Mark Mann: Creating Timeless Portraiture

Mark Mann is a celebrity and sports photographer. He was born in Glasgow, where he lived until he went to study in the prestigious photographic program at Manchester Polytechnic. Before long, the recent graduate was assisting innovative fashion photographers Nick Knight and Miles Aldridge, learning the ropes and building his own body of work. Three years later, 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. He has shot countless celebrities, including Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Iggy Pop, Jack Black, the Black Eyed Peas, Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Rihanna, Queen Latifah, Simon Baker, Stevie Wonder, Bradley Cooper, Willie Nelson, Sean Connery, John Hamm and Jennifer Hudson. Mark has amassed a sizable advertising portfolio, as well. His clients run the gamut: Reebok, Adidas, Hennessy, Bombay Sapphire, Pepsi, Gillette, Vitamin Water, NHL, Zumba, Ford, Chrysler and Svedka to name a few.

Mark has just completed a yearlong project for Esquire Magazine, “The Life of Man”.  He shot 80 American men ages 1 through 80, to celebrate 80 years of Esquire Magazine. This project took Mark to the White House where he was honored to shoot the sitting president, as well as former President Clinton. He also shot numerous other notable people and celebrities all across the country. Below, Mark provides insight into shooting celebrities and his use of the Leica S-System.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I would like to believe my photos or portraits go a little deeper than the surface. I hope they say something about the moment I took them and I hope that moment becomes timeless.

Q: How do you know when that moment becomes timeless, and broadly speaking what is your strategy or mindset for achieving that transcendence?

A: I try very hard and succeed occasionally to make a picture that will stand the test of time. That, to me, means different things. If the subject and location is very relevant to the moment then I would hope that the picture captures something of that and if looked at in the future will inform the viewer of what was happening at that moment in time.

But I prefer when there’s nothing in the picture that can date it — just a face that cannot be placed on a linear time line — but instead just captures an expression or emotion that could have taken place anywhere at any time.

Q: As you aptly state, your portraits “go a little deeper than the surface” and while they do “say something about the moment” they also say something profound and revealing about your subjects. For example, your compelling portrait of Tyson with his right hand held over his mouth masking his face is a fascinating combination of fierce assertiveness and vulnerability that says (to me) “you don’t really want to know who I am or what I’ve been through.” And your amazing portrait of Robin Williams is a masterpiece of ironic detachment that conveys the essence of his unique ability to satirize the human condition. Do you agree, and does this point to some of the things you are striving to achieve in your portraits?

A: Yes I agree. I don’t like to shoot hundreds of frames. I like to shoot less with more thought and timing. The Tyson photo is interesting as he is actually yawning but as his hand came up I knew it was a special moment. If I’m really focused I can sometimes get in a zone where everything seems to be in slow motion. The key for me is to be ready, watch carefully, see what happens and make choices.

Q: You have been shooting with the Leica S-System, is that correct? How long have you been using it? What are some of the qualities or characteristics of the S-System that make it suitable for your type of work?

A: I’ve been using it for around six months. It’s incredibly easy to use, no fuss that allows me to focus on making great pictures. I shoot a lot of celebrities and I need something extremely reliable with unmatched quality and ease of use. It’s also built like a tank so I don’t have to baby it.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I’ve of course always known about Leica but became interested in owning one when they brought out the S-System. At the time to switch kits was not an option, but last year when the converter for my Contax 645 lenses became available the switch was a no brainer. I’m now just about shooting exclusively with Leica. I keep an M in my bag at all times and wish I had been doing that for a lot longer. Oh well, better late than never.

Q: In December, you shot portraits with the Leica S-System at Art Basel Miami. The images were then hung at Trendy Studios for a “living art exhibition”. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

A: Yes, fun day! We made around 100 portraits that day. Just a few simple frames of many different people and dogs. I didn’t change the batteries in the S once. I think I managed to get a couple of good shots that day, but I’m pretty sure everyone involved had fun. We printed the shots live on sight supported by Image Pro International and print specialists Gady Alroy, of Art Media Studios, and Sean Black. They were printed on Hahnemühle FineArt photographic paper and hung outside. Looked fantastic.

Q: Roughly half of these images were output in color, the remaining half in black-and-white. What is it that you find so compelling about the black-and-white medium for your kind of work and how do you decide whether to present images in black-and-white or in color?

