LIFESTYLE - INTERVIEW
Photographer Chris Close
LIFESTYLE - INTERVIEW
by Melisa Kaya
We read our favourite authors' books and recognize them with their ideas rather than their appearance. The cool posture of their portrait photos on the back cover of their books makes us a little bit scared of them. But when we see them at a book fair and get their signed book from their hands, our thoughts suddenly changes, and we understand that they are friendly and sincere. In order to make the authors more visible than the thumbnails behind the books, creative photographer Chris Close shoots portraits of the authors for his creative live exhibition "Between the Lines - Portraits of Authors" at the Edinburgh Book Festival and shows us their hidden aspects. Chris Close struggles with natural conditions and competes against time to make his live exhibition available for art lovers during the Edinburgh Book Festival. I talked to photographer Chris Close, whom I had the opportunity to interview before, about his live exhibition Between the Lines - Portraits of Authors.
Chris, it's nice to conduct an interview with you again. At the end of our first interview, you mentioned the interactive exhibition you have been doing at the Edinburgh Book Festival since 2009. When I heard the format of this exhibition, it was very interesting to me, and this year you have successfully realized this exhausting exhibition once again. Could you tell us about the concept of your project?
Yes, delighted to. The Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) takes place during the month of August as part of the main Edinburgh Festival. It is the world's largest Book Festival and is centred around Charlotte Square Gardens in the centre of Edinburgh.
My original concept was to produce an exhibition of author portraits entitled, 'Between the Lines' to be shot and displayed in Charlotte Square during the run of EIBF. The aim was to give a human face to writers who are generally known by name only and thus hidden 'between the lines' of what they write. Most of the pictures I had seen of writers showed them as very serious and solemn individuals, with little evidence of emotional engagement. Not that conducive in encouraging people to read, I thought. However, when I began working with writers, I soon realised this wasn't how they came across in real life, at least to me.
I describe it as a 'Iive' exhibition because I am shooting portraits of writers one day, and by the next day, the portraits are on display. The whole concept of this exhibition is, I believe, unique.
I am shooting every day for the duration of the EIBF, so each day new work added, and the exhibition is continually growing and evolving. It has become a great attraction, bringing people into the gardens and has encouraged many repeat visits.
Annually, around 250,000 people visit the EIBF. Tell any photographer that this number of people will see their work in an exhibition and they will probably bite your hand off to do it. It means that roughly 2 - 3 million people will have seen my work over the 11 years that I have exhibited.
I originally pitched the idea in 2009, and there were a number of practical problems to overcome. Firstly, where would I work? Space, after all, is limited. Secondly, how would the pictures be presented? You cannot hang glass mounted images outside Thirdly, who to shoot, how and when, bearing in mind the authors' time could be in high demand.
After some discussion, I was allocated a space outside of the Author's Yurt - a communal tent in which the writers appearing that day gather. It was ideal, as this area is located away from the general public and means I am well placed to meet the authors. However, I would be shooting outside, and the work also had to be hung outside, so the authors and I, as well as the resulting portraits, would be completely at the mercy of the elements – no small consideration in Scotland!
I began by shooting exclusively on a ring flash because rigging up lights on stands was going to be too cumbersome and time-consuming, especially as I may only have a few minutes to work with each person. Over the years, I have added other lights.
I also opted for printing on canvas as the quality was very good, and it would remain resistant to the wind and rain and therefore be safe and resilient enough to hang around the gardens over a 2 week period.
What inspired you to create this concept?
Partly because I wanted to have more portraits in my portfolio. Authors, in particular, appealed to me because they struck me as interesting and intelligent and so worthy of a higher profile than some of them might otherwise have. Some of the authors may already be well-known in other fields of expertise, but generally, it is only the name on a book cover that people have heard, and so it proved very interesting to start putting their faces out there for the public to see. The style of the portraits, in many ways, developed organically, partly due to the shooting situation but also because the more people whose portraits I shot, the more the publishers and writers began to proactively approach me.
What happened in your exhibition at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival? Could you tell us about the details?
Firstly, the sponsors had changed. The New York Times was a big new sponsor and, based on their requirements – for example, logo positioning - I had to rethink some of the hanging space within the gardens. So that presented an initial challenge.
