Photographer Emily Andersen on the Release of Her New Book and Photographing Celebrities

Interview: Becky Timmins
Thursday 01 November 2018
reading time: min, words

From photographing well-known artists, musicians, writers, directors and actors - including Helen Mirren, Bella Freud and Nico - to exhibiting at some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, Emily Andersen has forged a fascinating photography career. Carefully balancing her craft while lecturing part time at NTU, she has recently published her second book, entitled Portraits: Black & White. We caught up with Emily ahead of her book launch and exhibition at Bonington Gallery later this week…  


When did you first realise that you wanted to become a photographer?
I saw a Diane Arbus exhibition when I was eleven at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. They were large black and white portraits – well, they seemed large at the time. I thought ‘this is exciting, I would love to be able to do this.’ Her photographs inspired me to become photographer.

How do you think your time studying at the Royal College of Art shaped you as an artist?
I was doing A Levels thinking I’d go on to university at Westminster Kingsway. There was a photo department, where a music photographer called Janette Beckman was working part time; that was in my early twenties. From there I went to West Sussex College of Art and Design for two years of study, and then secured a place at the Royal College of Art. I was really lucky. Both colleges were important steps for me. West Sussex was a traditional art school; there were departments for textiles, printmaking, fashion, sculpture, painting and graphics. It was small and multidisciplinary, so I could move from one department to another easily. Getting into the Royal College was a huge deal, it was so competitive and it gave me a lot of confidence in what I did; I was always fairly confident, but that was a boost. There were only seven of us in the year. It was a very different place from the RCA today.

Where do you draw your inspiration from, and what are you aiming to articulate through your photography?
A lot of my early influences and ideas came from film. People like Antonioni and Fellini, and also early black and white film and storytelling. I often photograph pairs of people. Photographing is a two-way process, but when you have more than one sitter a more complex relationship emerges. The series began by taking photographs of fathers and daughters for an exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery in the eighties – The Body Politic: Re-Presentations of Sexuality – it was a commission, and I later went on to photograph mothers and sons, sisters, friends and lovers.

Can you tell us a little about how your latest book, Portraits: Black & White, came into being?
I have an extensive archive of portraits and I spent over a year trawling it with an assistant, and when I thought we had enough for a book, I went to designer Melanie Mues and she agreed to take it on. I sent the PDF out to publishers and Matt Price from Anomie got back to me within about twenty minutes to say he was interested. I asked Jonathan P Watts, previously one of my students at NTU, to contribute an essay, accompanying my own notes on the photographs.

You have collaborated with a broad range of publications and institutions, on both a national and international scale. Can you tell us about a particularly interesting example?
The National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Terence Pepper, Senior Special Advisor on Photographs for the NPG, was a really significant person in the development of my photography. Early on in my career, following a solo exhibition I had at the Francis Graham Dixon Gallery where I was a gallery artist, he bought my portraits and commissioned me to take portraits for the NPG. This was an advantage for me, because as soon as my portraits were in an institution, people began to take my photography more seriously. I have around fifteen photographs in the NPG permanent collection now.

There is another thing happening now which is ground breaking: The Royal Society of Photographers are marking a hundred years since the Suffrage movement by calling for people to nominate female photographers, of whom I am one, and am now part of the ‘The Hundred Heroines’ campaign. Recently I have also taken part in a project in which 209 MPs have been photographed by 209 female photographers, to form an exhibition which will hang in Portcullis House in Westminster from December to February entitled 209 Women. I chose to photograph Ruth Smeeth the Labour MP from Stoke-on-Trent North. It’s an inspirational project. I never thought something like this would happen in my lifetime; I thought the gates were firmly shut.

You have built up an extensive portfolio of photographic work including many high-profile people. Who has been the most interesting subject for you?
That is a difficult question to answer, because I’m just as interested in photographing people I know. I am thinking, for example, of a photograph of my father holding a rocket in a field. I have a portrait of twins, The Jacksons, and as I was photographing I thought it would be interesting if one of them was naked. Joey is sitting on a chair and looking at the camera dressed. Louise is standing behind her naked with her arm above her head. This photograph won a John Kobal Prize for Innovative Portraiture, now the Taylor Wessing Prize.

Do you have a portrait, series of portraits or project that you are particularly proud of?
There are two portraits in the book of Diamanda Galàs, a shriek opera singer and musician. We have become friends over the years, and I have made some interesting work with her. It has been positive for both of us; my photographs have promoted her via album covers and have featured in Vogue articles promoting her albums.

I like meeting people again. For example, I photographed the film director Stephen Frears with his daughter Lola, and then went back again to photograph them after a twenty-year gap. I like to see what has happened in that time. Photography is good at conveying time. When I meet people, I am interested in the conversation.

How does your wealth of experience benefit and support Photography students at NTU?
Following the Bonington Gallery, the exhibition will move to Nottingham Central Library. So, my photographs will be on exhibition until mid-January. I’m happy to have my work on display in Nottingham to celebrate with my peers at NTU, and it is also good for the students to see that we are active as practitioners.

I also think it’s important that I’m a female photographer. I worked for NME for over ten years, and I was the only female photographer there apart from Pennie Smith. It’s a boys’ game, and I sense there are still areas of photography where that is the case. It’s vital that women have role models and that young women can see that it is possible to do it.

What do you think the role of photography is in society, and how do you think it has changed during your career?
Now everybody has a camera, there has been a democratisation of photography, and there is less value in the photograph. I think photography doesn’t know what it is at the moment. But the positive is that accessibility empowers people to make photographs for themselves. They can tell their own stories. Instagram, for instance, is an accessible tool for photography. I have been on it for a few years now. It’s a way of reaching people worldwide; a publicity tool. Of course, you have to be careful about what you’re putting on there, but imitation has happened all my photographic life, long before Instagram. It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and if you are copied only you know the next move.

What advice would you give to budding photographers looking to stand out in today’s visually saturated digital landscape?
I think it’s important to tell stories, and to tell your own story in particular. The other thing is not to give up; just keep going and be persistent. 

Emily Andersen Portraits: Black & White book launch will take place at Bonington Gallery on Thursday 1 November, from 5pm – 7pm. The exhibition will run until Saturday 15 December at Bonington Gallery, Nottingham Trent University.

Emily Andersen website

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