The Story Behind the Picture: Ben Quinton


It’s not often you get to shoot one of the greatest artists to come out of the UK but Ben Quinton did just that when he photographed David Hockney for the Guardian Weekend. Photographing since he was 16, Ben brings an insouciant and refreshing approach to portraiture. Here he explains why he loved snapping David, how he approaches shy subjects and the pleasures of gaining unique access to people’s lives.

What initiated your interest in photography?
I used to paint an awful lot when I was younger. At the time my older brother was a photographer for NME – he did a lot of music stuff. He would take pictures around the house and I would always be his guinea pig – I think I just decided to give it a go. I decided it was a lot easier to take a picture of someone than paint a picture! That’s really what started it off.

What inspired the shot you took of David Hockney?
It was a commission for the Guardian Weekend. They phoned me on a Friday afternoon for the following Saturday morning. They didn’t tell me who it was until I accepted the job and then they told me it was David Hockney. It was all very last minute, but I was over the moon to be given that. Actors come and go and celebrities fade after a while, but with Hockney there’s an element of immortality about him. He is always going to be considered one of the best artists to come out of the UK – there’s something special about photographing him as opposed to some other famous face. It was a real experience!

What’s David Hockney like?
He was hilarious. He has this real dry deadpan sense of humour. He stomps around his studio just chain-smoking and complaining about smoking laws. He doesn’t really take much nonsense. But he is also very kind and very welcoming and he would see what the shots were like. Obviously you’ve got a PR there on the job – the PR was very much like ‘oh no we can’t do too much because he’s quite frail. He’s just got back from LA.’ But he was actually more than happy to try loads of different things out. He was fantastic. There were quite a few people milling around the studio and he was just walking around smoking all the time. He goes, ‘let me show you something’, and he wanders off and comes back and he holds up this card with his frail, shaking hand. It was his medicinal marijuana card from California; in the article afterwards the writer asked him what was his ailment, and he said anxiety and he said his biggest anxiety is not being able to get stoned. He’s just hilarious. He is such a funny guy. He just doesn’t care that’s what’s brilliant. He does what he wants and thinks what he wants. He was a real pleasure to photograph and of course his studio is full of self-portraits, so he knows how to sit for a portrait, which is a dream. He’s like a sculpture, as in you just put him there and he looks amazing straight off. You didn’t really have to direct him that much.

How well do you think your photographs convey the story?
I think they do because it’s a lot about where Hockney is now and how he is much older.

There’s an amusing quality to the shot with the paper tacked to the wall saying ‘nice buns’. Was that intentional?
Yes. I saw that on the wall and picked that spot. I just thought that was quite funny because it shows the cheekiness of him. You’ve also got a caricature there done by another artist. It was about trying to convey a bit of that sense of humour in the image, but then you also get him looking right down at the floor – that sort of do-what-he-wants gaze, which I really like.

Was anything accidental in the photograph?
I picked out that spot firstly because of the light and secondly because of the ‘nice buns’ poster. Nothing comes to my mind that would be accidental. Posture-wise he was just doing his thing. You have a finite amount of time, so you have to pick out where you want to shoot and set up. We only had an hour to get seven or eight different setups. We had to be pretty selective with where we wanted to shoot and that was one of the places where I wanted to. But it was a bit up in the air whether or not he’d agree to be shot in front of the ‘nice buns’. We started out with something more straightforward and then I asked him if he would mind and he was more than happy.

What camera was it taken on?
Normally I would have shot that on film, but because of the deadline they wanted the images by that Monday, so I only had a day to plan out the images. Not even that. I had to come home and immediately start sending the images off. I went with a Phase One IQ1 260 or something like that. A digital medium format because I wanted to get the closest possible colour that I could out of a digital file or closest hue shooting medium format film but on that sort of deadline.

How important was using Photoshop in editing this image?
You’ve always got to edit an image. I tend to apply a bit of a colour look to it, but not really chop and change. I think Photoshop is often regarded as destructive software where you pull things apart and move things about. Really it’s just getting the colour palette to more how I would normally have it, i.e. trying to put it back to as if I were shooting it on a film stock and then putting in contrast and tweeking colours a bit really. Light work, nothing heavy-handed, but it is important.

When you’re taking portrait photographs are you consciously or unconsciously trying to make a connection with your subject or is it just a case of you’re the photographer and they’re the subject?
I don’t consciously try and make a connection. I don’t see it like that, I see it as you go over and have a chat. If you get hold of them you get hold of them and if you don’t you don’t. You have to direct them as best as possible. If you really get on with the subject it makes your life easier… Sometimes people are really difficult and some are not. It’s just a conversation really, if you can have one if they’re not a real pain. Sometimes someone is really good and you can pull something really nice out of them. For instance, I did Kenneth Branagh not that long ago, but it was really weird I only had 10 minutes of him and he is so well rehearsed. In every shot he changed his expression. It’s more difficult when you’ve got someone really shy in front of the camera – that’s when it’s really hard.

How do you handle that?
With difficulty! It can be really hard. You just try and keep things to a minimum. They might be really awkward stood up; you try and find a way they feel most comfortable. You give them as much direction as possible. Often there is a lot of crew on a job and you can get six or seven people looking at what’s going on, if you can get them to move out the way or leave the room that makes life a lot simpler. If the subject can’t see the screen that’s usually for the best because if they’re really nervous they’ll see a picture that’s up on the screen as you take it and they’ll be like ‘I hate that’, which will ruin their confidence for the rest of the job. It’s trying to minimise all the things they are worried about

Are there certain portrait clichés you try to avoid when taking photographs?
I like more natural, calm portraits. I try to avoid the really smiley shots – I don’t like that. I like the classic postures. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people doing caricatures or insane portraits – maybe they’re jumping around – but it doesn’t tickle my fancy. I find it a bit gimmicky. I try to avoid that but sometimes it’s unavoidable, because that’s what they want so you have to do it. The trick is to always give them what they want but then turn around and do it the way you want it… Quite often it’s managing people’s expectations, which is sometimes doing clichés. At the end of the day sometimes you’ve got to realise working for a client is a work of their art direction.

Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
No. I don’t really look at much photography. I quite enjoy just turning up and the challenge of not knowing what’s coming up on a job and seeing how you can apply your way of things to that particular circumstance. It’s just developed over time. It becomes your way of doing things in a time frame. When I was studying I used to look at a lot of photo books all the time and you’d look at the photo books and end up going out and replicating it or you’d struggle to think up your own ideas because you had all these photos from other people’s projects floating around in your head. It was when I stopped looking at so much stuff that I was able to go out – probably sub-consciously I am replicating.

What does photography give you that nothing else does?
More access to people’s lives. You get the most amazing life experience – one minute you might be in the A380 factory in Toulouse, the next minute you’re in Norway. You just jump from absolute extremes and you get to see things that no one else does. People have got an awful lot of access when you’re writing a story about them. It’s one of those really amazing experiences that you get to be a part of, although it can be very hard work and the money can be very up and down. It’s being able to go out and do something you really love and at the same time experience all of these different things – the unique access to other people’s lives and the world around us while doing something you really enjoy.

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