I doubt that you’ll be surprised to hear that the vast majority of the books sitting on my shelves at home are collections of photographs. I have books by most of the greatest photographers who ever lived and I find them to be a constant source of inspiration as well as a great help in keeping my feet on the ground. Every time that I need ideas I see what they did and every time I think I’ve done something great I realise that many other people did it before me and often better than me.
One of the biggest sections is the one devoted to Annie Liebovitz. I admire her and I admire her work. I don’t necessarily want to be the kind of photographer that she has become and I definitely don’t want to do the kind of work that she is most famous for but there is a great deal of inspiration there.
For my birthday a few months ago I was given a 2011 copy of her 2008 book “Annie Liebovitz At Work”. It is partly a biography, partly a summary of her professional life and an interesting insight into how she feels about the job that she has done since leaving college. There are also copies of many of her greatest pictures in it – although it’s the words that I want to talk about here.
When I read it a month or so ago I did so immediately after reading Roger Allen’s excellent “The Darkroom Boy 40 Years on Fleet Street” which is a funny and honest look at the life and career of one of the greatest exponents of the newspaper photographer’s craft. At first Annie Liebovitz book appeared dull and a bit pedestrian by comparison but after a bit of thought I remembered that they are two very different characters and have different styles for just about everything.
I don’t want to get into reviewing books on this blog just yet and so I thought that I’d just advise everyone to get both books and read both books because between the two of them you start to get a very good idea why being a photographer is so much more than a job.
Towards the end of the Liebovitz book there’s a section where she answers the ten most common questions put to her over the years and this inspired me to take those questions and answer them myself. It was tempting to send them to Roger Allen as well and maybe I’ll do that another day. In the meantime, here are my answers:
- What advice do you have for a young photographer who is just starting out?
Take pictures and analyze what you did well and did badly. It doesn’t matter what you are shooting because at the beginning of your journey you will learn something new every time you press the button and then look back at what you did. The lessons are often negative but that’s fine because learning from mistakes has to be one of the best ways to make real progress. As your body of work and experience grows you will grow in confidence, have better ideas and grow as a photographer. On top of that, practice your people skills – if you can communicate with anyone and everyone easily and effectively then you can concentrate more on the shooting part of the job.
- What’s your favourite photograph? I think that it is probably the portrait of Iris Murdoch and John Bayley that I shot way back in 1998 but I have so many favourites – just look at my folio and you’ll see that I like a lot of my own work. I often come away from jobs having had a deeply emotional reaction to what I have seen and done and because of that I’d also like to mention the photograph I took of a boy doing up his coat for the first time. He had trouble with his motor skills and his determination to zip up his jacket for the camera left me in tears. I like different pictures of mine for different reasons – sometimes it is the end result and other times it is the memory of time and place that they bring back.
- Who’s the most difficult person you’ve ever photographed? Margaret Thatcher kept me waiting for hours whilst my lights were there ready to go. She walked into the room and stood with her back to a huge window forcing me to change everything in seconds and look like a fool. I wasn’t exactly a fan of hers and so her behaviour only compounded that. I also had a bad time with Stephen Frears the film director. In his defence nobody had told him I was coming and he was snowed-under with work. In the end I just followed him around the studios for a couple of hours grabbing frames and not setting anything up. I actually enjoyed the shoot and got some interesting portraits from it. We parted on far more amicable terms than we had had started the day.
- How many pictures do you take? It varies from job to job. Sometimes it’ll be a couple of dozen but I always try to shoot on at least two cameras which tends to bump the number of frames up so on a typical editorial portrait I’d want at least 100 frames which would mean maybe ten different images and/or compositions. On some corporate jobs the frames go into thousands so when I say it varies I’m being serious.
- Are you happy with the move from film to digital? Ecstatic. I love the digital process and learned to intensely dislike shooting film and having to scan it or get it scanned. The quality of modern digitals is amazing and, for the work that I do, I cannot see any point to film.
- How is photographing a celebrity different from photographing a regular person? There are lots of answers here. Most celebrities have been photographed hundreds of times before and so they are either comfortable with or bored by the process. Those who don’t want to be there are foolish because their image is often everything and the less time you give a photographer, the less likely you are to get a great picture. The worst kinds of celebrities are those whose management feel the need to micro-manage everything and try to look through the viewfinder with you. Regular people come in lots of varieties too and most need to be made to feel comfortable before you can really do your job.
- Where do you get your ideas? Books, movies, magazines and newspapers. Whatever you are shooting, someone has done it before and it is always worth looking at their work for ideas – some are good and others are bad and so you pick and mix lighting, techniques and compositions to suit what you need to do.
- When do you know you have a good picture? You can feel it happening and I’ve been told that I start to grin like an idiot behind the camera when it is really coming together. If the light is right and you get the composition working for you good pictures happen. It’s great pictures that are a little tougher.
- How much direction do you give? As much as I need to or as little as I can get away with. I like things to happen naturally and organically and so I tend to spend less time giving direction than you might think. I like to give encouragement more than direction. People tend to do interesting things and I see it as my job to keep them doing that. Unless it is a very structured shoot, if I am having to give explicit directions then the shoot isn’t going to plan.
- How do you set people at ease and get them to do the things that they do in your pictures? I talk to them about almost anything. The weather. The traffic. The place we are at. Whatever works really. Having good people skills makes being a photographer a lot easier
I’m not in the same league as Annie Leibovitz and so my answers will not be quoted as well or as often but advice from working photographers is a valuable commodity – even if you read it and then decide to ignore it!
“Annie Liebovitz At Work” published by Jonathan Cape, London – ISBN 9780224087575
“The Darkroom Boy 40 Years on Fleet Street” by Roger Allen published by G2 Entertainment – ISBN 9781782815235