Andrew Walker discusses his less-than-ordinary Sundance experience, getting his subjects to feel comfortable in front of a camera, and more.
Andrew Walker has been photographing celebrities for more than a decade, making portraits with such A-listers as Regina King, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Chadwick Boseman. But until this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which went entirely virtual in response to the pandemic, he’d never tried to capture them through a computer screen.
How exactly does that work? Here, Walker shares the details of his less-than-ordinary Sundance experience, how he gets his subjects to feel comfortable in front of a camera, and more.
An Interview with Andrew Walker
SSTK: How do you even photograph someone virtually?
Andrew Walker: Going into this, I went back and forth with a variety of ideas, like trying to do screenshots. But, what I ended up settling on was: I set up a laptop, the talent set up a camera (usually an iPhone 12) on a tripod with a ring light—the standard influencer kind of setup—and then I photographed the screen of my laptop.
SSTK: So, it was pretty raw.
AW: It was super raw. The biggest challenge was the fact that, as the photographer, I’m usually accustomed to having complete control of everything. Normally, the subject would come in, they’d sit down, and I would make a pretty picture. But, in this situation, I had no control over what kind of camera they had on their end. I had no control of the internet connection they had. I had no control over any of that stuff.
SSTK: How did the talent take it?
AW: It was the first time on their end, as well. So, whenever I would pop-up on the Zoom call, they would always have this kind of bemused demeanor, like, “I can’t believe this. This is so crazy.”
But, I have to say, the positive side to the whole experience was that they had to be a complete partner in helping the picture happen. So, it made them much more hands-on than in a normal portrait situation. Because I would be telling them “aim the camera this way” or “point it down” or “turn it around.” Everybody was like, “That was cool,” at the end of the session.
Takeaway: Making a beautiful portrait is as much about how a photographer frames his subject as it is about the subject herself. Even under the constraints of a virtual shoot, Walker managed to find intriguing backdrops—some sparse, some artfully cluttered—to enhance his pictures.
SSTK: So, you had to surrender some control, but the silver lining was that the talent participated in a way that they normally wouldn’t have. It made them more invested.
AW: And more relaxed. It put them at ease in a way that I wasn’t used to.
SSTK: How do you normally cultivate that sense of ease?
AW: I’m an okay photographer, but I think I’m even better at just talking to people. My superpower is that people feel comfortable around me. So, we’ll talk for a minute, not about anything in particular, and I just try to get them to a place where they’re feeling relaxed. And, I can see it in their body language. I can see it in their face when either they’re getting there—or they’re not. And then, sometimes they will never get there and I just have to accept it.
SSTK: I imagine screenwriters and producers are harder to shoot than actors.
AW: Right. They’re not used to that attention.
SSTK: What about shooting an experienced actor versus a newer one? Are there pros and cons to each?
AW: In terms of the results you get, the experienced actors can turn it on. And, because they’ve done it so frequently, you’ll get something great. But, it feels very—how do I say this? It feels like there’s no heart or soul or love in that moment when, as the photographer, you’re trying to get the photo. They’re literally just going through the old standards, phoning it in. But, the thing is, when you look at the still image, it’s like, “That looks perfect.”
Whereas inexperienced actors—especially at film festivals, where there are a lot of first-time actors—are so willing to participate and grateful for the opportunity, which is fun for me. But, then the results aren’t necessarily as good, because they aren’t as versed in doing it.
SSTK: What are good results? What are you looking for in a portrait?
AW: I start with whether the lighting looks good. And then, I just try to get them to give me just a glimpse—even if it’s just a split-second—of what their natural expression could be. So, I tell them to look right or close their eyes and take a deep breath—make them do things for pictures that I don’t necessarily want in order to get to the next moment, when all of the façade gets dropped and they kind of forget where they’re at, and their face seems natural.
If you’re in a studio, it’s so contrived. It’s impossible to feel natural or completely give yourself over to this fake scenario. So, actually, the virtual was a lot more interesting, because we were in their personal homes.
Takeaway: It’s often the smallest gesture that makes a portrait. The slight tilt of the head, an absent-minded glance to the left, a hand brushing away a piece of hair. There’s an honesty to these moments, and Walker captures them with great warmth for his subjects.
SSTK: Is there an example of a shot from the virtual shoot you were really happy with?
AW: I really appreciated some of the people who put thought into it before they got on the phone with me. I really liked Soko, because she had that dress and that backdrop picked out before we spoke, and it turned out really cool looking.
Virtual portrait of Soko. Image via Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock.
I also liked this guy Joseph Lee. The spot where we found for him was on the outside of his art studio in the sunlight.
Portrait of Joseph Lee in front of his art studio. Image via Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock.
SSTK: I’m impressed that everyone pulled this off. I’d be the person without a tripod, fumbling.
AW: We had a few of those—people trying to prop phones. A lot of phones ended up on the floor. I saw a lot of ceilings. We just made it work.
SSTK: Let’s say you’re at a dinner party, post-COVID (obviously) and someone asks you to tell them your craziest celebrity photoshoot story. What do you tell them?
AW: Most of it’s never crazy. Most of it’s very straightforward. But, one that pops into my head is related to the diptych shoot I did out of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, where I had actors show me two sides of themselves—the internal side and external side. I was really nervous about that, because it was the first time I was trying something really out of the box. And, these were A-list people.
So, Anne Hathaway was the very first person I had in the studio [to try this with], and her PR person had said she wasn’t doing any solo portraits, only the cast picture. Of course, I was heartbroken. But, at some point, Anne was standing two feet away from me by herself, not doing anything. So, I just went right over there and I gave her the spiel, and she was like, “Oh my god, I love this idea.”
Honestly, as soon as I got the stamp of approval from her, it became so much easier. Everyone else that came in, no matter who it was—Richard Gere, who is pretty standoffish—it was so much easier to broach the subject with them because I knew it was a good idea.
Takeaways: Portraits don’t always have to be serious, and Walker seems to understand that on a gut level. His work is just as captivating when his subjects get weird or smile big for the camera, as it is when they pose more solemnly.
SSTK: What do you miss most about shooting celebrities in the flesh right now?
AW: This whole year has been good for me as a photographer because I got to shoot more news, which I don’t get to do typically. I was down at the Inauguration. I shot Pennsylvania the week before the election. Amazing stuff.
The thing I like about shooting celebrities is it lets me travel the world. But, I don’t subscribe to celebrity culture. I think not being influenced by celebrity makes me really good at working with celebrities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Cover image via Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock.
For additional inspiring photoshoots, check out these articles:
Illustrating Climate Change: An Interview with Simone GolobUnforgettable Photographic Moments: 2020’s “Big Four” Fashion Weeks9 Mental Health Advocates to Celebrate, Then and Now7 Photographers Share Tips on How to Become a Professional Photographer2020: Remarkable Moments from Shutterstock’s Editorial Collection
The post Photographer Andrew Walker on the Virtual Shutterstock Photo Booth appeared first on The Shutterstock Blog.
Read more: shutterstock.com