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© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images
© Remy Cortin
Following several years working as a photographer’s assistant in London Lorenzo Agius went freelance in 1989. Specialising in advertising, portraits and still life his big break came when he shot the publicity posters for the film Trainspotting in 1996.
Shortly after that he secured a cover shoot for Vanity Fair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ issue and shot the stills for the Spice Girls movie. He now has a reputation as one of the world’s leading portrait photographers shooting celebrities including Madonna, Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp and Kevin Spacey.
Lorenzo has a variety of magazine, film, and big-ticket advertising clients on both sides of the Atlantic and in 2006 his retrospective exhibition ‘Look At Me’ was showcased at the Getty Images Gallery in London.
From May to July 2010 several of Lorenzo's best known portraits of movie stars, including Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey, were displayed on large banners as part of the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. So far in 2012 Lorenzo has been photographing a number of campaigns and fashion shoots, including portrait work for HBO on the TV series 'Nemesis' and a fashion feature for Vanity Fair magazine.
Think of the blockbuster British movie Trainspotting and you think of a gaunt, drug-addled Ewan ‘Renton’ McGregor or a cocky Robert ‘Begbie’ Carlyle staring straight at you in black and white from out of the seminal 1996 movie posters. Lorenzo Agius was the photographer behind these stunning publicity images and it was these shots that rubber-stamped his reputation as one of the world’s leading portrait photographers.
The son of an army man Lorenzo was born in Colchester, England in 1962 but because of his father’s military occupation he spent the first decade of his life travelling around and living in such places as Aden, Malta and Germany. The whole family returned to live in England when Lorenzo was ten. “We came to live in England and I lived on the east coast of England until I was 18,” he recalls.
As he was growing up Lorenzo developed a passion for art. “I’ve always been into art. I really excelled at school – it was a real passion. I was taken under the wing of one of my art teachers – it’s funny how one person can have such an impact on your life. I learnt painting, the art of composition and understanding art.”
Lorenzo adds: “I really wanted to go to art school which I did for two years at the Lowestoft College of Further Education. In that time we got to do other things and that’s when I fell in love with photography. I learnt and loved all of the printing and processes so I come from a traditional approach.” This solid photographic background would prove invaluable later in his career.
Like many photographers Lorenzo also had his heroes. “I loved the work of people like Brassai, Jean-Henri Lartigue and the Irving Penns of the world – people like that. I just loved black and white work of those sort of people.”
At the age of 18, having started a photography degree at the University of East Anglia, Lorenzo came to a crossroads in his life. He had to choose between continuing his degree in photography or going out into the world. He reveals: “I decided then that rather than do a degree in photography I’d come to London and be an assistant for at least two or three years. Quite a few of the photographers that I spoke to told me that a degree was a waste of time and that I wouldn’t necessarily get a job at the end of it.”
He adds: “I assisted for about five or six years which was a long session of learning, traveling and enjoying the process.” The learning process included working for a number of different photographers, including a few days working as one of the assistants to the late, great Norman Parkinson, and gave Lorenzo a broad brush of experience in many areas.
Lorenzo explains: “I got to shoot cars, architecture, still life, portraits, people, big advertising campaigns and landscapes. I had a great grounding in all of the aspects of lighting, learning all about commercial photography and I really got into still life and all of the lighting required to shoot it.”
So what cameras did Lorenzo use whilst he was learning his craft? “Early on it was a Rolleiflex twin lens model which is an absolutely amazing camera. I also had an Olympus OM-1, which was totally manual so you get to learn and understand aperture, shutter speeds and learning totally manually. I also had a Linhof 4x5 Technika, which was a beautiful camera.”
With his upbringing of moving around to different countries and his grounding in a wide variety of photographic disciplines Lorenzo didn’t want to tie himself down. “To be honest when I was about 25 or 26 years old I couldn’t see myself stuck in a dark studio in my forties,” he says.
In 1989 he turned freelance and explains: “I started doing fashion and portraits.” But Lorenzo had to wait until he was nearing his mid-30s for his photographic career to explode. It was the aforementioned photography for the publicity posters for the Trainspotting film that ‘made’ him.
He recalls: “The ‘big break’ thing actually doesn’t happen that often, but my first big job was the poster campaign for the film Trainspotting. The film company didn’t know how to do the campaign; the art director and I originally didn’t know how to do it so we came at it from a very different angle.”
