This image is from the blog of English photographer Chris Floyd, who is I gather, a very successful photographer of images for magazine covers and other forms of media.
A friend of mine sent it to me because he thought that some of Floyd’s solutions to what he describes as a “naffy” assignment resonated with the way I approach my portraits. And he was right, although since Floyd is doing work for hire for Fleet Street, we have very different parameters for our work. The subject is Amanda Foreman, a historical biographer. She wrote the enormously successful biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire .
(Sidebar) I read a lot of history and biography and her Duchess of Devonshire’s life is in a time and place in English history that I am familiar with. I read it too long ago (it was published in 1999) to remember details. I do remember ranting at the time about the historical errors in the book to friends who were not overwhelmingly interested. As I recall, she turned a complex life into chick lit history.
Back to photography. Floyd writes eloquently about grappling with the problem of fulfilling the editor’s ( Sunday Times Magazine) unfortunate choices in a way that allowed Foreman her dignity and Floyd his credibility as a photographer.
Amanda is now about to publish a new book, on a subject that I’m particularly drawn to, the American Civil War. However, she’s tackling it from an angle that I have not much considered before; Britain’s role in it.
The concept involved sourcing the three flags of the book’s main actors and wrapping each one of them around Amanda Foreman’s naked torso. I’ll be honest and say that I was doubtful it would work. The concept of trying to make a portrait of a woman in her early forties, wrapped in the three flags that represent the participants in her book, struck me as the classic end product of the thought processes of an old school, Fleet Street, male newspaper type of bloke. Frankly, it sounded like a terrible idea. Would they have done this to Simon Schama? Niall Ferguson? David Starkey? No, definitely not David Starkey. I thought it was a quagmire of old school, Fleet Street sexist and flesh obsessed juvenility.
Somewhere between the idea and the execution the woman was going to get separated from her dignity.
The problem for me was that I had already said yes to the assignment. They hit me with the concept later. I could have reacted in two ways. My emotional instinct was to throw a complete hissy fit and pull out there and then, claiming ‘artistic differences.’ Believe me, we don’t do these jobs for the money. We do them for exposure and credibility. As soon as you realise that you’ve become committed to something that threatens that credibility then you better understand what’s personally at stake. A million people will see this and I can’t afford to allow one of them to look at the end result and say “Wow, that’s a bit shit.”
Alternatively, I could take the whole thing as a challenge and draw upon my technical experience as much as my aesthetic instincts to try and pull it off. So in my head I started to break down the components I’d need to make it work and allow Amanda to not only keep her dignity but, also, to acquire some photographic nobility.
… Amanda herself. Here’s my tip to anyone reading this of how to get through a potential nightmare of naffness such as this; always, always, always defer to simplicity. When in doubt, simplify. Take things away, don’t add more. Less lights, less mess, less fuss, less ostentatious, less fancy, less showy, less make up, less wind machines, less funny angles, less less less. In other words, just let a pine cone be a pine cone. It’s beautiful as nature made it. It doesn’t need any glitter.
…Next thing is to formally ask myself why we are doing this. Here’s why. This woman is a historian. She writes books.
…The magazine, as they have for a long time, like the literal approach to a photograph. The editor’s decision is final and the editor likes the picture to serve as a form of visual affadavit to the words that accompany it. The image serves the words, not vice versa, and neither is there a mutuality of service between words and pictures
…Therefore, a cover image of a female historian who’s written a book about Britain and the American Civil War must feature the following:
1) The woman as attractive and desirable. Clever and pretty. A boy’s subject presented by a girl. Wow! A treat for the thinking man on a Sunday.
2) Some form of symbol depicting the book’s subject, just so he doesn’t need to ask.
3) A representation of the fact that the woman was immersed in the subject for over ten years which means she really knows her stuff.
And that is how we ended up with the picture above. Once all the elements were in the frame it then became a question of arranging and organising them in a way that went back to what I said earlier about deferring to simplicity. I didn’t ask her to do anything silly or be hammy in any way. The slash of red lipstick is enough. The three flags tell us what it’s about.
There’s also some interesting conversation about the choices around the flags. Obviously, it’s not my world of portraits but I found his process, in context, both interesting and thoughtful.