London and New York-based, Jason Bell is one of the world's foremost celebrity and portrait photographers, shooting for publications like Vanity Fair and Vogue US and UK. With a string of awards and three books to his name, his fourth book is due to be published by Dewi Lewis in the summer, with an accompanying exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. He speaks to David Land
"One of my wiser clients in New York", says Jason Bell, "commented to me the other day when we were on a shoot that I seemed to really enjoy taking pictures. I laughed and said yes, and he said, 'You'd be really surprised how many of them don't'. It's a business to me, of course, but it's more than that, and that puts you ahead of the game, compared to those photographers who treat it only as a business. If you're shooting pictures in order to syndicate, then you're in trouble, because what you tend to do is shoot a picture that's as bland as possible that will sell a lot everywhere."
Born in London's Camden Town in 1969, Bell got into photography while studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, where he photographed for the student magazine. Based in London and New York, he now has a portraiture practice which straddles both sides of the Atlantic.
"I'm working on a book of portraits called An Englishman in New York, which will be published by Dewi Lewis in July, and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery", says Bell. "I had worked with Sting quite a few times, so the title of his song of the same name was in my head. Then I did a shoot for American Vogue, with English models in an English teashop in New York. I did some research, and found that there are 120,000 English people living in New York, and it gave me an idea for a project:
why did all these people come to New York? How did they feel about New York? and why did they leave England?
There are ordinary people, like cab drivers and a policeman, and then there are some, like Sting and Kate Winslet, who are well-known.
"Aaron Hicklin, an Englishman, is the editor in chief of Out magazine in New York. I shot him for the book, and we got talking. I said that I was interested in Out 100 – the list of 100 notable gays in public life that the magazine publishes annually. He said it had gained momentum over time, and that they'd had a lot of people asking to shoot it. I said that maybe I should add myself to that list, and we laughed.
"Then I thought about it afterwards. I come from a magazine background, shooting stuff all over the world, so my work can be quite bitty. But my work is getting more and more project-based. These days, I like to really get into a project and see it through.
"So I wrote to Aaron, saying that I'd like to shoot Out 100, but only if I could shoot the whole thing. That's quite a big proposal, but they went for it, and it was pretty manic. I shot it in eight weeks, in London, Paris, New York, LA and Washington DC.
"There were some days when I was shooting 10 people in a day, all different set ups. My attitude throughout, and particularly as we neared the end of it, was that I didn't want to hear anyone say, 'That's good enough', because it was really important that the standard, vision and the quality was maintained throughout.
"Energy and enthusiasm are a big part of my job, especially on the bigger shoots, where there might be 40 people on set and you are the captain of the ship. Everyone takes their cue from me, so it's important that I'm enthusiastic, energetic, really saying that it can be better, and driving everybody on to do more and make it better."
I ask Bell about his relationship with the art director in this context. He's the captain of the ship, but does that mean that there are two people who think they are captain sometimes?
"There were three or four in this case", he says. "There was the creative director, the art director, and then the deputy editor of the magazine, who actually selected the hundred. The way it worked was they gave me a theme, which was the high school yearbook. At that point, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, because I think of high school yearbooks as basically poor photography: white background, badly executed, nerdy pictures. But then we got talking, and I thought, given what Out 100 is about, it was quite a clever theme. School is generally the time when people are coming to terms with being gay. And going to high school is a universal experience, yet broad enough to riff on in lots of ways.
"One of the benefits of having the same photographer shoot all 100 pictures is that you get to play with themes and you keep consistency, but the challenge is you don't want it to be endlessly repetitive. It is hard to keep people's interest as they turn 65 pages of a magazine, but I'm pretty versatile, so I wasn't too worried about that.
"I was quite late to digital, but that wasn't anything to do with technical hesitation: it was more that I didn't like the way it looked. When I looked at magazine covers, I could see straight away it was digital, and it looked horrible. Then, about three years ago, I saw a fashion shoot that was done in the style of those old Rudolph Valentino pictures: black and white, very scratched and grainy, and I thought it looked great, with a really filmic quality. Then I found out it was shot digitally, and I remem- ber at that point thinking, 'Game over'. I shoot everything digitally now. The moment I was
confident I was able to make digital look the same as film, I knew it would be fine.
"Digital has been creatively liberating, as it's much easier to take risks. Hitherto, I'd use a 5x4 plate camera, and shots of people moving were difficult. I like to shoot with ambient light. I use HMIs from time to time, but I'm not that keen on them. They are big and heavy, and give off a lot of heat, and you have to lug around the generators. It makes it harder to be spontaneous when moving the lights is going to take an hour!
"My assistants always used to laugh, because we'd take all these lights, and we'd set them up, and often I wouldn't turn any of them on. I'd have a bunch of people standing round with reflectors, and do it all like that instead.
"You were never really sure if the pictures were going to be sharp, whereas you can now give a go to things that you would have thought were madness. I can say, 'Jump out of the window. We'll take a photo while you do it, and I'm only going to light the whole thing with candlelight' - and you know straight away whether or not it's sharp.
"That said, there's a tendency with digital to shoot sloppily and think it can be sorted out later, whereas those of us who grew up with film are much more willing to work hard and get it right in camera. The other thing is, the more you know how to do it yourself, the better you can instruct others. It's quite important that I know how to retouch, even though I'm too busy to do all my own retouching: I certainly know how to tell someone what I want. And if a retoucher says that something can't be done, I know whether or not it's true.
