In her mid-twenties, Laura Stevens left a video editing and post-production job, working her way across farms and vineyards in Australia while sorting out what to do next with her life. She knew that spending her days in an office, glued to a computer, was not the path she wanted to be on and it was during her travels Down Under that she realized the importance that photography had played throughout her life.
Stevens returned to the UK a year later where she entered a Master of Photography program at the University of Brighton. A whimsical move to Paris, intended to last just a year or two, has now culminated into more than a decade, as she has steadily built up her career as a respected portrait artist. Public figures such as Emmanuel Macron, Patti Smith and Anselm Kiefer, among many others, have sat before her lens where Stevens creates a safe space for connection and collaboration. Influenced by cinema and painting, her portraits feel like dark pools of water; reflective with glimpses into her subjects’ psyche often thrumming just beneath the surface.
In 2014 Stevens’ personal project, Another November was selected for the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards and received a special cash grant. In the following interview, Stevens speaks to Amy Parrish for LensCulture about the trajectory of her career, her role as both an observer and director behind the camera, as well as sharing some advice for photographers who find themselves embarking upon a similar journey.
Amy Parrish: Your experience sounds so similar to countless others who become dissatisfied with their paths and find fulfillment in photography. Despite the risks, you took action and made a change. Can you touch on those early years?
Laura Stevens: I moved to Paris on a whim after I finished my master’s degree. It had been a place I had loosely dreamt of living in, and an opportunity arose for me to move there. My then-boyfriend was half French and he had family in Paris with an apartment available we could rent cheaply. I didn’t speak French or have contacts, so it took a while to get things off the ground. I was working as a freelance graphic designer for a company back in England which gave me the freedom and time to find commissioned photography work and develop my personal practice. I thought I would only stay a year, or perhaps two, but it’s been 11 years now.
AP: Can you recall your first portrait commission? Was there a big break or an important connection that helped pave the way?
LS: I found work by researching picture editors for various publications I would love to work for, and sent an email requesting a meeting. I also met picture editors at portfolio reviews and through introductions from others. My first commission was with The Times [of London], not long after I moved to Paris, to photograph Rupert Everett in a hotel room. Slowly but surely, I independently built relationships with picture editors around the world.
AP: What is it like to have a celebrity in front of your camera? How do you gauge those portraits as a success?
LS: For me, Patti Smith is a good example of a successful portrait. Formally it feels measured. She looks powerful, statuesque and poetic, and the light on her hair gives her an almost mystical aura. She is one of my heroes and I wanted to do her justice. She was incredible in front of the camera, focused and creative, with a deep awareness of how to present herself. She flowed.
I spent a few hours with Anselm Kiefer in his atelier just outside of Paris, an enormous space, which was once the storehouse for La Samaritaine department store, filled with his immense sculptures and paintings. It is always exciting and unbelievable to me to be able to meet the likes of Anselm Kiefer or Patti Smith and get to witness a part of their life, and have however brief an interaction.
Anselm was a force of nature, very charismatic and funny. He changed into his overalls for me, smoked some cigars. We made photos on the roof, a bed, amongst his sculptures, and finally in front of his painting where I watched him work. I like the composition, the different layers of canvases in the background, the scraps of paper on the floor mimicking the white flecks on the painting, his intense expression, steady stance, and the balance of colours with his attire.
AP: Do you ever encounter rigid time constraints or large sets filled with assistants, stylists, and creative directors? How do you prepare?
LS: Sessions can vary from 2 minutes to 2 hours. For example, I had 3 minutes with President Emmanuel Macron, 10 min with Patti Smith and 2 hours with Benjamin Clementine. Most often, it would be just me with the subject. Occasionally there will be an assistant, stylist and makeup artist. I will always spend time researching the subject so there will be ways to connect and find a context, and I will research or visit the location whilst sketching ideas of how I wish to represent the subject in terms of lighting and pose.
AP: In regards to lighting and pose, it’s part of what makes your portraiture so recognizable. There is a somber tone consistent throughout your work. Can you share how your technical choices influence an emotional response?
LS: I have particular preferences for low key lighting and darker, textural backgrounds where light plays a key role. Although I used a lighter, more neutral tone with my series, him, to fit the concept. I think I am quite a formal portraitist, looking for ways to use and shape light and colour that can bring heightened emotion to the image. I am interested in the play between what is private and public and how to show something of the sitter that is not forced for the camera and seems intimate.
AP: How is that connection made through your interactions with a client?
LS: With commissioned portraits, you always have to improvise to a certain extent, as there are so many variables: you have no idea what your connection will be like with the subject, how long you will have to shoot, or often what the location will be like, so you need to be adaptable. I try and form a connection by asking questions and being emotionally open myself as a way to create a space that feels safe to be in. There also has to be a sense that you are the one leading the situation so they can have confidence in what you’re doing and feel that they can then let go. Although when it works it often feels like a dance, finding a rhythm of shifting power and control and being lost in the moment.
AP: Is it any different when you’re working with models for conceptual projects such as Another November or him? What shifts when you are sharing your own post-breakup story or turning the tables on a predominantly male gaze towards the nude figure?
LS: Working with men for him was a very collaborative experience. Inviting strangers to my home to be photographed naked meant that there had to be clear communication and trust from both sides, to a certain extent, for us both to be willing to be in a vulnerable, exposed situation and embrace that; creating the weird tensions that I was looking for.
With Another November, a lot of the models were friends of mine. I knew the location in advance and I had made many studies of how to make the portrait; so these images were made consciously and deliberately, directing the models to play a very particular role. It wasn’t really a portrait of them but of myself. Obviously with commissions you are creating something to fulfill the wishes of the picture editor and be fitting for the publication while in-line with your own aesthetic. There is some compromising to be made but it pushes you to try things you wouldn’t otherwise do.
AP: So, while you were intentionally revealing something of yourself through that project work, do you also find elements of yourself revealed through portrait commissions? Or are those photographs more about bringing out something unique to each subject?
LS: Yes, and yes. I am bringing myself to the shoot—I’m the one making the decision of framing, angle, lighting and the moment of pressing the shutter. Then there is the person’s physique, character and our connection to work with. I have a mostly quiet and reflective character with lots of emotions bubbling under the surface and this often seems to be the type of image I am drawn to making of my subjects. I don’t believe in being able to show a person’s soul in a photograph but I am interested in trying to portray an inner state of mind—a certain psychological tension that makes you feel something.
AP: In an earlier interview with LensCulture you mention getting approached by the Huffington Post shortly after being selected for the 2014 Emerging Talent Awards? How else did you benefit from that experience?
LS: I gained a lot of exposure: from press (online and in print), new clients, print sales, and exhibition opportunities. Apart from this, it was wonderful to feel that work was being responded to by others.
AP: Is there anything you wish you knew earlier in your career? What words of advice would you give to your younger self?
LS: To create as freely and experimentally as you can when you begin, to develop a visual language without expectation or concern about it being seen. I think too much time can be spent trying to get stuff into the world when it’s not quite ready and it would be much more valuable to concentrate on developing your work and supporting yourself by other means.
So much of this practice is improvised, revealing and instinctive and feels like it’s on its way to becoming. Each step feels like a discovery and I would advise my younger self to trust this completely.