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The Secret to Powerful Celebrity Portraiture is Empathy and Insight
The Secret to Powerful Celebrity Portraiture is Empathy and Insight
by The Luupe
Photographer Emily Assiran has an intuitive take on photographing public figures and getting them to open up before her lens.
Confident adaptability, insight, and empathy are just a few words that shape celebrity photographer Emily Assiran’s widely successful career and practice. From Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams to Lizzo, Assiran reimagines the essence of public figures, telling their stories with a bold yet always-listening lens.
Most recently, Assiran photographed Jane Fraser, Citibank’s first-ever female CEO for Wall Street Journal, using graphic geometric and linear backgrounds to convey a message of force and approachability. We caught up recently to discuss Assiran’s always exciting portraiture, creative philosophies, and how research goes a long way.
Julia Garner © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: Who was the first celebrity/ public figure you photographed? Can you tell us a bit about the experience?
The first celebrity I photographed was Woody Allen. It was a crazy, wild experience! I was a photo editor at a magazine at the time. The Editor-In-Chief called me into his office and told me that we were setting up a shoot with Woody Allen, so naturally, I started thinking of photographers that would be a good fit. However, he told me that it was such a touch-and-go situation that he wanted me to do it.
The parameters were unorthodox, to say the least. I was supposed to arrive 5 minutes before the shoot, Allen and his team wanted no lighting (not even an on-camera flash was allowed), I wasn’t allowed to know of, or scout the space beforehand, and I wasn’t allowed to talk to him during the shoot (which to this day is still the strangest request I’ve ever gotten from a subject or their team).
The Luupe: How much time did you get with him to shoot?
Assiran: I had only 5 minutes with him to shoot. So I practiced taking photos in every possible scenario I could think of, which ended up helping me immensely because they put me in his windowless, dark, cutting room. So, I showed up 45 minutes early (which if you know me is very in character of what I still do for shoots,) got introduced to Woody - which was weird because we weren’t supposed to talk - and then I got escorted to the cutting room.
There were a set of track lights, so I used them as my “key light” so to speak, and angled a chair under them to create the most flattering light I could. Woody said only one thing to me the entire time, which I’m grateful for. He asked me if I’d like his chair positioned a certain way. Then I awkwardly and silently snapped photos while he chatted with the writer. My 5 minutes came to an end and I left.
I won the Newswomen’s Club feature photographer of the year award for those images though, so the practice paid off!
Meet Emily Assiran
The Luupe: One thing that is so interesting about your portraiture is its unique combination of empathy and performance. You use the term "insightful portraiture" which makes so much sense. Do you have a philosophy around how you approach subjects?
Assiran: Great question! In general, it’s a mix of a few things. I usually have a vision of the tone and how I want my photos and my subject to look conceptually. But it’s also very important to me to understand how the images will connect to an audience and of course to my client because to me art is about taking feelings or ideas and expressing them visually to connect with people.
When it comes to high profile people or celebrities I also try to think, what would I want to see if I was the subject’s biggest fan? That has always been very important to me as well, to give something to the viewer so they can feel the fantasy, like they’re in on it, if that makes sense? In regards to the subject themselves, I do a lot of research on pretty much everyone I shoot no matter who they are.
It also helps to read the room and just feel out the situation. I’ve had subjects who were super exhausted and started their press day at 4am, so I tell them if they work with me we’ll make it quick and easy and I’ll get them out of there 10 minutes early. If they’re loving the camera and the moment, I’ll keep them there until I can’t anymore.
Hillary Clinton © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: We imagine that in many situations (like your first shoot with Woody Allen), given the profile of the people you're photographing, you don't always have a ton of time with them to "get the shot." What are some steps, techniques, or mantras you live by to help people quickly open up?
Assiran: A good old-fashioned genuine compliment never hurts! I won’t do it if I don’t mean it though, because I feel like if it’s not genuine, people can feel that. A joke never hurts either. I take my work very, very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously and I think that helps loosen people up.
As I mentioned in my previous answer, I try to do quite a bit of research about every subject I shoot. I can guarantee that I will creep around the internet and read about you if I’m taking your photo. It really helps me find mutual interests or connections I personally have with the subject and then I talk with them about it.
If I can’t do research, asking about their interests is always a go-to for me. I like hearing about what my subjects are passionate about, or what they’re excited to chat about. I’ve also been told that I have a very unique voice (quite raspy and low) that carries very easily. Maybe it’s welcoming to people? Who knows!