Lorenzo’s inspirations for the gritty Trainspotting poster campaign came from several well-known photographic sources. “I was inspired by the sort of black and white imagery that was featuring in ad campaigns at the time. The CK One adverts for Calvin Klein were casting characters from the street so that type of imagery was out there subconsciously,” says Lorenzo.
He adds: “I’m a big lover of Avedon and his book ‘In the American West’ when he traveled through the United States taking wonderful portraits of factory workers, shop workers and ‘bums’.” So, Avedon’s famous project proved a platform on which to build.
Of the Trainspotting poster project and film he reveals: “We decided 'we’re not going to put any writing on it', so people wouldn’t know what it was for. There was a very conscious decision to market the film – it had a great writer, a great director, great actors, and a great ad campaign. It was inspired.”
So, how were the seminal Trainspotting images produced? “We shot them in a studio, clean, using a Mamiya RZ67 with very gritty lighting - I still love the idea of using film for certain projects. We printed them on lith paper and toned it in a certain way – it just worked really well,” he recalls.
This one film poster campaign sealed Lorenzo’s future career. “It just
sort of boomed and things went very crazy, very quickly. Very soon I was
shooting lots of music pictures, films and then the Spice Girls movie,
which was very different. I’ve always said that a photographer should be
able to adapt to anything and I think that I have a style and approach
that’s not obvious.”
Having made some very big ripples in the film world in the UK Lorenzo’s star very quickly began to rise across the Atlantic in the US. With the era of ‘Cool Britannia’ being ushered in, under a then very new and novel New Labour government lead by Tony Blair, Lorenzo traveled ‘across the pond’.
He explains: “I went to see Vanity Fair in New York and did three or four other appointments when I was over there, including Vogue. Vanity Fair booked me to do a shoot for a 'Cool Britannia' issue. I basically did a cover shoot – it was Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher – and I did four or five other shoots for that issue of Vanity Fair.” Lorenzo adds: “I doubt if it’ll ever happen again that your first shoot is a cover for Vanity Fair. In fact they said that at the magazine, that it would probably never happen again.” The magazine’s cover saw Kensit and Gallagher lounging underneath Union Jack bedspreads and cemented Lorenzo’s rising star.
With a rapidly growing reputation on both sides of the Atlantic in the film, fashion and magazine worlds Lorenzo was soon shooting A-list stars such as Kate Winslet, Kevin Spacey, Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, and Madonna. His client list was growing and he was working in the fields of film, advertising and fashion.
He reveals: “It’s wonderful if you can get inside your subject – that’s what portrait photography is all about. It’s not just about photographing some famous person. It’s about capturing a bit of that person’s essence.”
This relationship with celebrity was showcased in his 2006 retrospective exhibition ‘Look at Me’ at the Getty Images Gallery in London. Speaking at the time Lorenzo said: “I have been extremely lucky to have met and photographed some of the world’s most famous people. For me, portrait photography is not just about taking an image, it is about capturing what makes people smile, laugh or cry. It is about the real person, not just the celebrity.”
Given his deep love of the traditional photographic disciplines of black and white printing, setting aperture and shutter speeds on an old-fashioned manual SLR, working with twin lens and large format film cameras, and knowing the ins and outs of photographic lighting Lorenzo’s switch to using digital has been frighteningly recent.
“It’s quite a recent thing,” he says. “I’m a very mechanically minded person and I work in a very manual way. Lighting is very important to me. But jobs came up that meant that the Canon EOS-1 Ds Mark III was perfect for the job. It’s so right for shooting certain things.”
Lorenzo makes no bones about the fact that he takes a variety of cameras on every shoot for different creative purposes, but notes: “I have the Canon on every shoot. The EOS-1Ds Mark III is a beautiful camera. There is a lot to learn about the digital process and how to treat it. As I was very much into printing I oversee my own retouching - I don’t delegate that to anyone. I put layers in and de-saturate images.”
He adds: “Digital has changed the way I work and I think that the EF85mm f/1.2L II USM is an amazing lens. The EF35mm f/1.4L USM is also a lovely lens. I’m just getting into using zoom lenses, so it feels like I’m learning again – it’s a learning process that never stops. I’m surprised and delighted by what the EOS-1Ds Mark III does. I'm finding it very liberating.”
Lorenzo’s early wandering childhood years have clearly helped to shape his approach to work. “I don’t have a studio as I travel a lot. If I had a studio in London it would just sit empty. I’ve always maintained that it’s great to be free. My home is in London, I have a base in Los Angeles and I’ve just bought a place in Ibiza.”
