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All Star Photographers

Collectively they’ve photographed some of the biggest names in politics, arts, entertainment and business: Barack and Michelle Obama, Bob Hawke, Anthony Pratt, Boy George, Jimmy Barnes, Willem Dafoe, Hugh Jackman, Judith Neilson, Adam Levine, Ralph Lauren, Emmy Rossum, Malcolm Turnbull, Adam Goodes, Quest Love and more.

This month we spotlight three exceptional Australian photographers – Nic Walker, Alina Gozin’a, and Ben Baker – about their unique approach to the high-stakes artform of profile photography.

NT: Each of you are portrait photographers at the top of your game.  What drew you to this artform?

BB: I was drawn to photography and specifically portrait photography as a way to connect and communicate with people. I was also inspired by the lives that my heroes lived as working photographers on the road, like the Magnum and Life Magazine photographers.

AG: I was obsessed with paintings of people, but I could not draw.  I was obsessed with reading books which dissect the human nature (Dostoevsky, Chekov, Balzac and so on).  When I was 15, I came across a portrait of Sartre by Henri-Cartier Bresson and that’s how the obsession with telling visual stories started. I use my intuition and give it my all to capture a glimpse of one’s soul, without doing any research. I’ve ended up with a sharp eye for spotting the good souls and the ‘phonies’.

NW: As a child I spent my early years in Cairo and Beijing. My father is a journalist and at the time was working as a Foreign Correspondent in the Middle East and China, I remember him with a short-wave radio permanently affixed to his ear, so like many of us who learn our parents’ craft almost by osmosis – it got me thinking about war photography. There was a pull toward story-telling.

I picked-up a camera for the first time in my early twenties, but then I suppose it didn’t register as a thing that I could or even would actually do. When I began I never really considered photography as an ‘art’ instead, I was drawn into the world of news – the images and stories, almost as much as the legends and myths that I had grown up with.

It’s only really in the last five years that I have really begun considering photography as an art form. I guess to me it’s one of those things like a chippy, where its only after countless hours perfecting the trade – banging nails and putting in beams –  that you begin to consider yourself a craftsman and realise that your technical depth of knowledge is what enables you to imagine and execute more subtle or complex images and concepts.

I’ve also spent the last couple of years with artists as opposed to journalists, which has been a real change in pace. Instead of jamming three or four jobs into a day, working freelance and even just hanging out with people who might produce one thing every three or four months just makes you think and consider things differently.

What drew me in was probably a childhood fantasy of the glamour of war reporting and news, but what has kept me in is the discovery of the art form and realisation that photography is something that you will never fully master, and therefore you will never get bored.

Below: Images by Nic Walker

NT: Give us a brief career arc – when did you start, how did you develop your skills, where have you worked?

NW: I started late. After studying at CIT in Canberra I managed to score a job as a Picture Editor at The Australian Financial Review on a maternity leave cover. It was at the Financial Review in the mid 2000s that I started to think about whose work I liked – and there was no shortage of brilliant photographers to choose from at the time – Dean Sewell, Steven Siewert, Craig Golding, Kate Geraghty, Bobby Pearce, Andrew Quilty, Mike Bowers, Tim Clayton were all people that I really looked up to and would follow around on shoots (or to the pub) at any given opportunity.

Eventually someone left the Financial Review and I got look in as a Staff Photographer at The Australian Financial Review Magazine under Tony Rice’s Art Direction. At the time it was a lot easier to work into one of those roles as there was Australian Financial Review Magazine, BRW, Luxury Magazine, Sophisticated Traveller, and a lot of weird luxury watch lift outs, so you had to be a bit of an all-rounder which as it turned out was a good way to learn how to work light – especially without lots of equipment or a studio. To be honest, I probably wasn’t good enough to be doing that job at the time but to Tony Rice’s absolute credit, he gave me a shot anyway and I think it took that pressure and expectation to really make me work and live up to the role.

I’ve shot the Power Issue for The Financial Review for the best part of a decade, which is a masterclass in taking portraits of busy, powerful, people who are not models and trying to perfect that art of not making it look boring (or like last year).

Since 2017, as a specialist portrait photographer for Fairfax, and News, my work has appeared regularly in the Australian Financial ReviewSpectrum, Good WeekendThe AgeCompany DirectorThe Sydney Morning HeraldThe AustralianThe Australian Weekend Magazine, The Monthly, Broadsheet and internationally in Der Spiegel (Germany), Entertainment Weekly (US). I have been incredibly fortunate during this time to work with Australia’s very best Editors, Art Directors, Creatives and Journalists – and the rope that have given me has led to some really memorable collaborations.

I have undertaken a range of special commissions of high-end family portraits, as well as personal art projects such as The Four Horses with Megan Hales and am currently finalising a collaboration with stylist Alish Rich which is different for me, as I’m working with models and fully exploring a concept through props and styling.

