how to make good images in B&W with my digital cameras. Last year I was given a great assignment to photograph several Trade Union Chiefs by the Observer and to publish the pics in B&W. Again it was great fun and not least because I am a big supporter of trade unionism.
Dave Prentis of UNISON, Bob Crow of RMT, and Len McCluskey of UNITE, London 2011
I love doing portraits. Its not all I want to do in photography but its a great privilege to be able to walk into people’s lives, in their homes and places of work, and be allowed to capture a little bit of their souls for posterity.