Hugh Stewart photographs some of the biggest names in the world for some of the biggest magazines. Yet he’s a farmer, a Bali lover and a father at heart.
HUGH, how did you first get into photography and then end up working for the biggest names in the business?
I’m the eldest of seven children and my mother died when I was 13. My father was so overwhelmed with bringing up all of us and running a farm that for the most part we were able to do what we wanted. I decided I hated school and left at 16. I think I passed my English exam. Had my mother lived this would not have happened. She was not from a family of farmers and I would never have been allowed to leave without finishing. Saying that, I could well have been guided into a career I disliked, so I’m not resentful. I somehow managed to stumble through a printing apprenticeship. I absolutely hated it. I made it bearable by working in the darkroom making offset plates as well as doing simple graphic design for business cards and letterheads. I got very sick of it very quickly too and started using the darkroom to forge tickets to concerts. The Ramones, The Clash, The Jam, The Specials and Madness…they all came to New Zealand and they all wondered why there were so many people at their concerts but sold so few tickets. This got a bit out of hand and when I outsold the promoter on a Cure concert I decided I might be safer in the UK. I landed in London in 1981 with very little money and a camera inherited from a recently deceased aunt. I was one of the first people to start what became quite a notorious squat in north London. All sorts of people lived there. Some who have gone on to be very successful artists, actors, designers, writers and photographers. I photographed them all and continued photographing my friends when I moved to NY in 1983. To cut a very long story short I eventually ended up in Sydney and took what was now my first portfolio to Australian Vogue. They started using me to shoot portraits for them. The intervening years have seen me move back and forward between London, Sydney and New York. I extended my photography into the fashion realm but have always remained a portrait photographer. It’s where I’m most comfortable and it’s what I find most interesting.
Part of your job is to shoot celebs, and we guess they often don’t have much time. How do you prepare?
By the time the person I’m shooting arrives I’ve worked out exactly where and what I want to shoot and have back up plans ready if they are unsure of my ideas. I will often have lights and tripods set up in different places so we can get as much done in the time available. Actors especially like to be told what to do. I’m clear about what I want and because I usually light things the same way I don’t have any issues with being unsure about how I’m going to achieve what I want technically. Then I make sure I’ve Googled them and know enough about them so I can at least sound like I know who they are and what they have done. Finally I’m quick, I talk to them while I’m shooting and try as hard as I can to convey the impression I know what I want, what I’m talking about and what I’m doing.
Do you work alone when you’re shooting celebrities…or is it a team of hair and makeup, wardrobe, the works?
Mostly I’m commissioned by magazines. I always work with an assistant. I’ve had several over the years and usually have someone that stays working for me for many years. Almost every assistant I’ve had has gone off and forged their own career as a photographer. Presently I work with Oliver. In New York with Scott. He and I have worked together for over 20 years and when in London, Chris. Occasionally I will have two assistants and once did a movie poster for HBO where I had seven! They all know exactly how I shoot and what I need. We don’t need to discuss any of that stuff. The atmosphere is light. We muck around a lot, but I’m the boss and I don’t help with the packing up. More recently I work with a digital operator who is responsible for downloading all the images onto the computer and backing everything up. Often there are hair and makeup people, stylists, art directors and publicists and invariably their assistants on the shoot as well.
What are you looking for in this kind of portrait?
I want a portrait that looks like it’s taken by me. I also want something that tells a little about the person I’m shooting. I prefer to shoot in their homes or studios if I can. I’m not interested in torturing people to get uncomfortable, awkward expressions from them. I let things happen naturally. If everyone is relaxed and the person I’m photographing is comfortable, it’s easy. Sometimes they already know my work or I will show them the first images on the computer. If they like what they see then you are home and hosed. I like to get asked back.
Have you ever tried a self-portrait? Do you like what you see?
Not really. Maybe as I get older and hopefully a little more interesting looking I may try. But for now it’s enough to have to look at myself in the mirror.
We like to think we know a bit about photography…but the light in your images is outstanding. There’s a glorious subtle tone to your work. What’s your secret?
I prefer very low light. I love daylight and although it’s not always possible, I try to make it seem that is what I’ve used. I use large octobanks with very heavy defuser with flash and often use keno flows mixed with existing daylight when I just need that little extra but don’t want to kill the shot with too much light. I love finding the light and I’m not afraid to ask someone to sit still for a quarter of a second.
What camera do you use?
I mainly shoot on a Canon now and occasionally a wooden 5×4 film camera. I still love my Mamiya 6×7 but don’t get the opportunity to get it out much anymore. The 5×4 provokes a very different reaction from the subject. Everything is slower and you really have to commit to the shot. With digital you can work out the cropping and exposure as you go but when you have five sheets of film and you’re shooting at a half a second you really have to be sure of what your doing. Sometimes I prefer that…
We can’t resist any longer. What’s Michael Caine like? And while we’re at it, who’s the most interesting person you have ever shot?
Michael Caine was great. Unpretentious. I first shot him in Vietnam on the set of The Quiet American and then later in a studio in Sydney. He is professional. He knows he has a job to do. He seems nice to everyone. He remembers names. Beyond that I don’t really know. I’ve met a lot of people but to say I was friends with them or that I hung out in their world would be inaccurate. I’m not really interested beyond getting my photos. I’m friends with a couple of the ones I’ve shot but those friendships go back before they were successful. Outside of my work we live a very ordinary family life. Ok, so we go overseas a lot more than most but within that we function as a slightly eccentric but fairly normal loud family.
And who was the most problematic?
I’ve never had an issue with anyone. I once shot Paul Newman on the set of a film and because he is a method actor and because when we shot he was in costume he would only answer to his character’s name and would only say to me what he thought the character would say. The character was supposed to be a cranky old bastard so that was a bit difficult. I shot him again a few years later and he wasn’t on a movie and he could not have been nicer. He drove himself to the shoot in an old four-door Mercedes sedan, told us lots of stories and hung around after the shoot while we packed up. Looking back that was not long before he died, so he must have known he was ill and yet he was charming and humble. Clint Eastwood too. Amazing. Spent all afternoon with Scott and I in a field in Carmel where he lives. Turned up on his own in the pickup truck from Madison County with a bottle of wine and told us stories about John Huston and Sergio Leone for hours. Then helped us pack up and drove off. A week later we were in NY shooting some nameless celebrity chef who turned up with six black SUVs and about 10 publicists and assistants. Turned out to be quite a good guy too. But what a contrast.
Can we have some stats…how many Vogue covers have you had? What about the other big name mags?
I’m 50 so I’ve been doing this for a long time now. I’ve worked at different times for a lot of magazines but there are a few I had quite long relationships with. They were magazines I had always wanted to shoot for. Vanity Fair and British Vogue, id magazine are the three I’m most proud of but there are lots of others and several now that I still work with that allow me to take really interesting photos of some great people. I just shot Geoffery Rush yesterday for Instyle…it just seems to roll along. A lot of these people I’m shooting again for the third and fourth time over a long period. I first shot Geoffrey over 20 years ago.
Personally, how do you approach life? What’s important to you?
I don’t travel as much as I did. There was a time when we lived in NY that I was never home. It was fun. I saw a lot and stayed in some fairly amazing hotels and got driven around in lots of big black town cars. But eventually the family wins over. I’ve three children that like having me around and frankly they are more important to me that some 20 minute appointment with Tom Hanks. We often all travel together and go, say, to London, rent an apartment for a couple of months and I will work there. That way I’m home at night and we don’t feel life is too boring, but I can still keep my name in the odd decent magazine. We just seem to make it work somehow.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a photographer?
If I wasn’t a photographer I would be a farmer. I’m the first eldest son in five or six generations of farmers and the older I get the more I realize it’s the ultimate life. As long as I had plenty of people to do most of the hard work and we could still travel and take portraits…I would also like to think that I had one film in me. Whether I get off my lazy ass for long enough to really do something about it I don’t know, but I won’t die really happy unless I try.
What’s the worst thing about what you do?
I’m not really doing anything that useful. I’m not saving lives. I’m using up lots of jet fuel and radiating myself to fuck. I hope at some point I manage to put something back.
What’s the best?
I don’t have to work that hard, certainly, compared to most people I know. I have plenty of time off and make a reasonable living. My children are being well educated. My wife is hands-down the most beautiful woman in the world and despite the fact that I’m a full decade older than her and falling apart she still manages to sleep with me. There is not much to complain about. I’m not competitive with other photographers, I’m comfortable with the pictures I take and I’m still enthusiastic about it. I love the feeling of something going well. Of convincing someone far more worldly and smarter than me to go along with my idea for a few minutes and hopefully be pleased with the result. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet, work with and watch some fairly amazing people at work. Actors on sets, cinematographers, other photographers…and I can’t not mention Baz Luhrmann. I’ve worked with him since Romeo and Juliet. He gave me an opportunity when I first started and continues to let me come onto his sets and poke my camera around corners others don’t get the chance to. The money I earned from the buyout for Chanel paid for our house. He really is an inspiration. He and Catherine Martin are absolutely without doubt the two most passionate artists I’ve met – and I’ve met a few.
What are your other passions in life?
I read a lot. I like the theater and seeing movies. I love going to Bali, staying at Dare Jennings’ house, slopping around in a sarong and riding a motorbike. That’s enough really. As long as I’m doing this with my wife and our family and the odd friend drops by I really couldn’t be happier.
When was the last time you saw something that took your breath away?
My four-year-old daughter Matilda swam across the pool on her own; my other daughter Lily was Puck in the school play and stole the show; my son survived being three months premature and my wife survived cancer. These things are far more breathtaking and meaningful to me than meeting someone that just happens to be good at pretending to be someone else. I did see a giant rat run across Michael Caine’s foot when he was filming a scene in The Quiet American and he never flinched or missed his line. When the camera stopped someone asked him if he had seen the rat run over his foot. Of course, he replied, but I was doing a take. That’s breathtaking professionalism.
Hugh Stewart, legend, thanks.