Cynthia Erivo © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: We've noticed you have been making gifs/ animated portraits recently. What draws you to working this way? Does it change how you think about portraiture?
Assiran: I’m always excited about a new toy to play with in photography and I think of moving images and video as a new toy for me. You know, when I was younger I shunned video and even digital photography, in high school I only used a film camera (and I graduated college in 2012 when digital was very much a thing already. LOL.)
I’ve learned since then that embracing the new and not limiting myself helps me grow as an artist. I don’t know if animating portraits changed the way I think about portraiture, but it made me think about lighting and continuity on a different level.
Alison Brie © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: Who are some of your creative heroes?
Assiran: My grandfather was an artist and a painter. When my mom and my grandparents immigrated to the US from Estonia, he was a textile designer for various department stores in Manhattan. So growing up with a lot of color and room to play in a studio environment was definitely one of my first inspirations. These days I look at a lot of books, fine art, and film as well as photography.
Film-wise, at the moment, I’m a huge fan of the lighting and color in westerns, especially older westerns. I also love the visuals in Room 104 on HBO and watch it often for inspiration. That cinematographer is incredible. On the flip side, I really love photographers like Micaiah Carter, Ramona Rosales, or Miller Mobley.
Stacey Abrams © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: What's some of the best creative advice you've received along the way?
Assiran: Some of the best creative advice I’ve ever received is that it’s not personal, it’s business. Often we’re so attached to the work we do as creatives that we take rejection and critique so personally, but it helps me to remember that it’s not personal, it’s just business, and that mistakes, critique, and rejection will help me grow and be a better photographer.
Abigail Shapiro © Emily Assiran
Rami Malek © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: You've photographed such a wide range of powerful men and women, but we'd like to zero in a bit on the women in your photographs. There has been a lot of discussion on how women are portrayed by photographers - historically, the male gaze etc.
Recently, with Kamala Harris' Vogue shoot, the discussion of how she, one of the most powerful women in the world, was represented on the cover, the creative direction, etc came under scrutiny (we say this as massive fans of the photographer's work.) As someone with a rich history photographing powerful women, does this discussion impact how you think about representing them?
Assiran: I totally know what you’re talking about in regards to the male gaze/women as the object. I could go on about that and the historical impact of that practice in the arts forever. But I don’t think this particular shoot had a huge impact on me. Again, I really research and dive into what kind of person I’m shooting, so if anything I feel like it reaffirms to me that I’m on the right path in regards to my stylistic choices of how I shoot powerful women.
That being said, we all as photographers try to do the very best we can. Pretty much any photographer in their right mind would’ve taken on that project if they were asked and I’m sure they did their research as well, so I think it’s a complex issue. Plus my style differs so dramatically from what Vogue did conceptually. So no, it’s not something that really impacted me.
Rahne Jones © Emily Assiran
Alexa Swinton © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: Building on that, congrats on your recent shoot with Jane Fraser. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like photographing Citibank's first woman CEO?
Assiran: Thank you! Such a fun shoot! The women on the events staff really helped me out and stood in while I tested the shots, which I super appreciate. Jane herself was wonderful. I try to always incorporate topics of conversation that tie into what my subjects do for a living, so I looked into some bills on the House or Senate floor that have to do with banking that I thought were interesting to talk about. We also obviously chatted about her promotion and how busy she must be!
I knew that Jane was obviously a very big deal; when I was doing my research I saw how much buzz was around her and how she wanted to stir things up. But it really hit me just how big of a presence she is during the shoot when someone stopped us in the middle of a setup, asked to take a selfie with her, and told her how big of a fan they were.
I’ve taken a lot of portraits of big executives in the past, but that’s the first time I’ve seen that on a shoot with a CEO and I thought to myself, she’s really a rockstar in the business world. It was really cool to see that.
CITI CEO Jane Fraser photographed for Wall Street Journal by Emily Assiran
The Luupe. Love that! What were you looking to convey with the shoot and can you talk a bit about your process to communicate it?
Assiran: This shoot was another wild one! Due to many factors, including Covid restrictions, I had no assistant and no tech. Just myself and about an hour and a half to set up shots not only for Jane but for Mark Mason, the CFO as well!
I talked it out with my amazing photo editor for this assignment, Emil Lendof, who is incredible at what he does and a great person to bounce ideas off of. I had the brief from the article and the tone we wanted to convey, which was the first step. Because of the limitations we had crew and timing-wise, I planned on 1-2 main portrait setups that would be our hero shots and then quick one-light setups that would compliment the main setup.
Something that I focus on stylistically when I shoot powerful people (women particularly) is graphic geometric and linear backgrounds or spaces. I think it really conveys a feeling of strength, which is how this main setup came about. Jane is the first CEO of the third-largest bank in America, she is one of the most, if not the most powerful woman in banking. That's an extremely difficult feat to achieve and as a woman who also works in a male-dominated industry, I wanted to portray that power and achievement through a strong, graphic image.
Posing and tone-wise, Emil and I focused on her role in taking over as CEO during a very chaotic time for Citi. She has had to, and will have to, make tough decisions. So we were striving for a powerful, yet pensive tone to convey the new role she has taken and the challenges, changes, and successes that lie ahead.
Ron Howard © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: When we were first emailing, you mentioned your Sundance portrait studio in the context of the early days of Covid. Can you share a bit about this and how it impacted your work?
Assiran: This shoot was super challenging and super fun! Sundance really taught me to problem solve under extreme pressure at an incredibly fast pace, because this was definitely the most fast-paced project I have ever been on for sure! You have about 15 minutes tops with each full cast, so you’re literally shooting someone new every two minutes at most. It also reaffirmed to me to just be myself, roll with the punches, and rely on the ways I know to open subjects up to me quickly.
I really hope once Covid is over and events are safe again that I’ll be lucky enough to do more portrait studios. I met a ton of awesome people and other creatives. I had the best time working with Nina Barone and Kenneth Wert, who produced the shoot. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had professionally.
Search Party's Meredith Weasel at Sundance © Emily Assiran
Emily Skeggs at Sundance © Emily Assiran
Zazie Beatz at Sundance © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: Do you have an all-time favorite portrait assignment from over the years?
Assiran: Definitely! I have so many! But, other than Sundance, which again, was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, I would say taking portraits of Kyle MacLachlan was one of my favorite and most memorable shoots. We just vibed so well the first time we shot together and he’s always so trusting of the photographer and willing to work together as artists. I’ve now worked with him on three separate occasions and every time has been so wonderful. He moved to LA since our last shoot, but I’m hoping there will be a fourth shoot with Kyle for sure!
Emily Assiran photographing Kyle Maclachlan
The Luupe: That's amazing! Any other favorites?
Assiran: Another quick one would be with Trixie Mattel. I’m a HUGE Drag Race fan. I’ve been watching that show since season 2. Pre-Drag Race, one of the first series I ever made was documenting drag queens backstage while they got ready at this bar in Philly called Bob & Barbara’s. The DJ at my wedding was a drag queen that I had worked with as well! So, to come full circle and get to take portraits of Trixie was epically awesome for me. I really don’t get shook by celebrities on set, but internally, I fangirled hard on that shoot.
Trixie Mattel © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: What's most exciting to you right now working as a photographer/ creative professional?
Assiran: I think video and photo pairing together is really exciting! I’ve been working on some personal video projects and around larger video sets now and it’s always so fascinating to me! I also love that we’re really pushing and becoming more diverse as an industry. I think seeing different perspectives in the commercial art world is so important and that really excites me too!
Giancarlo Esposito © Emily Assiran
The Luupe: What’s most daunting?
Assiran: Well, Covid stopped A LOT of projects I had on the books. Other than all the paid work that wasn’t just postponed, but completely canceled, pretty much every personal project I had lined up fell apart or was paused (and I had some really good ones planned out too). So that was really discouraging and honestly put me in a really big slump for a minute there.
It felt really daunting when life was on pause and I don’t know if anyone else felt this way, but to me, because I’ve only been a freelancer for four years, it almost felt like I had to start rebuilding all over again. After four years of nonstop work and starting 2020 off with being booked from January-April and then poof! It just stopped. So that part was extremely challenging, but I’m happy it feels different now. I feel like I’m back with a force and that’s a great feeling!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production platform designed to help brands collaborate with underrepresented photographers across the globe, providing resources and opportunities that boost creator’s impact and income, while streamlining traditional workflows to create high quality, diverse content, at scale. Our brand purpose is to help underrepresented photographers and creators further their career and generate income with the goal of improving diversity in front of and behind the lens in the commercial photography industry.