One of the most revered portraitists in photography spends most of his life on flights, flown in especially to capture the essence of some of the most famous faces in the world.
As the Royal Family grows in size, two of Britain’s three monarchs in waiting have effectively been rebranded by one of the world’s very best portraitists.
Images, and particularly portraits (as we are reminded by those of princesses past), can imply a great deal. And in the case of the British royal family, an institution that by long-established tradition under no circumstances ever discusses itself, they remain of paramount significance. So who is Jason Bell, and how did he reach this position in the hierarchy of British portraitists?
London-born Bell, 44, has come a very long way since graduating in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford in 1990. Known today as one of the world’s top ‘go to’ celebrity portraitists, he came up through the ranks, cutting his teeth shooting portraits of prominent speakers for the university newspaper, working early on for the art director Wayne Ford, at the time at XYZ magazine, for Sue Steward, then on the Sunday Times Culture section, and for Wendy Hinton during her years at the London Evening Standard’s ES Magazine. Bell himself, whose agent Guy Harrington at Soho Management is now most careful about which jobs he accepts, will tell you he’s just keen to keep taking photographs, something that’s been his obsession since childhood. The reality, of course, is that he’s driven: passionate about his photography without question, but equally committed to taking his career all the way.
His journey so far has been largely built on a progression of magazine work; though, with the exception of special assignments, he now works mainly for British Vogue and New York-based Vanity Fair. Away from magazine editorial, Bell has long produced portraiture for the arts, television, theatre and film, for a period also shooting big-budget movie posters. Technological advances, however, have had an impact upon the manner in which film posters are produced today. When unit photographers shot on 35mm film, the quality of the imagery wasn’t up to production of the poster, and the big shoot was a necessity. Today, by contrast, unit stills are shot on high-end DSLR, which provides the studios with vast amounts of high-quality material to choose from when considering the poster, and as a consequence the number of major poster shoots has declined.
Bell, however, has moved forward, still working for the studios, but now very much in demand to shoot ‘special editorials’, the glossy spreads that they place in publications across the globe to publicise pictures at the time of their release. Bell particularly enjoys the challenge of these productions, not least because he is specifically briefed to shoot in his own style and give them a top-end ‘magaziney’ feel. In 2013, he shot his largest production to date is Warner Bros’ Man of Steel, at one point having more than 100 people on set. Needless to say, it requires very tight logistics, firstly to build the stills sets and then to get the pictures of what is habitually a group of major stars over the course of what is rarely more than a single day’s shoot. Man of Steel is a good example, itself taking place over a single day. Bell remembers “one extraordinary moment standing behind the camera in front of a line of 12 very big movie stars, with someone whispering to me that ‘you really need to hurry up with Kevin Costner because Laurence Fishburne needs to go in a minute and Amy Adams is meant to be on a plane…’.
“It’s a separate set build for our shoot,” he says, “but on Man of Steel we still ended up using around 60 lights because of the complexity. We’d built an enormous steelworks, a set that looked like the office of the Daily Planet and another one that looked like a house in Kansas to shoot him and his parents, right in the middle of the studio, all of which needed lighting.” Man of Steel led to an immediate repeat commission from Warner’s to produce a similar production for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. Bell has also recently started working for Paramount, for whom he did the special editorial for Noah, and shooting the special editorial of Angelina Jolie for Maleficent, the Disney remake of the Cinderella story.
Television is a medium in which he works less than with cinema, but he has recently produced imagery for CBS, photographing Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar for The Crazy Ones. Other television work has included Downton Abbey, shot for both Vogue and Vanity Fair. To give an example of the occasional one-off specials he works on for other titles: in August 2014 he spent three days on assignment to cover Chelsea Clinton and the work of the Clinton Foundation on Aids, malaria and water purification in Africa. He met Bill and Chelsea Clinton in Kinshasa, travelling with them for three days while they visited Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zanzibar. Bell’s personal commitment to charity takes the form of a long association with Cancer Research UK. The Give Up Clothes For Good campaign supports research into child cancer and has, to date, raised more than £12m. In September an exhibition of Bell’s images for the campaign will celebrate his 10th anniversary of working with the charity.
Bell travels constantly, spending around 10 days each month in London, 10 days in New York, and 10 days somewhere else – that somewhere increasingly being LA. To complicate things further, the days in each are rarely consecutive, and it’s far from unheard of for his shooting schedule to require him to fit in four transatlantic flights in a week. He is, as a result, difficult to track down, but remains approachable, unaffected and more than happy to talk about his pictures when he can find the time. As would be expected, he remains an entirely closed book to any questions about his subjects, other than to say he thoroughly researches each one’s previous pictures prior to a shoot, and in approaching a job is always looking for a “new” picture.
Regarding his royal commissions, despite being door-stepped by the press, he revealed nothing whatsoever, other than an interview for the Royal Photographic Society, where he discussed his intentions prior to the christening shoot and some of the logistics of producing pictures of such world demand in so short a timeframe. He researched 100 years of royal christening pictures prior to his initial interview with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s press officers. The conclusion Bell came to was that the very heavy lighting, in the past used to achieve what was then felt to be an apposite formality, in fact contributed a sombreness to past images no longer in keeping with such a happy occasion. A generator truck was brought in and the set, at Clarence House, Prince Charles’ home, lit externally through every window to achieve the light of a bright summer afternoon.
The choice of Bell to shoot the pictures seems to have been an inspired one and, while there has of course been no public comment, the fact he returned to shoot the official portrait for the Cambridge’s tour of the Antipodes suggests his subjects were pleased with the results. On that occasion the royal couple and Prince George are sitting in a window of their home at Kensington Palace, accompanied by Lupo, the family’s cocker spaniel puppy. The image simultaneously instils the charm of a truly relaxed family portrait and yet maintains a respectful distance. Bell’s christening series, with it’s tightly controlled use of lighting, was unquestionably a move forward. For such a venerable and internationally revered institution, change comes in very small steps, but another one, it would appear, has been taken with the second portrait, which builds upon the theme, achieving an uncharacteristically relaxed look and feel, the photographer again employing the desaturated colour palate he used in the less formal christening picture, against a white background, which was released on the Sunday following the publication of the official pictures.
Looking at the past 12 months, the question inevitably arises as to how a career at this level moves further forward? Bell continues to work on long-term personal projects. Other shoots have included Daniel Radcliffe and James McEvoy for their work in 20th Century Fox productions. Much of his schedule, however, cannot be discussed until after publication. So while he’s happy to say that this year he has already completed assignments for all the major Hollywood studios, and that several major projects are presently being planned, he’s unable to talk much about the months ahead. Work, however, as he mentioned early in our discussion, grows similar work, and it seems the airlines have no need to be concerned about his continuing custom for some considerable time ahead.
See more of Jason’s photography here.