Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Interview: Allan Warren tells what makes a photographer worth his (or her) salt

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in February 2017.

This is the third segment of a four-part series spanning my discussion with Allan Warren. The firstsecond, and third articles are available on-line. Text quoted below appeared in yesterday's piece, offering background on the subject matter.
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

Photography is an art unlike any other. There is something profound to be said about capturing a single moment in time and preserving it for countless more.

Allan Warren has experience with this the likes of which most of us can hardly imagine. Beginning his career while still a teenager, he has photographed royalty, movie stars, playwrights, singers, and far too many other personalities to mention.

Of course, I will drop a few names: Dionne Warwick, Prince Charles, Roger Moore, Christopher Isherwood, Barbra Streisand, Prince Philip, King Constantine of Greece, Cary Grant, Debbie Reynolds, David Niven, and the list goes on. Check it out for yourself here

While Warren is most famous for his photography, his career is far more diverse than some might think. Over the years, he has written books, plays, and, interestingly enough, started out as an actor.

In 2012, I asked Warren what the greatest reward of his career was.

"Independence and never having to leave one’s home to earn a living," he responded.

Warren had something else to say: "I think the age of portrait photographers, earning a living from photographing people, is over. The other day a friend of mine snapped a portrait of an actor with an iPhone and it was by far a better picture than I could have take with all my so-called professional camera and lights."

Sobering news indeed from a man who made his career behind the camera -- with notable names standing in front of it and paying for the privilege. Nonetheless, Warren still has much wisdom to impart. He recently spoke with me in a wide-ranging conversation. Some of it is included below.

Joseph Ford Cotto: Many people accustomed to image-taking might think of themselves as good photographers. Above and beyond any other quality, what makes a photographer worth his or her salt?

Allan Warren: I think for me a good for photographer is someone with a good eye. In portraits it's about catching the moment when the subject lets their guard down, revealing just that little bit more about themselves and when the photographer clicks the shutter just at that moment. Also it is somebody who loves what he or she is doing. You can be as technically versed as you like, but it doesn’t necessarily result in getting a great image. 

For me, when I look at the portraits of Snowdon, Avedon, Irving Penn, David Bailey and the likes, there are few these days who can match them. Especially when it comes to capturing that simple, yet perfect shot. With all the gadgets available, even the greatest of photographers can only achieve so much. Many photographers are literally laden down with high tech equipment, including a whole variety of cameras, lenses and lighting equipment. 

When I first saw the results of Annie Leibovitz's sitting of Queen Elizabeth ll at Buckingham Palace, the English photographer Sir Cecil Beaton immediately sprang to mind. Beaton, over many decades, had taken the portraits of both Her Majesty the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth ll. As well as being a portrait and war photographer, during WWll, Beaton was also a great set designer. Having won Oscars for costume design, on films such as Gigi and My Fair Lady, not to mention many Tony awards. 

For me, Annie Leibovitz portraits of he Queen seem to pay homage to what Beaton had achieved so many years before. The only difference being was how they were taken. In Beaton's case, it was simplicity that ruled the day. When Leibovitz arrived at Buckingham Palace, she did so with no end of high tech equipment and eleven assistants no less. Whereas on the umpteen occasions Beaton turned up to photograph the Queen he was accompanied by just one assistant, who in the main was there to carry his large format glass plate camera. 

When using just his trusted Rolliflex twin reflex camera, he often arrived alone, with just couple of lights and a reflector board.The results of Leibovitz's shoot, with all her assistants, expensive cameras and the latest technical equipment, to my mind, only resulted in something that Sir Cecil Beaton had achieved, many decades before, with just one person to carry camera and at the end of the day, assisted by nothing more than a gin & tonic.

In both cases it is interesting to ponder the amount of time it and work it would have taken to obtain the end result. In Beaton's case, he had to work in the darkroom. Mixing up chemicals, developing the film, or the glass plate. It would have taken hours of time and patience, just to achieve the finished print. Now the image is already on the camera with instant options to improve upon it. To make it lighter, brighter, darker, or enrich the colour, or change colour to black & white. You can do whatever takes your fancy and all with the push of a button.

The likes of Beaton had no such magic wand. Any imperfections on there film or prints, could only be painstakingly painted or scratched out. Whereas these days the end result, can be achieved in minutes or even seconds on a computer with the likes of Photoshop. It is quite remarkable the leaps and bounds photographic technology has advanced. 

Yet in many ways, it has only managed to achieve a portrait, the likes of Beaton, Karsh of Ottawa, Lord Snowdon, David Bailey Avedon, Irvin Penn, and many many others, too numerous to mention, have been achieving for for years. All without the need of any of the modern gadgets. But to be fair it saves on time, and without doubt, nowadays taking a portrait is almost effortless. For me that takes the satisfaction out of it, if you make a big effort to do achieve something, the satisfaction is second to none. 

I suppose in the end it all comes down to convenience and if the technology is there, then why not use it?

Cotto: Is it the mark of a master or wannabe master photographer to say that an image he or she took is perfect?

Warren: I would doubt if any photographer would make such a claim, as inevitably there is always room for improvement. There are, of course, many excellent shots that have been taken of well known figures. An artist, as in a painter, perhaps could make claim to perfection. As an artist has just a brush between their fingers and a blank canvas. They are reliant solely on their imagination or capturing what is in front of them in their minds eye. It is a rare talent. Unlike the photographer, they cannot switch to another camera, if one breaks down, or rely on the lighting that is plugged into the wall. Their only tools are their eyes, the paint, the brush and their imagination. 

As portrait photographers, we are, like all photographers, reliant on a camera to help us capture the moment. If one can describe an image that is perfect in portrait photography, for me, it is I suppose Karsh of Ottawa's portrait of Winston Churchill. Achieved when Karsh snatched Churchill's famous cigar from his mouth. Which resulted in Churchill leaning forward with his hands on his hips scowling. Karsh didn't want him smiling or looking benevolent. After all it was during the war and Churchill had to look like a serious leader and thanks to Karsh he did.

The only time I would apply the word 'perfect' is when it comes to wildlife photographers or photo journalists. After all they are the ones who face all kinds of dangers and difficult situations, yet manage to capture some of the most remarkable photographs ever taken. Photographers like Ansel Adams, who captured the wilderness so beautifully, that it is almost like being there. Not to mention the many photographers who, in just the blink of an eye, have managed to record what have now become the most important photographic documents of history . 

Photographers like Murray Becker, who in seconds snapped the famous shot of the burning Hindenburg. Or Nic Ut, who captured on film Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl, running naked down a road with her back burning from napalm. There are so many important images, that photographers have taken. Important moments of our history, whether it be Kennedy's assassination or back beyond the first world war. Most of us are familiar with those photographs, but few of us know the names of the photographers who took them. 

With the portrait photographer it seems the celebrity status of their clients brushes off on them too and so their names become known. Portrait photographers can sometimes end up with great portraits within that narrow field. Some I suppose do consider the end results perfect... but that surely is thanks to the camera, the lighting, the sitter and at least a little bit of luck!