Ten seconds with the rich and famous, sometimes

When people find I’m a photographer, they often say, ‘what an interesting job’. Well like any job there are good days and, well, a little less interesting days.

But I have to say my line of editorial work often gives me a great opportunity to meet and photograph many very interesting people, and sometimes, some very famous people.

Now don’t think for one minute that means I meet famous people and have lunch or nice long conversations with them. Oh no. I get a few minutes, sometimes only seconds, with them.

Here, I was given access for one the opening number of Elton John’s concert, so I kept my eye to the viewfinder to get as many performance photos as possible, then as his song ended, I gave him a quick smile round the camera to catch his eye, and got three frames of him smiling back. So that’s a two-second portrait photoshoot!

This portrait of Paddy Ashdown had to be taken as he walked to his venue for a talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He was very friendly, and helpful, but he had time pressures on him, so I didn’t want to cause him any extra delays. So it was a case of having to assess a location close by, and then ask him to pose in two or three different ways, directing him without sounding too pushy. He was very grateful, and a little surprised, I was finished so quickly, which I took as a bit of a compliment.

Light has been a vital part of portraits since the Old Masters, and I find seeing someone in a good light, literally, quite irresistible for a photo. The photo of Prince Charles at the top of the page is a case in point, as I noticed the small area of light other people were milling around in, then waited, hoping HRH would wander into the same light. Yes!

This portrait of playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn was taken as he was sat waiting for a lift home from his theatre in Scarborough. I was lucky enough to work with him on several occasions, and although is is a reluctant model, I knew I just had to ask if I could take a couple of photos.

I was particularly pleased that a few weeks later, he asked if it could be used as one of his ‘official’ portraits to be offered to other media, which is still is today.

At the time of taking this photo of John Prescott, then MP, his tough guy image was still very associated with him. A couple of years previously, I had had a brusque encounter with him, so I was a little on edge when I was sent to a meeting of Labour supporters. Conventional group photos done, I thought ‘nothing ventured…’ and asked if I could take a portrait. In the relaxed surrounding of supporters, he said yes. So I asked him to step to the entrance of a corridor, to get a black background, and using a single, bounced flash, was very pleased to get this relaxed portrait, in only a handful of frames though. He was there to mingle, not pose.

When you get such a brief opportunity to take a portrait of a personality, the conditions are not always ideal. This portrait of writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell was a taken in a small ‘green room’, with light from grey, Yorkshire day trickling in. The light was very dim but soft, and I knew it was barely enough to work with. A flashlight just wouldn’t have lit the room well, so I had to push the camera iso up, and hold steady. I quickly shot maybe 20 or 30 frames, but editing afterwards, many had a little shake, and only two frames were sharp and had the best expression. Phew!

Poet Ian MacMillan, and cartoonist Tony Husband had just worked on a new book together when I shot this photo while they were on a bookshop tour. This time I didn’t have the time constraints (within reason, they did have books to sign), but where to pose them? Finding a ‘clean’, non-distracting background in a bookshop was tricky, so despite the drizzle, I asked them to pose outside, closely together, and I shot at an angle to the shopfront, all to minimise the background. A bad background can destroy a good portrait.

Finally, a photo taken just a couple of months ago, on a late summer evening in the garden at the Cotswolds home of author Jilly Cooper. This was her book launch party, so in one way, there were no time constraints at all, with food and drink on offer, but Jilly did have to meet and greet 50 or so guests, so time for portraits came down to a few minutes. I did my photos and stepped away to allow another photographer to shoot his pictures. He sat Jilly in a garden chair, which I hadn’t noticed, darn it! I loved the location for the photo but didn’t want to shoot over his shoulder, or even take a similar angle. As I had walked away, I found myself looking over at a scene I wish I was taking, but then saw Jilly stay seated and chat to a couple of nearby friends. Perfect! I was able to shoot a few frames as she was happily relaxed in conversation, not even aware I was taking this portrait, but in the seat and setting that I really liked.

Proof that for all the effort photographers can put into ‘making’ a portrait, sometimes the best just happen, and we just have to catch the moment.

Written by Andrew Higgins


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