The Sunday Times Magazine
How do you go about preparing to photograph the First Minister of Scotland? As always I dived straight in, throwing many many ideas into my sketchbook, tearing through artbooks, flicking through photobooks, looking for thoughts that would lodge themselves into my head and not go away. I knew I’d be shooting in Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence, it’s not everyday you get to poke your lens around somewhere like that – the house had to feature. But how to frame up in such a place? My mind started flicking though a mental scrapbook – from Leibovitz’s images of the Queen, via Rembrandt’s portraits and Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I wanted to reference centuries of pictures of states-people. But I also wanted to make my photographs of Sturgeon more approachable, more intimate, less staid.
When we walked into the Drawing Room of Bute House, light was spilling in through the big windows, grand surroundings framed the perfect spot to place the First Minister, and a Scottish flag was creeping into my frame as it hung next to the fireplace. We would start shooting here.
I couldn’t just settle for that though, I was eager for variety, and my brief was for more. I wanted to get Sturgeon talking, to show her personality, and I also wanted to create something simple and iconic. This called for a studio set up against a plain background. So we built a little studio on the opposite side of the room, a coupe of lights in front of a blue background. And then later it could be taken away to reveal a white one. I chose two types of lighting that I could quickly swap between, one that was broad and free, that allowed us to chat, move, and show a more personal side of this powerful woman, and another that would sculpt her face, and would work perfectly for a power profile. I was ready.
The First Minister walked into the drawing room of Bute House, confident in her bright red suit and came straight up to me with her hand out to say hello. I love the intensity of photoshoots like this. In the short time you have together you’re each getting to know the other: I’m pushing and pulling someone’s personality, finding out what makes them laugh and what makes them uncertain. They are finding out who I am and what I want from them. It wasn’t hard with Sturgeon, unlike some politicians I’ve met from the first handshake she was approachable, talkative and collaborative. Our conversation moved from her dream of an independent Scotland to what she calls her “Mam”, via her clear dislike of certain Westminster politicians and her continued attempts to persuade me to move to Scotland.
Then suddenly we had just fifteen minutes left. I knew I had all the shots I needed already in the bag. The FM and I were getting on well, it was time to step beyond my brief and see what would happen if we collaborated on something different. So I started up the extra light I’d placed in the corner and shone it straight at her face, I then asked my assistant Paul to hold two pieces of card in the beam, flagging off most of the light so I could play with it across her face, sculpting and changing what was in shadow and was was brightly illuminated. The First Minister was on board, collaborating with me, trusting me to create what I wanted, eager to help me make the best image possible. It’s these moments I live for. Excitedly I showed the FM what we had made on my computer screen, she looked, turned to me and said “You’re The Boss” – quite some praise from someone who is very literally The Boss of a nation.
Massive thanks to:
Russ O’Connell – photo director at The Sunday Times Magazine
Decca Aitkinhead – writer and interviewer
Matt Beech – photo assistant and digi tech
Paul Reich – photo assistant
Julie McGuire – hair and make up
Broadscope Studios – equipment and logistics