IF/Academy: Portraits have been created since even before photography existed. Photography came and made the creation of portraits much easier. Photographing people and faces became a major theme within photography. Why do you think we have this urge, until this day, to capture people?
JMcD: I think most people do it simply to have a reminder of someone they care about, something they can look at in the future to remember the person at a particular time. Especially since it’s something now done so easily with a cell phone. Many people do it to show others what they have seen. But I also think for some it is part of a process studying human behavior, and of discovering and understanding one’s self through the observation of others. Of course for many of us it is also just a lot of fun to make attractive, funny or even strange images of other people.
IF/Academy: Peter Lindbergh photographed the 2017 Pirelli Calendar. What do you think about his approach for this calendar edition to “not show the stretched and manipulated, emptied women you see in the magazines today”? Choosing actresses who posed in fashion and beauty ads, Lindbergh wanted to make a “statement” by showing them raw and real and not retouched afterwards. But these women are “good looking” to begin with. Will his message come across?
JMcD: It helps when the subjects you choose start out as naturally beautiful women, which all of them are in this Pirelli calendar. From Penelope Cruz to Helen Mirren, they are all naturally attractive people, regardless of their age. That said, it’s refreshing to see this approach taken by a photographer, and a publisher, who have the stature to get away with it. It’s the opposite of the approach taken in advertising and by magazines, especially fashion magazines, which is to create “perfection” even when it isn’t there. I think that while this approach could be considered bold, it also got a lot of positive attention for both photographer and publisher, which after all is the primary goal of the project. I admire what they did, but I don’t expect it to start a trend or have a significant impact on how women are photographed in advertising and fashion magazines.
IF/Academy: By contrast, the French street-artist and photographer JR captures the faces of the unknown, the poor, the left behind, the “regular” people by pasting their portraits in gigantic, monumental formats on walls, stairs, train roofs, ruins and sometimes on seemingly inaccessible spaces. Often, they last only short time. But they became famous and it initiated photo projects worldwide. They provoke, and intend to make people wake up and think. What do you think about those portraits?
JMcD: I think it is the way and the context in which those portraits are presented that is significant, rather than the portraits themselves. They are generally good portraits, but it is the placing of them in these highly unusual, visible and thought-provoking locations that sets them really apart.
IF/Academy: The above mentioned artist JR expressed his goal with the question: Can art change the world? Let’s transfer this to photography: Can photography change the world?
JMcD: Photography HAS changed the world. There are many examples of images which have provoked change. I will just cite one example: the “napalm girl” photo by Nick Ut taken in Vietnam. It didn’t change much overnight, but it certainly contributed significantly to changing public opinion about the war. I worry these days about another, unexpected way in which photography could change the world: these days it is too easy to alter photographs to create images which are untrue or misrepresent the truth. Call if “visual fake news”. It didn’t start with Photoshop. It’s been around forever. But now it’s easier than ever, and easier to create believable fake images, thanks to digital technology.
IF/Academy: When you make portraits, do you want to provoke or ignite something in the viewer? What would that be and how do you try to achieve that?
JMcD: Sometimes. Usually I just want them to see what I see, or more accurately, to see the subject as I see them, which hopefully will be in a way they haven’t seen them before. Of course, if a subject is someone whom you love, or really dislike, there are techniques which can be employed to emphasize those feelings. Choice of focal length, light, compostion, gesture and environment are all elements which together help tell the story of who and what the subject is. A classic example of this would be Arnold Newman’s famous portrait of Alfred Krupp where, through careful use of lighting, Newman portrayed Krupp, whose company used slave labor to make armaments for Hitler’s Third Reich, as a diabolical figure. In my own portrait work it’s rare that I don’t really like the subject, so usually for me it’s a case of trying to make the person look as good as they can. I spend time with them, get to know their body language if I can, develop an easy rapport if possible, choose a good location or background and a focal length that “works”, and then shoot a lot of pictures. Sometimes you don’t need “a lot”, but we photographers tend to be insecure and sometimes compensate by shooting more than we need. If you’re in tune with your subject you’ll know when it’s time to stop!
John McDermott is an American-born photographer with dual nationality (Ireland/USA) working internationally, most often in Europe or the USA. John is internationally recognized for both his portrait work and his sports photography. He has photographed CEO’s of major corporations, authors, artists and athletes, as well as everyday working people, for a long list of corporate and editorial clients.