Then within a couple of days of the EIBF starting, the weather turned, with torrential downpours. I'm working outside, with flash equipment, so that can be an issue. I had to rig up a huge umbrella to keep the writers protected. All the equipment is double wrapped in thick polythene bags with silica gel, but even then, the moisture caused one flash unit to - quite literally - go bang. Almost every year, I lose one flash kit. Fortunately, I have many back-ups, but the alternative unit I used this year was one that was much heavier, and that led to me getting an attack of sciatica post the EIBF ending. Two weeks of standing at a strange angle with a battery back on your shoulders is not great for your spine!
Thankfully, after a couple of poor days, the weather improved. However, bright sunshine affects my lighting too, and maintaining consistency of light in an outdoor location is impossible. I don't mind, though, as it keeps things interesting! Each year I have modified the way I shoot and print.
There are undoubtedly random aspects to the portraits, but it's not a question of controlling everything - rather reacting and adapting to circumstances. One author this year wanted to remain anonymous. He was like the 'Banksy' of poetry and didn't want his face appearing, so I opted to use his silhouette with his book casting the shadow. In a studio, a shot like that is fairly straightforward, but when you are outside, it becomes trickier.
Then one of the candidates for the Conservative Party leadership came along. Politicians can be tricky, as they are coached in how to look in front of the camera. However, Rory Stewart must have skipped that class. His jacket had a small tear and he appeared a little dishevelled. It turned out that he's friends with an author I had shot last year. Her picture was one of my more bizarre ones where she was wearing a red dress and was wrapped in red wool. She had written about labyrinths, and the portrait idea came from Theseus having left a trail of red thread to find his way out of the maze. Rory had seen this portrait and had said, 'I have to have my picture taken by him.' I didn't know if I was going to be photographing him until 5 minutes beforehand. I wish I'd taken more time. The picture makes him look slightly vulnerable, although, given what then went on in the leadership contest, it is perhaps quite apt.
My EIBF 'studio' is hidden from public view, but I do get stopped a few times in the gardens either when I'm hanging my work or just wandering around to soak up the atmosphere. I regard it as my 15 minutes of fame! Some writers attract a lot of attention! Neil Gaiman, for example, popped in to say hello. In my view, he's a rock star amongst authors, and his book signings can take hours.
During the EIBF, I'm usually working 12-14 hours a day, and so by the end of the run I'm both physically and mentally exhausted, and about 3-4 kg lighter. Fortunately, I tend to run on adrenaline during the run, and eating becomes a luxury. Often I'm too tired to eat. There is one day in the middle of the EIBF known as 'meltdown Monday" when most of the staff walk around like zombies. We all work long hours then, on top of that, try to take in a few shows if we have any free time.
You have 5-15 minutes to photograph an author. In such a short period of time, how do you decide which feature of the author you should highlight? Or do you read some of the works of authors to decide this?
I have learnt to gauge people very quickly. I've also got to know some of the authors over the years and so they know how I work. With every author I look for - what I call - a "jumping off point". Basically, this is something I can latch onto conceptually or visually. It may be how they dress, the subject of their book, or even just the title. It just gives me somewhere to start from. I can't read everyone's books, but I do try and find out a little bit about the author beforehand. I have fairly good general knowledge and so can have a conversation about most things. The most frustrating thing is if I hear a writer's talk and, during that, I learn something about them that I wish I had known before I'd taken the picture.
By and large though, it is on the spur of the moment. Take Robin Knox-Johnson, the amazing round-the-world yachtsman and adventurer. There was a plastic dome from one of the garden lights lying around, so I put a light inside it, and there he was, above a glowing globe. With Gina Miller, she was wearing bright red lipstick and was quite feisty. I mentioned a David Bowie video, in which he smears lipstick, and that was my 'jumping-off point.' The red top hat that she is wearing in her portrait was a fortuitously located prop that the press team had, and it worked.
I always want to bring energy and spontaneity to each shoot, and I think this helps me to create a rapport with the authors that can lead to unusual results. Fortunately, I tend to run on adrenaline during the EIBF. If I was turning up appearing exhausted that would reflect on the subject and, ultimately, the photograph. Whilst it would be easier to get pictures of people looking serious, you have to think about the work as a collection. 100 portraits of rather subdued and serious-looking writers is not going to be visually very appealing nor is it going to reflect the huge energy and buzz that is tangible within Charlotte Square during the EIBF.
