Semi-Permanent Speaker Interview: Photographer Chris Colls

Chris Colls has had the opportunity to photograph some big Aussie names including Miranda Kerr, Eric Bana and Rachel Griffiths. Turns out he’s also a pretty rad guy to chat to – just as down to earth as he claims some celebs are (unfortunately he wouldn’t dish the dirt on which divas have thrown tantrums on set). Pedestrian caught up with with Chris to talk about his inspiration, his work and how he gets intimate with the big celebrities. Chris Colls will be speaking at Semi-Permanent in Melbourne on the 9th of October.

P: You started working in photography in 95 I read…

CC: I started working in fashion in 95.

P: Oh okay so you’d been working photography before that?

CC: Yes, originally I started as a portrait photographer. Long time ago.

P: Well you’re working now with some really major clients, like you’re really well established, but did you spend a lot of time plugging away and doing stuff for free?

CC: You’ve got to do stuff for free, because then you get to do the things you want. When I say do things for free, you do things to better your craft.

P: How quickly did recognition come for you?

CC: Oh it wasn’t straight away, it was quite some time, I still wouldn’t say that I’m that recognised as a photographer.

P: But you’re shooting some pretty high profile stuff really.

CC: Oh I’ve been lucky I think.

P: Well you’re doing alright I think.

CC: Oh I’m really happy with what I’m doing commercially, and personal work as well, I’m very happy.

P: In your photography you’re crossing a few genres – you’re doing fashion, editorial and advertising, as well as portraiture which you’ve already said – do you have a preferred genre you like working in?

CC: Well the thing that gives me the most kick – is one on one, probably more, more intimate, not so driven by the commercial market, even editorial – editorial is pretty controlled by the commercial market to a degree as well. The thing I get the most joy out of is my personal projects where it’s just really me and one subject and that’s it.

P: What kind of personal projects are you working on at the moment?

CC: Working on a book, my first book which is still some time away from being published. That’s exactly why I became a photographer in the first place.

P: What kind of work will we be expecting to see in your forthcoming book?

CC: What can I say, intimate photographic essays.

P: Is it crossing over at all with a photojournalistic slant or more just personal works – one on one?

CC: No it’s more about an emotional, emotion, private rather personal slant rather than journalistic. It’s not about capturing a moment, it’s about expressing an emotion.

P: Going back to the working one on one with people, you get the opportunity to work with some pretty varied talent – how does it compare working with for example someone that’s unknown or a new model as opposed to someone who’s quite well known or a famous actor or something like that? Do you have to pander to them, or change your style of working?

CC: Well one has insecurities that come to the surface very quickly and the other has securities where they rely on what they know. They can both be as problematic as each other. With a new person they’re sometimes quite insecure and aware of their flaws and worried that that’s what they’re seeing, so you have to massage that in a soft way so they feel comfortable basically.

And on the other hand when you photograph someone that’s well known like a big model or a big celebrity you’ve got to get to know who they really are before they started, it’s kind of the opposite. I find I have more success if I try to become non-effective in a way, not actually controlling the shoot.

P: So it kind of unfolds in a more organic manner?

CC: Yeah.

P: Do you have a process you go through preparing for shoots or with subjects?

CC: You never know what to expect until you’re there. Definitely I have an idea of what I want, I try to visualise what I would expect. But, you can only rely on your personal experiences. Sometimes you get there and the subject might be feeling sick, or just been to a shoot that they hated so their emotions are completely all over the place. You’ve got to start from scratch I think every time.

P: Do you have any tricks that you use to develop this intimacy with your subjects?

CC: I generally, I like to spend a lot of time talking to them a lot before I even take the first picture. And then even while I’m doing the light tests I get them involved as well so that they feel like they’re a part of the process – it’s not like oh here I am, let’s do it and it’s over.

I try to make it…

P: You try to make them less of a thing that’s just being stared at and photographed, you stop treating them so much as an object?

CC: Yeah, well you’re in conversation, if the natural reaction is ….. and that’s what I try to pull out of them, that’s what I try to achieve in my images, something that no one else can get. Anyone can stand in front of a wall and take a shot, it’s the relationship between the subject and the photographer that makes an image.

P: Have you had any favourite projects that you’ve worked on?

CC: I love working with Miranda Kerr.

P: Is that just a personality thing?

CC: Yeah I think, when I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many different types of people – nationalities, personalities – and every now and then you come across someone you really gel with and understand, and there’s a few people that I’ve worked with, I try to work with a lot that I have got the best results out of because of that connection. Eric Bana is one of them, Miranda Kerr is one of them, Pania Rose is another.

P: I was looking at some of the shots from your recent Eric Bana shoot, and there really is this, you can tell that there’s this relationship between you and Eric in the shots, there’s this intimacy and honesty that really comes through in those photos.

CC: Yeah he’s an incredible guy, he’s so, quite infectious personality because he is just so down to earth. He’s so level headed and happy with who he is that it comes across – it’s very easy to show that in photography if you treat him like a bloke, like a normal person which he is.