A: That’s a constant struggle. In the good old days if you had B&W film you would think in black-and-white, and color film you thought in color. I would like to believe that every shot I present in B&W is preconceived but that’s not the case. Sometimes the decision is made in post. I did have the opportunity to use the Leica Monochrom recently. I really enjoyed thinking in B&W. If budget was no object I would definitely own one.

I believe that B&W images can be more creative. There’s no right or wrong. Creative decisions can be made in the processing that allow another level of artistry to the image. With color there’s a right and wrong and a skilled photographer can push the color boundaries for effect. There’s still a point where the colors become art, not just photography.

Q: Your outstanding image of President Obama standing in front of a white background flanked by lights on stands, umbrellas, etc. is very revealing. His elegant form, erect stance, and body language are assertive and self-confident and the portrait of George Washington in the background is a telling detail that elevates this image by placing it in a historical context. He also comes across as thoughtful and self-reflective, even though he is doing one of the things that all presidents do, namely posing for a formal portrait. How did you get this prestigious assignment? What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release, and why did you decide to include what looks like a test shot or outtake in this portfolio?

A: Going to the White House to photograph a sitting president was the greatest reward a portrait photographer could ever dream of. The image was made as part of Esquire Magazine’s 80th anniversary. I had very little time with the president and the needs of the magazine were specific; they wanted a clean background. After a discussion with Michael Norseng, the photo director of Esquire, we came up with a plan to cover the portraits on white and then depending on the environment to pull back and give the viewer a look at where we were. We were situated in the Diplomatic room which features the iconic portrait of Washington. We set the seamless up to the right of it, confident that the wide shot would capture the 1st president looking at the 44th. I managed around 44 frames (coincidentally) and the wide shot was my favorite.

Q: The power and resonance of the above image relies on its very shallow depth of field that creates a visual tension between the very sharp subject in the foreground and the dreamily diffused background. Where was this picture taken, what lens and aperture did you use, and what does it mean to you?

A: That’s a shot of Snoop Dog on set for a video shoot. That picture was taken on an M with a 50 mm lens wide open at f/1.4, There’s not much I can say about the M that has not already been said. I spend so much time hiding behind the S-System that I truly enjoy making photographs with the M. I rarely have the aperture anywhere else but wide open. I’m constantly amazed by how gorgeous the bokeh is, truly dreamy and mysterious. As a photographer who usually builds his own light it’s a challenge and a treat to shoot in a more reportage style.

Q: The image of a frame-filling straight-on head shot of a bearded man with an amazing array of bright lights reflected in his sunglasses is a stopper. Do you sometimes direct your subject to look directly at the camera or is this just a situation that evolves during the course of the shoot? In any case, why do you think this approach works and does it have anything to do with the famous dictum, “The eyes are the windows of the soul”?

A: This image was taken during Art Basel. Famous dictums are famous for a reason. The eyes often make or break a photo for me. I always try to get a straight on eyes to lens shot. What’s better is when a subject can look through the lens instead of straight at it. There’s never a right or wrong. Cover your bases, but I find with real people the quicker you get what you need the better. People start to look vacant quite quickly. In my experience they’re only truly present for the first few frames.

Q: There is one portrait in this series where the subject is not looking directly at the camera, and it conveys a completely different emotional tone. I would call it internal self-sufficiency, self-awareness, and even the bliss of cosmic acceptance. Am I over the top here or do you see some of these qualities?

A: This young lady definitely did not want her picture taken. I used the “please oh please” method and she reluctantly agreed. This was a test shot and I was more focused on making sure the lighting and exposure were correct. After she sat in front of the camera I asked her to look at the lens; she would not, so I went for the next best option, to coax a smile. Sometimes what’s perceived as a compromise turns out to be the best frame.

Q:  How do you see your photography evolving over the next three years?

A: As a commercial photographer it’s really important for me to constantly shoot personal work, taking pictures with no client demands. The hardest thing is to remember that there is no client and you have to be driven by your own creativity, experiment, try different things. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Take something that works and build on it. Keep motivated.

Q:  Have you considered publishing a book on your celebrity portraiture, offering fine art prints of your work, etc.? In short, how do plan to expand and promote your illustrious career going forward?

A: Have certainly thought about it, and there’s some things on the cards. Watch this space.

Thank you for your time, Mark!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Mark on his website, Twitter and Instagram.