PHOTOGRAPHING THE FAMOUS
with Debbi Clark
IMAGES Debbi Clark WORDS Jemma Dodd
When did you become interested in photography?
It was when I was studying fashion and design at St Martin’s College when I fell in love with photography. I used to photograph landscapes, capturing patterns in trees, flowers, grass picturing shapes, shadows and formations in clouds. I became so obsessed with how fascinating it was playing with light that I wanted to learn the technical side to really bring my images to life. I then went on to LCP and studied photography and printing. My first camera was the Olympus Pen-F 35mm film camera, which I still love and use.
You’ve photographed the likes of Kate Moss, Paul Weller and Damian Lewis, how did your journey into photographing such big names begin?
As a photographer, I love taking portraits. I have been extremely fortunate to have photographed some of the most iconic people in the world, including Kate Moss, Paul Weller, Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory, which began when I founded Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation, a charity that I am CEO of. The charity supports young people by inspiring them in the arts, giving them lifelong skills that they can develop their artistic passions through. I work with many models, actors and singers on commissions, and because I work with them as a professional photographer, I was able to approach many of my artists to ask if they would let me take their portrait and exhibit each year to fundraise for Sir HvH Arts Foundation, supporting my passion in the arts and passing it on to young people to encourage and nurture through the arts.
“I have many memories and stories as each time I take a portrait there is always something that happens to make that portrait so special.”
Of all the people you’ve photographed, what was your most memorable shoot?
I have many memories and stories as each time I take a portrait there is always something that happens to make that portrait so special. I do remember the time when Helen McCrory phoned me and said, “Damian is shaving off the tash, beard and sideburns today”. Being such a passionate advocate and patron of Sir HvH Arts Foundation, Helen McCrory managed to weave her magic, and off I went to take a portrait of Damian Lewis dressed in a blue denim shirt, with his amazing mop of flame coloured hair, tash and sideburns. I remember thinking at the time that the ‘Brut 33’ 70’s style clashed with the blue denim, ginger hair and green grass as I stood above Damian shooting directly down from above – what a colour contrast. We shot this image within a 30-minute window – as I rushed out to meet Damian at Swiss Cottage on the grass banks of the sports centre , the skies were clouding over and the rain was imminent. I had my Olympus PEN-F and 45mm lens attached and my LEDGO travel light held high above to fill in as daylight for the lack of light as the clouds were darkening up ready to let go. We managed to shoot two fantastic final images and Damian, Helen and I chose this featured photo as the firm favourite.
Another story is when I photographed the late Lord Snowdon at his very own studio where he had photographed many famous faces – I was so nervous, photographing a fellow photographer and that being Lord Snowdon, one of the greats! When Lord Snowdon came into his studio, dressed impeccably and oozing confidence, I suddenly felt that it was such an honour to be photographing this man and, in the studio, where he himself used to work and photograph many famous faces and fashion editorials, too. I am truly fortunate to have been able to work with Lord Snowdon. He became a great friend of mine, giving me much advice and support in my work.
“I was so nervous, photographing a fellow photographer and that being Lord Snowdon, one of the greats!”
Is there anyone on your bucket list who you’d love to work with?
Yes – I would love to take Cillian Murphy’s portrait, he has the most fascinating face, bone structure and incredible blue eyes. I remember seeing him as the mad doctor in Batman before he became as famous an actor as he is now, and I remember looking at him, imagining how I would take a portrait of that incredible face. I already have the idea and mood board ready to go – so watch this space. I will endeavour to get that portrait of Mr Cillian Murphy.
What happens on a typical day of shooting for you?
On the day of a shoot, a lot of energy goes into making the shoot work. Depending on what I am shooting, it will differ from shooting a portrait to shooting a fashion or editorial campaign.
On a portrait shoot, sometimes I have one assistant and, at other times, I don’t have anyone assisting me because I want to get the essence of the person I am shooting. I feel that if too many people are involved or around, then it dissolves the relationship between myself, as a photographer, and my subject. Shooting for fashion or editorial campaigns requires a few months of preparation in terms of planning, storyboarding, meeting with the art director, client, stylist, make-up artist, casting, going on locations to recce for the best vibe for the shoot, and, of course, making sure I get my creative freedom to get the images I feel will work. I do have a lot of creative freedom when it comes to working with celebrities as they usually seem to love my ideas and mood boards, so they trust my judgement in how I see them. They always approve the storyboard idea first, then we shoot and then I will send for final approval of the images they like. All other images are disposed of because I would never use any image of a client unless otherwise approved. I feel that this is one of the reasons I have been able to work with so many high-profile clients/actors/celebrities, as they all trust me. I think it is important to maintain integrity and ensure that all clients give approval before I publish any images.
