Master Photographers on Their Art.
Coming from a graphics background was the best thing for my photography: it taught me to appreciate design and to understand where art directors are coming from. In many ways, I still think of myself as a graphic designer or art director as much as a photographer. Some photographers working for magazines can be fighting the type that is placed around or on the image. I understand it, it is natural to me.
I am dyslexic. My pictures make something simple out of something complicated perhaps because I can’t really function with a lot of complicated things on a page. My simplification to a powerful graphic form works well for the covers of magazines and makes for images that stand out. It is like I produce a logo of somebody’s face.
The most important thing is the people. It is not about photography for me so much as the chance to interact with people, study them, and get to know them a little. I record what I find on film. I never assume that the picture I take is a universal truth – half of it is me, my decision to press the shutter, what I said to them just before I did that. It is what happened between us. It is a very weird job, portraiture.
Often you work under the worst circumstances. When I took a picture of Putin, it was shocking how difficult it was to get there. All that dealing with the Kremlin, getting past the security people and protocol, being driven to his private dacha in a forest outside Moscow; it was like a cold war movie. And I have to be sure I give Time magazine what they needed, while making sure it is a good picture by my standards; and you have to achieve this with the seven minutes you get to work with him having gone all that way. Now this guy takes journalists apart for breakfast, while I am not at all intellectual about what I do, totally intuitive. So I deal with him in a human way – that is all I can do. I have to be honest about my strengths and particularly about my weaknesses.
You can read a picture in many ways. With the Putin picture half the people in Russia said I made him look too glamorous, while the other half said I made him look too icy cold. He’s a macho man, a tough guy, not fluffy or charming, but has a quiet charisma. We talked about the Beatles, my mum. It was human and we had a laugh. My picture was as much about that as about him as a person, because it is how I feel about him. So when I took him sitting in this chair, looking up at him slightly, the low angle came from a sense of humility, of looking at somebody larger than life.
I shoot with a Hasselblad, and if I am standing over somebody it is intimidating for them. So I have learned to sit down on the floor and chat to people, and that gets people leaning forward; they stop feeling insecure and feel they are more in control. When they are more confident the magic starts to come out. And that lower angle also gives an interesting point of view.
At the beginning of my career, everybody was art directing me – the art director, the editor-in-chief, and of course the subject might not like something. And on top of that we now have the publicists watching every move I make. “What lens are you using? How are you cropping down? We only want a smiley picture! I don’t want this, I don’t want that!” I learned you can’t battle with this, you have to win with charm, otherwise you put everybody’s back up and you get nothing. You try to win confidence as much as you can, delivering something that they are happy with but is also true to yourself. You have to be true to yourself at the end of the day. The images you give them often disappear, but the ones that are true to your instincts end up being the ones that resonate.
Working with The New Yorker is humbling; it is teaching me and making me a better photographer. Everything I shoot I have to read a thirty-page essay in advance. But I like this: I am hungry to learn, keen to be thrown in the deep end. The world of celebrity photographers, who become almost bigger than the subjects, is a dangerous position for a photographer to find themselves in. That’s not me and I don’t want it. I want to be humble, keen to learn. Some people come to a shoot a little intimidated by you, and that is awful. I want to be the one that is intimidated. I am more observant then. It shouldn’t be about me and my style. I need to be lower. That’s how I like to operate. I have to work hard not to have people coming with preconceived ideas.
There are people I really want to shoot that I haven’t yet. George Bush, Junior is one. I used to want to get people at the pinnacle of their powers, but now I find it more interesting to get people on the way up or down. On the way up it is before all cameras are on them, and you see them in a more naive form; and on the way down they can be looking back with pride or remorse, which is interesting, and they open up. They say things to me often when chatting, because I am not a journalist.
It is not all about powerful people. I return to the Greek islands often where I am working on portraits with villagers from where my family came. They are old and young, farmers and fishermen, children. To me it is perhaps the most stimulating situation – you have to work even harder with these people who don’t care about promotion, exposure in the press and the like. An old lady there can be as tough as Putin. It is also a joy to photograph a farmer in old clothes and with mashed-up dirty fingernails after photographing lots of people in suits. I find myself craving for it.
Van Gogh’s drawings haunt me, and I am yearning to do a little of that with photography. There is a tactile quality. Sometimes you have to be more abstract to tell the truth – tell about something by the sensations you communicate, more than just make a straightforward document. The feeling in the work can be so vivid and real, albeit it might not look like something in the simple sense. My task is not only to show what somebody looks like in my portraits, but to get across what it is like to meet them, touch them, and how they made me feel. It is emotional stuff.