Mark Mann: Celebrity Portraits at the Toronto International Film Festvial

Mark Mann is a celebrity and sports photographer who was born in Glasgow. He studied at the prestigious photographic program at Manchester Polytechnic. After assisting photographers Nick Knight and Miles Aldridge, Mark started shooting on his own, relocating to New York City.

Mark’s editorial work has appeared in Esquire, Men’s Health, Vibe, Spin, Fortune, Billboard, Parade and Complex, among others. Previously, we spoke to Mark about some of his portraiture work. Below, he gives us insight into the celebrity portraits he took for AwardsLine Magazine at the Toronto International Film Festival, which are currently being exhibited at the Leica Store New York SoHo.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what the Toronto International Film Festival is, how you got the assignment from AwardsLine Magazine to photograph celebrities attending this event, and how you perceived your mission?

A: The TIFF is one of the most important film festivals of the season. It’s a great place to shoot as everyone and anyone who has a film coming out is there and happy to do press. I’ve been shooting for AwardsLine over the last year, producing portraits of talent in quite tricky situations. When they had the opportunity to have a presence at TIFF and needed a photographer who they were confident could deliver, I seemed to fit the bill.

Q: You shot this compelling portfolio of celebrity portraits with a Leica S-System outfit. What camera and lenses did you use? What particular features or characteristics of this camera and the lenses you used did you find especially useful in executing this assignment to such a high standard?

A: My camera is the Leica S. I was fortunate enough to have some help from Leica with a backup S2. The camera is so important in these situations as there are so many variables that you want to keep anything constant that you can. One of my constants is that the camera is going to shoot. This might sound crazy, but with a lot of the medium format tethered systems, there are crashes, battery changes, unexplained communication errors, etc. With the Leica S-System this is kept to the minimum. This allows me to concentrate on just making great pictures. Combined with the incredible lens quality, I feel I’m in a good position to start the job.

Q: It is evident that you used artificial lighting for many of these portraits. What general lighting setup or techniques did you employ to achieve such outstanding technical and aesthetic quality? For example, did you typically use flash or continuous lighting and were any of these images shot using available or ambient light?

A: All the images are shot with Profoto flash. Again, it’s an incredibly reliable light source. I used some different light modifiers: beauty dish, soft box, umbrellas, etc., depending on what I felt the subject warranted.

Q: Since any Leica S captures images in full color and some of these images were output in black-and-white, how do you decide whether to output an image in color or black-and-white? Is it a matter of artistic instinct or your perception of who the subject is that most influences these decisions?

A: That’s a big question. I would love to say I know exactly what’s going to be color and what’s going to be black-and-white. It’s definitely a feeling; sometimes I just know it’s one or the other, often the image surprises me.

I had the privilege of shooting with a Leica Monochrom on a recent vacation. I was forced to think in black-and-white and that was a great exercise; having the choice in postproduction is a great benefit.

Q: You seem to have an unerring instinct for capturing the personality of your subjects and revealing their inner identity in an honest and sympathetic way. How do you manage to achieve this level of intimacy and authenticity, and is it essential to get to know each of your subjects very well to attain this level of artistic expression?

A: I wish I had the time to get know my subjects. It’s rarely a luxury I have. Fortunately, I’ve been in the game long enough that there are quite a few subjects that are repeat business. It’s a big compliment when somebody who is photographed regularly is happy to see you and trusts you to get the job done quickly and professionally. Be yourself, be real, be honest, and be sincere. Movie star or maintenance person, we’re all human beings and appreciate no bullshit. I think that’s what I do.

I also try to be fast. I find if I don’t get the shot in the first few frames I’m going to lose my subject. My biggest fear is watching the glaze come over a subject’s eye. That’s nearly impossible to recover from.

Q: It has been said that the eyes are the windows of the soul, and it is striking that the eyes of all these subjects are exquisitely defined and expressive. Do you achieve this by waiting for the right moment, directing your subjects, engaging them in conversation, all three of these things, or is it something else entirely?

A: There are a couple of things in this question. Some are technical, some are purely instinct, timing and misdirection. It doesn’t matter how engaged your subject is if there’s no catch light in their eye. If there’s catch light but no expression then that’s also a fail.

When it comes together and there’s catch light, expression, composition, and focus, that’s when the magic happens.

Q: Your portrait of Al Pacino certainly conveys something of the actor’s intensity and vulnerability, and it has an introspective quality that is intensified by the dramatic lighting and the black background. Also, the depth of field is quite shallow, indicating it was shot at a wide aperture. Can you tell us why you composed and lit it in this way and which aspects of his character you were seeking to express?

A: Mr. Pacino came to us somewhat reluctantly at the end of the day. He had already completed a full day’s press and I think we were his last session.

That’s a difficult place to start. I knew I wanted the shoot moody but intense. The first few frames were dull. I think I stopped shooting and made some conversation. I think Mr. Pacino enjoyed the human touch brought by just talking. The next few frames I felt I had a connection but they were too smiley. At this point, I took a risk and asked if I could get an “Al Pacino” face, the next few frames were golden. When his expression changed I knew it was over and I wrapped it.

Q: At first glance, your smiling portrait of Jennifer Aniston appears to be a conventional smiling celebrity portrait of an attractive young actor, but on closer inspection there is something transcendent about her genuine expression and the smile in her lovely eyes. Do you agree, and if so can you give us your thoughts on why it comes across this way?

A: Jen Aniston can melt the coldest heart with her smile. The trick is to try and actually make her smile. She’s such a professional that it takes a keen eye to tell the difference. I’m going to keep the conversation a secret but someone said something that could have gone either way, but I assure you the smile is genuine.

Q: There is a tremendous sense of power, dignity, and focused energy in your outstanding black-and-white portrait of Michael Keaton, and the technical quality of the image is superb. You moved in so close that you cropped the top of his head off, and yet it all seems so natural and right as to appear inevitable, and you don’t sense any distortion, a common problem with extreme close-ups. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release and what do you think it is that makes this compelling portrait so special?

A: Michael Keaton has pretty much been out the public eye for 20 years. I’m sure he is quite amused about having to do press and junkets again.

The thing is that he kind of doesn’t look like Michael Keaton anymore. I decided to get in close and crop the hair because I remember him with hair and that was gone. I thought if I got in tight he would be more recognizable when the camera got close. I think he sensed that I wanted some intensity and delivered. I love this shot.

Q: What is happening with these images in addition to being published in AwardsLine Magazine and on the Leica Blog? Do you plan to exhibit them in galleries or perhaps in a print or online book?

A: Currently, the images are on display at the Leica Store New York SoHo until February 28. Tonight is actually the opening reception from 6-8 PM, which is open to the public. Hopefully, we can expand the show to the Leica Gallery Los Angeles.

Q: What do you think you achieved overall with this project or assignment, and do you have any other projects in the works you can talk about here?

A: Overall and most importantly, I fulfilled my client’s brief. With the special relationship I have with my client and the trust they have in me, I managed to also create some iconic imagery.

Next is Sundance with a similar brief. The challenge is to come up with a new light, a new look but keep the integrity of the work.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan on exploring any other genres other than celebrity and sports photography in either your professional or personal work?

A: I hope my work continually evolves. It’s hard to not follow the current trends in photography; I try to take inspiration from paintings and photography that’s not modern but still feels relevant and current to the modern eye.

In the words of Mr. Pacino in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.” No matter what I try, my heart always pulls me back to classic portraits. It’s what I love.

Thank you for your time, Mark!

– Leica Internet Team

Connect with Mark on his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visit his exhibition at Leica Store New York SoHo through February 28, 2015.

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