Can you tell us about your Helen McCrory OBE project? What inspired it and what work does it involve?
I asked Helen McCrory, OBE to be the patron of the arts for Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation. Helen is one of the most inspiring, talented and creative women I have ever me and when she agreed my heart leapt – I knew then that our charity would be supported with all the love and passion it needs. I am currently working with Helen on an in situ project on this current season of Peaky Blinders. I cannot say too much about it at present for confidentiality reasons, but I can tell you that I am using the PEN-F and OM-D E-M1 Mark II for this project and the work will be exhibited in 2019.
My go-to lens is the 45mm ƒ/1.8. With its 2x crop factor, the equivalent field of view is 90mm, offering the opportunity for portrait shooting with a very thin depth-of-field. The clarity is beyond comparison. It just seems to be able to capture the exact moment, frame and clarity that I envision before I take the shot – and ‘pop’, there it is, when I look at the frame in the back of the camera – I just love it.
“My reason for starting the charity was to give the gift of art through inspiring young people.”
The Foundation makes art accessible to all children, regardless of background or financial status, by offering free after-school classes and weekend or holiday workshops in London’s inner-city communities. The charity also runs arts and photography courses in both the private and state school sectors, with fees from the former funding the latter. The Foundation also offers special support to children in inclusion units unable to access mainstream education.
I wanted them to have the skills and tools to develop lifelong artistic passions and to be able to express themselves and gain confidence in all areas of their lives. We are one of the first projects in London to have been awarded £5,000 from Culture Seeds, a Mayor of London grant, to help towards our summer holiday projects. As a photographer, I have personally experienced the transformational effect of having a medium that I can express myself through – and I want children to feel this magic, too.
The charity holds exhibitions of the children’s work throughout the year and an annual high-profile fundraising auction, where works of art featuring the charity’s celebrity ambassadors are sold. The ambassadors include: Kate Moss, Damian Lewis, Paul Weller, Jason Isaacs, Sadie Frost, Stephen Mangan, James Purefoy and Billie Piper.
This summer the Foundation has been working on a summer holiday music project with our young people in Camden and recording at high-profile music studios with Idris Elba, creating a music masterclass workshop.
We are proud to have Olympus UK supporting the project by donating PEN E-PL8 cameras for our young people to use, giving them the opportunity to learn the art of photography, and we have already produced amazing work in ‘portraits’, ‘urban architecture’, ‘in situ’ and ‘street photography’. The work was exhibited at Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation Pop-Up Gallery, nicknamed ‘The Little Warhol Factory’ in Queen’s Crescent, Camden.
What’s the biggest challenge of being a portrait/fashion photographer?
The biggest challenge is that it never seems to go exactly to plan. You need to be able to have vision, be creative at all times and always, always have the confidence to make sure you get that shot. If it is not working, then go with your gut and change it slightly – the moment is really important when taking a portrait, so it is essential that you go with the flow.
With the fashion/editorial side of photography, you need to work with many people on set and spend a lot of time organising details beforehand. It can be difficult when there are a lot of creative minds in one place, so my challenge here is to be sure I get the shot I need. Use the inspiration of the stylist, the art director and client, but always go and get the shot as you want it – this is why you were chosen as the photographer. Always make sure you get your shot.
What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
I would say that if you want to be a fashion or portrait photographer you should always follow your gut and go get that shot. Sometimes it changes on set, sometimes it’s not working. My advice is: don’t panic, it will come together as long as you have the vision!
Are you currently working on anything else?
I am currently working on an exhibition supporting Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation – I am curating my work for this, and other photographers will be donating their work. The sales of the works will be invested in Sir HvH Arts Foundation to keep fundraising and providing more art workshops that will support the future of our next generation. Details can be found at www.vonherkomerfoundation.org