Ram Shergill: Photography as a Performance Art

Ram Shergill has come a long way since studying visual communications at Wolverhampton University where he worked on a photographic project with milliner Philip Treacy. Earlier in his career, he worked with many notable fashion designers who loved his work, especially Alexander McQueen. It was here where the foundations were laid for Shergill to become an international personality. As he says, “I am a visual sponge; I take everything in and use it in some form when I’m doing a shoot.” As he became a name on the fashion circuit, the huge Bollywood market started banging on his door and flew him to India to shoot the A-list film stars and images for their campaigns. His work has been exhibited in the Whitechapel Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, both in London, as well as Sotheby’s London and Galerie Du Passage in Paris. Here, in his own words, is the story of how he created this portrait portfolio of acclaimed actor Cillian Murphy and the reasons behind his ardent enthusiasm for the Leica M-system.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the project behind the images in this portfolio? They were shot for the magazine Mode, is that correct?

A: Yes, the images were for Mode magazine, and it was a really interesting shoot since I wanted to show how the M9 could be used to its full potential. I also did my research on my subject, the actor Cillian Murphy, as I was flying around the world on various projects. I ended up watching “Inception” again and again on the plane, freeze-framing images of him; there were also a few other amazing films featuring him. I soon realized that he was the beautiful villain and that even though he played evil there was something about him that we all feel empathy with, his looks as well as his amazing deep blue eyes. As they say, “eyes are the window to the soul.”

Q: How do you think that experience of studying Cillian’s performances affected your interaction with or approach to creating portraits of this celebrity actor?

A: Watching the films such as “In Time” and “Inception” made me believe that although he was playing a villain, there was some kind of beauty there — maybe it was his eyes or just his good looks — that guided me slightly when I took these photos of him. I always like to give actors a slight role to play when I take their photos, as it makes them feel comfortable, since acting is what they do best. In this case I wanted him to be like a National Geographic explorer, or an Alaskan gold miner from the times when exploration was more than just a pastime.

Q: You shot these images with the Leica M9, correct? Why did you decide to use the M9? What made it suitable for this studio shoot?

A: I love the Leica M9 as it’s the camera closest to making it look like you’re working with an analog film camera. It also has a lot of character to it when you’re using daylight, as well as flash plus ambient.

I feel the Leica M9 gives a look and feel of film, firstly because the format is quite similar to a 35 mm film, quite long and thin. It also has a slight grain, unlike the Canon and Nikon files, and it seems more real in the skin rendition and tonal range. Unlike some other cameras and formats, I feel that it naturally sucks-in the daylight and gives a glowing look all over. In some of my images I like not to use any obtrusive element to falsify the image, so the way the M9’s performance with natural daylight is superb.

Q: How do you feel the M-System holds up in a studio setting?

A: The M in a studio setting is perfect as it is light and compact, so it does not weigh you down. Since it’s not complicated to use, it enables you to concentrate on pure image making without the constraints of fiddly programs and a million and one complications. I like the purist approach to photography, just simple shutter and aperture.

Q: Which lenses do you typically use with your M9 and do you have a favorite? Do you believe, as many have asserted, that there is a certain Leica look you get with Leica lenses?

A: I have a lovely array of Leica lenses. I love the Tri- Elmar wide that provides 16 mm, 18 mm, and 21 mm focal lengths, especially its lack of distortion and edge-to-edge sharpness. It’s like having three lenses in one. I’m mad about the 90 mm Macro — such a beautiful feel and compact to use with or without the goggles. The 28 mm f/2 Summicron is simply stunning, just wide-angle without the without distortion. Yes, I do believe there is a unique quality from lens to lens. Some of the older Leica lenses give a totally different look, and almost have a glow when you’re shooting black-and-white.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I would say my photography is a kind of performance meaning everybody performs in what we do, be it waking up, going to the bank manager or speaking to a partner. I feel in our performance we always want to show our best side, and I strive to attain this in my portraits of people, or in my fashion work … to show their best side.

Q: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “My photography is a performance … and I want (people) to see their best side”? Does everybody literally have a best side, and what exactly are the implications? For example, is Cillian Murphy’s “best side” represented by a dark character we can feel empathy for, or is that just his acting persona?

