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Interviews

July 2010

It's a serious business being a portrait photographer. Pictures of people can be powerful. They can bring joy, amusement and insight. They can also hurt, embarrass or even anger. Paris-based portrait photographer Jérôme Bonnet told Rachel D'Cruze that you never know how subjects will react to their images. He once shot an aging celebrity who opted for surgery after seeing his pictures.

Jérôme Bonnet is forging an award-winning career by striking a balance between creating strong and arresting pictures that offer different angles on much-photographed celebrities, and remaining commercial enough to secure regular editorial press work. As a young hopeful, Bonnet shot both reportage and portraits for his portfolio. He began to work as a professional photographer in 1999 shooting for publications including Libération and Télérama, where his assignments were largely documentary and reportage based. Bonnet worked in this area for a few years until he became frustrated with the constraints of this type of work. Speaking about his move into portraiture he says: "It's far less frustrating than reportage, where you aren't given enough time, or enough space for your work."

© Jérôme Bonnet

Takeshi Kitano, 2010.

Initially, when he moved into portraiture, Bonnet worked on a newspaper for a few years, until he branched out on his own. He now has a glamorous array of clients including Elle and GQ France, and star-studded subjects to shoot. The publications he works for line up the subjects and tell him where to meet them, but that's all. From that point on he has the freedom to realise his own vision. Bonnet thrives on creating images that are different to ones already taken of the celebrities he shoots. The trick - not an easy one to pull off - is to strike a balance between provocative originality and not scaring off his celebrity subjects.

"I trust myself as a photographer. I try not to concern myself with what my subject will think of my photographs, but of course I still want to work," he says. "When you have an idea, you have to believe in it and coax people into doing it with your enthusiasm." His portrait of Japanese filmmaker, Takeshi Kitano is a good example of how Bonnet approaches his subject. Before shooting this picture (left) he photographed Takeshi with his crew of five people, who go everywhere with him. When it came to getting him to put his hand in his mouth, for this unusual and striking pose, Bonnet demonstrated what he wanted in front of everyone, to encourage his subject. "You have to be enthusiastic and have the energy to push, to take them with you," he explains. The result is a completely different take on someone who's been widely photographed - a style that runs through much of his work.

© Jérôme Bonnet

Yang Ik-June, 2009.

When asked for advice on getting the most from subjects Bonnet says: "You have to bring energy to the shoot. When they arrive, when you say hello, be confident - they have to trust you, especially if you're going to ask them to do something strange." Persuading celebrities to do something strange isn't always an easy feat. Bonnet says that smiling in pictures is par for the course right now: "Everybody wants to smile in France at the moment. I say, 'no, no - I don't want smiling', but it's a compromise between what you can do and what you have to do to work - and it's very hard."

Bonnet works quickly and is capable of producing an editorial cover image and double page spread within an hour. His unusual portrait of Korean film director Yang Ik-June was taken with cling film borrowed from a nearby restaurant. Bonnet, although speaking no shared languages with the director, coaxed him into putting the cling film over his face and finally taking his shirt off, shooting all the while. "I used to use large format cameras, now I work much faster and take many more pictures," says Bonnet who shoots with an EOS 5D Mark II. He also keeps his lens arsenal to an absolute minimum, currently using only the EF50mm f/1.8 USM and EF35mm f/1.4L USM lenses. "I don't want a zoom, and I take the majority of my pictures with the 50mm." But the EF35mm f/1.4L USM is still an important lens to have, he says, in case he needs to shoot in a small space.

© Jérôme Bonnet

Haley Bennett, 2010.

Once Bonnet knows who his subject is, along with the place and time, he familiarises himself with what the celebrity looks like, but chooses not to come up with a concept for the shoot or imagine the picture in advance. He also doesn't discuss shoots with his subjects ahead of time either. Instead, he arrives early to scout for the exact location where he'll take the portrait. "Sometimes there's nowhere, just a wall. Then you have to get ready to push the subject," he says. He admits that some people are easier to direct than others and that sometimes he does become concerned, adding that: "There are times when panicking is just part of the process."

Dennis Hopper and Elijah Wood are among the stars he cites as great subjects. "They are 100% there with you, they look great, are strong in themselves and trust you - so they'll do whatever you want." Talking about his slightly surreal portrait of Haley Bennett he says: "She's great, she plays the game." His picture of Bennett was taken at a butterfly enclosure in Cannes. She immediately understood his quirky concept and it worked, he says.

Discussing his portraiture work in general and what he strives to do, Bonnet says: "I always try something I haven't already seen. I try to be different." He is one of those rare photographers who manages to be commercial enough to get work, but refuses to be swayed into producing generic looking editorial work and is also able to get celebrities to work his way, rather than the other way around. This is the secret.

Technical

Jérôme Bonnet's Canon equipment:

Cameras:
EOS 5D Mark II

Lenses:
EF50mm f/1.8 USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM

Biography: Jérôme Bonnet

Jérôme Bonnet

He was born in Lyon in 1972 and began taking pictures professionally in 1999. He now works mostly as a portrait photographer for French titles like Libération, Télérama, Elle and GQ France. He's won two World Press Photo awards (2009 and 2010) and last year staged an exhibition at L'Opera Garnier of portraits of young dancers. He now lives in Paris.



Showcase

Yang Ik-June, 2009