Notebook: 18 February 2016: PHOTOGRAPHY
I’m a big fan of strong editorial portrait photography and a lovely little book called Read this if you want to take great photographs of people recently caught my eye. If you are a budding portrait photographer or are just interested in, and like looking at portraits of people, then this book is one to look out for. It’s written by Henry Carroll and was published last year by Laurence King and it’s full of loads of good tips and images. Here’s one of my favourite pictures from the book – Arnold Newman’s well known portrait of the composer Igor Stravinsky which Newman cropped to add to its impact.
Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman, 1946. Cropped and uncropped versions
During my time as art director at the publisher and content marketing agency Archant Dialogue, we produced a magazine for Olympus cameras. Each issue of the magazine would carry a photo competition which myself and my colleagues would judge. We’d spread all the pictures out on a large table and then slowly whittle them down to a winner. The editor would veer towards landscapes and natural history pics but however brilliant they may have been technically, they left me cold and my eyes were always drawn to the pictures with people in – portraits or reportage that showed some human emotion – that captured a little bit of the subject’s soul.
The best portrait photographers have a knack for teasing out the personality and ‘life’ of their sitters; for instance, they may chat away to them to hep them relax and reveal a little of what lies beneath their exterior mask or they may use other methods… In 1941 Yousef Karsh shot his iconic portrait of a defiant Winston Churchill. Karsh knew he had just a couple of minutes to grab the shot, but he’d done his homework – he’d witnessed the power and presence of Churchill in a speech to the Canadian parliament beforehand, and he had his camera all set up and ready to go. Churchill arrived puffing on a cigar which Karsh quietly removed from his mouth. This riled Churchill and added to his already sour mood and it was at this instant that Karsh took the legendary photo and captured the scowling and defiant wartime leader. I mention this photo because it’s one that seemed to be ever present when I was a young child in the 1960s – and when Winston Churchill died in 1965 it was reproduced everywhere including on a set of commemorative stamps where the picture was cropped tightly top and bottom, which seemed to add to its power as an image.
Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh 1941
My love for strong editorial portrait photography also stems from my formative years as a designer on trade magazines such as Campaign and Accountancy Age which were always stuffed full of contrasty, black and white pictures of ad’ men or accountants which we deliberately commissioned to be shot in a bold and stark manner to help add drama to the pages. This style had been championed by the Haymarket art director, Roland Schenk and harked back to a graphic 1960s style typified by David Bailey’s famous portraits of Mick Jagger and of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Bailey, in turn, had been influenced by the high contrast black and white portraiture of Irving Penn.
Tight and dramatic crop in Accountancy Age. Early 1980s. Photographer unknown
Mick Jagger and John Lennon and Paul McCartney by David Bailey
Al Pacino and Alfred Hitchcock by Irving Penn
I guess the ‘best’ photos are those that will stay forever etched in our minds. Think ‘reportage’ and you picture the young Vietnamese girl running down a street escaping a napalm attack or, more recently, the Syrian baby washed up on a beach… Think ‘portrait’ and it might be the Churchill picture or a David Bowie image… A couple of years ago, soon after Davina McCall had experienced the emotional meltdown of her epic run, swim and cycle across Britain to raise money for Sport Relief, there appeared an interview with her in The Guardian magazine. It was accompanied by a set of haunting portraits by the photographer Nadav Kander. McCall is normally pictured as a bubbly tv presenter but Nadav Kander had somehow managed to capture a small part of her soul and the real Davina that was lying just beneath the surface was revealed. They are a brilliant and beautiful set of photos and they remain imprinted in my mind.
Davina McCall by Nadav Kander, 2014 for The Guardian magazine