It was accident rather than design that helped Debbi Clark discover her passion for portrait photography. Now 52, she originally studied fashion and illustration at Central St Martin’s College of Art, but when she picked up her first camera – an Olympus Pen F 35mm film camera – to record patterns for research, everything changed: ‘I just fell in love with it all. It literally transformed everything.’
Although she had a natural eye for pinpointing the shot, she admits it took a while to get up to speed with the technical side. ‘I was 26 years old when I started, and I didn’t always get the shot that was in my mind’s eye because I didn’t have the technical experience. So, when it started to come together and truly gel, it was amazing.’
Black and white landscape photography was Debbi’s first love, using the Olympus Pen D2 35mm film camera. ‘I was slightly obsessed with clouds,’ she says. ‘You could get so many nuanced shades within both black and white – to me, it almost became colour.’
Debbi’s impressive portfolio includes high-fashion editorial for the likes of Italian Vogue, and interiors, but it’s her striking mono portraits that have helped make her mark in the photography world. Echoes of provocative fashion photographer Helmut Newton and Terry O’Neill (the British photographer often hailed as one of the greatest celebrity photographers of the 20th century) are visible in her work, but her portraits are fast becoming iconic in their own right.
‘In a way, people’s faces are similar to landscapes,’ she says. ‘Their bone structure, lines and the way they look at certain angles are what I work with. It’s then about capturing their essence.’
“I love the incredible quality of image you get with this camera.”
Well-known faces she has immortalised include a rakish Paul Weller getting fitted for a suit, actress Sadie Frost and actor Damian Lewis. ‘I love colour, but I always seem to veer back to black and white,’ Debbi explains. ‘It’s a medium that seems to ‘own’ it when it comes to portraits. I know instantly when I meet the subject which direction I’ll go in.’
London-based Clark says she doesn’t get star-struck, apart from a commission to shoot the photographer’s photographer – Lord Snowdon – at his own studio at home in Kensington in 2012. Snowdon wore a suit and rather serious demeanour and suggested Debbi harness the studio’s natural light during the session, which she shot on an Olympus OM-D E-M5.
Keen to go her own way, she initially used an LED daylight panel from the left side, but Snowdon still pressed for his original idea: ‘And of course he was right,’ Debbi says. ‘As I admitted that out loud, the smallest little smile formed on his face and that was the shot. He became truly alive in that moment because he had shared something he was passionate about.’
A drive to share her own knowledge and inspire others led Debbi to set up the Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation in 2013. Aimed at providing a gateway to photography and the arts for underprivileged and gifted children between the ages of five and 18, it has also led to a successful collaboration with Olympus who recently provided 12 EPL-8 cameras for a pop-up summer project in Camden, London, where the novice photographers shot a film documentary, music video and mini-exhibition.
The project has also seen Debbi using her beloved Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II at every opportunity. She says: ‘I’ve worked with lots of cameras – including Nikon and Canon – but the clarity with the Olympus is beyond comparison. I love the incredible quality of image you get with this camera, but it’s far more than that. The huge amount of manual control you have is brilliant, the autofocus system is quick and intelligent to use, the ISO range is fantastic and of course, the four-thirds sensor on this beauty is insane! It all comes together to make this camera one of the best I’ve used – and believe me, I’ve tried quite a few!’
Debbi Clark accepts private commissions. See more of her pictures at debbiclark.com.
Article featured in Black+White Photography Magazine.