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The art of portraiture is as old as human civilization itself. Until relatively recently, a portrait used to be, above all, a statement of cultural value. It revealed who, in any given society, had enough value that his or her image was worth being captured and preserved for posterity. While being a general statement of cultural importance, a portrait is also the most intimate and personal art form. A good portrait reveals a unique personality and captures the essence of a person.
Award-winning British photographer Jonathan Root is a master of the art of portraiture. He has photographed some of the most famous artists and designers in the world, including David Hockney, Philippe Starck and Ron Arad. In each shot, he’s able to capture each person’s uniqueness and accomplishments through a careful orchestration of so many elements: setting, lighting, color scheme, facial expression and pose. The subject and his environment become reflections of each other, yet remain distinct. The setting mirrors who that individual is as much as his expression and pose blend in perfectly with his surroundings. This art of portraiture as simultaneous expression and camouflage makes each of Root’s portraits stand out. No two portraits are alike because no two individuals he has photographed are alike.
One of Root’s most famous portraits is the one of Philippe Patrick Starck (see image above), a French designer known for the New Design style. He has furnished some of the most posh hotels around the world, including the Mondrian in Los Angeles and the Delano in Miami. Designing everything from furniture to toothbrushes and houses, Starck is innovative, avant-garde and flippant about his creativity. In an interview with Spaces Magazine, Root recounts the (in some respects fortuitous) adventure of photographing him:
“This turned out to be one of my most enjoyable shoots. I had to go to Venice and then onto the island of Burano. Unfortunately, my tripod had been damaged in transit which I was worried about. When I arrived on the island I went to a restaurant only to discover that everyone was celebrating because they had just won the famous annual rowing competition. No one spoke any English but with lots of sign language one of the guys there came out with some tools and mended the tripod. He arrived in this crazy Agnes B suit and I thought ‘what have I let myself in for’. He found the Wet Floor sign and wanted to use it in the shot so we wandered around for a while and found a brilliant orange wall. I used one of his Ghost chairs in the picture and got him leaning backwards, which is very hard to do for any length of time.” (Spaces Magazine, April 2008)
The picture turned out phenomenal: a modern, avant-garde treasure of design in itself. Every element expressed Starck’s persona (which, for an artist and designer, may be far more important than his actual personality!): the zany, colorful clothes; the orange background; the Wet Floor sign; the comical, almost clownish pose, and despite it all, the stylishness of the image, evident even in significant details like the sunglasses, red gloves and toppled ghost chair. This portrait really screams, rather than subtly hinting, Philippe Patrick Starck! But, at the same time, it also expresses Root’s own signature style. That style constantly changes because, like a chameleon, it adapts to both subject and setting alike.
Take, for instance, Root’s portrait (above) of a more understated but equally creative artist: the Israeli-born designer and architect Ron Arad, who creates everything from showers to chairs. This picture is starkly black and white, modernist, topological: similar to Arad’s designs themselves. Root captures his friend’s relaxed yet confident pose; his trademark hat and Crocs; his designer chair. Arad’s studio environment becomes a reflection and an extension of his identity and creativity, just as his image gives meaning to the carefully chosen objects that surround him. Jonathan Root has stated in an interview that “some of [my] best shots have come about by chance” (British Journal of Photography). What wasn’t left up to chance, however, is a fluid style that adapts perfectly to each subject and setting, creating memorable portraits that speak volumes about each individual they come to represent. You can find out more about Jonathan’s portraits on his website, www.jonathanroot.co.uk.
Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com