As a consequence of his travels Lorenzo works with teams of assistants around the world. He explains: “Everything is moving along at a wonderful pace. I have a team in Paris, New York, LA and London. Occasionally I’ll take my London assistants to New York, depending on the job, as you get trust with people. I do what I love doing and my work is almost like personal work.”
Although his ‘big break’ came in 1996 Lorenzo Agius has been a working freelance photographer since 1989 and has been involved in photography for over a quarter of a century. So, what is it that stands out for him from his career? “I’ve got a pretty big body of work and no one particular thing stands out. I just love what I do and it doesn’t really seem like a job. As long as I’m enjoying it that’s the main thing. It’s good and it’s getting better.”
He adds: “It’s good for Canon to believe in me and I think it’s great that Canon is putting something back with the Ambassadors Programme. Canon is taking a real interest in the community of photographers and that’s something that not many would do.”
So, what’s next for this globetrotting Getty Images photographer? “I have some amazing projects in the pipeline. I have a shoot in New York with Richard Gere and Diane Lane for a film. I also have a shoot in Paris with Michelle Pfeiffer and one for the film director Jane Campion. I’m doing some work for the new Bond movie, a couple of advertising campaigns and a shoot for Stolichnaya vodka,” reveals Lorenzo.
“I’m working on putting together a book featuring a body of my work. It’s almost like an exhibition on pages. It’s just something I want to do for myself,” he says. The book project doesn’t yet have a working title, but Lorenzo is also working on an exhibition to be shown New York.
But, despite a career dominated thus far by shooting images of the famous, it is back to the work and style of Avedon that Lorenzo harks. He explains: “I’d love to do something like Avedon did back then. The truth is that the most interesting people to photograph are out there on the streets.”
What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?
“I think it’s a great idea. It makes a lot of sense; it’s a great synergy between professional photographers and Canon. I am particularly looking forward to meeting the other Ambassadors and seeing their amazing work.”
Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?
“I think it’s terrifically important. From a professional photographer’s standpoint it is vital that they receive the technical support and encouragement from Canon. The world of a professional photographer is often pretty solitary - some photographers moreso than others. But with Canon’s Ambassadors Programme it allows for photographers from different disciplines to come together and share their knowledge about photography. Naturally, it will be very interesting to discover the new developments that Canon is continually making with their camera and equipment. I am already a big fan of the EOS-1Ds Mark III and can only expect further great releases. I think from Canon’s view signing up a core group of established photographers can only help. The fact that Canon has thought so carefully about who to sign up as Ambassadors is also very smart. I see the programme as a very important voice for the photographic community as a whole.”
What got you started in photography?
“I went to art school, studied fine art and found myself naturally drawn to photography. Once I had made that decision, I bailed out of my degree and committed myself 100% to photography as a career. I am grateful for my fine art studies as they helped me and continue to help enormously, but I am truly of the belief that you have to pay your dues in this game and that is exactly what I did. I assisted for many years covering the work of many professional photographers and across many disciplines – still life, fashion, portrait until I eventually took the plunge and went it alone.”
What does photography mean to you?
“First and foremost it is something that I am still passionate about - I still get excited about pulling a shoot together, getting all the right creative elements in place to nail a brief. Yes, it is job and, of course, there is a lot of management, logistics and administration that always needs to be considered but it’s the passion that motivates and drives me on with each brief. I collect photography as well and am continually looking for new work. I pretty much live and breathe it as a medium.”
What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?
“I think I have found something I am pretty good at. Like a lot of professions it takes time to work out which discipline/genre works for you. I am not so big headed to imagine that I know it all. I am continually learning new tricks, new ways of lighting, even moreso today with the advent of larger format digital files and equipment. I try to deliver the best I can for each client I work with, whether it’s a huge production with a big cast or a small-scale production with creative limitations. I try and push myself in either situation and hit the brief. I guess if you wanted to some it all up then one could summarise it by describing me as ‘creatively committed and collaboratively open’.”
What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?
“The best advice I can give is to seek more advice. Never imagine you know it all, as clients can see through that immediately. Work with as many talents as you can, listen, absorb and create. Keep shooting your own personal projects. It’s very easy to be trapped into a cycle of seeking the next assignment, if you lose the passion then its very likely that the photography gets tired.”