AG: I quit my brief corporate career of tax advisor in Banking & Finance at PwC because my mum told me she wanted to see her only child create art and become a film director. The only person I listen to and am scared of (still to this day!) is my sassy, cool, street wise Russian mama who taught me everything I know about everything.

Regarding photography, I was self-taught. I still teach myself, it never ends. I’ve lived and worked in Germany, Amsterdam, LA, NYC and Sydney. What a ride!

BB: Despite top high school grades for fine art I was knocked back for photography at TAFE. I then got working as a studio assistant in Adelaide and Sydney before travelling to South America and ultimately to NYC where I landed a full-time job for Annie Leibovitz and then stints for heroes like Mark Seliger, Harry Benson and Mary Ellen Mark.

I began shooting for magazines in New York and have spent years on the road as a portrait photographer focused on people of power and influence over the globe.

I have photographed the past four presidents and hopefully the fifth come November. My work has appeared on covers and feature stories of Fortune, Forbes, New York Magazine, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, GQ, Rolling Stone, Oprah. My work is part of collections at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum Of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.

 

Below: Images by Ben Baker

NT: How would you describe your own distinct style, or even your own unique way of approaching each photoshoot?

AG: I never ever research anyone I shoot before the shoot – you never know what you might find on Google, and the media coverage could be unfair. Also, I don’t want to be overwhelmed by their amazing story – I need to focus on nailing the shoot, not falling in love with the subject in front of me. Thankfully, my intuition has got me thus far. Naturally the first thing I do after the shoot is google that person [ha ha!] and listen to interviews with them or about them.

I’m ridiculously prepared and have a very first and clear vision on how I want to capture the human in front of me – every inch of the frame is on me so their hair, clothes, body lunges, face expressions – that’s all under my direction. I need to know exactly what I want to create as often I have only even 15 minutes to capture some of these notable people. For example, when I shot Christine LaGarde at IMF at Washington DC, I was given six minutes.

NW:  Coming from a news background, I am used to working in high pressure environments where you’re lucky if the person is wearing make-up and will give you more than five minutes. So, the challenge had always been to ensure that whoever it was that I was shooting – whether it was Richard Pratt, Julia Gillard or Cate Blanchett – looked interesting. This doesn’t always mean that they look ‘pretty’.

What I’ve come to realise is that my style and approach is to draw out something about the person that you might not recognise at first glance. For some people it might be ‘power’, for others it might be vulnerability or playfulness. Working with people who aren’t models or naturally at ease in front of a camera can definitely be frustrating at times. But you do appreciate that even the wealthiest or most powerful person – quite literally the Prime Minister of the country – is very vulnerable in front of a camera, and you have to take control so that they know you are in charge of the situation.

I wouldn’t describe my portraits as ones that make everyone look ‘beautiful’ in fact I don’t even try. Instead I like to think that I find something that outlasts beauty – honesty; and what that looks like depends entirely on the person, the day, the circumstance. That’s what I think makes my style unique.

BB: It’s an honest and open style that reflects a moment in time with those we think we know. I work under extreme pressure with often minutes given to produce the covers and stories. I focus intensely on the person I am photographing and the process will take care of the outcome.

NT: Tech question – what equipment (and entourage) do you use?

BB: Lots of medium format and 35mm digital cameras and most often some strobe lighting to work quickly and precisely under pressure. I only invest in the best and road tested gear as it must work perfectly from the first frame to the last. I don’t get time to “reset”

That goes with the type of assistant I can work with. They have to be able to focus on constantly moving technical needs and be mature enough to remain focused and committed on very long days and weeks in challenging locations.

AG: Hasselblad for art work (both Film & digi back). Canon for everything else – love Canon!

NW: I shoot Nikon D5 and 850. Use Profoto lighting mainly.

NT: No one is allowed to pass on any response to this pop quiz… 

NT: Favourite person to shoot?

NW: Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu

AG: Too many; almost everyone! If I had to pick up, I’d say probably Frank Lowy – in May 2016, we shot in New York at the new Westfield which is inside an utterly stunning Calatrava building and construction was still going on – there was loud drilling and test sirens going off but we connected instantly. I was surrounded by Frank’s substantial entourage of people who seemed to be all much taller than me and everyone and their arms crossed. I knew I had to nail a cover and a DPS in 15 minutes.

One of them told me, “We don’t want anything gimmicky of Frank”. I said, “Do I look like someone who will create anything remotely gimmicky?” and that was it – we connected, some trust was established with Frank and his team and Frank ended up giving me much more then 15 minutes.

