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Artist's Spaces: Nicholas Sinclair on photographing artists' studios

Sir Anthony Caro in his studio
Sir Anthony Caro, 1992, Nicholas Sinclair © Nicholas Sinclair. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022

Nicholas Sinclair has been photographing British artists in their studios from the 1990s to the present day. The impeccably composed portraits offer a glimpse into the work and lives of the individuals behind today's greatest modern masterpieces.

We talked in-depth to the photographer about his portraits, which are available to license through Artimage.

What made you start photographing artists?

I trained as a painter in the mid-1970s at Newcastle University, so my interest in British art began early on, but it was only much later that I started to photograph artists. It wasn’t something I planned to do but I was on a train journey to London in 1990 with the art historian Professor David Alan Mellor. We were chatting and he said to me: “If you could photograph any British artist who would it be?” I replied “John Piper”. This was partly because I have always loved Piper’s work and partly because he had an extraordinary, elongated and slightly haunted face that I knew would make a strong portrait, so David put me in touch, he agreed to be photographed and I took the portrait. At the time David was curating an exhibition for the Barbican Art Gallery entitled 'The Sixties Art Scene in London' - a survey of the artists who came to prominence in the 1960s such as Richard Hamilton, Robyn Denny, Gillian Ayres and Peter Blake. When he saw my portrait of John Piper he asked me to make a series of contemporary portraits of these artists, and this is how the series began. I suddenly found myself photographing Britain’s leading artists in their studios.

Do you approach the portraits with an idea in mind or do you improvise?

I have to improvise because, in almost every single case, I haven’t met the artist before the shoot and I haven’t seen their studio, so arriving with a preconceived idea would be counter-productive. I always research the artist’s work in advance and I will be looking for references to their work or working methods, or the materials they use to include in the photograph. But I have no idea when I first meet them how the final picture will look so it really is an improvisation.

What do you think we can learn about an artist from their portrait? Does it have any bearing on how we view or understand their art?

The first pictures that made a powerful impression on me were the Hans Namuth portraits of Jackson Pollock, taken in the 1940s and 1950s. I certainly learnt something about Pollock from them. You pick up on his sense of anxiety in these portraits as well as seeing the way he worked, with the canvas rolled out on the studio floor, so I do feel that a well conceived photograph can tell us something about an artist.

Which have been your most memorable photo-shoots?

Eduardo Paolozzi gave me three minutes to take his portrait and didn’t say a single word to me. He arrived at the Arch Bronze Foundry in South London in a taxi, told the taxi driver to leave the engine running, barely gave me enough time to shoot a roll of film and walked out. I remember that very clearly even though it was twenty years ago. But the majority of artists are helpful and willing to engage in the process of being photographed. To meet people whose work I know and respect and to see where their work is made is always memorable.

Of the portraits available on Artimage, do you have any favourites?

Frank Auerbach, Anthony Caro and Celia Paul are three of the best portraits but I also like Josef Herman against the black background and my recent portraits of Phoebe Unwin and Chantal Joffe. Because I trained as a painter, I tend to think like a painter so that every aspect of the photograph matters to me, just as every aspect of the canvas matters to a painter. When I’m working I’m making continual decisions about line, tone, colour, the balance between light and shadow, the subject’s expression and body language so that all the elements in the picture work. I’m creating a visual structure that supports the psychological dimension of the portrait.

The Anthony Caro portrait is perhaps the most unusual because his face occupies such a small area of the photograph and yet, wherever you are in the composition your eye is always drawn back to Caro himself, and this is partly because of the strength of his gaze and partly because of the way I structured the picture. The strong black vertical line, caused by a shadow two-thirds in from the left, leads you down to his right shoulder. The hoops on the right of the picture lead you to his left shoulder. The hoop fourth in from the right leads exactly to the line of his eyebrows, and the hoop that curves down from the left just touches the top of his head.

So this portrait isn’t just a casual snapshot. It’s carefully considered and it’s the same with my portrait of Frank Auerbach. I place him between six preparatory drawings to his left and an oil painting to his right so that you are able to see something of his working process as well as the studio environment.

I am particularly drawn to your portraits of Marc Quinn and Celia Paul, which seem more stylised in some way. Was it your decision to set up the photos in this way or did the artists have any involvement?

Marc Quinn was about to have a cast made of his own head when I approached him to take his portrait and we both felt that taking photographs during this process could produce an interesting result so I recorded the whole event. In my book Portraits of Artists you see his head completely enclosed in plaster but when the plaster had set it was cut into two vertical sections and it was after the front of the mould was removed and his face was revealed that I took the first of the two portraits you see on the Artimage site. The scream was spontaneous and I think it was Marc’s way of expressing his sense of relief after the claustrophobia he must have felt while his head was enclosed in plaster.

My portrait of Celia Paul was taken under completely different circumstances because we were working in a beautiful studio. Celia is a very subtle, atmospheric portrait painter and, without any discussion, she gave me exactly what she requires from her own sitters, a sense of stillness and serenity. And it was because she was so still during the shoot that I was able to make this double exposure. I had no way of knowing at the time what the image would look like because I shoot on film and so I can’t see the results immediately, but I use instinct a lot in my work and this was one of those occasions when it paid off.

There is an aesthetic to your portraiture which you have maintained since the 1990s, such as the tendency to photograph in black and white and your use of the square format. This creates an almost timeless quality, whilst the technology around photography, and visual art itself, has changed significantly. Is this intentional? If so, why?

It is intentional. I want a sense of continuity in the photographs so that you can look back over thirty years and see a body of work that is cohesive. Changing to digital at this stage would have undermined that sense of continuity so I am still using the camera and film I used in 1991 when I photographed John Piper.

Using a square format camera also gives a different look to the photographs. There is a formality that comes with the square, a way of composing that is quite different to the way you compose with a handheld camera. Looking down on a ground glass screen is also very different to looking through a 35mm camera. It’s a different process and it shows in the photographs.

Most of your portraits are shot in black and white but a handful, such as your photographs of Gillian Wearing and Frank Bowling, are in colour. How do you make this decision?

It’s the colours themselves that dictate how I work. I will sometimes set out to work in black and white but then a situation arises where it would be wasteful not to shoot in colour.

When I was in Frank Bowling’s studio I could see the way the colours in the background were working with his clothes, and this influenced my decision to shoot in colour and when it came to the editing process it was clear that I should go with the colour. There’s a wonderful orange line that just misses the rim of his hat on the left of the picture and I remember making slight adjustments to the camera angle to ensure that this line would work as part of the composition. But the key element in this portrait is his gaze. It has this strong sense of reflection and memory and I feel that some of what he experienced as a black artist working in Britain from the 1950s onwards comes through in the image.

You’ve been photographing artists in their studios for more than twenty years. Do you get a sense of how the art world is changing? In what way?

I can see real changes in the way British artists are perceived abroad since I first started visiting art galleries. European museums in the 1970s would have a Henry Moore on display and, if you were lucky, a Francis Bacon triptych and perhaps a Bridget Riley and that was usually it. It was as if British artists didn’t really exist.

Now the situation has changed out of all recognition. The range and number of artists exhibiting abroad today would have been unimaginable fifty years ago and this gives younger artists a greater sense of optimism about having careers that they can sustain, so I am very hopeful about what is happening.

I’m not suggesting that the quality of the work has changed. We have always produced wonderful artists – Turner, Constable, Blake, Palmer, Bomberg, Nash, Sutherland, Hepworth, Hitchens – but it’s the perception of our artists and their standing in the world that has changed and this can only be positive.

Your portraits have recently been described as a “who’s who” of British artists. Are there any artists who you would like to photograph but haven’t yet had a chance to?

I’ve been very fortunate to photograph such a variety of artists but there are dozens of people missing from the series. Jenny Saville is a wonderful painter who should be part of this series. Sarah Lucas, Tony Cragg, Bruce McLean, Jeremy Deller, Richard Wilson. The list goes on, but there has to be a willingness on the part of the artist to be photographed, to engage with the process, and I can’t force that.

Can you tell me a bit about why you decided to join Artimage?

It was meeting Gilane Tawadros, your Chief Executive, that made me decide to place my portraits with Artimage. There was something about her integrity and her knowledge of artists, her track record and the fact that she knows so many of the artists personally and knows their work that gave me confidence in the idea she was proposing.

I have always resisted placing my portraits with picture libraries because of the risk of the work being trivialised or misused but when we met last year and she told me about her plan to create a website dedicated to promoting modern and contemporary art I liked the idea very much. Now that the site is up and running I think it looks magnificent and my portraits seem really at home here. It’s as if they belong on this site and that’s a good feeling.

This article was originally published on Artimage on July 7th, 2016, DACS' digital platform dedicated to sourcing and licensing exceptional modern and contemporary art.

It has been revisited as part of our Artist's Spaces series, which explores how the spaces where artists make work impact their creative practice and the wider artistic community.

You can view the original article here.

Find out more about the series.