P: Well it must be really refreshing to get to work with some people who are really down to earth despite their fame and fortune, but have you ever worked with any divas and seen some tantrums thrown?

CC: Oh yeah! Ha ha.

P: Name names, go ahead.

CC: I can’t name names! Are you serious? Jesus, oh my god, there’s plenty.

P: Is it very common?

CC: Usually, it’s the celebrities that aren’t quite celebrities yet and expect celebrity treatment. The really, really famous people, famous celebrities are often the most down to earth to work with because they’ve got nothing to lose, who gives a shit, and they kind of rely on who they are rather than what they look like. That’s what I see anyway.

P: Have you had any horror shoots where everything’s gone wrong, apart from tantrums?

CC: The other thing would be weather, to be stuck in a situation shooting swim wear and all of a sudden it’s torrential rain.

P: Storms roll in.

CC: It doesn’t work very well, but I believe in making the most of every situation especially with nature you can’t control it, you can’t recreate nature the way nature throws it at you. If you get a shit-load of rain or wind, use it to your advantage – it becomes your best friend because you can’t create that that easily.

P: That’s true, it takes a lot more work to create something that looks real rather than just have it in the first place.

CC: Exactly.

P: Well how do you feel in respect to digital technologies versus analog photography? What do you prefer to work with?

CC: There’s no competition between the two. Their simply a medium for capturing an image. Now if you choose you to disguise something go for film, if you want to show every single detail then go for digital, but if you want to just photography, it doesn’t matter what you use, because no ones looking at the grain or the texture or the lack of detail, it’s about what’s being said in the photograph that’s important.

But if I had to choose between the two, I would definitely choose digital because it’s instantaneous. I like shooting polaroids all the time. For me it’s exactly the same as what it was like when I shot film, the polaroid portion of it is the same as shooting digital because you learn instantly what you’ve done because you can see it instantly.

P: I guess it’s a lot easier to shoot that way when you’re not waiting to get rolls developed.

CC: Film hides a lot too though. Film hides a lot of imperfections, it hides a lot of blemishes on the skin. It goes through so many processes before you actually see it in print. With digital it’s a very short process.

P: You recently made your directorial debut shooting a television commercial for Harpers Bazaar – how did you find your style of photography and working translated to the moving image?

CC: In some ways it’s very similar because I think I use quite a cinematic approach to shooting anyway as far as directing a model into a shot. With Pania who was in the TVC, I didn’t do anything different to what I would do on a shoot, on a stills shoot.

I would talk to her about what I wanted, basically direct her the way that a film director would. It’s a huge production but, it’s very easy to express yourself in film as opposed to stills. Stills is a fraction of an opportunity, a tiny little snippet.

P: Your fashion style is quite elegant, everything is quite strongly posed and it’s got this element of construction to it. So some of your images really reminded me of Guy Bourdin…

CC: Guy Bourdin? That’s a huge compliment, I mean I’ve definitely got a handful of photographers that inspired me to become a photographer in the first place. Guy Bourdin was one, Irving Penn, Sarah Moon, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton obviously. Those photographers were pretty groundbreaking in their time and able to achieve things with the medium that was around at that moment.

That’s the other thing about digital and film right, film has been, digital is a new medium which can be, which I believe should be in place because it’s like, if you compare it to architecture. If Frank Lloyd Wright, or Mies van de Rohe, or Harry Seidler went out and used materials that were around a hundred years ago, their buildings and their architecture wouldn’t be as powerful as if they embraced modern technology. The reason why these architects are so great is because they embraced what was new and used it in ways that it hadn’t been used before – which is what digital is to us now.

P: I was going to ask you what some of your influences are, but you’ve pretty much summed them up there.

CC: Architecture and music are huge.

P: Outside of photography you’re really into sculpture and architecture, do you think that this really informs your photography?

CC: Not the purity, but the boldness of architecture in Bauhaus, you know Mies van de Rohe, Corbusier, I’m a massive fan of Harry Seidler, I think what he’s done for Australia is a remarkable achievement. He gave more to this country than most did, he’s been educating, bringing artwork here, you know changing the landscape of what was so, I just can’t even think of how to say it. The architecture that you see going down the street, every house is exactly the same, you know he tried to make a difference.

P: Do you feel that you try and do something similar in photography?

CC: I’d love to think that I do. It’s difficult, no I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, it’s a challenge doing it in a place that’s so far away. Especially when the industry here is pretty self sufficient, we don’t have the huge network that they have overseas in Europe or America, though it probably means we can be a little bit more experimental here as well.

As far as sculpture goes, Alexander Calder is amazing, Louise Bourgeois.

P: How do you feel about this recent phenomena in photography of this Terry Richardson type photography – this really lo-fi, raw and highly sexualised style – are you liking this as a way that photography’s going or what do you think of it?

CC: It’s always existed, people have always done stuff like that, Helmut Newton especially he did a lot of work like that. I think what Terry does, Terry’s a very clever photographer because he is able to successfully express his emotion and the subjects emotion simultaneously in one shot. The style of photography that he has, is product of what he wants it’s not the other way around. He doesn’t shoot like that, it’s the best way to achieve the results for what he’s trying to say.

The rawer the better, he’s trying to say this is it completely raw. I don’t think it’s a purely sexual thing for him, I think it’s a purely expressive thing.

P: Do you think it’s moving photography in an interesting new direction? Or do you think it’s like you said people have been doing it before like Helmut Newton so it’s not really that groundbreaking?

CC: What he’s doing is groundbreaking. I think that he, well we’re driven by a huge commercial vehicle as fashion photographers. Everything we do has to be quite commercial in a sense, but with creative truth to it. What he does, he does do very commercial work, with a creative twist. And I think if you’re talking about Juergen Teller, using a very similar technique but he has more of a, Juergen Teller has more of a unique approach to what he does.

What they’re doing, these guys, all they’re doing is finding the best way to express themselves, so when you see a Terry Richardson shot, you’re actually seeing Terry Richardson. Juergen Teller you see Juergen Teller, you look at all of his pictures and you see him. It’s their aesthetic, it’s what they’ve lived through, it’s the way they see colour, it’s the way they hear music, everything like that determines their style ultimately.

P: How would you describe your own personal style?

CC: Oh, that’s a very difficult question.

P: It’s quite varied I suppose.

CC: I would love to be able to do just one thing here, we have to be good at everything in this country because we don’t have a huge population, you can’t just sustain a single style. So I would probably say it is quite elegant, but yet it still has a very strong sexuality to it. I’d like to think that it has longevity, that it’s not just a quick trend.

P: So more of a classic feel?

CC: Kind of, not too classic.

P: Well not classic, but in a way that it stands the test of time in the way someone like Avedon’s photography has.

CC: Yeah, I mean look at Richard Avedon, you could pick up any one of the shots that he did in the 60s and you would swear that they could have been shot today.

I’m making the most of what time throws at me at the moment, and that will be forever changing.

P: And you’re speaking at semi-permanent soon in Melbourne, what will you be covering in your discussion?

CC: Other than shitting my pants? That’s a lot of people!

P: How many people will you be speaking to?

CC: I heard it was about 2,500 people.

P: That’s a lot, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

CC: I’ll just talk and forget about the rest.

P: Do you have a set criteria of stuff you have to discuss or are you going to wing it?

CC: I get asked about my career a lot, so I’ll just basically be showing some images that have never been seen before, talking about what inspires me, how I go about it, the importance of understanding every aspect of what you do, whether you embrace it or not.

What I imagined it would have been like before I started photography. All just the little inside things, the hardship, the problems I had, the things that inspire me obviously.

They wanted me to go to Perth too but unfortunately I’m going to Paris so I won’t be able to do that.

P: You’re heading to Paris? And what are you shooting in Paris?

CC: I can’t tell you.

P: Is it top secret?

CC: Yes, super top secret.

P: When will we see the results of it?

CC: Probably March.

P: That’s still a fair way off.

CC: We shoot so far ahead, I’ve shot stories for magazines that, we’ve shot so much in advance it was something like eight, nine months waiting. So you’ve got to be, that’s why it’s so important to do what you believe in, don’t try to do what someone else has done.

P: So what’s the next step for you in your work? How are you moving forward in your craft?

CC: I’m focusing more and more on doing personal work, like the book I’m working on at the moment, personal film as well, like moving film.

P: Are you looking at directing and shooting that?

CC: Yeah well the TVC, the television commercial I did for Harper’s Bazaar I directed and shot and was the creative director on as well. I do it all myself and that, I think the more people involved…not the harder…

P: It just becomes more diluted?

CC: A little more diluted, the more people involved it becomes more diluted, exactly.

P: Having that much control becomes necessary?

CC: I think it becomes more intimate, because it is more of a one on one. There’s not so many, you know, have you see the trailer for Single Man yet?

P: Single man? Is that the new Coen Brothers film?

CC: The new Tom Ford film.

P: No I don’t think I’ve seen it then.

CC: You should google it, it’s pretty phenomenal because he’s successfully applied his aesthetic to the whole film. And I think that’s exactly what Picasso did with his paintings, it’s what a lot of successful people are able to do – apply their aesthetic purely to something consistently without being influenced by anything else.

P: Yeah so kind of like people working more as an auteur of their work, especially in film rather than playing a bit part in the process.

CC: Yeah exactly.

P: An so the stuff you’ll be working on is that going to be personal projects? Or more commercial type shoots – moving image stuff?

CC: Pretty much I’m working on an exhibition and a book, the book is still at least 12 months away. But that’s with three very special people, and that’s as much as I’m going to say at the moment.

To see Chris Colls discuss his work in person buy tickets for Semi-Permanent Melbourne here and look out for more interviews with conference speakers on Pedestrian in the not too distant future.

All Photos Provided by Chris Colls