Exactly two years later, in May 2018, I had the utter privilege of flying back to NYC to capture Frank and his three sons at his private residence in NYC – to capture the moment Frank sold Westfield. I’m so proud of the journey and tremendous charity and philanthropy Sir Frank Lowy created. He will leave a legacy – that’s for sure.

BB: Michelle Obama, Warren Buffett and my mum.

NT: Most satisfying result?

NW:  Series called “caretakers for the apocalypse’ a personal project on the firefighters in Detroit.

AG: DPS of Judith Neilson for AFR mag – I wanted her to look like a Queen from Game of Thrones;  not just some older woman but the Queen who has the balls to create the highest calibre legacy in the arts, journalisms, architecture and philanthropy.

BB: President Obama Pointing

NT: Favourite overall experience?

NW: Portrait of Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu. I had 15mins with him after he sang on stage. It was the closest thing to a spiritual experience I have ever had making someone’s portrait.

AG: So many people I’ve shot have become friends. I really can’t pick one experience over another; I think it’s a collecting experience which makes me so proud of the work I do because I get the immense privilege to be trusted to capture a person’s journey.

BB: Any day in the White House is a great day, with time in the Oval Office always the highlight.

Most surprising/challenging experience?

NW: Photographing Tony Abbott and dealing with Peta Credlin his chief of staff (long story). Closely followed by Kevin Rudd (longer story).

BB: Photographing the former Governor of New York who was blind and I couldn’t communicate visually.

AG: The plane shoot of Anthony Pratt for the cover of AFR magazine in 2019. Trying to tweak the position of the plane into a perfect spot the day before the shoot to assure the sun hits the right spot when it rises. Then shoot in under 15 min before the plane literally takes off to fly to NYC.

Below: Images by Alina Gozin’a

NT: To capture someone intimately on camera requires incredible trust.  How do you achieve this rapport with someone you’ve just met – especially when they are often highly renowned?

AG: If your intent is pure, like really pure (you don’t want anything from this person, no hidden agenda, no angels; all you truly, madly, badly want is to capture them in the best possible light!) then trust will be there. Where there is trust there is vulnerability and that is what’s needed to draw out very genuine and raw emotions.

NW: The first thing you have to do is be completely in control of the situation. The mood of the shoot varies depending on the circumstance; and whether this person wants to be photographed in the first place. Usually I don’t give them time to think about it, and in a way you have to be detached from the person, so it really doesn’t matter if it’s Tony Abbot or Toni Collette – you just have to direct them and maintain full confidence.

Everyone on a shoot can feel it when the photographer lacks confidence. Nothing fucks-up a portrait more than when the photographer stresses out – the subject feels it.  So, you have to be prepared to fake it even if you have the sweats up and it’s not working the way you envisioned it.  And if and when you do get the vibe going – see if you can push it just a little bit further. You’d sometimes be surprised by what you can get people to do when they cede control.

BB: You need to find a very honest human moment that we all share regardless of office or fame. At the end of the day we are far more connected than we realise. That has to be the start and I get there with lots of research before the shoot. That, with large parts humour, honesty, empathy, clear direction and you will be fine. And remember to take the picture.

NT: Each of you are your own personal brand but you are also friends and openly collaborative. This seems surprising when it’s a very competitive field?

BB: I have so much respect for anyone who has had the guts to pick up a camera and make a life out of their images. It can be brutal out there. If you look back through time the best artists always collaborated. Life is always best shared and at the end of the day what type of person do you want to be remembered as?

NW: It’s a pretty small industry in Australia, but people will usually help you if you ask.

AG: I’m a baby photographer compared to these two incredible photographers! Ben was insanely supportive, kind and helpful when I moved to NYC and reached out to him. Nic has been the same here in Sydney when I moved back to Sydney. I look up to both of them, amazing creatives and awesome humans! They are both dear friends now. They have my back and I have theirs.

NT: Who would you still love to shoot, and describe how you would capture this?

AG: MYSELF ! Haha – true story. Insane I don’t have any decent photos of myself except one self-portrait. I LOVE being in front of the camera (unlike all other photographers I know). I badly want to commission my favourite fashion photographer Georges Antoni to shoot me; Virginia van Heythuysen to style me and Kimberley Forbes for H&M and hire Carriageworks for location. But I simply don’t have the budget to afford this crew even at mates rates! Maybe I should start saving up …!

BB: Just the Queen. Maybe with us sharing tea and scones on quiet Sunday morning, maybe at the bedroom table and chatting about the small things in life. Can anyone help make this happen?”

NW: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I won’t tell you the idea because I’m saving it for if I ever get the opportunity.

See more work from these All-stars at @nicwalker101 @benbakerphoto @alinagozina
Alina Gozin’a is represented by Flint Productions (for commercial work), Wentworth galleries (for art work),  Head Press (syndication world wide).
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