"It's pre-visualisation: when you shoot, you should be seeing the final result in your head. The more you know and the more you think, the easier it is to get the result you want, rather than thinking afterwards that you should have done it differently.
"A lot of assistants and students ask me what camera I'm using, but it's not important. Find a tool that does what you want, but what matters is what's in your head.
"I mostly shoot on a Hasselblad H3 with a P45+ back, and for moving images, I use both the Red and the Canon EOS 5D Mk II.
"Everybody is wondering at the moment, what with printed magazines not doing so well and everything going on the net, whether we'll just be reading magazines online.
"But we're a long way from putting moving images on our bedroom walls. What I think is underestimated: there is still the object. This is why paintings are worth lots of money, and so too are original signed photographic prints. You can't connect with ownership of a moving image in the same way.
"You don't have the same sense of ownership as with a piece of art, so I don't see that being replaced. I collect magazines, and have thousands of them in my home. I keep them on shelves, I keep them forever, and you can't do that in the same way with digital files.
"The next big change will happen if somebody like Apple brings out a tablet or abig iPhone, so it really does become possible to read magazines on larger portable devices. Then I think you will want your portraits to move, but if you know what you want, then it's not that difficult a jump for stills photog- raphers to shoot moving images.
"I shoot a lot of Broadway theatre posters, and all my clients have started asking if I can shoot video to go on the website and as a TV spot as well, which is no problem. Once we've decided how we're shooting it, the concept and how they're dressed, then there's room for me to visualise a 10-30sec clip to go with it as a natural follow on. I don't use flash much when shooting stills, so that makes for a relatively easy transition to lighting for video.
"One thing I would say, whatever happens, there will still be a demand for people like me, who say, 'This is how it should look'. Whether I'm saying that about photographs or about moving images, someone is still going to want my vision. Someone still wants people to make decisions as to how stuff should be, and that's why I don't feel very frightened by it.
"The convergence of still and digital contin- ues the trend of digital enabling everyone to do everything, but talent still rises. It used to be that photography was like fashion: you had to be a rich kid to work at magazines because they paid so little, but now there is a new generation of people who can afford to produce photographs without being born rich, because the means of production have changed. You don't have to buy yourself an expensive camera and build yourself a darkroom. It means that some people who aren't born rich but are talented will make it, and I like that. I have no problem with talent being what gets you through.
"The recession hasn't really affected me. I'm a bit surprised about that, but I was lucky in that I split my working life between London and New York. The recession happened first in New York, so there was a point where suddenly there wasn't so much happening there, so I was back more in London, and then it flipped. It never happened at the same time, so last year was much quieter in London and it really picked up in New York. This year, it's too early to say, but my prediction is that it'll be more equally split.
"Another thing in my favour in this climate is that I've resisted having a big team: a full time office and a huge staff, like some of the big guns do. That's been partly because I travel so much, but also because I simply didn't want a big team. I didn't want to feel like it was an office job, and that I was going in to keep the machine going the whole time. I want to do work that interests me, and some of it will be well paid and some of it won't.
"As the recession continues and as magazines have less money, the photographers that are going to survive are the ones that come up with ideas and create content.
"I average about 10 days a month in London, then 10 days in New York, and then 10 days somewhere else on the road. I'm off to Poland the week after next, then I've got another shoot in India, then I've got to go back toNew York to carry on with An Englishman in New York. I go to LA quite a lot now, because lots of the people I photograph are there.
"Right now I find the travel exhilarating and creatively stimulating. I'm young and energetic enough not to feel worn out by it: but a lot of that is about what's in your head, and being used to it. People ask me how I cope with the jetlag crossing the Atlantic so much, but it's like when early morning TV
presenters get asked what time they get up, and then people think, 'Ooh, that's hard'. It's routine, and I know which flights make me feel terrible and which don't."
"One of the nice things about getting more established is that people work a little bit more to your diary. When I first started working out of both London and New York, it was very difficult. The Americans would say they had a shoot on Tuesday, and the British would say they had a shoot for me on Wednesday. If I wanted to do both jobs, I would end up having to take a night flight and go straight into it. Now I'm in a better position to ask if they mind making it Thursday. I'm still crossing the Atlantic in the week, but it's a little easier.
"I have teams of regular assistants in London, New York and LA, and then anywhere else they travel with me. The market has changed. The days of saying, 'You'll be flying my assistant from London to New York for this shoot', are over. Magazines simply don't have that kind of money anymore."
Bell has shot the annual Royal Opera House poster campaign for several years, and says that Caroline Bailey, its marketing director, commented to him recently, 'Oh Jason, you always have such lovely assistants'. "And I guess, in a way, that's my number one requirement", he says. "Obviously, they are the people I'm spending more time with than anybody else, so I need to get on with them as well. They need to be competent digital technicians and retouchers. I need them to be bright, and they have to learn how I like to do things.
"There's always an element of my teaching them. When they're really good, there's a very cool element where they teach me - for instance asking if I've seen a new feature in Photoshop.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and I'm still really obsessed by it. The photographers I admire were still taking pictures at 80, and I can see myself doing that. I can't see myself saying I've made enough money and stopping.
"All photographers have to be a little bit of a businessman, a little bit into PR: you have to think about your business and promote yourself. I'd like to continue to establish relationships with my favourite magazines, which enables you to cut out these activities, that can be a bit of a distrac- tion from what you really want to be doing, which is taking pictures."