Mezzo-soprano Dana Luccock contacted me the other day because she needed new promotional portraits. In the business this has always been called the head shot. There is something in that combination of two words that to my ears sounds almost obscene. For some years the head shot has been the bread and butter of the new-on-the-block studio photographer. In order to compete, with other photographers and to get clients, struggling young actors and dancers, fees had to be low. But competition for head shots was and is so fierce that the photographer had to resort to, what in the head shot game, is called the “cattle call”. This would entail having as many people go through your studio in one day — assembly line photos. I never did this because I was never willing to stay in my studio all day. It was not my cup of tea and when people would call me I would always refer them to Sooter’s Studio or the Yellow Pages. I protected my uncertain hours of the free-lancer with gusto. Another reason for this was snobbery on my part, one that may have been based on pride. I was not going to “stoop that low” I thought. Many who did head shots practiced something called testing. These photographers had ambition to be fashion photographers. They were (and perhaps even now) attracted to the perceived glamour of the business. Testing meant that they were willing to photograph young and very pretty up-and-coming models for very little money or for free in exchange for having a beautiful young thing in your studio with which you could test new cameras, new lights or new techniques. The value of a good headshot is one that I did not suspect immediately. Probably, because I didn’t do them. But it was in the late 80s that in my job (a short-lived one) as director of photography at Vancouver Magazine that my awareness and respect for the head shot changed. I was dispatched by editor Malcolm Parry to find a beautiful young model, with generous cleavage, that would pose on the cover with DJ Doc Harris to promote (editorial even in those days was not completely independent of the advertising side as is so much more frequent nowadays) the Playhouse Theatre Company sponsored wine festival. I was to go to the Playhouse to be shown 8x10 glossies of young girls who had connections to the company.
The publicist gave me 100 8x10s which I placed on the floor and then looked at with my eyes semi-closed (the noticeable ones would stand out). Two did and I picked them up. The publicist smiled with surprise and told me, “Alex this is so wonderfully strange. You have picked sisters Saffron and Camille Henderson and the glossies are amateur glossies taken by their mother.” In the end Saffron Henderson graced the cover of Vancouver Magazine and her cleavage was glorious as taken by the fashion photographer Chris Haylett. It is my idea that a head shot to work has to stand out in a sea of headshots. But if it is too extreme it will scare off a possible client and a job. Of course sometimes the head shot can be a multiple one. They can be one that promotes the person as a singer, or as a dramatic actor, or as a funny actor. It can be a head shot that if the person is young looking through photographic methods (lighting, etc) he or she can sell themselves as someone who can play an older child or a teenager. In my last 10 years I have noticed that the elaborate photographs I used to take of people for magazines and newspapers have become simpler. If you look, not too closely you might say that they are head shots. It was Annie Leibovitz who some photographers say ruined our ability to photograph a person and to capture a semblance of who they are. Since Leibovitz people had to be photographed doing stuff, and the more out of context or outlandish, the better. For years I resorted to those “tricks”. But I believe that I am back on track with the idea that what is not needed in a photograph has to be removed. This was something I had learned from American photographer Bert Stern. For 10 years I was friends with Argentine painter Juan Manuel Sánchez. Alas, he’s gone back to Buenos Aires but I have come to understand what it was that led him to paint, obsessively, nude portraits of women or figure studies that seemed to all be sort of the same. They had perfectly round breasts (like dinner plates with a dot in the middle). Sánchez spoke of his paintings using the verb resolver (resolve/solve). For him an idea in his head and a subsequent line drawn on paper or canvas was a problem that needed to be resolved. A successful painting meant he had found a resolución. One day I asked him, “As your paintings of women get simpler do you think some day you will draw a straight line or perhaps a curved line and in that line will be a distillation of your idea of what woman is?” His answer was, “¡Quizá!” (maybe). In like fashion I have seen my portraits go in that distilled direction of simplicity. I use one light and a gray background. I get very close with a lens that puts me within worry of knowing I must have a good underarm deodorant and to have previously made sure my mouth and teeth are clean. I chat with my subject. I try to connect and then I ask them to move (in millimetric segments) up or down or to the side. I do the same thing with my light. I take very few pictures. All those years of taking portraits have all been reduced to instinctively knowing when to press that shutter. And suddenly I look at my portraits. Are they head shots? Are they portraits? Or has the distinction been blurred in distillation?
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.