I never try and trick people, but I also don't set out to be flattering either. I received one comment that a person I had photographed was actually much prettier than I made her look. "Maybe," I replied, "But I am not shooting for a fashion magazine, and I am not being commissioned by her so……". The work has since been described as brave because of this. Beautiful people can appear unapproachable and out of reach. My work is the antithesis of that. I don't care if someone is beautiful if they have no ideas of their own. I want to see personality more than cheek bones!
The process of completing a photograph does not end with the photograph you took at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Could you tell us about the process of getting the final form of those photos?
I have to get a result from every person I photograph, and although my schedule is given to me in advance it will, without fail, change as more and more authors ask to have their portraits taken. The more work that goes up in the gardens, the more they want to be part of it!
Once I am finished for the day, I pack the equipment away. The expensive stuff comes with me. My studio is only a 10-minute walk away. At the studio, I upload all the work and label the images. I make a fairly fast choice of the ones I prefer, do some basic grading, and then, using a template on Photoshop, I make the print. I sometimes have ideas that involve more 'effects.' Children's authors, in particular, lend themselves to using illustrations in the final picture, and so, in the final portrait, I might have the author interacting with an illustrated character from their book. This year, I had a girl floating in space and had to build an entire cosmos in Photoshop. I ended up cursing myself as, whilst I was happy with the final image, it took an hour or so to complete - quite a significant chunk of time when I often don't get back to the studio until fairly late in the evening. One of the reasons I have continued to shoot on a white background is that, as well as drawing your attention to the subject, it makes printing quicker as less ink is used, and the canvas dries more quickly. By the time I finish printing, it is anywhere from 10pm - 2am and I head home.
The next morning I pick up the equipment and prints, and I am back up to Charlotte Square to hang the work. The prints are punched and riveted, which allows me to fit an aluminium rod top and bottom to make them ready for hanging. I spray them with a sealant to protect them from the rain. Then it's into another day's shooting!
Do you also draw visual elements that complement the photos? Or are there different artists you work with?
I almost never add visual elements that I have drawn myself. If there is an illustrator who works with an author, then I will maybe use their work in the final image. Sometimes the author will draw an image for me or sometimes I will take pictures from their books and put them together. I have kept the work by several artists, and on my wall, I framed a hand-drawn picture of Nick Cave (next to an actual photograph of Nick Cave that a friend of mine shot).
How long does it take to complete a photo?
For the live exhibition during the EIBF it doesn't take long. Uploading, grading, retouching, and printing takes anything from 10-30 minutes per portrait. However, if I've shot maybe 10-15 people that day, then you can see how it adds up. I have to work fast. It's usually late, I'm getting tired and hungry, and so retouching is minimal.
You spent a very tough few days during the Edinburgh Book Festival. What kind of preparations did you do to manage the whole process?
As this was my 11th year, I'm now very organised in terms of the equipment I would need, canvases, print cartridges etc. The worst year was when I had been cleaning a fairly new printer, and something happened to it that I could not fix. As it was going to take the manufacturer 2 weeks to get to me, I had to buy a brand new printer. Overall, the preparation, photography, and printing both before and during the EIBF takes about 3 weeks, but it then takes me another 3 weeks to recover!
So far, you have photographed over 1300 authors, and among them are names that have made their mark on the literary world. What are the challenges of working with famous figures from the literary world?
Usually writers are fine. Quite a few are very camera shy, which does not bother me. I quite like that, to be honest. I had one writer whose publisher told me she hated having her picture taken. At the end of the shoot, she was having a ball. Her publisher came up to me and said, "I have no idea how you did that. No other photographer has ever got a response like that." On the flip side, in the first year, I had one author who hated her portrait so much I had to take it down. To be fair, it was quite a brutal image, very stark but full of personality. Everyone else liked the portrait, but I think that taught me about how far I can push people outside of their own comfort zone. I photographed one Hollywood actress who – unsurprisingly - was very self-aware. She had had her hair and make-up done beforehand and wanted to know, in advance, what I was going to do, how she should stand, and also wanted to see the result after one frame had been taken. My style at the EIBF is very fluid, so this isn't how I like to work. I think she thought I would be there with a full crew of assistants, and so for her to find it was just me on my own possibly threw her a little. On the flip side, Simon Callow is a joy, very theatrical and funny.
