Editor’s note: Our friend Brian Smith is at it again – publishing a colorful, revealing and insightful book on his life-long craft: portrait photography. This new publication from New Riders (an imprint of Peachpit Press) is titled “Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous”. You can order it on Amazon or look for it in bookstores and online retailers this week. Brian took a few moments to tell us about the contents and his creative process.
Portrait photography always fascinates the observer. What is it about the art form that draws us in?
I think people are always curious to see another side of fame. Celebrity portraits have an edge when the viewer is already familiar with the subject. The photograph can either reinforce what you expect or blow apart all your preconceptions. To me it’s always more interesting to dig a bit below the surface for an image you might not expect.
You write that sometimes a photographer has as little as 15 minutes to work with a celebrity. How do you prepare for that?
If you don’t have a lot of time, you want to go in with a plan, but be ready to throw the plan out and react to the moment. I call that “planning for the unexpected”. Many of the conceptual portraits I shoot that are the result of days, weeks or even months of planning, yet some of my favorite shots were done on the fly. It can sometimes be hard to give up the reins – but improvisation can be rewarding.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from the book you can share?
Ask the unexpected and you’ll get the unexpected…
People en Espanol called me for a home shoot of Spanish, Grammy-winning singer Alejandro Sanz at his house in Miami Beach. The idea behind a “home shoot” is to capture portraits that take readers inside the stars’ homes and give them a peek at how they live. We showed up an hour and a half ahead of time to choose our locations, and Alejandro’s manager immediately took us to a room used for all his interviews and photo shoots. The room had a couch beneath a couple of his gold records. He’d probably been interviewed there a hundred times and I wanted something bolder.
Looking around the house for some bold and unexpected sites, I found an all-white grand piano under a white staircase, a room filled with Alejandro’s paints and paintings, and an elegant entrance. Having never been photographed anywhere else but the “interview” room, Alejandro excitedly approved of the new shoot locations. For our sixth and final shot, I told Alejandro that I’d love to get him in the pool. I suddenly heard a splash, and there he was – just where I wanted him. Keep the shoot interesting by getting the subject to do something new. It almost always pays off!
Is there a favorite piece of gear or little trick you use in your celebrity portrait work that might surprise aspiring photographers?
Surround yourself with people brighter than you are. Find a great crew and take care of them. The biggest mistake young photographers make is skimping on production. Great styling, hair & makeup can make a good shoot great. Bad styling, hair & makeup can ruin one. Look at celebrity portrait shoots as a collaboration and collaborate with the best.
Celebrity portrait photographer Brian Smith has captured the faces of the famous and infamous. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and Sony Artisan of Imagery who’s appeared on X Factor, exhibited at the Library on Congress, had cupcakes with Anne Hathaway and gotten drunk with George Clooney. His photography is syndicated by Corbis Outline and can be found on his web site and blog.