Scottish photographer Mark Mann has made a name for himself as the go-to-guy for portraits of high-profile people. He endearingly describes his Leica S as his “Stradivarius” and cherishes the video capabilities of his Leica SL. We caught up with the very amiable NYC-based photographer to get his take on portrait photography and also hear why always having his Leica Q to hand makes the grandmothers to his 3-year-old son very happy indeed.
You grew up in Glasgow, Scotland and went on to study in Manchester, England before relocating to New York. What is your first memory of photography? And when did you know it was going to be your driving passion in life?
I had this fantastic art teacher in high school, Mr David Marshall. He was incredibly inspiring. We created a little black and white darkroom, and I remember him putting his keys and glasses on a sheet of darkroom paper, turning on the enlarger and then putting it in the developer. It was magical, how he created this Man Ray-like print, and I was sold. It was real-life science and I just loved it.
Was there anyone in particular, who inspired you along the way or gave you advice that really helped at the time?
Many people have been incredibly helpful, such as my high school art teachers and many of the photographers I’ve assisted. I did a little work placement with Nick Knight, whose advice was, “Don’t be a photographer, you’re too nice…”. Building relationships with your vendors has always been important to me. Leica have been tremendously supportive.
When and why did you decide to devote yourself to portrait photography?
I left college with a degree in photography. I suppose at that time I was already sure that
I loved to shoot people, as that was the bulk of the work I had in my portfolio. Nevertheless, knowing what my passion was, yet having no idea how to monetize it, was definitely a problem.
How would you describe the perfect portrait?
The perfect portrait is something I aspire to every day. I’m not sure. I think it should be informative to the viewer, revealing some aspect of the personality of the subject, a split second that is telling. I also like when it’s hard to date, so I suppose timelessness is a key part of any great portrait. In my experience, if the subject hates it you’re probably on the right track. Most people don’t like to be captured in a way that reveals something that they’re not controlling. The master portrait photographers are super skilled at that.
You work a lot with very high-profile celebrities. How did you get into this particular field?
I’m not really sure. I’m quite good at making people feel comfortable and that goes a long way. I think it’s a trust thing. Publicists have a lot of control over their people, so gaining their trust gets you access.
What is it that you enjoy most about shooting famous people and what is the greatest challenge?
I really don’t care about the famous bit. It’s much more about what people do and what they have done. I look at it as a brief interaction between strangers. I try and do a little research on a subject because it’s important to have an idea of whom you are working with and show respect for their craft, whatever it may be.
The challenges usually come from ego and usually from the publicists, managers and agents. These people are being paid to look after their clients and if you show them respect then your path from A to B is much easier. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve bitten my tongue I’d be a rich man.
We know you shoot with the Leica S and SL but can you go into a bit more detail about your choice of camera and your studio set-up?
The S is like my Stradivarius, A camera that, in the right environment, is unsurpassable. I’ve found that instead of forcing the S to work in all situations, the SL has advantages in some places, especially when I need super fast focus and I’m not shooting tethered.
The SL live view is superb when I need to see exactly what I’m shooting through the viewfinder. The S is my true love and I shoot with her whenever I can.
How does your choice of lens and lighting relate to your subject and the mood you want to create?
I’m not a crazy lens collector. The 120mm on the S is amazing for what I do. The mood comes much more from shaping the light. I try and create a space, in which my subject can move a little and still be lit correctly. I try and avoid having to move people tiny amounts to work in the light. The more freedom I can create usually leads to better portraits.
How long have you been shooting with Leica gear and what do see as the advantages of each camera?
I’ve been shooting Leica for about 6 years and my biggest regret is that I haven’t been shooting with them for longer.
I keep the Leica Q in my bag at all times. Nowadays, taking snapshots on your phone is so easy but I make an effort to use the Q instead and I’m so happy when I do. My son is 3 and the Q has been incredible for documenting his endeavors. It keeps his grandmas very happy when I make stunning 10 by 8 prints for them.
The SL is like some kind of photo magic to me. In so much of my work with the S the shutter speed is flash-synced and the aperture is wide open and that’s it. Playing around with the SL I discovered all sorts of things but moving the focus around and user profiles felt like cheating. The SL I use a lot for video and I have had some exceptional results.
And then there’s the lovely Leica S, which feels amazing to hold and shoot with. The S is the first camera that I’ve had an emotional attachment to. I feel special when I shoot with it. The viewfinder is huge and really allows you to frame up and see what’s what. Despite its size, it’s manageable and I love the 35mm handling in a medium format body.
I assume you don’t know exactly how each of your subjects will react once under the lights. How much can you pre-determine how a shoot is going to go, in terms of what kind of shot you are aiming for, and how much do you have to react to how things play out?
I know pretty immediately if something’s wrong. The trick is to fix it without anybody else knowing. My crew is in tune with me and can usually react quickly by moving a light or giving me a nudge if they see something I’ve missed. The idea is to portray an outer calm whilst panicking inside. I definitely have a few gray hairs from certain situations, especially in today’s world, where clients can be over your shoulder seeing a tethered image before you do. Remember that scene in Titanic when the ship has nearly sunk and the orchestra is still playing as if nothings wrong? Yes, I’ve been there. In the words of Bob Dylan “You gotta keep on moving on”. My final thought is always, it’s only a photo, I’m not saving lives.
In a lot of the portraits we have featured here, the subject is looking directly at you. Is this a conscious decision you make while shooting and what effect do you think this has on the resulting images?
I never really direct people too much. I use subtle nudges to move them in the direction I want but if they sit and look straight at the camera that’s where I will usually start. In my experience, the first few frames are really when your most engaged with the subject so maybe that’s why I tend to select that look.
Your portraits are often very clean and uncluttered with few, if any, props or backdrops. Why do you prefer to shoot in this way?
I’m trying to say what I have to say with as little as possible and that to me is challenging. I find props are distracting and I find it harder to compose with them.
Here we have a selection of full and half-length shots, as well as close-ups. What do you have to weigh up when composing each shot?
Composition is key in making whatever’s in the little box you’re looking through work. I’m not big on cropping, so I like my image to feel it’s able to breathe but also filling the frame. I cut into a lot of foreheads. On commercial sets I’m constantly aware that the client will need more space so I move back a bit but a few frames later I find myself cropping heads again. Somebody told me they think I like the intimacy of being physically close to my subject. I’m not sure.
And what influences your decision to shoot either color or black and white?
Thankfully its not a fixed decision whilst shooting any more. I really struggled with what film to load and often had two bodies on set to cover both but now with the amazing image quality I get from my Leica cameras, it’s something I can think about after the fact. I usually have a gut feeling but if you look through my archive you will see I can’t resist trying a black and white conversion on most final shots.
When you’re shooting do you tend to fire off a lot of shots and then dive deeper when editing or are you very conscious about when to press the shutter?
I hate editing, so the fewer shots for me the better. I’ve never set my camera to continuous. I make a big effort to make eye contact, so I take the camera away from my face a lot and would like to think I’m conscious of when I press the shutter. My background was 120 film so I think in my head I’m usually counting to 10 as that’s how many frames I used to have on a roll.
If you can put your finger on it (pun intended), what is it that makes you press the shutter?
Nerves!! Nervous energy!! It’s so subconscious I really don’t know. I don’t think about it. On my next shoot I’ll try and work it out.
Can you describe your post-editing process?
Painful! I dread it. I back-up immediately and if there’s a rush I drop jpegs on Lightroom mobile and beg my wife to have a look that evening (she’s an excellent editor). If I have some time I’ll wait a couple of days, take a deep breath and have a look at what stands out. I’ll do a broad edit, dumping what’s unusable then tighten it up, usually struggling helplessly at the end. Often it’s not until I really get into the color correcting and retouching that I can finally say, “OK. I like that”.
And can you offer any advice to your fellow photographers and those trying to get into portrait photography?
Oh jeez! Print stuff. Make prints and stop looking at your pictures on a screen. Look at them on paper – it’s a game changer. Learn the art of making a print darkroom or inkjet, it’s not important which. Why? Because it forces you to edit and make decisions that will improve you as a photographer. It helps me a lot. I try and print something everyday. Your friends and family will thank you.
Apart from your commercial work, do you have any personal projects coming up that you’d like to share with us?
Yes, I do. When I photographed President Obama I bought a particular chair (stool) for him to sit on. I’m going to do a portrait/video shoot for people to sit on that chair, have there portrait taken and say a few words about how they feel a year after he’s left office. I’ve been planning it for a while and I’m just about to start in NYC so if anyone is interested please reach out!