Born in Bristol in 1961, London-based freelance photographer Alastair Thain came to prominence as a celebrity portraitist in the 1980s, and is renowned for his unique style of intensely intimate close up portraiture, made using custom built large format cameras. These days, his ambitions, like his photographs, are large. He speaks to David Land
Although interested in photography from an early age, it wasn’t until Alistair Thain he took a foundation course, working as a lifeguard on the side, that he was able to afford a camera. Thain did a foundation in photography at Filton College.
“The lecturers were probably the most inspiring and good teachers you could hope to have”, he says. “I learnt photography using 35mm”, says Thain, “but I got into 120 and 5x4 quite early on. I find a certain beauty and freedom in forging your own style and vision through just shooting, and not thinking too much about what you’re doing.”Thain attended London College of Printing (now Communication) in the early 1980s.
“I developed an interest in taking portraits. Someone gave me the phone number for Gilbert and George, so I plucked up the courage to give them a call and asked if I could take their portrait. George just replied, ‘Would Thursday afternoon at two o’clock be convenient?’ They were unbelievably open and decent, supportive people. A little while later, someone had an argument with the photographer for their book, so Gilbert and George recommended me as a replacement, and I found myself flying all over the world working on the book.
“I was doing my own darkroom work as well. I enjoyed the darkroom, but made myself sick from the chemicals by printing too much. There is now a whole generation now who never learned to print, which means that the visual language is changing.
“I started shooting professionally more or less straight after I left college. I managed a few good portraits while I was there, perhaps reasonably pioneering. I think I was shooting a little bit unlike other people. I can’t really judge that, but it seems some of the style that I was developing naturally has become quite popular.”
Thain published Skin Deep, his book of portraits, when he was 25. “I was lucky”, he says, “I got a little bit of work here and there, and just started shooting, editorial and then record covers, and all that sort of stuff.”Thain joined Hamilton’s Agency – at the time a powerhouse of photography, which included people like Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton and Norman Parkinson, and by the age of 24, had work hanging in the National Portrait Gallery; it now houses 20 of his portraits, Vivienne Westwood, Rupert Everett, Annie Lennox and Anthony Hopkins among them. Thain then spent 10 years, up until the mid-1990s, photographing actors and artists for magazines in Britain and the US, like The New York Times, The Face and Interview.
“I started working editorially about eight years ago, although I think a lot of it is, frankly, stupid. I was asked to take pictures of designers with their favourite object, and I thought, with everything happening in the world, is that really what you want to do? Then some years later, somebody called asking me to shoot designers with their favourite chairs ... All these things have a purpose, of course, and to some extent it’s interesting, but not in the grand scheme of things.
“If I’ve learned anything in my working life, it is that there are some battles that you want to win and some that aren’t worth fighting. If you’re working in editorial, you shoot the thing, but people use it in any way they want, tiny or a big double page spread, it doesn’t really matter. If my pictures were used very small in an editorial context, it would mean one of two things: either they were very limited on space; or maybe I should have done a better picture, because if it were better they might have used it bigger.
“It’s the absolute nature of it to think I would have liked more space, but it’s a battle that’s not even worth thinking about. Put your heart and soul into the work you really care about – books, exhibitions, catalogues, or a website – because that battle is worth winning.”
I put it to Thain that I’ve heard some photographers say shooting editorial doesn’t pay much, but it’s a shop window and it brings people to your work that’s more remunerative, but that he doesn’t see it like that.“If anything, it’s a distraction”, he says.
“I want to do powerful books and exhibitions, and doing editorial isn’t really going to help. I’ve shot quite a lot of editorial, although I’m doing less now, so I would do a story out of affection and respect for the publication, but I don’t think it’s going to help me one iota.”
Thain started designing, building and using his distinctive large format cameras about 15 years ago, when Agfa ceased production of Agfapan 25 in 5x4. The alternative stock he found is a 9ins format Kodak roll film, traditionally used for aerial photography. He then began adapting the magazines and building systems for them, starting with a flat sheet of aluminium, soldering and welding in a shed outside his studio.
“I thought it was going to take me four or five months to build a camera range”, he says, “but I reckon it was only about six months ago that I finally built a portrait camera I really liked, which means it was more like 15 year’s work!
“My current camera is the stupidest I have ever built. It was meant to be stable, but it’s really heavy. Having spent a year completing it, I discovered that it really shouldn’t be made of stainless steel, so I remade it out of aluminium and made a few changes. Thain recently photographed people affected by the 1984 industrial disaster in Bhopal, India, when a pesticide plant released tons of methyl isocyanate gas into the atmosphere, killing thousands instantly, and leaving tens of thousands with permanent injuries.
“The people weren’t used to being photographed, so the results don’t look like portraits shot in the West”, he says. “They were not accustomed to seeing themselves, which meant that, although they were conscious of the camera, they presented themselves in an old fashioned way. There is some performance, but it’s not excessive, despite the fact that we’ve got this reasonably large bit of metal between us.“Even though they look like 120 shot at f/8, they are in fact 9x9 shot at f/32 or f/45, and the depth of field is still quite shallow. They were shot in pretty intense sunlight with fill-in flash, so there’s quite a lot of light pounding onto them.
“I did a few hundred shots, and most of them feel authentic, even though I wasn’t that conscious of what I was doing, because of years of practice. I believe my portraits are most successful when I’m subliminally responding to facial reactions and situations; when I’m going so fast that I’m almost subconsciously hitting the button."
Thain’s cameras are very large twin lens reflexes, which means he is looking through the viewing lens, while the image is captured by the taking lens, and there is not the delay and slowness traditionally associated with large format direct view cameras. I comment that comparing Thain’s working practice to that of Richard Avedon, he’s actually looking through the camera. What difference does he think that makes?
“All traditional large format work is absolutely static. That’s a language that’s certainly been done very well, but I felt the need to develop a different language. What I’m interested in are the moments that seem particularly revealing.
“I don’t want to have to tell anyone to stand still, as I’d rather engage with them. I just did a project where I photographed Holocaust survivors discussing their experiences. Even all this time later, what they were talking about was utterly traumatising, so to ask them to stay still wasn’t an option.
“My portraits of US Marines were intended as meditative works about young people. I find it almost inconceivable in this modern world that there are people that go to war. Surely we should know better than that by now. I’ve got strong feelings about humanitarian issues, but if you try to impose that on the viewer, it doesn’t really work.”
Thain's portraits of army recruits are vast, astonishingly detailed, each the height of a two-storey house. You have to step right back to really look into their faces. At the moment, the technology doesn’t exist to do really large format digital shooting. They’re struggling to make the CCDs that big, but I suspect that in five or 10 years I’ll be able.”
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