A: I would say that everyone performs in a day to day routine, and most of the time we show off our best side. I like to bring out the best in people, be it their darker mysterious macabre side, or their beautiful, charismatic loving side. I think even when actors are acting, there is also a truth in their personality because as an actor you have to imagine you are the person you’re portraying. The greats are able to immerse themselves in the role. I have been working with Dame Judi Dench and she is a true example of this; she can change her personality in seconds, and with the slightest of expression she will become a completely different character. I feel these images are true portrait of Cillian. He is a serious, talented young man who has the chance to see lots of the world. I even recall saying, “You have seen the world, you have seen the world“ because I wanted to see the world in his eyes. Seeing both the good and bad things that he has seen, be it on the news or be it in real life, for me it was beyond a portrait and like a study of human behavior and man.

Q: One element that jumps out at you when you view this compelling series of portraits is your astute use of lighting to define and delineate the subject. Do you typically use daylight alone, daylight complemented with fill-in flash, or something else entirely, and can you tell us something about your lighting technique and the look you are striving to achieve?

A: In the morning of this shoot I dressed up, put on a massive silver chain on, and looked quite the character. This was my trick to bring out the glow in his eyes … using the reflection from the chain, so that they looked more prominent. It seems to have worked!

I had reflectors with me, but decided not to use them as it looked too fake, so on this shoot, there was no other lighting apart from the natural ambient light that was available. I love the lighting of the early chiaroscuro paintings and would love to emulate this in my work. I especially love Caravaggio.

Q: Most of the portraits in this portfolio have a cool lighting balance. I assume this was intentional, so can you tell us why you chose it for this particular subject? Also did you use extensive post-processing or slight tweaks on these images or are they presented pretty much as they came out of the camera?

A: I liked the coolness in these images. The ambient light was morning light and had a cool color temperature, the shoot pretty much finished at 1 PM and as the day went on the colors got warmer, I did not really want to balance the photos to be the same, since I prefer not to force some images in terms of color and hue. I would only match them if an advertising client required them to exactly match. Each image should be unique. They were pretty much as they came out of the camera with minute tweaks.

Q: These images certainly are studio quality but most were evidently shot on location. This serves to provide a context for the subject, but one that seems somewhat at odds with his attire. Specifically, his blue suit, collared shirt and tie project a decidedly upper class image but some of the settings are kind of shabby chic. What’s going on here, and what was your intention?

A: The content of the image was linked to the exploration theme of the issue. I wanted to make it look like he was from a time when exploration was almost heroic, going back to the early explorers who would look for gold and diamond mines in far flung places such as Alaska and Death Valley, living in log cabins but yet having the pomp and ceremony of British classic men’s attire. So he is supposed to be an explorer who is smart in his cabin but slightly casual when managing/working in the field.

Q: The only image where the subject appears downright evil and implicitly menacing is the above image where he’s looking off camera and holding a toothpick in his mouth, the unfailing mark of the villain. He looks like the upscale UK version of a Mafioso hit man, although the wedding ring humanizes him just a tad. Is my interpretation off the mark, and in any case what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I think the toothpick was more of a thing from him. I noticed it being used in the hit series, “Peaky Blinders” that Cillian is in that’s based on The Birmingham Mafia. They all seem to be playing with toothpicks throughout! I think it’s a directorial thing to make the characters look more menacing. Maybe Cillian had just finished filming this very violent made-for-TV production, which is absolutely superb.

Q: There is only one image in this series that is presented in black-and-white. It is a beautiful close-cropped portrait and comes across as the closest to capturing the subject’s true character in a non-judgmental way. Do you agree, and why did you decide to output this image in black-and-white?

A: I was speaking to Cillian and showed him an image by Paul Strand of the young farmer boy looking vacantly into the lens, so the Paul Strand image was used as an inspiration of mood. We did two or three frames and I was like, “Got it!” There was a minute or so of silence and it felt amazing to capture the essence of Cillian Murphy.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, say the next three years? Do you plan to explore any other genres (such as street photography, landscapes, etc.) either personally or professionally?

A: I have a large scale exhibition coming to Somerset House soon. I am now working on getting the best images I have taken over the years, and putting them together in a book. I am also shooting a lot more personal work that is more fine art in nature and is selling more on the fine art market. I do try and do some landscape work, but it’s more of the otherworldly places I visit, especially in the USA. I would like to do more of this and travel more. I have a lot of really inspirational projects in the pipeline.

Thank you for your time, Ram!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Ram via his website and Twitter.