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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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