“If you want to be a better photographer,” National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson said, “stand in front of more interesting stuff.” A young Andy Gotts would have taken this to mean “stand in front of celebrities.” Unfortunately, so would a few thousand other photographers. Gotts understood early on that to be noticed he would have to separate himself from this unruly scrum and develop an approach all his own—and he did. Where most went big, he went small; where they worked fantasy and glamour, he worked something closer to reality. He kept his shoots simple and short and his images unretouched (sort of). His most recent book The Photograph is a retrospective. It brings together more than 30 years of work. It includes portraits (mostly black-and-white), contact sheets, and a sprinkling of remedial commentary.
While the work Gotts is best-known for is focused on what he calls “the landscape of the face” and its “beautiful imperfections”—faces like Clint Eastwood’s, Harrison Ford’s, and Al Pacino’s—he has given equally close attention, as one would expect, to a generous selection of faces without those imperfections, faces that are simply beautiful— Charlize Theron, Elle Macpherson, and Halle Berry.
Gotts is a British photographer. A number of the subjects in this book will be more familiar to an English audience than an American one—like Lester Piggott, Bryan Ferry, and Taron Egerton. This does not mean, however, that there are not enough A-listers to satisfy the most Hollywood-addled infatuates—there are.
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In addition to the portraits, Gotts has given us pages and pages of contact sheets. Some will see this as a good thing—I am a little less enthusiastic. There are all sorts of extravagant claims made for the value of contact sheets—the most common is that they tell the story of a shoot. This is marketing hype. Contact sheets are work product. They are essentially a collection of misses—near, far, and in-between. They may be of some interest to the apprentice photographer—offering hints about working a scene, perhaps—but they are of meager interest to a general audience. They are here, I think, for two reasons: to highlight the fact that the work was done on film (virtue-signaling to the art-is-analog crowd) and to fatten the book. They are a waste of time and real estate. Half of the pages in The Photograph are not portraits—they are contact sheets.
These are not revelations—they are distractions. They take attention away from the subject and focus it on editorial decisions. But enough about contact sheets.
At the end of his portrait sessions Gotts invariably suggests to his subjects that they do a handful of goofy, funny-face shots. He says this is a way of letting them be themselves, a way of letting them embrace their inner child. It is, more accurately, a good business move. It provides Gotts with an additional set of famous-face images—a unique set. Many wisely pass on the offer—many others sadly do not. That these famous faces would make faces for Gotts tells you nothing about them as people other than that they were comfortable enough in the strength of their celebrity to indulge the photographer in his effort to capture the public’s attention. The expressions are meaningless—bits of schtick, some surprisingly inane given that we are dealing with professional actors. Essentially this is just fooling around in a photobooth. These are people who have spent their lives pretending to be someone else—these are performances like any other.
The commentary scattered throughout the book is, as I said, remedial. Gotts is a gifted photographer—the National Portrait Gallery holds a number of his photographs in its permanent collection—but he is not a gifted writer. His occasional reminiscences tend to be trivial and cliché-ridden: Alice Cooper “bowled [him] over”; Keira Knightly swept in “like a breath of fresh air”; he and Harrison Ford “got on like a house on fire”; Kate Winslet was “on cloud nine.” That sort of thing. The brief commentaries offered by a handful of the celebrity subjects are not much better. They are basically thank-you notes telling us what a nice guy Andy Gotts is. But then, one does not come to this book for the prose; one comes for the photographs.
The strength of Gotts’s work lies in its simplicity: dark or light backgrounds, simple wardrobes, one or two lights—not the extravagances that have become so commonplace. The Photograph has its weaknesses, but they are easy to ignore. The portraits are ample reward. I have not seen all of the images made of Kate Moss (no one has—probably not even Kate Moss) but I have seen plenty, and Gotts’s portrait of her seems to me uniquely arresting, one of the best. The list of similarly engaging images is long—there is, for example, the glowing, disembodied head of Kirk Douglas; Christopher Lee with his sagebrush eyebrows and smoldering cigar; Jodie Foster with her ethereal aura; and Steven Tyler, a shaggy, leathery mystery.
Gotts’s story is a simple one: Poor working-class clod from nowhere grows up to be a famous London photographer hobnobbing with cinematic royalty. “Chasing famous people for photo shoots has been my life for 30 years,” he says. It has been the life he wanted. We are the beneficiaries of his talent and determination.