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

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

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 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge