Tell us about yourself…
I am what I call a ‘second chance photographer’. Growing up in a family mix of artists and intellectuals in Paris, ‘culture’ was always a pillar, if not to say lifestyle, of my childhood. Traveling was equally a big part of my upbringing. I must have visited a thousands museums before turning 18. I started my career in Public Service and NGOs after Law School in France and post-grad in NYC, worked my way towards Emergency Response and Public Health. All through this complex (erratic you say?) path and windy road, there was always one constant, reaching out to people and connecting to their life experience, their culture, their stories. Listening to heartbreaking stories and holding hands during Katrina, too many fires and floods in NYC, Africa, or discovering a million positive views from Europe all the way through Australia. Always collecting memories of how different we all are yet how intertwined it all seems in the end.
I always seeked to witness the life of others, absorbing their stories, sharing their burdens and their joys. I love watching people, sometimes to the point that I actually forget I’m even there. It just took me a while to realize I could translate all this into images and share it!
Your work is extremely diverse and ranges from portraits to landscapes and from photographing the homeless to Icelandic horses. Do you consider yourself a true generalist?
No, I do not and I actually hope not to be seen as such! I am interested in many things, it’s true. I see something and I immediately want to test it out or I instantly frame things in my head. But there is a common thread, from where I stand anyways. Someone once told me ‘your images are visual poetry’, and it stuck with me. First, because it is a lovely way of putting it and I love the idea of being a visual poet! Second, because I do indeed try to create images with a story, images that you can look at over and over again and dip yourself into a different scenario each time. Long story short, I need to give as much as possible an emotive visual that stays alive over time. To me ‘Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it’ (Confucius). I like to see it.
The title of “photographer” is thrown around extremely loosely these days. In your opinion, is there a single trait that separates a photographer from a person with a camera?
This question takes me back to the 90s (that’s when I was searching for the meaning of all things, and no I’m not that old, just wiser), when we would debate (that’s what French people do enthusiastically, there’s no good meal without a solid debate) whether ‘electro music’ was actually music or a sham. I’ve personally always defended the fact that technology is a new type of instrument, and you still need skills to master it; to produce quality art with it.
For photography, there is no denying that the development of new tools in digital imaging, smartphones, editing software, and the global reach of social networks, create a grey area. With very little means, very low costs, you can ‘snap’, use some fancy apps with crazy presets, post on social networks and there you go, you put yourself out there. The real question is, and will always be, do you have the depth, the inherent artistry? The technique… you can learn. There are amazing resources online such as yours, Adam, to figure things out on your own if you have the will and determination. But the artistry, the eye, the talent, the guts, name it what you will, that is another ball game. You can be a social network wiz and get reach, but can you sustain the test of time and touch souls with what you create? Connect your vision to someone else’s emotions, that for me is where the difference lies.
Full disclosure, I personally started it all, years ago, with something called ‘Iphonography’. I had a thirst for imaging and creativity, and it was a very accessible outlet at the time. But as I went along with the process, I realized that what I wanted to create required more skills and techniques, higher standards, which I went on to research and teach myself. Then I patiently waited to be able to afford the appropriate equipment all the while testing, practicing, failing miserably many times, doubting, getting back on the horse and keep moving forward.
Elliott Erwitt says ‘All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice’. So long story short, I am thrilled there is great enthusiasm for photography out there, but I do believe there’s a distinction to be made between ‘image aficionados’ and ‘photographers’, a difference to acknowledge between ‘taking a picture’ and ‘making an image’.
Your portrait work is simple yet incredibly emotive. How do you approach your portrait sessions in order to bring out the character of the people you photograph?
The question alone is an incredible compliment! There are two possible situations for me to be in a portrait session. Either a client reaches out to me (obviously), or I will see someone I am inspired by and ask them to sit for me. In either case, I need to connect, read a personality or group dynamic, see a soul. When someone comes to me, I will take time prior to the day or at the beginning of the session to look at them, listen to them, observe, which let’s be honest can be intense if not creepy! I borderline disappear into an out of body experience, it’s frightening…but it is essential to step back, slow down, to make the right moves. Ask yourself certain questions. For instance, in a family session, you need to figure out who initiated the session, who doesn’t want to be here the most (that is key). You need to understand the level of comfort to the camera, the mood. Did they leave their home late? Are their clothes making them uncomfortable? Are the little ones in good or bad disposition? Is dad missing a game for this? Once you’ve established that dynamic, you can focus your speech on the most pressing matter. Do they need to relax and laugh? Do they need to be guided or do they need for me to be quiet? Are they are going to need time to settle in or do they want this to be over fast? Do the children need to be heard and make small choices in the session? Do they need to be themselves and make faces? For some (if not to say most), forcing them to sit still and smile will simply never work. Then so be it! Ride on their train!
For actor head shots or specific industry/corporate head shots, you need to understand the purpose of the shoot (what are these images for?) and the personality of your subject. It goes beyond creating a flattering look. What role do they seek? How do they want to be perceived, accessible or untouchable? What image of themselves are they trying to convey? All these elements will have a crucial role in the choice of clothing, posing, facial expression, lighting and tones. These are all choices you need to make, that can make or break a session and consequently on the images that come out of it.
I made the mistake once of going into a teenager session with lots of ideas and props, I had set images I wanted to execute, and I ended up failing miserably simply because the goal did not match the dynamic that was in front of me. I am not saying you shouldn’t be prepared. What I am saying is you need to be equally as flexible and open minded to what is unfolding in front of you.
When I meet someone I simply need to capture, it’s all about them, their story and I want to hear it. I really do! There’s just something about them that I inherently need to capture, most of the time just for them and me. Sometimes I will have a second, in a street photography setting, sometimes they agree to meet me later on.
Either way, I need to put that special something forward, that thing that caught my eye in the first place. It can be an incredible feature that makes them so unique and beautiful. Or it’s about what they carry inside, happy or not so happy. Something true.
I went into sessions with people who were in frightening health conditions. Sessions when there was crying and my heart was struggling to stay afloat. Sessions for people who need to remember before it’s too late, sessions for people who need to see for themselves from the outside so they can get up and keep fighting, sessions when people are so happy that emotions take over, sessions when people realize that they mean something.
In the end, I walk into each one of these situations knowing I am going to learn something new about them or even me, hear another story and be all the richer afterwards. Hopefully make them happy with an image in the end. But I do dig in to get to that one thing their soul is trying to say. One of the reasons I love black and white so much is because it allows to focus your attention on these emotions.
These days, I use a Canon 5D mark IV. Besides the amazing image quality that can be expected from this grade of gear, the touch screen is one of my favorite little pluses.
My go-to lenses are a Canon 85mm f/1.2 L (that I bought 2nd hand because you can find great gear when you know where to look and a little patient). This lens is just butter for portraits. The bokeh is phenomenal, subtle and creamy. Lighting-wise, I recently started working with a Flashpoint eVOLV 200 pocket flash and I love it. Powerful and packable, it’s amazing indoors and out, easy to bring on any location. I add a 38’ Glow Parapop on it and it creates lovely feathered light.
I also use a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L for landscapes and street photography. Or even environmental portraits (portraits in a wider shot). With that lens, I work with CPL filters (Breakthrough Photography filters are wonderful), and neutral soft gradient filters (.3,.6,.9) from Lee Filters, which were essential for landscapes in Iceland and Corsica this year, to balance foreground/background without missing out on sky colors and clouds.
Aiming for ideal gear is great, but it’s just as valuable a lesson to learn to use what you have. I’ve worked for years with a 50mm f/1.4 for everything and which I took absolutely everywhere. My nifty fifty was my starter length and I loved it. For portraits, i used reflectors and simple fabric diffusers, v-flats modifiers, and all kind MacGyver-ish backdrops. Resisting ‘gear lust’ and exercising patience, is a major right of passage, you have to roll with it. Primarily because it teaches you that skills are meant in the eye of the photographer.
Visit Helene and her work at the links below:
All images are wholly the property of the original photographer, Helene McGuire, and are used with permission.