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 - www.william-ellis.com

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

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The Earth moved: how we discovered ripples in space time

A new book charts the decades-long search to measure gravitational waves.

Monday 14 September 2015 was no ordinary day. At exactly 09:50:45 Universal Time, for one-fifth of a second, the Earth was stretched and squeezed by a tenth of a quintillionth of one per cent. Everything on the planet expanded and contracted as it did by one part in 1021 (1 followed by 21 noughts). It was proof that after a decades-long search, scientists had finally developed instruments sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves – ripples in space-time that were 10,000 times smaller than the nucleus of a hydrogen atom.

That at least begins to take care of when, where and what happened that Monday morning. In this engaging book the Dutch science writer Govert Schilling goes on to deal with the who and why by telling the tale of those involved in making what has been dubbed by some as “the discovery of the century” and the reason those unimaginably tiny ripples in space-time originated in a catastrophic event 1.3 billion years ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The “who” starts with a 36-year-old German physicist who in 1915 had just completed his masterwork, general relativity. In Albert Einstein’s new theory, gravity was due to the warping of space by the presence of mass. The Earth moves around the sun not because some mysterious invisible force pulls it, but because the warping of space tells matter how to move, while matter tells space how to curve. General relativity revealed that the familiar three-dimensions of space and the passage of time are not independent and absolute but are woven together into a four-dimensional fabric called space-time.

Einstein was fallible. Although vibrations in the fabric of space-time are a distinctive consequence of general relativity, Einstein wrote that “there are no gravitational waves”. He soon changed his mind; but the hunt for gravity waves using detectors in the lab would not begin until the late 1950s.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, LIGO, was given the green light in 1990 by the US National Science Foundation, despite a $300 million price tag. By 2015 the project involved two similar detectors housed in facilities some 3,000 kilometres apart – one in Hanford, Washington State, the other in Livingston, Louisiana. A single detector would register microseismic events, such as passing cars; to exclude these false alarms, experimenters would take note only of events that showed up in both detectors within a few milliseconds of each other.

In the LIGO detectors, laser beams are fired along 4km-long L-shaped vacuum pipes and reflected from mirrors at each end. By analysing the light beams, it is possible to detect changes in the distance between the mirrors, which increases and decreases as space expands and contracts due to a passing gravitational wave. But the effect is tiny because gravity is a weak force and space-time is not easy to flex, bend, stretch or compress. A lot of energy is required for the tiniest ripples. Even pairs of stars orbiting each other don’t generate gravitational waves that LIGO can detect; but events involving black holes would.

Black holes, another prediction of general relativity, are the remnants of stars many times more massive than the sun. These stars burn brightly, and in their death throes, signalled by going supernova, their inner part collapses to form a black hole.

GW150914, the first gravitational wave detected by LIGO on 14 September 2015, was produced by the merger of two black holes that were 36 and 29 times as massive as the sun. As those two black holes orbited each other 1.3 billion years ago, they generated minute ripples in space-time that propagated with the speed of light. The waves carried away energy, causing the two holes to spiral ever closer, orbiting each other hundreds of times a second. As space-time was stretched and squeezed, the tiny perturbations grew into massive waves. When the two black holes collided and merged into one, a tsunami of gravitational waves was generated. These cataclysmic collisions happen less than once in a million years in our galaxy, but there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

“When I am judging a theory, I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way,” Einstein once confessed. Perhaps only he or Newton could get away with such a statement; the rest have to rely on the close relationship between theoretical insight and experimental scrutiny that lies at the heart of the scientific method. Wherever evidence can be coaxed out of nature, it corroborates or refutes a theory and serves as the sole arbiter of validity. Gravity waves are another tick for general relativity and the first direct proof of the existence of black holes; all other evidence has been circumstantial.

The hunt for gravity waves is over, but gravitational wave astronomy may help solve some mysteries that continue to baffle physicists: such as the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which together make up 96 per cent of the universe.

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy
Govert Schilling
Harvard-Belknap, 340pp, £23.95

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear