Margaret Thatcher to Jonathan ross, Pavarotti to James Brown. In a portfolio containing portraits from every area of British culture and Politics spanning the decades, it is no secret that the work of Michael Birt is up there with the all time great portrait photographers of the 21st century. The shift from black and white to colour, film to digital, and huge changes in the journalism industry, he’s seen it all. Route caught up with him and asked him to share some of the secrets to his brilliant career.
Bill Brandt © Michael Birt Feb 1981
What were your earliest creative influences and interests, was there a particular reason that you chose photography?
Painting was my first influence, I grew up with two prints on my parents’ living room wall, one of The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, which had an effect on my full-‐length portraits. The other The Age of Innocence by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which I found interesting tonally. As I grew older I looked at German Expressionism, I was attracted to the bold colour and strong black lines.
After you graduated from Bournemouth how did you go about getting your name known in the industry?
I started off as an assistant in a commercial photographic studio in Gerrard Street, Soho. The best thing about that experience was that Terence Donovan’s studio was next door. After some freelance assisting I started to work for Time Out, where I photographed John Irving and other celebrities but it was a slow process getting work from magazines. My competition was Bailey, Donovan and Parkinson and the magazines that published my type of work were few.
I wrote to people I admired, concentrating on up and coming talent and people whose careers were in their twilight years. Among these were Bill Brandt, John Osborne and Greta Scacchi. It was exciting opening my post. This supplemented my portfolio, which helped me get more work. Looking back it also has given me a portfolio covering people from many eras.
When did you first pick up a digital camera, was it a creative or was it something you were forced into from the way the industry was going.
I did not starting shooting digitally until 2007. I had been waiting for a medium format camera that was in development, which I was going to test but the camera company shelved the project. The industry didn’t accept film anymore so at first I hired a Hasselblad and a Phase One digital back, latterly I bought a Nikon D3. I love digital and how it looks, it has also brought the darkroom back to the photographer.
Who was the first person you ever photographed for an assignment?
Initially I wanted to be a fashion photographer, which was my main area of work at college. When I first took my folio to Honey magazine, the art director asked me to do a portrait of the designer Janet Raeger.
How do you approach a portrait and what do you love about shooting people?
I like to do little drawings in preparation, I don’t always adhere to them but it gives me a vision when I get to the job. I also look at my library of photographic books each day. I research the sitter as taking a portrait is a conversion, without it I can not find what makes the person work. I love the reaction that takes place on a shoot, it always different and often very inspiring.
Who are your inspirations in your work, is there anybody up and coming who you have spotted?
It is the usual suspects, Penn, Avedon, Bailey in the 60’s, Bill Brandt, August Sander, more recently a German photographer called Stefan Moses. As for new talent, I look closely at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. It is a good indicator who is doing good work.
What camera and lenses are you currently using?
Nikon D3S (105mm) and a Hasselblad (150mm) with a Phase One back.
Thanks Michael! We suggest that you all take a look at the wealth of imagery Michael has on his website HERE
note: All images used in this article belong to the Artist under copyright, and should not be re-used without express permission.