And what are the good aspects of working with such creative people?
It is invigorating as the writers come from such a wide variety of backgrounds and countries. I love the sheer diversity of the people I meet. Thrown into the mix are musicians, scientists, politicians - even a convicted murderer one year. I had a fabulous conversation with a mathematician who had won the Fields Medal (The Nobel prize for mathematics), and he invited me to attend his lectures. Creative people - and I mean "creative" in the broadest sense - put the "joie' in 'joie de vivre.'
If you consider this year's exhibition, could you tell us about the authors you enjoyed most while shooting?
A.L Kennedy. I always say A.L. Kennedy because she is the only author I have shot every single year. We have a similar sense of humour and can be very cheeky to each other without causing any offence. She also doesn't take herself too seriously, which I like. Is my 2019 portrait of her my favourite picture? Possibly not but there's a difference between enjoying an author's company and getting the best shot. This year I also shot the crime writer, Ian Rankin. I had, some years previously, taken a picture of him bursting through a page of his book and was always thinking, how do I better that? This year I took a shot of him sitting on a bucket. It's a very Scottish image based on a famous Scottish cartoon character called OorWullie, who sat on a bucket at the beginning and end of each story. Then there was the portrait of Nadine Aisha Jassat, which tends to throw people as to how it was done. Some people thought I had a wind machine, others that she is upside down. Finally, I was delighted to have the opportunity to photograph Melvyn Bragg, the very well-respected TV personality. He is notoriously camera-shy, so I thought I may need some props. We got on really well, and afterwards he turned round to me and said, "You don't need props, you are the prop." As he'd already told me that even David Bailey had struggled to get a photograph of him, I took that as a great compliment!
What happens to the photographs printed and exhibited during this exhibition process? Can readers of photographed authors buy these photos?
Until recently, the prints were rolled up and stored in my studio, but this year I offered some for sale for charity as I was running out of storage space. The sale was a bit of an afterthought, done via social media, but think I could have sold a lot more if I had advertised more in advance and at the EIBF itself, so next year I will be better organised. Having said that, if I could find a library or gallery that would display them, that would be ideal.
After this hard work, what did you feel when the Edinburgh Book Festival and your exhibition ended? Which one was more felt, the happiness of success, or the fatigue of work?
This year was especially tough as I went straight into doing a shoot for a client, so I continued working ridiculous hours for a further 3 weeks after the EIBF had ended. Added to that, my back was painful, and some mornings I could hardly walk. Having been working at such an intense pace, normally, there is a feeling of sadness that it's over for another year as you go back to a slightly more solitary and less frenetic lifestyle.
Do you have a catalogue or website where our readers can see the author's photos you have taken for 10 years? Do you intend to create?
Ahh! I do get asked this, and thus far the answer is no. There are a few images on my main website at chrisclose.com, but as I have 63,000 images of authors, choosing and building a website would take a while. I need to do it and create an online exhibition.
Are there any different Live Exhibitions that you do or plan to do in this concept?
There is an exhibition of my authors' portraits that went to France this year, and I have ideas for exhibitions, but nothing in exactly the same vein. I am open to offers, but the logistics of what I undertake at the EIBF are tricky. People have said to take the same concept to other Book Festivals – whether in the UK or overseas - but for it to really work, I would either need a team or be able to have everything on site. Maybe if someone wanted to sponsor me……!
What is next for you?
I am working on an exhibition to be called 'Offending Shadows.' I can't say too much more at this stage, but if you know your Shakespeare, then you will know where that line comes from. I'd also love to do another book of authors' portraits, so any publishers reading this, please feel free to get in touch!
Anything you would like to add that I haven't asked?
There are so many stories, but one I remember was when a call went out on the staff radios urging assistance for Carol Ann Duffy and A. L. Kennedy had fallen in the walkways of the Charlotte Square Gardens. Several staff went rushing out, wondering what on earth had happened to these two writers, only to find that it was my pictures that had fallen in the high winds.
Thank you Chris for your time.