The critical moment
Some of the world’s greatest photographers tell us how they get their extraordinary images
Mary Elton Mark
I loved photography from the moment I first picked up a camera and knew my life would be devoted to it. I don’t think you can develop or learn a ‘way of seeing’ or a ‘point of view’. It’s something that’s inside you. It’s how you look at the world. I want my photographs not only to be real but to portray the essence of my subjects, too. To do that, you have to be patient – it can’t be rushed. I prefer doing portraiture on location. On a subject’s home ground you pick up certain hints that tell you personal things and they come up with ideas. During a session with an animal trainer who had a massive ego, he took the trunk of his beloved elephant Shyama and wrapped it around his neck like a necklace, and of course that was my picture. I’d never have thought of something that clever.
I don’t know how my brain works, but I do know that I work really fast. My shoots don’t vary: an hour to set up, an hour to take the shots. And the minute I walk into a room I know what I’m going to shoot, although what that is only becomes clear to me after seeing the result. So it’s a subconscious process. You couldn’t get those pictures in a million years if you took your time. I started taking pictures in the 1970s for all the beautiful reasons photography was known for. Then all of a sudden digital technology booms and darkrooms get annihilated from photography schools. But I really believe in the classical way. It all comes down to looking at a piece of art and dissecting it and understanding how it’s put together. I think the most important thing is to go out in the world and see.
I think if you aren’t fascinated by people, you’ll never succeed as a portrait photographer,
because your pictures will look cold. You don’t have to know anything about the people in advance of the session, you just tap into them – it’s a skill. Every shoot is different and you have to alter your approach accordingly. You have to try to get into people’s heads, so that they can open up to you and give you something. Sometimes we chat first, but sometimes it’s good for everyone to be fresh and tense when you start out. I use the technique of being cheeky and rude or asking my subjects to do ridiculous things, but I don’t set out to upset anyone. I hope the viewer sees what I see. I think two words that would describe my work well are: humour and honesty.
I’ve always tried to push the boundaries of fashion photography. After all, why should a fashion photograph only talk about clothes? Why can’t it talk about something else? I want my pictures to ask questions; I want people to think. You don’t need to be technically great, because if you have a strong philosophy people will be moved by your pictures regardless. The most important thing is to figure out what you want to try and say. To make your name as a photographer, you have to have a unique point of view that the viewer can recognise as yours, otherwise you’ll get lost in the mix. For me, photography is about exploring – either myself or another place.
It’s difficult to explain why we’re more attracted to certain images than others. For me, black and white photography has a certain kind of power. I’m not talking about conceptual photography but instantaneous photography, the kind that happens in a fraction of a second.