The art of portraiture

William Ellis talks us through some his finest portraits.

What makes a great portrait is open to conjecture. The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, showcased at the National Portrait Gallery, is a fine example of the subtleties and nuances of a meaningful portrait. Each shot is not just technically well crafted, but comes with a deeper meaning -- an insight into society and the minds of the people in it.

William Ellis is best known for documenting jazz. Based in Manchester, his photography has been exhibited internationally, including twice at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City and extensively at galleries and festivals throughout the UK. He is one of the world's leading photographers in his field.

His portraits, I think, are among his finest work. What does he think is the essence of a portrait? "It's peculiar for me to try and answer that question. A portrait can be more than memorable, it can be definitive. The face is a theatre -- drama, emotion and expression happening right there. A good portrait gets inside, behind the safety curtain. All the planning and the thought about how a portrait should be set up just provides a framework, but that's all it is. It's the intimacy and intensity during the shoot that makes it work."

Stan Tracey


This photograph of Stan Tracey, sometimes called the "Godfather of British Jazz", was taken in 2003 at the Guildhall in Bath and captures a true jazz legend in a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. "I've got to know Stan since then and I've often photographed him on stage. This was taken at the sound check for the concert to be given by him and his long-time collaborator Bobby Wellins.

"Stan is one of those guys who came through, even when, as he dryly puts it, 'The phone never started ringing.'"

Even for someone as experienced as Ellis, nerves still take hold before a shoot. "I couldn't sleep the night before thinking about how I would arrange this sitting. But when I meet the sitter I feel so relaxed, almost like we've already done the session."

So, how was it taken? "It was natural light with a Hasselblad on a tripod -- five or six frames. I find having the camera on a tripod very useful. You can talk to each other face to face rather than having a camera covering mine."

This image has recently been acquired for the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Teofilo Stevenson


In 2009, Ellis got the opportunity to photograph a sporting legend -- Teofilo Stevenson, a Cuban heavyweight boxer who is a hero in his homeland. Stevenson, a three-times Olympic gold medal winner, remained amateur throughout his career despite numerous multi-million-dollar fight offers, including a bout with Muhammad Ali. He disagreed with the way boxers were treated, their talent a "commodity to be bought and sold and discarded when he is no longer of use", claiming "the love of eight million Cuban's means more than the love of one million dollars". His stance and achievements made him a hero in communist Cuba.

So how did Ellis getsuch an opportunity? "I was over in Toronto for the jazz festival where I met the CEO of a cultural tour company and over a couple of years I went on several assignments for them. He said he knew Teo and arranged for us to meet at Teo's home in Havana. I have never been in a room with someone with such presence -- an immense character.

"We did some pictures and Teo began to tell me about his trainer who passed away. He said that, in his life, he felt like he had three fathers; his biological father, his trainer and Fidel Castro. You can see in the background a picture of Teo, his arm held aloft by Castro. Afterwards I photographed Teo with his family. It was quite a day."

Miles Davis


"This picture of Miles was taken in Manchester at the Apollo in 1989," says Ellis, reflecting on one of his first live shoots.

"Frankly, I begged the promoter to let me shoot this concert -- I just had to be there. I turned up looking like Robert Capa, covered in Nikons and Hasselblads. Looking back I don't know how I knew which one to use!"

This picture is from that night and shows one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, uncompromising and as large as the life he led.

"To me, everything I've shot of artists on stage is an environmental or performance portrait."

This image was captured on film -- shooting on which is a completely different experience to the digital world we operate in now where photographers seem to spend most of their time looking at the screen on the back of the camera rather than into the viewfinder. "There is just one shot -- nothing like it before and nothing like it after on the roll. This was my first big shoot and they don't come much bigger. I remember being very worried that I might have shaken the camera in excitement as I pressed the button. I didn't know it was OK until a few days later when the film was processed."

It was the catalyst for the career Ellis has carved out since. "Miles Davis was central to the development of many musicians and he was certainly instrumental in my development as a photographer. It helped me to work with other major figures, including Dizzy Gillespie."

Johnny Marr


One of the most gifted guitarists of his generation, Marr will forever be remembered for his work with the Smiths, where his beautifully melodic guitar lines combined brilliantly with the mellifluous Morrissey croon. "This was taken at the Richard Goodall Gallery in Manchester's Northern Quarter. I knew how revered he is across many genres; he has been a huge influence on modern musicians. We spent a long time together before the shoot, which was great. Turns out a guy at Fender he knows made my fretless bass!"

"This was taken after I'd photographed and interviewed Johnny for my 'One LP' project -- where a subject is photographed with one of their favourite albums. I then record them speaking about why the album is so special to them. The project is ongoing and will be unveiled later this year.

"I decided to use a wide angle tilt/shift lens adjusted to give great depth of field, and shoot from above producing a look that unsettles the eye. It was an awkward area to work but he could see that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to produce and went with it. As you can see, Johnny put a lot into it. I don't think you'll see another image like it."

It is impossible to say definitively what the elements are that combine to make a great portrait. What's clear is that Ellis captures the warmth and personality of his subjects. So often, he manages to get a photograph that becomes the defining image of that person in my mind.

For more information on Ellis's work, you can visit his site -

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood