When people find out that I’m a photographer, they often ask me what kind of photos I like to take. In the past I’ve usually answered with a kind of ramble, explaining that I’ll shoot anything that catches my eye, but I’m particularly drawn to portraits, weddings (in spite of how difficult they are), urban landscapes and candid street photography, but I nearly always prefer having people in the shot.However, a while back I realized exactly what I love (or would love) to photograph the most: a portrait that becomes THE portrait of a particular person, the favorite of both the subject and the people who know him or her best. I’m not sure when exactly I came to this realization, but it definitely crystalized when I first saw this iconic portrait of Steve Jobs taken by Albert Watson. It’s on the cover of Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs, and Apple used it as a tribute on the company homepage when he passed away. I knew right away after seeing it that I wanted to try to take a photo with a similar pose and lighting set-up.
My good buddy Jon dressed as Steve Jobs during Halloween, 2011 (he wore a black turtleneck and jeans and carried around a bag of “magical” candied apples to share at premium prices), and since I knew I wanted to do a portrait with him anyway, I thought Jon would be the perfect subject for this project, and quickly suggested it to him, although (naturally) we waited eight months until the night before he was going to leave Moscow before finally making it happen. The shot you see above ended up being my favorite of the bunch, in spite of it turning out to be quite different from the photo I was attempting to emulate. It’s one of the earlier frames, taken before I noticed that Jon was holding up his right hand and asked him to switch to his left, like Jobs. Also, Jon’s black turtleneck was unavailable, so we settled for a black jacket.
Overall, I’m reasonably satisfied with my attempt to duplicate the look of Watson’s photo, but of course there’s always room for improvement. Due to the last-minute nature of our shoot, I didn’t have enough time to do what I had originally intended, which was to carefully mimic the quality of Watson’s light completely in-camera by using gobos (short for “go-betweens,” which means placing dark material between the light and the subject to block where the light goes). As a result, I did some dodging and burning (brightening and darkening parts of the photo) during post-production, as the umbrella I used for the key (main) light has quite a wide spread. I also had two monoblocs in softboxes cross-lighting the white backdrop, and one speedlite on-camera to trigger everything manually (no ETTL). While ideally I wanted to get the same look in-camera, I don’t feel too bad about adjusting the contrast in post, as I think it’s likely that there’s at least some darkroom dodging and burning going on in Watson’s photo as well (if anyone can confirm or deny this please let me know). Different versions of his photo on the internet show varying levels of contrast, but the one on his website appears quite contrasty so that’s what I was going for. There’s a bit of blowback from the backdrop lights showing on the edge of Jon’s left cheek which wasn’t present in Watson’s photo that I actually quite like.
But perhaps the most important difference between my photo and Watson’s is that Jon’s warm, relaxed expression is totally unlike the way Steve stares down his nose at the camera with a frigid intensity in Watson’s photo. I had Jon try to do something similar but it just didn’t quite seem to fit him, and I suspect that this might have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t actually photographing Steve Jobs. Every portrait subject is different because every one of the billions of people on this Earth is different, and we all change over time.
Jobs was a notoriously difficult subject to photograph. He often refused to have his picture taken unless he had complete control over how it was done, to the point of actually walking into a shoot and immediately moving around lighting equipment that had already been set up, or verbally abusing people when things didn’t go his way, or just walking out. Watson’s iconic shot is especially remarkable because he was able to capture so much about who Jobs was in that single moment while still doing things on his own terms. The shoot was part of a series entitled “Portraits of Power” for Fortune magazine, and all of the photos were to be in black and white with a plain, white backdrop and a specific, minimalist lighting set-up. Luckily, this fit in with Jobs’ aesthetic and he didn’t put up a (big) fuss. Jobs was immediately surprised that Watson was shooting film (an huge, old 4″x5″ camera) but they agreed at the time that digital hadn’t caught up to film… yet. Watson later reflected on what he told Jobs just before the famous frame was taken: “I said to ‘look straight at the camera and think about the next product you are working on, that you are presenting the idea and someone is challenging you.’” Watson didn’t know it at the time, but Jobs was almost certainly thinking about the iPhone, which was to be released just a few months later and revolutionize the mobile phone market.
With the benefit of hindsight we can see Watson’s photo showing a remarkable (if difficult) man captured at a pivotal moment in his life, not long before the apex of his power but also before his health began to visibly decline. But even at the time, the photo radiated with all of Job’s visionary brilliance and confidence (bordering on hubris), and when Jobs saw the test polaroid he said, “That’s maybe the best shot that’s ever been taken of me,” and took the polaroid home with him.
Jon, unlike Steve Jobs, isn’t famous or a multi-billionaire and at the time of this writing has not had a massive influence on the development of numerous revolutionary technological products (sorry, Jon), but, on the other hand, he does actually demonstrate respect and empathy for his fellow humans (sorry, Steve fans). A certain lighting technique or pose or expression might work for one subject but not another, and even with the same subject, it might work on one day but not another, depending on how they are feeling at that particular point in time. In this case, Jon’s photo works better with him smiling instead of glaring, with his right hand rather than his left, and sitting rather than standing, but I think the similar lighting still fits.
On the eve of his departure from a city that had been his home for seven years, Jon was certainly at a pivotal moment in his life, and to me, his expression shows hints of both the anxiety of leaving something important behind as well as a cautious optimism for the future. It’s doubtful any of that is visible to anyone who doesn’t know him well, but regardless, I hope that those who do know him will look at this and think “Hey, that’s a great shot of Jon.” Of course, they’ll probably also think, “Hey, this kinda looks like that shot of Steve Jobs.” Portraits of different people can appear similar, just like different people can, but a good portrait should say something about who the subject is; about what makes him or her unique. A really great portrait also says something about what makes the photographer unique.
So why did I bother trying to copy the work of another photographer? While I like my photo of my friend, I have no illusions that it’s anywhere near as sublime as Watson’s, and by imitating it I deliberately invite comparisons. Wouldn’t I be better off creating something totally original, that nobody’s ever seen before? Yes, of course, but that’s not exactly easy to do. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of gifted geniuses (like Jobs and Watson) work incredibly hard to make success look “easy.” They acquire the necessary tools, practice their skills until they are second-nature, study what others have already done in their chosen fields, incorporating what works and changing what doesn’t, and when all of that knowledge, effort, dedication, inspiration, and (most likely) obsession comes together, they can create something magical, even if not totally original. Apple didn’t create the first computer, or mp3 player, or phone, or tablet, but Steve Jobs & Co. took good ideas and made them into exceptional products. Jobs himself once said: “Picasso had a saying – ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ – and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” (Sorry, Samsung.)
And so I study the work of artists I respect and steal what I can (always giving credit where credit is due), in the hopes that someday I’ll be good enough to be able to create something that someone else might want to steal, or even better… to keep, as THE portrait he or she would always like to be remembered by.
Jon, until we meet again, good luck to you!
To learn more about Watson’s shoot with Jobs, read this excellent article.